WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW
Unfortunately, Fate of the Jedi: Ascension is just a bad Star Wars book. Not only a bad Star Wars book – a bad book, period. With no real thought put into the plot, it’s written to the lowest common dominator, and anyone who really thinks about a book as they read it will be very disappointed. That the promises of an exciting mini-trilogy to conclude the series have not been upheld is also a real shame.
The front cover features Ben Skywalker in Jedi blue hues and Vestara Khai in Sith red tones, looking askance at each other over their shoulders. The image evokes the worst clichés of young-adult paranormal romance books, and that impression sadly carries through not just in the trope-heavy pattern of the teen relationship itself, but also in the weak storytelling and flat characterization that also often accompanies those tales. If this were a young-adult book, perhaps I might be inclined to give the cover and the writing a pass – but this purports to be a serious thematic novel in the flagship storyline. This isn’t good enough, on either score.
On the back cover is Boba Fett. One might think this means he’ll play a major role in the novel, but in fact he had more page time, and a more significant role in the plot, in Conviction than he does in Ascension. So why is he on the back cover? The obvious explanations don’t look good. Perhaps it’s shameless pandering to the Fett fanboys, hoping to sucker them into the book with misleading marketing. Or maybe it’s just a stock image of a movie character, meaning Del Rey could whip up the cover image on the cheap with minimal work by the artist, even though the book buyer is expected to shell out top dollar for a hardcover. No matter, it’s another empty promise.
So the front cover is disturbingly foretelling and the back cover is surprisingly deceptive. Not a good sign about what’s between them.
Once again, as with Allies, Golden’s writing craft in Ascension is, in a word, weak. The number of typographical and grammatical errors is dramatically reduced from the hundreds of errors in Allies, but there are still noticeably more in this book than in most Star Wars novels. Worse, that’s basically the extent of the improvement. There’s still too much clunky prose, confusing phrasings, Tell-not-Show, and awkward dialogue from an author who advertises herself as an editor-for-hire. Yet again there are a number of very jarring Earth-isms used, when it would have been quite easy to use a Star Wars idiom or different wording instead. Just as with Golden’s last book, Ascension needed an intensive, careful line-edit from a skilled beta-reader. The customers rightfully expect far higher quality than this from Star Wars, Del Rey, and their authors.
For example, there are so many words or turns of phrase that are repeated incessantly throughout the book that I felt like creating a new version of the classic Princess Bride drinking game for Ascension. In place of the movie lines like “inconceivable,” “true love,” or the “my name is Inigo Montoya” monologue, take a drink whenever an aged character is described as “wrinkled” or “liver-spotted,” when “wealth” is mentioned, or when a character eats food or imbibes a beverage – with an extra shot if the scene references the Indigo Restaurant.
Possibly the most frustrating aspect of the writing, though, is the sheer degree of inconsistency in the quality of the writing across the entire book. Some scenes have very solid writing, with crisp prose and clean editing, while other scenes are the opposite. The well-written scenes prove that Golden is capable of producing at an acceptable level, but apparently she isn’t putting in the time and effort to deliver that quality over the length of a full book.
A common critique of poor writing is that the author’s decisions about the direction of the plot are what drive the choices the characters make, rather than the characters’ choices driving the plot. This was one of the major flaws in Allies; Golden clearly had a checklist of plot points she needed to accomplish in her book to advance the agreed-upon overall plot of the series, and rather than construct circumstances in which the characters would organically reach those points she simply forced the characters to fit the outline. The same deep flaw infects Ascension, with the added absurdity that not only do characters serve the plot, but even the world-building and story-context previously established within the Fate of the Jedi series are sacrificed for the quick and easy path to checking off plot points from a list.
For example, Golden’s use of the Senate of the Galactic Alliance is based on a superficial, juvenile portrayal of how politics works. After the Jedi coup in Conviction, for which the groundwork had been laid over the course of six prior books, Golden then includes three transfers of power during the course of Ascension. The first, substituting Wynn Dorvan for Merratt Jaxton on the ruling triumvirate, at least relies upon a character embedded in the Chief of State’s office during the series. But the change is made without any explanation: Conviction had justified the triumvirate as one Senator, one Jedi, and one military officer, yet in Ascension the military is excluded from that role in favor of a career bureaucrat? That makes no sense in terms of the political balance of power in the GA, yet nothing is said about it.
