Review of Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Vortex

Vortex, the sixth book of the nine-part Fate of the Jedi series, is now in bookstores. After a below-par Allston entry for book four and a poorly written and improperly edited fifth book from Golden, fans had every right to be concerned about what’s next in a series which obligates readers to a two-plus-year commitment and a considerable financial outlay at hardcover prices. Troy Denning, therefore, has a large burden thrust upon his shoulders with this sixth book – to carry this series back to a place where fans will want to re-engage. First-week sales for Vortex garnered only a #20 ranking on the New York Times Bestsellers List, a remarkably low start for a Star Wars EU flagship series book. While holiday sales of other popular books would be expected to impact its place on the list, I’d suspect that we’re also witnessing the effect of initial wariness by fans in making future investments into the FotJ series.

First Impressions

While the overarching style of the series cover art has been unimpressive – kids using Photoshop make more polished art – the image of Han Solo brandishing a blaster is one of the more appealing. The backside artwork, on the other hand, was disappointing. Jedi Master Kenth Hamner has always been an impressive character and his appearance on the back cover was anything but that.

In addition, the color scheme was poorly chosen. Walking into multiple bookstores – currently all swathed in green and red – this book is lost among the masses, even when presented front-facing to the customer door on the New Arrivals table at a major bookstore chain. The background color choice of green with a muted grey-tone palette for the character image is too dull to offset the rest of the holiday hype. Online purchasers are at a disadvantage, too. Perusing a major online bookseller’s bestseller science fiction/fantasy list, the raised foil for STAR WARS is muted when reduced to a thumbnail and the title is inconspicuous, especially when compared to the bright colors and attractive images on other bestsellers in that category.

For purposes of review, I consider also quality control of the product a part of presentation to the customer.  Somewhere in the production cycle the system broke down in the last FotJ book, Allies, with literally hundreds of typos and editing errors printed in the first print run. Readers can rest assured this was not the case in Vortex. Typos are minimal and for most readers will be imperceptible.

Writing Craft

I cannot say enough good things about Troy Denning’s writing capabilities. While Stover is considered a master of prose among many Star Wars EU fans, I much prefer Denning’s clean style. He embellishes when necessary, but never so the reader has to work to think about the process of reading. This is a result of considerable thought and effort on the part of the author to work through sentence structure and word choices. The reader is allowed to simply enjoy the flow of words on the page. For those who want to learn how to write well at the technical level, this is a must-read book.

Some of the more difficult elements of writing appear easy when crafted by Denning. Dialogue is clean and simple to follow. Beats are well-placed. Characters speak naturally, yet the Star Wars wit is true to what fans have come to expect. Denning’s humor is drier than Allston’s, but the reader is guaranteed to chuckle. The laughs can come in some of the more dire situations without feeling misplaced or inappropriate. Universe-shifting peril is served with a dose of mischief and fun.

The use of point of view (POV) in Denning’s books remains top-notch.  This book could be a master-class for writers who are struggling with the hows and whys of POV and the reasons proper use separates the average writers from the excellent ones. Denning weaves a story of unreliable narrators; what a character perceives or expresses is not always what has truly happened. For example, Denning cleverly writes Madhi Vaandt’s death from her POV so that the reader knows she lives past hitting the ground, but then uses a seemingly trustworthy character, Saba Sebatyne, to narrate the death again. As a witness, the Jedi Master is sure the reporter was dead before she hit the ground. The reader is left to realize that Saba’s perceptions may not be as keen as she believes. It is because of slights of perspective like these that a quick read will miss the truth of Denning’s story, because it is what the characters do and not what they say – or tell the reader – that ultimately matters.

Storytelling

Books are not solely about writing ability, though; they require a good story. If there is one thing that is certain, Denning knew where he was going with his book. He has become exceptionally good at moving the story forward, and so it does in Vortex.

