Please note the potential for spoilers in the following review.
Okay, you've been warned. Carry on.
When the general population thinks about Star Wars, they tend to picture campy, light-hearted entertainment. Star Wars is seen by most as fare that tends to look at good and evil in a very black and white way. And, when it comes to the films and television series, this is mostly a fair assessment. There is a definite pattern of skimming right over the grey areas of moral ambiguity that come inevitably with the telling of a story that, when it comes down to it, is one of war. I mean, it's right there in the title: Star Wars, but somehow the war part seems to get overlooked.
In the original trilogy, of course, what is good and what is evil do seem to be rather obvious to even the most dedicated of fans. The Empire's rule is one of oppression, and the rebels are fighting for nothing more or less than the freedom to choose to live a different way. But with the new trilogy, specifically with Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, right and wrong are not so clear-cut. And the most glaring example of this grey area is the clone army. The animated movie and subsequent series The Clone Wars, portraying the time frame between Episodes II and III, by necessity gives the audience a very detailed look at the clone army. But still, it is a cartoon, shown on a network designed for children, and as such, the look we get is not complete. We see that the clones, for the most part, are happy and well adjusted, having no real questions about their lot in life (with one significant exception in the season two episode "The Deserter"). Some of their training is shown, but in a very positive light indeed, and no one seems to be questioning anymore how the clone army actually came into existence (a lingering mystery from Episode II).
In the book series Star Wars Republic Commando, author Karen Traviss sets out to remedy this lack. She takes a hard look at the lives of clones in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and in their interactions with each other, with their Kaminoan creators, with their military trainers, and with their Jedi commanders.
The first book in the series, Hard Contact, tells two stories that intricately wrap up in each other to produce what is, in this writer's humble opinion, a quite spectacular read. The first story is that of stumbling Jedi Padawan Etain Tur-Makan as she must learn to have faith in herself and her abilities as a Jedi. The second story is that of Republic Commando squad Omega, newly formed and learning to work with each other as they are thrown head first into their first mission together. This mission takes them to the planet of Qiilura with the objective of making contact with Etain and her master, who have been sent ahead to the planet on reconnaissance. The Separatist forces have commissioned the creation of a virus meant to specifically target and incapacitate clones, and it is being developed on Qiilura. Omega Squad's primary objective is to shut down development of this virus and capture the Separatist scientist in charge of the project.
The book opens with the clone Darman engaged in the battle on Geonosis that fans of the franchise will remember was the big close to Episode II. Geonosis is the first battle of the Clone Wars--which means it is the first action any of the clones have seen outside of training. Darman loses contact with his squad during the fighting and learns only after the battle is over that he is the only member of his team to survive their first engagement. Three months later he is assigned to Omega Squad with the clones Niner, Fi, and Atin--each also the only survivor of his previous squad (or in Atin's case, squads).
Right away Traviss shows the reader just how different the clones are to each other, while still seeming exactly alike to almost everyone else. Darman, Niner, and Fi were, as it turns out, all trained on Kamino by the same sergeant (a Mandalorian named Kal Skirata), while Atin had a different sergeant. The three trained by Skirata are instantly more at ease with each other, while Atin is very clearly the outsider, and takes most of the book to really fit in with the rest of his squad. As the mission progresses, we learn that each man has different areas of expertise as a commando. Niner is the leader of the group and is very skilled at diffusing tension between the men. Fi is the joker and the boy scout of the group--always prepared, while Darman is all about the explosives and Atin seems happiest when playing with tech. These differing areas of expertise spill over and are intertwined with their different personalities. Traviss But she also leaves plenty of room for the reader to see that "nurture" can only explain so much--some of these differences must very clearly be down to "nature," which is a very interesting concept when dealing with clones.
When first we meet Etain, she is running for her life through a field of barq (the main agricultural export of Qiilura) from a native who is quite intent on raping and killing her. That alone should tell the reader that this is not your typical "light" Star Wars anymore. Etain's master has been captured and she is on her own on the planet with no resources for getting away with the intelligence that they managed to obtain about the research facility. She believes that the Republic will send help eventually, but has no idea how she will hold out until then. Because while she may be a Jedi Padawan, she feels that she is scarcely worthy of the title. She has trouble keeping her emotions in check, and can only truly control the Force when she is calm, which is of little use to her on the run on Qiilura. Before this mission she had already despaired that she would never become a Jedi Knight, but when we meet her, she is starting to accept the fact that she in all likelihood won't make it off Qiilura alive, never mind have to worry completing her training.