The triumvirate is then replaced with not one but two different interim Chiefs of State, and neither is plausible. It’s believable enough that Padnel Ovin, a pet character introduced by Golden in Allies as the gruff leader of a borderline-terrorist organization, could be elected to represent his planet – but the selection by the Senate itself of a brand-new Senator to lead the entire government is not. The whole point of Jacen Solo’s coup and Natasi Daala’s appointment was that they were irregular actions beyond the normal bounds of the law; although the Senate is voting on an interim Chief of State, the purported whole point of the vote in Ascension is to restore the Senate’s regular authority, not to subvert it. This is probably why Golden has the actual election of Ovin take place offscreen, because it would be impossible to write the logic of the politics that could make that happen. (For the same reasons, it’s equally implausible that brand-new Senator Suldar would be elected by fellow Senators to lead the Subcommittee to Investigate Jedi Activity.) But then Golden repeats the very same implausibility, having the Senate elect another brand-new Senator, Roki Kem, to replace Ovin – after no misconduct or malfeasance, but simply a motion to replace him and a hand-waved explanation that Workan was able to round up the requisite votes. Space opera may take its liberties with realism, but George Lucas was careful in the movies to lay the groundwork for moves such as Padmé’s vote of no confidence in Valorum and Sidious’ decades-long machinations to seize power.
Similarly, in Golden’s own Omen the GA’s news media was savvy, skilled, devious, and followed Jaina and Jag relentlessly; now, in Ascension, the media is completely oblivious. No dogged reporter notices the people actually still present in the supposedly just-vacated Jedi Temple, which includes not only the numerous agents of the Lost Tribe who have taken up residence, but also two very prominent individuals, Han Solo and Wynn Dorvan, using the building to detain and interrogate a kidnapped high-ranking military commander, Admiral Parova. Nor does the media figure out that Senator Suldar is not in fact a legitimate representative of B’nish but rather a Sith infiltrator. Or, should we say, he is an imposter – ironically, the very kind of thing the barvy Jedi had ranted about on Javis Tyrr Presents earlier in the series. These plot elements would never slip past an active, aggressive media – so Golden simply ignores the previous portrayal of the media and pretends the problem doesn’t exist.
The plot drives numerous other examples of ignoring the previously established elements of the setting or just plain nonsensical ignoring of common sense. Conviction included a jailbreak of a high-profile GA prisoner, Daala; now, in Ascension, we’re expected to believe that breaking out another such prisoner, Leia, is as simple as a secret passageway and some access codes – but surely the GA is not that incompetent. Jag’s assistant Ashik can somehow miraculously verify the Squib’s employment status as secret undercover operatives for the Empire in a matter of minutes. A planetary survey to search for Sith in hiding takes less than a day. Time and again in the book, rather than maintaining consistency or verisimilitude, Golden writes something the way she needs it to function for the plot to work as simply as possible at any given point.
The problem is especially bad with Golden’s pet creation, the Lost Tribe of the Sith. The entire premise of the Lost Tribe of the Sith is that they’ve been marooned on Kesh for millennia, separated from the galaxy – yet we’re expected to believe that within a matter of a year or so, they’ve acquired enough familiarity with the contemporary galaxy to be able to easily manipulate the entire GA Senate, in the process outmaneuvering the politically active Jedi Order and the entrenched Lecersen-Treen conspiracy. These same long-marooned Sith can create BAMR, an effective modern propaganda-spewing news network, in a matter of days. Where did they get the funding? Or the broadcasting equipment and the technical knowledge of how to use it? How did they pass the necessary legal hurdles, like creating a corporation and obtaining operating permits, nearly instantaneously while doing so covertly? And let’s not forget, these Sith who are supposedly so brilliant at their scheming somehow magically forget to eliminate the one loose end out there in the galaxy that could expose their secrets – even though Vestara is traveling with Luke Skywalker, who no longer bothers to keep his movements hidden. We’re really supposed to believe that the same Sith who could infiltrate the Senate and the media in mere weeks wouldn’t at least ponder the perils of this loose end? Oh wait, that would violate the power of the plot, which needs to keep Vestara alive.