The problem lies, however, in what progresses. Let’s see if I can sum it up simply. From the beginning: Jaina and Lando get outmaneuvered by some Sith; Ben and Vestara verbally spar; Luke, Gavar and Taalon work together in their treacherous Jedi-Sith Alliance; Han and Leia teach their future queen some life lessons; Mandos are laying siege to the Temple; the Masters bicker; Solos barge into the Council meeting; Madhi Vaandt reports on a slave revolt; Tahiri hires and fires a lawyer; Jaina gets dressed down by Kenth…

In other words, the book practically defines the expression déjà vu. So while it’s true that Vortex does a far better job of progressing plotlines, the trouble is that many of them are simply repackaged “developments” from earlier books in the series. As a fan and critical reader, it’s been very apparent that the upfront series planning was very limited. The fate of the Legacy era storyline is actually in jeopardy because of it. My biggest complaint – and this has been consistent over the entire series – is that these books are not stories in their own right.  This reliance on the series to tell the story makes the repetitive plot elements even more painful.  Although I preferred Denning’s version in craft and style to those set forth in Allies, I think the authors and editorial staff should have done a better job expanding all elements of the story. With what they’ve actually written, they had at best a trilogy’s worth of material.  Denning is known for very clean, concise storytelling that doesn’t include any unnecessary rambling, but on the heels of Allies his book begins to feel repetitive. 

Judged in isolation from the series, Vortex continuously progresses its own internal plots, which keeps the reader somewhat engaged. But it’s still hard to find an actual story. Vortex is a collection of open-ended mini-plots woven around a father-son odyssey. There is a lot of rising action, but it’s hard to pinpoint what’s supposed to be the climax or to see a denouement in this story. Stranger still is the fact that the sneak peek at Conviction included on the last pages actually undermines any sort of happy ending that readers might have taken away from Vortex. I suppose there has to be some concession to the series’ overall arc, but other series in the Star Wars franchise have successfully produced books that can be individually satisfying. The design almost ensures that unless a customer is already reading Fate of the Jedi, they won’t be purchasing this book.

Characters

Great characters need motivation, and throughout this book the reader sees motivations for each character’s choices – a refreshing change from the last FotJ book, which relied heavily on the plot to drive the characters’ actions.

While the New Jedi Order (NJO) promised to usher in a new generation of heroes to the EU, the LucasBooks staff has been reluctant to take very much of the weight off Star Wars’ Big Three of Luke, Leia, and Han. Denning has been the go-to author in the Legacy era, writing 8 of the 19 books, and has clearly favored using the Big Three. Interestingly enough, he is also the author who has decimated the younger, rising stars of the next generation of Jedi Knights, and certainly not all through editorial edict.

The book covers have resisted aging the Big Three, but if a casual fan were to open Vortex, Luke, Leia, and Han would be almost unrecognizable, so far have their personalities shifted from their core character traits on the big screen. Since 2002, some fans have been sounding off in the Save Our Skywalker thread at the TFN message boards that Luke is no longer the hero who drew them into the franchise. I didn’t used to think much of their complaints, but lately I’ve found myself much more inclined to agree.  Many dark events and tragedies have erased much of Luke’s optimistic compassion and replaced it with a cold, calculating, jaded widower and exiled Jedi Grand Master. He’s working with Sith – many Sith, in fact – and that is a long stretch of an imagination for anyone who’s just come to the Star Wars EU. For those who do understand how the events of the last two-and-a-half series have brought Luke Skywalker to this point, the tentative alliance has still been hard to buy into. Perhaps it wasn’t sold well enough, but even Vortex’s offered motivation for continuing the alliance that started in Allies – a version of keep your enemies closer – doesn’t really cut it. For some reason I keep wondering why a wizened Jedi Master doesn’t understand that tactic is almost doomed to fail. Or maybe that’s supposed to be the point. But that doesn’t seem very much like a choice Luke Skywalker – especially an older, wiser, Yoda-esque Luke Skywalker – should make, does it?

