While I did try to make the below review as spoiler-free as possible, please be aware that some spoilers may still have crept in while I wasn't looking.
In Republic Commando Hard Contact, author Karen Traviss introduced her readers to Omega Squad. Niner, Darman, Fi, and Atin make up a squad of specialized clone commandos put together after each was left standing as the sole survivor of his original squad. We were also introduced to a Jedi Padawan named Etain Tur-Makan, who worked with Omega Squad to remove a Separatist research facility from a planet called Qiilura.
The follow up entry in the Republic Commando series, Triple Zero brings back Omega Squad and Etain, now a Jedi Knight, as well as introducing several more colorful characters into the mix. Kal Skirata, a Mandalorian mercenary who trained Niner, Darman, and Fi quickly becomes one of the central members of this story. Also along for the ride is Walon Vau, another Mandalorian mercenary, the one who trained Atin, in fact, as well as one of his commando squads, Delta, comprised of the clones Boss, Scorch, Fixer, and Sev. Finishing up the primary team are Advance Recon Commando Ordo and Jedi Knight Bardan Jusik. And those are just the most prominent players in this new story--which seems to be one determined to give readers a very strong taste of what life is like for all walks of clone life, as well as for the men who trained them and the Jedi who must now lead them.
Set on the planet Coruscant, Triple Zero plants our commando squads firmly out of their familiar combat element. A Separatist terrorist cell has been striking at clone barracks in the heart of the Republic itself, and the Coruscant Security Force (CSF) has proven ineffective in shutting the cell down. So the task falls to Kal Skirata, who assembles his team and begins to introduce them to the world of black ops. What I love most about the mission part of the story is that Skirata seizes the advantage of needing a legitimate reason for clones to be running around on Coruscant and utilizes this to extend a much deserved R&R for many of the clone troopers. These men are literally throwing their lives away for the GAR, and for a war that they have no personal stake in, but they don't get paid, they don't get leave, they don't get to go home to their families afterward.
That truly is the heart of this story. The mission is the framework, but the story Traviss is telling is about the injustice done to these men who are so willing to give everything for a people who don't even see them as men. And they are perfectly willing. Sure, they were created for this specific purpose, but they are human men. They have free will, but they were bred not to exercise it outside of battle. If Hard Contact was about establishing that each and every clone is a unique human being, then Triple Zero is about some of those clones, at least, as well as some of the men who work with them, coming to realize the great injustice of the Clone Wars. It is not what the Separatists are doing, but what the Republic itself is doing to its own soldiers. Is it any wonder then, that in the end of things, Palpatine is so easily able to turn the clones against their Jedi masters to effect such a complete coup? But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
I mentioned, in my review of the last book, that while the relationship between Etain and Darman is left at a purely platonic stage, I felt that Traviss was leaving a lot of room for development. I was not wrong. A central element of Triple Zero is the realization of these two that they are much more than friends to each other. The story reunites them after a separation of seven or eight months, and we are quickly shown that neither has stopped thinking of the other since Qiilura. Even though pursuit of such a relationship goes against all of her Jedi training, and bucks regulations for Darman (Etain is, after all, his commanding officer), they both feel that their love is too precious to ignore, and so a relationship blossoms over the course of the mission.
Etain is not the only Jedi questioning her training throughout this story. Bardan Jusik, who we glimpse briefly in Hard Contact, is back with a much meatier role this time around. His work with the clones, and the commandos in particular, has shown him a way of life very different from his own and he is clearly relishing it. Another character at one point reflects that if Bardan had not been born Force-sensitive, he would have gladly served as a soldier. And that is a very interesting concept that often gets overlooked in the general perception of Star Wars. Jedi are not volunteers. Force-sensitive children are conscripted for training as toddlers--taken from their families and taught to relinquish all familial bonds. Emotional attachment of any sort is frowned upon.
The Jedi Order is absolutely terrified that any Force-sensitive individual left unchecked will give in to the Dark Side. So they simply don't give them the chance. And watching Etain and Bardan struggle with realizing how much they are truly missing by being Jedi, and wondering just how correct the Order actually is, it is easy to believe how strong the pull of the Dark Side can be. I found myself often both fearing and hoping for these Jedi. I don't want them to stray to the Dark Side, but I do so want them to be able to live a life more than what they have. It is an interesting conundrum, to be certain. Traviss does a wonderful job in drawing a parallel between the clones and the Jedi.
I may or may not have mentioned in my last review that the books in the Republic Commando series are actually a tie-in for the Star Wars video game of the same name. I haven't played the game yet (I'll be starting it this afternoon, actually), but in looking over the manual, I see that it is based around Delta Squad. You play as their leader, Boss, and Scorch, Fixer, and Sev make up the rest of your squad. So even though Delta Squad is only briefly mentioned in Hard Contact, they are actually established characters when they show up in Triple Zero.
Delta Squad provides an interesting contrast to Omega Squad for two primary reasons. For one thing, they were trained by Walon Vau, while most of Omega was trained by Kal Skirata (Atin is the exception, though he has fallen into the ways of his new squadmates by the time this novel takes place). Both men are Mandalorian mercenaries, but it quickly becomes clear that each had a distinctly different idea of how to train his commando squads. The second point of contrast between the two squads is the fact that Delta is of "original" manufacture. That is to say that these four men have been together since birth. They grew up together, went through their training together, and survived Geonosis together. Comparing Omega to Delta I was at once both amazed at how well these men have been able to form a cohesive team, and saddened by the losses they went through with the deaths of their "birth" brothers.
Not only do we get to see the differences in the training styles of Kal and Vau, we are also treated to seeing the differences between the men themselves, as both play an integral part in the mission on Coruscant. Tension of all sorts is brewing underneath the surface of this group as they go about their mission--Kal versus Vau, Vau versus Atin, Delta versus Omega. In some cases it is merely the competitive rivalry of young men trying to outdo one another, while in others it is long seated and potentially deadly grudges. Yet through it all, the team manages to put their personal feelings aside in order to get the job done. In a story about the discovery and then fulfillment of personal wants and desires, this is one of the few points where the need of the greater good always takes precedence. It makes a very interesting statement about not only the clones but about the men who trained them as well. I wonder if further novels will give us insight into any of the other clone trainers (aside from Jango Fett, of course).
In the mind of Kal Skirata (and clearly in Traviss' mind as well), the greatest injustice being done to the clones (and possibly to the Jedi) is the denial of family. Especially since these clones have been produced from the stock of a Mandalorian--a culture that places a huge emphasis on the bond between a father and his sons. Is it any wonder then that Kal quickly comes to see these children put into his care--for make no mistake, they are just children when he starts to train them--as his own sons? He does his best to instill a strong sense of the values and culture of Mandalore in all of the commandos he trains, and he views every one of them as his own sons. He even finds himself picking up "strays" that come across his path, such as Atin, or the trooper Corr, who they encounter and enlist during their mission. Throughout the story, the reader is given hints that not only does Kal resent the injustice done to his "sons," but he intends to do something about it as well. I have no doubt that these plans will play heavily in the next few novels.
Overall, this was another excellent effort from Traviss. She writes this universe so convincingly, the reader is swept right into all of the action. Even with over a dozen "main" characters in the story, she manages to give each plenty of screen time and all of them are fabulously well developed. I, for one, can't wait to find out what happens next. I have dived into the third novel in the series, True Colors, and have complete faith I will enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, Triple Zero.