The author’s pet characters have the solutions to the heroes’ dilemmas, too. Rather than have Leia or Han figure out the existence of the two conspiracies, for example, the revelation is made by Nek Bwua’tu shortly after awakening from a weeks-long coma. Rather than have Jag or Tahiri figure out where Daala is headed after her jailbreak, the information is delivered by the Squibs. And unlike the frequent misuse of the term around the internet, I never level the accusation of “Mary Sue” lightly – but Vestara is getting awfully close to that territory now. She’s a born-and-raised Sith, but amazingly everyone is willing to take her at her word when she says she wants to become a Jedi. She backtalks to Luke Skywalker on Force philosophy and morality. She kills her much older, much more experienced Sith father with barely a scratch to herself. She even saves the life of one of the main leads, Ben Skywalker. Hardly the hallmark of great writing of a new character.
Finally, Ascension suffers from two defects that have been endemic to the earlier Fate of the Jedi books. Like most of the previous seven books, Ascension fails to stand on its own as a self-contained novel. In particular, once again there are too many open plotlines at the end – Luke’s and the Jedi’s pursuit of Abeloth, Leia’s and Han’s escape into the undercity, Jag’s standoff with Daala, the fate of Wynn Dorvan in Abeloth’s hands, and others. There’s no resolution to this book, and that’s especially problematic with the final novel in the series eight months away. Which presents the other flaw: just as Allies served to set up plot elements for Denning to pay off in Vortex, there is no organic story embedded within Ascension. All it does is move chess pieces around the board and set things up to conclude in Apocalypse. Whatever her faults, at least Karen Traviss had a vision for the story she was telling in each of her Legacy of the Force novels and carried off that vision with a beginning, middle, and end in each book. Golden, by contrast, brings nothing to the table except being the junior partner in advancing the storylines in Denning’s books.
The characterization is just as poor as the other aspects of the writing in the book. Occasionally, Golden executes a really great moment in which a character’s true nature really shines. The vast majority of the time, however, the portrayals are simplistic, clichéd, cartoonish, or just fall flat.
One major problem with the characterization, which runs the gamut among the cast, is that characters make too many implausible decisions. When Luke returns to Coruscant after a six-book absence, he proposes a brilliant scheme that the Jedi should evacuate the Temple and leave it behind as bait to lure the Sith to Coruscant. This is frankly bizarre on several levels, including the logistically impossibility of emptying out the Temple so quickly and the sheer stupidity of bringing an entire armada’s worth of Sith to the seat of the galactic government. Surely there are methods less burdensome and far less risky to millions of innocent lives than luring the Sith into a trap than this? Not to mention that in Invincible it was revealed that the Jedi Council deliberated on multiple occasions on the methods to deal with Caedus, yet the Council agrees with Luke’s plan here immediately. And apparently, even though the GA and the Jedi have been wrestling over the GA’s funding of the Jedi Order over the course of this series, the Jedi are now just going to be able to walk off with all their gear, technology, and spaceships without so much as a by-your-leave. Even Leia goes along with the plan, knowing that she’ll be staying behind on Coruscant at the mercy of the Sith – without telling Han and without removing Allana (the supposed Jedi Queen) from harm’s way. These kinds of decisions are just so out of character and counter-logical to past in-universe events that it boggles the mind.
To add to the counter-canon portrayal of the Jedi Order and its Grand Master, Luke Skywalker shows up at the Jedi Temple with a Sith apprentice in tow and, based on his own momentary read on the sincerity of her declaration of intent to become a Jedi, gives her the run of the place. It’s bad enough to think Luke would take that risk with the only very recently possibly reformed Vestara. It’s madness to think that Jaina, Leia, Corran, Saba, or any other Jedi would not question it or that they’d even tolerate it. But the convenience of the plot hand-waves away these sorts of considerations.
Earlier in the book, when Luke wants to pursue Abeloth and Ship despite having no idea where they’ve gone, Jaina proposes that the Jedi should visit the traditional Sith worlds on the theory that Ship might head to one of them to recuperate. Yet the connection between Ship and the Lost Tribe is already known to Luke and Jaina, and Kesh is a far more obvious choice for where she might have gone. (And it is, of course, in fact where Abeloth actually went.) Although Vestara would be unlikely to give up the location of Kesh, the previous books in the series already established that the Jedi were tracking the Tribe’s pirate strikes as they built their war fleet. So rather than a wild goose chase to planets where there is no particular reason to think Ship would go, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to focus on the location of Kesh? But everyone seems to think the wild goose chase that plays out like missions in a videogame is a good idea – and, thanks to the author’s power of the plot, not only does this hare-brained scheme lead the Jedi to an encounter with remnants of the Lost Tribe, but also with the dark side Force-bomb left by Abeloth.