Which brings me to the villain, the reason this tenuous Jedi-Sith alliance exists in the first place. Abeloth is an entity – beyond our comprehension, or at least that’s how she was explained by Golden when fans struggled with the slightly vague, indeterminate ending of Allies. Unfortunately, Denning has bought into the inscrutable, incomprehensible bad guy line. We aren’t capable of understanding her. The presumption apparently is that if the characters, through whose POV we see the story, can’t wrap their heads around what this entity is, then the reader doesn’t need to either. For a story that works very hard to define every character’s motivation, Abeloth’s inscrutable nature is most likely a deliberate choice. But it’s certainly not one that’s shaping her up to be a memorable EU villain. We never got inside Thrawn’s head, either, but we always had a pretty good sense for what his goals were. By contrast, this vague, meandering path to discovering Abeloth’s nature seems to have been created to produce an ending the reader won’t be able to see coming. It’s a cheap, lazy plot choice for a nine-book arc with Star Wars splashed across the cover.

Moreover, although character motivations were usually made clear, there are too many odd rationalizations that were troubling as a reader. The decision to place Allana in Han’s and Leia’s charge has invariably required either that the Solo couple leave the child alone or that they place her in harm’s way. In Vortex, Denning tries to explain Han’s reasoning for taking eight-year-old Allana to the Temple siege and placing her right in the line of fire of Mandalorian mercenaries, who had gunned down another child in cold blood on the Temple steps in the previous book. Supposedly, Han wants Allana to learn how to outfox the Chief of State. Han is a scoundrel, but is this really the time and place to teach that kind of a lesson to a child?

In the closing chapter of the book, Allana is utilized in another situation that further illustrates the bizarre consequences of her placement with Han and Leia. In one of the corniest scenes to show up in the Star Wars EU in a long time, she ventures off with Bazel, a Jedi character who is a nice enough Ramoan but whose intelligence suggests that reaching Jedi Knight status doesn’t require an IQ test. As children invariably do, she stumbles into a nest of trouble – Barabel Jedi protecting their offspring with an intensity that seems very un-Jedi-like. Allana brokers a deal, her secret for theirs. For parents who earlier in the story proved capable of outsmarting the Chief of State, Han and Leia come across as remarkably foolish for allowing the secret of Amelia the Orphan to begin to unwind in such an easily preventable way.

The discovery of the Barabel nest also unravels Saba’s motivations for making a move against Acting Grand Master Kenth Hamner. Was she really protecting the Jedi Order, or just her grandchildren? As a reader, I would have liked to have seen that information earlier, because I think the broader theme of motivation would have come across with more emotional weight. This storytelling choice might have also deflected from the abrupt shift to outright desperation seen in Hamner as he opposes the Jedi Council in a deadly showdown. Some of the weaknesses with Hamner’s portrayal aren’t necessarily Denning’s fault; he probably expected more groundwork to have been laid in the previous book. Still, if the term character assassination should be applied anywhere in Star Wars, it would be for poor Kenth Hamner, and Saba is not far behind.

Other characters suffer from authorial difference, most noticeably Wynn Dorvan. He’s been written alternately conniving and altruistic between one book and the next. In Vortex, we see shifty glances in the medward scene and an eye-raising last-minute appearance at the sabacc tournament. Maybe his apparent lucrative victory will pan out into some interesting story developments, if the authors all stay on the same page for his character. Personally, I hope all the authors would just ditch the thing in his pocket. Wynn stroking his pet – presumably – in his pocket came across as eye-rolling fratboy humor. Between Dorvan’s chitlik, Vestara’s uvak, and Allana’s nexu, adorable pets are showing up in this series with the eagerness of a novice fanfiction writer.

Honestly, the best moment in the book comes when Denning simply relies on a tried-and-true Star Wars character to act as fans would expect him to. Booster Terrik’s laugh-out-loud hostage-taking is spot on in its utterly senseless, campy, fun quality. It’s Star Wars boiled down to the essentials – if all else fails, blow things up. Fans who are not yet familiar with Booster will hopefully find his appearance in the series appealing enough to seek out some of the Star Wars classics (like the X-wing novels and the Enemy Lines duology in the NJO) that include the Errant Venture’s rowdy commander.

Star Wars

The Star Wars novels have been venturing into different realms stylistically, such as the recent foray into the horror genre with Death Troopers. I think it is imperative, though, that the flagship series remain true to elements that have drawn fans into Star Wars: good versus evil, Jedi, Sith, lightsaber battles, space battles, droids, annoying creature sidekicks, and most importantly hope. Now more than ever, people are turning to fictional realms as a way to escape the harsh realities of this day and age. It’s fair to ask, then, how does this book and the broader series line up with what the Star Wars fanbase has come to expect?