Etain has been on Qiilura and out of contact for long enough that she is unaware of the Clone Wars, and indeed, of the clones themselves, until she meets Darman. It is through Etain's eyes that Traviss shows the reader one of the most horrifying aspects of the clones. Before she ever lays eyes on Darman, Etain senses the presence of a child, and not knowing about the clones, is quite baffled to find a grown man where she was expecting to find that child. Separated from his squad during a crash landing on the planet, Darman has been working his way to a rendezvous point alone, and has displayed almost heart-breaking levels of awe and wonder at his surroundings. Even after he explains about the war and the clones, Etain has a very hard time reconciling the child she can sense with the man she is talking to. Because for all that he has been bred to be a warrior--to be a disposable killing machine--the actual experiences and trappings of life itself are utterly new to him. The accelerated growth process of the clones means that the Republic is literally fighting its war with children. Children very highly trained and very capable on the battlefield, but children nonetheless. It is a sobering thought--especially when one considers that these children are being led into battle by the Jedi Order, which stands for a respect of all life above all else.
For her part, Etain is horrified to learn that the creation of the clone army also means an immediate promotion of all Jedi to officers in the GAR. As a Padawan, she is a Commander (Knights are Generals). As I mentioned before, Etain barely has confidence in her abilities to get herself out of her current situation. Finding out that she is now in charge of four commandos and their mission to destroy the research station and extract the head scientist on the project is almost the young Padawan's undoing. She is shaken by the complete and utter faith Darman gives her simply because she is a Jedi. But at the same time, it is this faith that allows her to go on, and to find within herself that which she has always been lacking. As a Padawan, and one perceiving herself full of deficiencies, she has no problem admitting to the commandos that she doesn't know what she is doing and securing their promise that they will tell her when she makes mistakes so that she may learn from them.
Darman's reverence for the Jedi is another fascinating element of the story. It is made clear that the clones were raised with the understanding that the Jedi would be their commanders in this war, and makes sense that a clone would expect a Jedi to know what she is doing in any given situation. But even the rest of his squad, when first meeting Etain, does not seem to share quite the same depth of belief in the Jedi that Darman possesses. They respect her, certainly, but they see that she is not exactly commanding officer material yet. It is just another example of how men brought up to be so similar have managed to turn out so differently. When Etain first meets the rest of Omega Squad, after having spent some time alone with Darman, she is unsettled by their identical appearance, but that lasts hardly a moment before she senses them with the Force and can see just how truly different each man is.
I said earlier that this book is two stories: Etain's journey to realizing that while she may not yet be Jedi Knight material, that day will come; and Omega Squad's coming together as a true team during the course of their first mission. These stories are so intertwined as to seem one, and indeed, I do not think either could have reached its conclusion on its own. Being handed command of Omega Squad and their mission, and getting to know these clones as individual people is exactly what Etain needed to find her confidence in herself. Likewise, I do not believe Omega Squad could have bonded so thoroughly so quickly without Etain to bring them together--to help each of them see that they have all lost the same thing--their families (the brothers of their original squads, Etain's master)--and to realize that while those who are lost cannot be replaced, a new family can be forged.
Indeed, an important side-effect of Etain's involvement during the bonding of Omega Squad is that she, too, becomes a part of their family. She is, for better or worse, attached to these men now, and to Darman more than any of the others. It is quite clear that their bond is a completely platonic one, but I am left wondering if it will not grow as the series progresses. Setting aside the Jedi Order's rules against forming attachments, this bond is still going to lead to complications down the line. For Etain, as an officer leading the clones, she has seen beyond the identical faces to the individual men behind them. She cares about the men in her charge and must learn how to reconcile that with leading them in a war where it is very likely she will have to order one or more of them to their deaths someday. On the part of the clones, these men have been trained to understand and accept the fact that they are essentially expendable. They are a resource and, for the time being, an easily replaced one. Forming attachments with those outside of their squad can give them pause before following those orders they know could be to their death, and that severely hinders their usefulness.
All in all, Hard Contact sets the stage for an amazing adventure. Even knowing, and perhaps because I know, the final outcome of the Clone Wars and the role the clones play in the destruction of the Jedi Order, I find that I can't wait to see how all of those unseen events between point A and point B play out. I am absolutely compelled to read on. If you are a Star Wars fan looking for something meatier than what we've been given on screen, then this is the perfect book for you. If you are just looking for a well written good read that makes you pause and think, well, this is the perfect book for you, too.
On a slightly related note, here's some more Star Wars happiness from the internet. Prose Before Hos 2 has drawn up some lovely World War II style propaganda posters for the Empire and the Rebel Alliance that you can check out here.