Another serious problem with the characterizations in Ascension, as with Omen and Allies, is that it’s clear Golden has not done her homework in reading the prior EU portrayals of the main characters, but instead writes from a superficial impression of what the characters are really about and then flavors it with whatever she needs them to do for the story. I don’t expect the authors to have the same depth of familiarity with the nuances of each character as that character’s most passionate fans – some of whom have read the books and scenes featuring them literally dozens of times – but I do expect the authors to be just as committed to continuity of characterization as they are to continuity of factoids.
That lack of homework probably also explains why, all too frequently, there is discontinuity of characterization between what we see in Ascension and the previously established version of the character in the prior EU. In a recent interview in the Star Wars Insider, for example, Golden compared Daala to a “tragic hero” whose belief in principle has gone haywire into extremism – which is nothing short of a bizarre claim to anyone who’s actually read the Bantam novels with Daala as a villain, or even the prior books in Fate of the Jedi. (Hence the fan consternation at Golden’s remark.) And that’s not the only example of Golden failing to even maintain consistency with the portrayals in the Allston and Denning books in the same series. For that matter, at times Golden cannot even stay consistent to how she portrayed a character in her own previous books.
An easy example of a characterization fiasco found in Ascension is Jaina’s thought process and motivations when it comes to Vestara. In Golden’s previous book, Allies, Jaina was so emotionally traumatized by the revelation of the existence of the Lost Tribe and the threat they posed to Luke that she called off her engagement to Jag when he was unable to offer her an Imperial fleet to help fight them. In Ascension, though, Jaina hangs out with the Jade Shadow trio as though nothing is amiss about the presence of a born-and-raised Sith on her murdered-by-a-Sith dead Master’s ship. The fact that Luke and Ben trust Vestara is good enough for Jaina – even though Luke and Ben trusted Jacen until the very last second in the previous series, while Jaina was fully aware from the start that he was falling to the dark side. The notion that she would reflexively just have confidence in their judgment on Vestara is ludicrous. That said, Golden does carry off one Jaina moment excellently: the scene in which, after Vestara has just slain her father, Jaina briefly comforts her with reassuring words about the necessity and unavoidability of the action, just as with her own deed in killing her twin brother. This compassion is exactly what a great Jedi should display in that moment – having to kill a close family member is not a fate one would wish even on one’s worst enemy – and it’s very true to Jaina’s character. The rest of the time, though, Jaina should be far more skeptical of Vestara and her relationship with Ben than she is portrayed, and the fact that she isn’t shows that Golden has no real sense of how her past and recent experiences have shaped her as a person and as a Jedi.
Finally, the characterizations in the book include a strange dynamic in which Golden appears to feel the need to soften the evilness of the villains. Daala’s power-crazed, desperate personality from the earlier books is smoothed away into merely a misguided, well-intentioned Imperial. Lecersen, who admits to masterminding the rise of the Freedom Flight, tortures an enemy for information – but then Golden inserts an out-of-character internal monologue about his dislike for such methods in an apparent effort to make the evil Moff character more sympathetic. Sith Saber Gavar Khai, who ought to be ruthless and diabolical, is shown in the early chapters as having a warm familial side and earnest regret over the possibility he might have to kill his daughter for her failures. Even Abeloth, the supposedly incomprehensible Big Bad of the series, is given a “behind the curtain” moment displaying her physical and psychological agony as she heals herself from her last encounter with the Skywalkers and Vestara, which undermines the very inscrutable superiority that had defined her previous portrayal in the series. None of this makes any sense. Villains like Sith and ancient hellspawn are best left as that: evil villains who must be defeated, not empathetic figures with their own sorrows. Why Golden thinks she is improving their characters by softening them is simply puzzling, especially considering the series hasn’t truly established a credible threat to make this whole situation even mildly suspenseful.