This book has Jedi, of course, although not always recognizable in the more grey-shaded Legacy era that has been spun out of the recent EU. Vortex has Sith; Sith pirates, even. Lightsaber battles, with limbs hacked off for good measure.  Space battles, silly droids, and creature sidekicks too – it would seem Denning has hit most of the marks, and for some, those pieces strung together in a book will be good enough.

The trouble lies in that this series seems to be trying to be more than a Star Wars story.  It wants to be part romance novel, conspiracy mystery, murder trial thriller, angst-ridden teenage melodrama, and historical fiction. The tropes of the first three types require that the stories work within the conceit of the genre, all of which require resolution to some satisfaction for the reader within a single book: a happy ending, solving the mystery, acquitting the wrongfully accused. The latter two styles – teenage melodrama and historical fiction – are more adaptable to series writing, but they fall flat in FotJ.

The slavery plotline that has emerged in the last couple of books appeared after reader complaints of overly slender books being offered at a steep price. It has provided some exceptional scenes, including Madhi Vaandt’s death, which I couldn’t put down. I suspect it’s also meant to have tie-backs to the Imperial conspiracy and Freedom Flight, but the creative team doesn’t seem to grasp that the time span between books is so far apart that the nuances get completely lost.  Not to mention the fact that some fans would prefer to never go back and reread these specific books, which have been lackluster at best, just for the sake of understanding all the little intricacies.

Ben and Vestara were slotted into the coming-of-age plotline, perhaps as a way to try to capture a new teenage audience, but it’s quickly become tiresome. The problem with designing stories for Ben began well before this series, however, when the Powers That Be failed to recognize that they weren’t building a younger generation. Ben has never had age-equivalent friendships. Yet Star Wars has always been a love story, love of friends and family as well as romantic love.  It is love, and more importantly compassionate love, that drives the Original Trilogy forward, that makes us care for Luke and his friends on their quest. So it’s worth asking, who exactly is Ben fighting for? His father? That’s admirable, but is it enough? Ben wants to save the galaxy, but he hasn’t truly existed in it. Personally I think Ben’s growth would have been better served in a Young Jedi Knights style series that was a little less dark. This would have allowed the EU to grow a cast of characters they are so desperately in need of as the Legacy era books empties its own sandbox.

The Transparisteel Ceiling

As a long time fan of Star Wars, it hasn’t been until recently that I felt that the storytelling in the Star Wars EU needed to be scrutinized for its balance toward female characters. There have been women editors in charge of the books on both the LFL and Del Rey sides for some time, so I always assumed we were in capable hands. During the NJO, female fans were flocking to the EU books in droves, partly due to storylines centered around strong female characters including Leia Solo, Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, Tahiri Veila, Danni Quee, and Tenel Ka. To my observation, the bleeding of female fans began sometime after the end of the NJO, and because many female fans don’t necessarily participate in the usual Star Wars fansites, I believe the actual disconnect for female fans went somewhat unnoticed by the Powers That Be. Leaving aside for now the broader issue of how and why this happened, there is no denying that the existing cast of female heroines is dwindling. This slow erosion through the Legacy era is in part what brought about the FANgirl Blog; I felt as if women weren’t being heard. But that’s a whole other blog in and of itself.

Allies was a huge turning point for me as a female fan.  While I wasn’t the first to question the tone aimed at the female characters in a review, I sadly had to admit that the concerns expressed by NJOE’s lurus mirrored much of what I felt as I read that book. The one interview granted by Allies’ author, moreover, made it perfectly clear that she was unable to grasp why female and male fans were troubled by her characterization of her own gender. My own review, which you can find here, lays out my specific concerns in a section titled “Putting the Glass Back in the Ceiling.” There is increasing social science evidence that mainstream literature and movies influence how children and young adults perceive their own gender and themselves. Based on the trend in the last three Star Wars flagship series, I think it’s time to start questioning how the EU portrays female characters.

