Saturday, November 28, 2009

Star Wars: 501st - An Imperial Commando Novel Review

Well I got my answer. After reviewing Star Wars: Order 66 - A Republic Commando Novel here, I wondered if we'd get to see Vader and we did, though briefly. Like the rest of the series, Karen Traviss keeps the major characters from the films in the background because this story is told from the perspective of the grunts, not the generals.

The Republic is no more and the Jedi are dead or on the run, and the new Galactic Empire is quick to consolidate its power throughout the galaxy. But like all transitions, some things happen instantly, some things slowly, and there's certainly resistance to change along the way and for Emperor Palpatine, resistance needs to be crushed.

Kal Skirata and his ragtag family comprised of deserting Clones, Mandalorians, and even an ex Jedi now hide in their refuge on Mandalore, keeping a weary eye on the Imperial Garrison occupying the world while trying to raise Darman and Etain's son, the Force sensitive child Kad. Darman himself, devastated by the loss of his wife during the Great Purge, has remained with the new Empire to watch over his comrade and sergeant, Niner, and to try and shut himself out from the universe with the familiar and routine. The Grand Army of the Republic, however, is anything but as it to has been re-organized into the Imperial Army, a larger and darker version of what the GAR once was.

The majority of the remaining Republic Commandos are now part of the 501st, Vader's Fist, and serve the Empire as Imperial Commandos whose task it is to hunt down the remaining Jedi and deserters. The survivors of Delta Squad from Star Wars: Republic Commando fame are also a part of the 501st, though they're mainly absent from this novel.

Weighing in at 464 pages, Star Wars: 501st - An Imperial Commando Novel is a lengthy read, and honestly, it's the first novel written by Traviss that I have some mixed feelings about. One of Traviss' greatest strengths is that her tales are very character driven, and at the end of the previous book a major character was killed. This all comes down to some understandable grieving on the part of the survivors, but for roughly 200 pages, Traviss just hits the nail on the head one too many times. Etain is dead. We get it. Everyone's in shock. We get that to. The first half of the novel really does drag because of the excessive emotion throughout, and it lacks the balance of action, or emotion during action, that was so ever-present in previous novels.

Make no mistake, the book does pick up and there's some very, very interesting developments and several very fine examples of the long term planning that's gone into the series, but I can't help but feel that Star Wars: 501st - An Imperial Commando Novel is one of the lesser novels in the series. There's definitely some further setup going on though, which will hopefully mean an exciting and fulfilling sixth and final novel to the series.

The scope of what Kal is trying to do, to create a future for the Clones, any Clones who can desert and make their way to him, has changed and grown. The Empire is a very serious threat, and Kal and his boys are on the Most Wanted list, but with Niner and Darman in the 501st, they do have people on the inside. But should Darman be there when his son needs him? The politics within the new Empire itself, and how things haven't changed much yet for the average citizen, are certainly interesting to read as the Empire is only a few weeks old and there's already plenty of backstabbing and paranoia to go around.

Despite it's slow start, Star Wars: 501st - Imperial Commando is a good book, but I am looking at it more as a bridge, a transition, between the old and the new. Generally speaking, the characters themselves are still very solidly written, and they've certainly come a long way since the series first launched 5 years ago. The series is still one of the best military sci-fi stories I've ever read, and it's hard to believe that it all started as a tie-in novel for the game, and yet it's now gone far beyond that and really opened up some exceptional characters within the familiar Star Wars universe. Given how strong the series is, I think we can forgive Traviss for a slow start this time around, especially when viewing the series as a whole.

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