For so many reasons, Ascension is simply a badly written book – but it is also a bad Star Wars book. Lightsaber duels and fleet battles, the mainstays of Star Wars, are pitifully underwhelming. Two of the greatest Jedi fighters – Luke Skywalker and Jaina Solo – fight back to back against six Sith, yet it’s over before it began. We’re teased with the Empire of the Hand, then duped from a thrilling space battle by a plot device called baradium bombs.
There’s nothing wrong, for example, with including some fanservice in a Star Wars novel, but it requires an understanding of what elements the fans find exciting and why. Take the Squibs. First of all, it’s unlikely that many fans were itching to see them again. When they’ve appeared previously, their role as comic relief and obnoxious irritant has far outweighed their positive contribution to moving the heroes forward. Yet in Ascension they’re crucial to what Han and Leia, and then Jag, seek to accomplish. The Squibs are supposed to be entertainment, not saviors. Likewise, it made sense to include a great deal more interaction between Luke and Jaina after the criticisms that were leveled at the previous three novels on that score. But what we got was mostly banter about Ben and Vestara, mixed with a few references to Jaina’s own love life. Even though Jaina was sent by Luke to kill her twin brother when he’d become a Sith, and now another Sith has become part of Luke’s mission team, there was no serious discussion between them about the ramifications of Vestara’s presence or allegiance or about the moral implications of Luke’s recent choices compared to how he dealt with Jacen as a Sith. Fanservice isn’t Luke and Jaina hanging out and joking about the foibles of teenage attraction – it would be addressing the consequences of the Sith on the last several years of the Skywalkers’ and Solos’ lives. But we get none of that. When fanservice is this weak and ham-handed, it actually undermines the effectiveness of the story rather than strengthening it.
The villains of the story have become equally ineffective. As the Big Bad for the series, Abeloth has two serious flaws. First, after eight books she remains completely inscrutable. The reader has no idea what her motives are or what her nature is, the extent of her powers, or even her basic goals, which was exactly the same complaint leveled by some fans with Allies. Mystery is one thing; incomprehensible is another. In Ascension Abeloth isn’t frightening so much as bizarre, and I don’t think that’s the intended effect. Second, it seems the authors have succumbed to the temptation to try to outdo the movies, especially Palpatine as the Big Bad. It’s like the superweapon-of-the-month problem in the Bantam era, always measuring up to the threat posed by the Death Star. Abeloth wipes out an entire city with the Force, but Palpatine can barely manage a draw in a solo duel against Yoda. Palpatine spent decades plotting his rise to power, but Abeloth seizes the Chief of State’s office with barely an effort by herself or her allies. Conversely, this same supposedly uber-powerful enemy alternately has been sent off to lick her wounds by Grand Master Skywalker and Grand Master Vol. So what is she, a celestial being beyond defeat or a mere mortal? And how are we supposed to take this threat seriously?
Then there is the Lost Tribe of the Sith. Apparently they’re Golden’s principal contribution to the series. She introduced their society in Omen and developed them much further in Allies. Yet in Ascension, their homeworld is devastated by Abeloth and the survivors are left to serve her whims on Coruscant. They are a romanticized, softer version of the Star Wars universe’s iconic villains, which has single-handedly watered down the value of the Sith as a whole. So what, exactly, was the point of doing all that world-building and society-building in Golden’s first two books if it was all going to be erased in her third?
Finally, Ascension fails miserably at the moral fables which are supposed to be at the core of a modern myth space opera like Star Wars. The tale of Legacy of the Force, for example, was the saga of Jacen Solo’s fall to the dark side and its ramifications for his family and the galaxy. Then Fate of the Jedi began with Luke and Ben on an odyssey to discover the sources of Jacen’s tragic choices. In fact, that search for answers was the very reason for Luke’s exile. After a few books, however, that quest was largely abandoned in favor of the pursuit of answers about Abeloth. Yet Ascension brings closure – if you can call it that – to Luke’s exile and the Jacen storyline with a couple paragraphs of internal monologue from Luke, musing on the conclusion that Jacen’s fall had simply been inevitable. Similarly, Denning’s Vortex created a morally complicated (and morally compromised) scenario in which Saba Sebatyne was forced into a duel to the death with Kenth Hamner, then succeeded him as Grand Master; Allston’s Conviction, if briefly, continued with the moral complexity of the situation. But Golden’s Ascension resolves all these issues with a brief exchange between Luke and Saba which amounts to little more than a pat on the back and a reassurance that she’d done the best she could. There are other examples, too. The fact is, the story deserved better – and so did the fans.