Taking a look at the balance of Dramatis Personae, Vortex indicates it will follow 11 male equivalent and 8 female equivalent characters. Focusing on adult humanoids, which are the most identifiable for the readers, 5 or 6 of the males can be quantified as heroic types (Ben, Han, Jag, Lando, Luke and debatably Kenth) and 2 as villains (Khai and Taalon). For female adult humanoids, there are 2 or 3 heroes (Jaina, Leia and debatably Tahiri) and 2 antagonists (Daala and Vestara). The villainous entity Abeloth is simply classified as a female entity, although she almost always appears in a female humanoid form.

Abeloth: The apparent Big Bad in the series is notable for the forms that she has taken. In the last book she appeared briefly as Dyon Stadd. The realization of his death in Vortex was a regrettable end to a promising character for the greater EU sandbox. But it is not a male body she has utilized for most of the series. In Vortex, it appears from Luke’s POV that Abeloth has consumed another of his ex-girlfriends. At this point in the Legacy era, doom is a certain fate for the beautiful women who have loved or been loved by the galaxy’s most prominent Jedi: Mara, Lumiya, Callista, and now Akanah.

Vestara: In my review of Allies I discussed the choice to have a father use his child’s sexuality as a weapon, even if it was just to show us how truly evil these Sith are. Denning doesn’t chose to go there as many times as Golden did; this time her father makes sure she takes a brutal physical beating so we can see how evil the Sith are. Although Taalon does once again order Vestara to fall in love with Ben, continuing the trend of treating relationships and more importantly love as a tool rather than a state of being. For whatever reason, fans haven’t really embraced Vestara or her relationship with Ben. As an adult female fan, the teen romance doesn’t fall into a stereotype for a romantic trope. Potential happiness that allows the reader to bear the struggle of young love is impossible for these two within the rules of the Star Wars universe.  She is a Sith, after all, and her presence in Ben’s life would always be one that is questionable. So that leaves me to wonder if the series’ architects were hoping teen female fans would identify with her character?

Daala: Allies left it unclear whether it was Daala or Nek using a sexual relationship to advance an agenda. Vortex suggests Daala’s emotions are being played more so than the Bothan’s. Either way, she has repeatedly been portrayed as a woman who needs to sleep with powerful men to secure her own place in the galaxy.

Tahiri: Is Tahiri a hero, villain, or victim? The series opened with the impression that Tahiri might rebound as one of a couple members of the doomed Myrkr mission in Star By Star who steps beyond the dark emotional clutches of post-traumatic stress syndrome and learns what it means to be a hero. Since that first book, however, her arc has relied on painting her a victim, first of Caedus and now at the hands of possibly feckless, possibly masterfully strategizing attorneys who want her to shut up and let them save her. The series and Tahiri’s character would have been better served if her trial had been condensed into one book, two at the most, and she had been left to participate for the rest of the story.

Leia: Denning has always written her character well.  She is present in the book, participating in missions and political negotiations, but none of her actions advance the plot in any particularly significant way. Her choices as a mother-figure/protector for Allana has not helped advance her position in readers’ opinions, either. 

Jaina: As a Jedi warrior, Jaina comes off as pretty badass in this book.  She defeats a band of Sith pirates single-handedly in a barely space-worthy StealthX. There are also some great “shows” later on in the story. For instance, Zekk has to use his hand to control his telekinesis; Jaina needs no gesture at all. So long as Jaina is simply a desexualized fighter, Denning has been able to do her justice. But female characters shouldn’t be denied their femininity or the ability to react as women. The constant referral to Luke’s needs or Ben’s raging hormones acknowledges that male characters are motivated or affected as men.  Since the NJO, however, Jaina has been written as a woman disconnected from the normal emotions women feel. Jaina’s journey isn’t really one that appeals to women, and male readers have provided enough voices to make it known that they’re not really enjoying it either.

