Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading Recommendation: Star Wars Imperial Commando: 501st

A thought struck him.  "So what happens if you're a nerf with a high midi-chlorian count?"
.... "Well, latent Force-user or not, I bet someone ate it."
                                 --Karen Traviss, Star Wars Imperial Commando:  501st

Warning:  You can safely assume that the following post contains spoilers for Star Wars Imperial Commando:  501st by Karen Traviss, as well as for the books in the Republic Commando series by the same author.

This past Friday night my husband and I had a moment of nerdvana.  We, along with our daughter, had gone to dinner at our local Genghis Grill and I was attempting to feed her a piece of carrot from her bowl.  Normally she goes straight for her veggies, but it appears she prefers her carrots in whole baby carrot form rather than the sliced bits GG had to offer.  Also, she was totally chowing down on her noodles and wasn't feeling the carrot love at that precise moment.  She let us know this fact by pushing away the carrot bit and making a gesture very reminiscent of the Jedi mind-trick move.  Immediately my husband and I both looked at each other and said, "This is not the carrot you are looking for."  It was priceless, and extremely amusing to the both of us, and a very good indicator that we chose well when we married each other.  This poor kid has no chance of escaping our house as any type of non-geek.

Last night I continued on the Star Wars love by finishing up the first and only book in Karen Traviss' Imperial Commando series, 501st.  Imperial Commando was set to be the follow-up series to Republic Commando, which concluded, fittingly, with the fall of the Republic and the slaughter of the Jedi Order in Order 66.  Originally Traviss had been under contract to write at least one more book in the second series, which was supposed to have come out in July of this past year.  The series was canceled by Lucas' powerhouse, however, which is unfortunate, because 501st ends with a beginning rather than an ending.  There is little to no closure here, and I am a little saddened to know that fans of the series are unlikely to get any in the future.  I am sure I can probably by now hunt down some fan fiction continuing the series, but without Traviss' unique voice I am not sure I want to read it.

As disturbed as I was left by the abrupt ending of this story, which has so much more potential, I would still heartily recommend 501st to anyone who has read the Republic Commando series.  While this was clearly meant to be the first in a larger arc of stories, there is still much worth to be found within its pages.  Again, as a fan of the Jedi, I found myself constantly challenged by the opinions of Skirata and his clan toward force-users, as well as some of the events in the book itself.

This story takes place on two fronts:  Skirata's hideaway in a remote section of Mandalore, and Imperial City (formerly Coruscant) where Darman and Niner are stuck as part of the Emperor's elite commando unit since they did not manage to escape with the others on the night of Order 66.  Skirata wants to bring Darman and Niner home to Mandalore, but it is not as easy as all that.  Things have, of course, changed under the new regime, and Skirata and his allies find themselves on the Empire's most-wanted list for desertion and conspiracy against the Empire.  Darman and Niner meanwhile have been tasked with hunting down the remaining Jedi.  They are among the few who know that Palpatine is really a Sith, though they see little distinction between the two factions of force-users.

Because of his loss during the execution of Order 66, Darman has become fiercely determined to wipe out any force-users that might attempt to rebuild the Jedi Order.  His reasons have nothing to do with serving Palpatine, however, and everything to do with protecting his son from ever being taken by the order that, in his mind, took away everything he ever loved, all the while using up his brothers like so much cannon fodder in a war they were too stupid to see had been engineered solely to wipe them out of existence.  There is a lot of intensity going on here.

Back on Mandalore Skirata is still doing everything in his power to find a way to stop the rapid aging of the clones.  He even goes so far as to give safe haven to a Kaminoan Jedi who, it turns out, it at least a thousand years old and who is perfectly willing to allow Skirata and Uthan to study her DNA to find a way to extend the lives of the clones.  Kina Ha is a character I would dearly have loved to see more of had this series continued.  She was once an outcast from Kamino because of her aberrations, but now she is largely forgotten, by the Jedi as well as by her own people.  She exudes the true manner of the Jedi, however, and bears no malice toward her people for shunning her, even though her force-sensitivity was the result of their own experimentation.  She bears no ill will toward Skirata for using her to further his own ends, in fact, she willingly offers herself up for study if they believe it will help the clones.  She is calm and polite and observant, and goodness gracious if I didn't want to know more of what was going through her head half the time!

Throughout the story some things go according to plan while others go off the rail.  There are a few loose ends from the Republic Commando series that get tied up, certainly, but mostly we see the introduction of a new set of story lines.  With the loss of Etain, we spend much more time inside Bardan Jusik's headspace, and I have to say he has officially made it onto the top of my list of favorite Jedi throughout the franchise.  Considering he walked away from the Order, that says a lot about how this series has made me look at the Jedi, I think.  I mean, I will still always come down on the side of the Jedi over the Sith, of course, and of force-sensitives over mundanes, most likely.  Come on, the Force is pretty freaking awesome!  But it is very interesting to follow Traviss as she explores the implications of the different ways to actually use one's force-sensitivity, as well as what that says about a person or a culture.  In 501st the readers get to meet Djinn Altis, a Jedi who walked away from the Order long ago and set up his own temple, following a more old-fashioned ideology, allowing his students to love and have families.  I would truly have loved to have gotten to explore more of his group and their dynamic, especially given the moral dilemmas this presented to many of our main characters.

One last thing I'll mention about this book that I really enjoyed was that having so much of it set on Mandalore offered up a truly fascinating look into the Mandalorian culture.  Throughout the Republic Commando series we were given glimpses, but we get a much deeper exploration here.  Some of the speculation as to why the Imperial Commando series was canceled was that the Mandalorian culture Traviss presented varies wildly from that the television series Star Wars Clone Wars has been developing.  Traviss denies this is the reason, stating there were contractual issues.  It does seem that a story line she had in mind about Boba Fett would have had to have been changed up however, due to the live action Star Wars series Lucas has in development.  io9 did a brief write-up on that here that you can check out.  I stress the word speculation, however.  I do have to say, I much, much prefer Traviss' versions of the Mandalorians to what Clone Wars has given us, truth be told.  I think this is because it tends to fall much more in line with the culture of Mandalorians presented in Star Wars The Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel game.  But also because the Mandalorians on the cartoon are a bit too touchy-feely for my liking.  This makes a little bit of sense, I suppose, since it is a show aimed at kids, but still.  The whole point of Mandalorians is that they were hardcore.

Despite its unsatisfying ending--which was unsatisfying only because it wasn't meant to be an ending--I really would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Mandalorian culture or the lives of the clones outside of what we have seen in the movies or on the television show.  Traviss really knows how to get into the world of Star Wars and bring it to life with characters that feel so much more real to me than almost anyone I've seen on screen to date.  This is the nitty-gritty, the reality of a war brought on by scheming politicians, and the backlash on the innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders.

(Incidentally, if you'd like an actual coherent explanation of why this series is so awesome, here is the article on io9 that got me interested in the series in the first place, back when Order 66 came out.)

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