A Fangirl’s Perspective & the Transparisteel Ceiling
There is no other place I can begin the section on my fangirl perspective except with the one scene in Ascension which is completely offensive to me as a woman. This scene validates that domestic violence against a young woman is okay as long as the young man loves her. Such a toxic message has no place in Star Wars. To be fair, I don’t think that Golden or the editors intended to send this message – but their negligence in allowing it to appear in the story is just as offensive, because as a woman and a fan I expect so much better from them.
So let’s get right to the point. The scene occurs on pages 173 to 181 in the book. Ben breaks into Vestara’s locked bedroom and demands that she show him her private files on her computer. He’s not doing this just to be a jerk, of course; he was at first worried about Vestara, then as the scene progresses worried that she might still be betraying the Skywalkers. He tries to seize the computer from her, then grabs her wrists. Defending herself from his intrusive verbal and physical demands, Vestara Force-shoves him away. In return, Ben uses the Force to slap her across the face – the ultimate iconic “put a woman in her place” action by a man. Their confrontation degenerates further. Ben prevails by using the Force to bind Vestara in her bedsheets – no crass symbolism of male sexual domination there – and then proceeds to read her private files despite her sobbing and begging him not to. When he does, he realizes that he has in fact intruded into her deepest personal emotions, the equivalent of reading a teenaged girl’s diary. He apologizes and consoles her by spooning with her on the bed. The scene ends with Vestara proclaiming to Ben that she wants to become a Jedi, and their first kiss.
It would be difficult to draw up a more classic scene of domestic violence. Escalating tension between the couple leads to a violent confrontation, followed by contrition. Ben has forcibly violated the privacy of Vestara’s bedroom, the sanctity of her private diary, and the dignity of her body. Immediately thereafter, though, Vestara expresses in words her desire to join the light side and in actions her love for Ben – and we’re supposed to believe that these emotions are reliable and real? This young woman has just been abused by her boyfriend. She doesn’t have clear thoughts or honest emotions at that point – especially because it’s the first time he’s dominated her in this way. For any person, male or female, who experiences this sort of event with an intimate partner, the predominant initial reaction is usually profound shock.
Yet the rest of the book displays nothing of the sort. Ben does not act like he has done anything wrong. There are no more apologies, and in fact no further references to the abuse having even occurred. Vestara is not traumatized in the slightest, apparently; there is no fear or withdrawal, no outrage or distance. The remainder of the book reveals no recognition of the seriousness of what was portrayed in this abusive incident. Star Wars often deals with mature themes, and in principle there is nothing wrong with addressing domestic violence as one of them; after all, Anakin Skywalker’s physical violence against Padmé was the final proof that he had lost his soul to his fall to the dark side. But that is not at all what Ascension does. From the text, it is abundantly clear that the book does not mean to include any such theme in its story. Rather, it seems the author and the editors believed that what is portrayed in this scene is perfectly okay.
That is what troubles me so deeply about this scene. Validating domestic violence has no place in Star Wars, and the author and the editors apparently are completely oblivious to the fact that their story has done exactly that. Perhaps Golden believes that these sorts of anachronistic tropes of “romance” are still legitimate storytelling; it was she, of course, who wrote this scene in the first place. But some of the blame lies at the feet of the editors – both of whom are also women – who should have known better and insisted on a rewrite. It is well known, for example, that authors such as Stover and Kemp have received guidance on the level of violence in their novels, and that Denning was challenged on several moral themes in the Dark Nest trilogy, including the degree of sexual innuendo and Allana’s out-of-wedlock parentage. Yet this scene was allowed to go into print the way it is. I expect far better from Star Wars.