The subject of Jaina’s development throughout the Legacy era could fill an entire blog, so for now I’ll stick with the FotJ series. Book 1 opened with Jaina and Jag finally as a couple again after 20 books in limbo. By book 2 they were engaged. In book 3, pre-marital trust issues were raised by Jag. “This can’t be like Qoribu,” he says, referring to events from Denning’s Dark Nest trilogy. Apparently the author has retconned the nature of the incident to serve his purposes, because what Jag purports to describe in Vortex is not what actually happened. (For those who’d like to follow up themselves, the most important pages are 435-440 in The Joiner King and 286-288 in The Swarm War.). It’s not surprising to see Denning distort the meaning of his own prior texts. The entire body of his Legacy era work, coupled with his interviews, is proof positive that when it comes to Jaina Solo, he has been pushing his own agenda about who she’s paired with or not paired with. Unlike Anakin’s and Jacen Solo’s fate, the excuse ‘the editors made me do it’ doesn’t really work when discussing Jaina’s characterization.

Upon reading book 3, I began to theorize that Jaina and Jag were heading into a romance-novel trope arc – unite, break-up, and re-unite, with books 2, 5, and 8 serving as the vehicles – which I think was the last thing readers wanted or expected after 20 books of stall-tactics. I was at least right in my predictions for Allies. The reaction to the breakup of Jaina and Jag wasn’t a mere insignificant ‘shipper revolt as the creative team probably expected, but rather unified outrage at a ridiculous storytelling decision compounded by negligence in execution. The important thing a creative team needs to consider about potentially controversial plot choices is the loss of customers who will walk away compared to retaining those who will bear the storm.

The sudden, unexpected reunion in Vortex can only be one of two possibilities: either it was a plot reversal planned for that book all along, or it was a last-minute speeding-up of story development based on fan reaction. The former would make the creative team incompetent beyond belief, if they thought that was a good idea for how to portray for one of the last remaining female heroes in the flagship series. The latter would suggest that the creative team actually listened, and understood that maintaining the course would be akin to running the Titanic full speed into an ocean full of glaciers. Personally, I’m going to assume it was the latter, because it allows me to retain some semblance of faith and hope in FotJ’s writers and editors, although obviously somewhat warily. To a savvy reader, the Jaina/Jag make-up clearly reads as a rewrite, because it’s starkly at odds with the rest of the setup and tone for the scene. The reappearance of Jaina’s engagement ring might as well be marked with stage directions indicating “Aside.” For what it’s worth, I’m glad the story doesn’t do more. If I had to guess, they’ve abandoned the 2-5-8 romance trope and passed the happily-ever-after resolution of Jaina’s and Jag’s romance to Allston, the author who has successfully proven he can consistently write relationship storylines into Star Wars novels.

While it’s been understandable to a point that Jaina’s love life could hamper some post-NJO storylines, it was actually her suitors in NJO that brought, and kept, many female fans into the Star Wars EU. This is where the editors should have had some foresight and pushed their writer past a ‘shipping agenda. There’s never a good time to fall in love, get married, and start a family – sometimes even Star Wars needs to just get on with it. I’m hoping that’s what’s finally happening, because it was about time to put a finger in the artery where female fans were bleeding out to other franchises.

Saba: The Barabel Jedi Master is a female, but she’s also an alien –  scales, tail, funny accent, and all. While Denning obviously identifies with Saba, I’m not sure many women readers do. No doubt, Saba’s reign as the first female Grand Master of the New Jedi Order will be short-lived if she succeeds in removing Daala from power. Then there is that matter of Saba’s little sssssecret…

Madhi Vaandt: The addition of the Devaronian female reporter has been a bright spot in the series. Since she’s a new character, it’s understandable that her attractive quality to men would be mentioned several times to establish how other characters might react to her, but it’s been more about her artful characterization than her good looks that have attracted readers to Madhi’s character. The slave uprising storyline produced some of the best writing I’ve seen from Denning. I could not put down the book as Madhi reported from the uprising. An intriguing and compelling character, within a story universe that is losing good character faster than they make them, and yet what happens in Vortex? She dies.

Allana: The creative team is stuck with some poor choices dating back to LotF that have boxed them into a corner.  For one, children are hard to write well. For that reason, their adventures are better suited for the simpler tales of young reader novels. Furthermore, Allana wasn’t born into a traditional family. In fact, it was publicly admitted that editors initially balked at the events surrounding her conception as written by Denning in his Dark Nest series. The trouble, though, wasn’t so much that she is a child born out of wedlock in a trade of sex for Battle Dragons, but that there are no other traditional family units to balance out her storyline. With Tenel Ka as a single mother living in the brutal Hapan society, the ending of Denning’s Invincible had Allana placed with her grandparents disguised as an orphan.

Forget about the unlikelihood that her parentage wouldn’t be disclosed by some treacherous Hapan who recognized the child, any woman worth her salt knows that hair color changes don’t fool anyone. Everything that has happened with the child in the FotJ books thus far – including her perilous position as the supposed Jedi Queen on the white throne – could have worked just as well with the Allana still with her mother.  Tenel Ka, a strong female character, would have gotten some page time and Han and Leia would have been left to be the Star Wars heroes required when the books are still relying so heavily on the Big Three.

Sadly, Allana is much like Ben in that she has no counterparts in age. She has grown up in a circle of adults and has been stuck with a pet as her friend.  Let’s be real, it’s hard enough for female characters to avoid the Mary Sue stigma as it is. Yes, her father loved animals, but the pet as her sidekick puts her up one more check on the Mary Sue checklist. 

After Ben and Allana, there is no character of note coming up to fill the ranks. It’s almost like the authors want to write themselves out of a job. The EU delayed on bringing Ben into the EU because there wasn’t a good time to do it. Yet a Ben in his late teens or early twenties would have been far more interesting in FotJ, at least for attracting female fans. Stalling the YJK generation as a whole, especially Jaina and Jacen, has left an enormous gap, as well.  The heirs to the galaxy weren’t important for the stories that were written when the Big Three were in their thirties – but they were critical for laying the groundwork for the stories of the future as the movie heroes aged. The lack of foresight has really damaged the stories they’re trying to tell now, as Allana’s predicament highlights. The child’s fate as the Jedi Queen probably would have been more compelling, for the writers and the readers, if she could have engaged in it as a young teen.  As it is we’re left with a child who the author wants to portray as precocious, but who instead comes off as a brat.

Other Female Characters: There are few other female characters of note. Tahiri’s new lawyer is female; she is hired and fired in the course of the book. Taryn, Zekk’s love interest, joins the cast of characters; she is a hard-core Hapan woman – a beautiful, feminist Amazonian. If FotJ stays the course where female characters are concerned, she’s doomed.

Overall, it is my opinion as a woman that the flagship series still has a way to go to achieve gender equality, both in representing female characters and in telling stories women want to read. As a writer, fan, and reader, I understand that good characters are flawed and that bad things happen to people of both genders. Women don’t expect or need female characters to be treated differently than their male counterparts; but we do expect for them to be treated equally. The trouble with the storytelling thus far in FotJ is the balance. The portrayal of female characters in the aggregate is far weaker. Vortex hasn’t come far enough from the lows of Allies. The people guiding Star Wars books need to sit down and consider if they’re bringing enough to the table for the female fans, who are proving to be a worthy share of the market.  Shortsightedness on planning ahead has brought the EU to the point where it is, and it will require some careful character-arc mapping and skilled execution to dig the Legacy era out of the character void it has created.

Bottom Line

Fans of Star Wars understand that space opera requires tragedy to befall our heroes, dark hours before the dawn of hope, and the conceit of handwaving some plot elements to move the story along. The reason Star Wars has been imbued into our collective consciousness is that its heroes are grandiose and archetypal. Denning loves to explore the greyer shades of the saga, and this is exactly what you’ll read in Vortex, when really what the Star Wars EU needs to do is go back for a while to being black and white. This isn’t a book to jump into the EU, but if you’ve invested so far you might consider picking this one up, if for no other reason than it appears Denning has set Allston up for some classic Star Wars mayhem. As a long-time reader of Star Wars books, I can certainly understand and empathize with anyone who would rather wait and see.

On a brownie sundae scale, Vortex was created by a master chef and served in what has generally been considered a finer dining establishment, but it was made with stale ingredients, Cool Whip instead of real cream, and it’s missing the nuts and cherry on top.

6/10

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