Not to mention that it’s Ben Skywalker who is the abuser in this scene. It’s not in character for Ben himself, given what we’ve seen previously. It’s also inconsistent with Luke’s impressions of his son’s state of grace throughout the book. Perhaps that’s the author’s point: that Luke doesn’t know his own son as well as he should. But isn’t that just a rehash of exactly the same storyline we saw between Luke and Jacen in Legacy of the Force? Considering the two characters involved in this Twilight-worthy trope are set up to appeal to teenaged readers, it seems unlikely that Golden really expected those readers to catch and understand that kind of subtle dramatic irony. Instead, they are just left with Luke assuring everyone that Ben is a true a Jedi – which will only reinforce in some readers’ minds the idea that sometimes hitting a girl is okay. It must be, right, if even good Jedi Knights do it?
Sadly, there is a lot more wrong with the book that simply this one scene. One of my major criticisms of Allies was that Golden had undermined all of the female characters in the novel and made them and their storylines subservient to the stories of the male characters. I see basically no improvement on this score in Ascension.
The best example actually may be Vestara. At the Her Universe panel at Comic-Con a few weeks ago, renowned comics author Gail Simone gave a great description of what makes a well-designed female character: that she has an existence and role in the story that is something other than just being a love interest for a male character or a supporting character in the advancement of the story arc of a male character. Vestara fails that test in dramatic fashion. She has no existence in Ascension – or, really, in the entire Fate of the Jedi series – except for the ways in which she orbits Ben’s story. Why does she exist, other than to be his love interest and to be yet another female character he will redeem? What role does she play in the plot, besides tagging along with Luke and Ben wherever they’re headed next? Even her most prominent personal act in this book, killing her own father, only functions as a plot device to free Vestara from her past as a Sith so that she can become Ben’s Jedi girlfriend.
The original strong female character in Star Wars, Leia, is marginalized in a similar way. She has no arc of her own in this book. First, Leia advances Jag’s story by serving as the conduit to get him the information from the Squibs. Then she advances Luke’s story by inexplicably agreeing to serve as the lone Jedi bait for the Sith on Coruscant. Worse, the book explains that Luke and Leia hid the nature of Luke’s plan from Han because Han would have opposed it as foolishly risky. So in other words, Leia trusts her brother’s judgment, while her husband is the one who would challenge it. It’s yet another example of a female character being made weak-minded, showing deference to the judgment of a man, in comparison to her male counterpart who is portrayed as having the conviction to challenge the same man.
The roles of the other female characters in this book fare little better. Tahiri celebrates her freedom from unjust imprisonment by swearing fealty to Jag. Treen, reduced to a simpering and giggling version of Scarlett O’Hara in space throughout the course of this book, quits the conspiracy and resigns from the Senate. Saba steps down as Jedi leader and returns power to Luke. Jaina is a sidekick to Luke’s path around the galaxy. Natua Wan is sacrificed for Ben’s life. Even Abeloth, supposedly the terrible ancient Big Bad, is undermined in this book in a scene in which she’s portrayed as a suffering, weakened monstrous blob.
Remarkably the only female character with some gumption and backbone is Allana. At eight years old, she is probably the most difficult for readers to find relatable or accessible. Perhaps that is why the child is shown gambling like an adult instead of being taught games of skill and reasoning. Still, the young lady is shown as plucky, resourceful, and smarter than pretty much everyone around her.
Allies and Ascension combine to create a devastatingly bad picture of how Golden writes the female characters. With Ascension, the editors are responsible for not having insisted on better portrayals, especially because the nature of the problem was clearly pointed out to them after Allies. As with the scene of domestic violence, though, most of this is attributable to Golden. But perhaps she simply doesn’t know how to do better. Her contributions to the series have been minimal, and her books have been little more than transitions from Allston to Denning, leaning more toward setup for Denning. With Golden herself in such a junior-partner role, maybe it was inevitable that her female characters would find themselves in the same place.
I’ll end where I began: Ascension is a bad book and it’s bad Star Wars. We can only hope it’s also Golden’s last contribution to the Expanded Universe.
Because these books have refused to create separate identities within the series, for the last exciting mini-trilogy I’ve decided to grade both the book and the series to create a final weighted score. Ascension is a slight improvement over Allies, but by not much, so it’s a 5. At the end of Conviction I gave the series a 4; Ascension reveals a descending trajectory for the series, as Golden left it worse off, so the series score is now reduced to a 2. Double weight to the book score leaves Ascension at a 4. For gross negligence on the topic of domestic violence, I’m subtracting two points.
2 / 10