On the way to Gen Con this year, I listened to my first audiobook. I was, immediately post-convention, starting a job with a roughly one hour commute, and I was seeking ways to make the drive more bearable. My sister had informed me our local public library had many free selections, and I was fortunate enough to find Ready Player One narrated by teh Wheaton. To say I enjoyed that book would be a cataclysmically gross understatement, and I shall be gushing about it in excruciating detail at another time in the near future.
I have made the drive to Gen Con many times, and it’s about three and a half hours. It’s no grueling cross-country trek, but it has proven boring even with a decent music playlist — especially when I’m driving solo. Having a good audiobook playing made it feel like 15 minutes. I’ve never had the trip go that fast. And, given that one of my long-forgotten New Year’s Gaming Resolutions this year was to read more books, I found this very exciting.
Of course, starting a book and then going to Gen Con meant 4 days of not listening to a damn thing until it was time to go home. With a story in my ears, my commute to work, a drive I was already very familiar with from about a decade ago and very thoroughly dreading, was instantly one of my favorite times of the day. It’s been just over a month now, and to my surprise, I find myself wishing I could drive just a little longer so I can keep listening.
Heir To The Nostalgia
The very next thing I started after Ready Player One was something I’d been putting off for decades — the Heir To The Empire trilogy of Star Wars books by Timothy Zahn. I’ve had an odd relationship with the Expanded Universe over the years. I played X-Wing and TIE Fighter. I adored Knights of the Old Republic (before it got all MMO-ey, anyway). I’ve known for decades what a Z-95 Headhunter is and heard about all sorts of Jedi babies with familiar surnames. I’d just never read the books nearly everyone I knew considered to be Episodes VII-IX, as close to canon as anyone ever dared to go before the Disney buyout and by several accounts “just like watching a Star Wars movie”.
It was, in fact, the Disney buyout that renewed my interest in the series. I wanted to come into the new sequels as a member of the Old Guard who knows the story of what happened after Return of the Jedi as it’s been told for twenty years. Whether I just wanted the ability to experience these stories unsullied by any alternate timeline as did my brethren over the years, or whether I wanted the right to be angry because Someone Ruined Everything, I am still not sure.
I thoroughly enjoyed this series, but I was surprised by a few things. These books really didn’t feel like a Star Wars Movie to me. It took me some time to discover why. Part of it is the pacing. Timothy Zahn slow-cooked this plot over a three book continuous story arc. It is carved up into three logical sub-arcs, but I feel like I’ve been reading the same book for the past month. I am not, however, complaining about it.
Dark Complaints Rising
OK, actually I will complain a little, but I honestly only have two complaints. The first is that the audiobook edition is read by Marc Thompson, a voice actor who does note perfect impressions of a multitude of Star Wars characters and provides a lot of flavor and personality to a bunch of new ones. His rendition of Han Solo blows me completely away, Luke makes me forget it’s not Mark Hamill speaking, and his Admiral Ackbar ain’t half bad either. However, any time Leia or any other female character speaks, it just doesn’t work for me. It almost sounds to me like a guy making fun of a girl’s voice. I realize this is completely unfair to expect of one voice actor but still caused some serious damage to the wonderful immersion they were weaving with the rest of the impressions and the sound effects and music. I just wish that they’d hired someone else to do Leia and Mara Jade’s voices.
The other complaint is, well, probably also unfair. I find myself making comparisons between this story and the movies. The climactic scenes don’t feel as climactic. There are cool space battles and lightsaber duels, but nothing hit me as hard as the first Death Star battle or Luke’s first duel with Vader on Bespin. I like Grand Admiral Thrawn as a main villain. The way Thrawn toys with people reminds me of when I was 7 or 8 and my older brother would come up with completely unfair scenarios when we played with my He-Man figures where I could never win and I was simply too young to figure out what he was doing. It invoked a particular kind of fear and frustration in me that cemented him as a good antagonist. However, he does not inspire any sort of response approaching “holy crap it’s DARTH VADER” – who, to be honest, was probably the first real movie villain I was ever exposed to and the standard to which all others will forever be judged in my mind. There’s no way Thrawn could win that fight, not even with a caravan full of complex and brilliant battle plans.
OK, one other small complaint, but <Jedi hand gesture> it doesn’t count toward the total. Who names a major character something ambiguous and unpronounceable like C’Baoth??? I’ve not spoken to a single person yet who has read these books and pronounced it the same. I got the impression the producers of the audiobook didn’t know either, and just winged it with “Sah-bai-oth”.
All this being said, there are plenty of things in this series that feel “just right”. The way the Jedi-types act when they get visions of terrible things (and their subsequent refusing to tell anyone about Obvious Dark Side Stuff because they “didn’t want them to worry”) feels exactly like the movies. The characters get into scenarios we never saw in the movies, and their reactions ring true. Han being thrust into diplomacy and politics is a fine example of this, as is Luke trying to figure out how to do Jedi Stuff without guidance. I am quite pleased how the Dark Side of the Force was handled as well. I never did really understand the Emperor standing there being all like “yes, search your feelings, I am totally pissing you off so hit me” and that being what pushes Luke to the Dark Side. The idea that the Dark Side’s powers would slowly break someone down and make them more malleable got progressively more chilling as I thought about it, as did the outright mind control / brainwashing stuff.
The Last Conclusion
All said, it’s not a surprise to me that the thing I like most about reading these books is not that I get a good, complex, mature story out of them. That’s still nice, but the real draw for me is that I get to visit the universe I grew up with and see what happens after the Ewoks played their happy-music after the Emperor’s death. (The old version, not the godawful N64 jungle music edit.) Even without the giant insurmountable-due-to-geek-childhood expectations, it is a place that excites me and makes me happy. It is like hanging out with friends and not doing anything super crazy but still having a blast every time you see them. It may not feel like a Star Wars Movie, but it definitely feels like the Star Wars the original trilogy ended with.
I realized partway through the second book that the “canon” introduced by this series had, in fact, been broken by some of the stuff in the prequels. I felt a little dirty applying what happened in those movies as canon, and I think I’m probably going to successfully make myself frustrated with how the new movies rewrite things as well. I do not know why I put myself in these situations.
Where to go from here? I’m not quite sure. In an utterly unlikely coincidence, Specter of the Past, the first book in the second Thrawn trilogy, is being released in a new unabridged edition read by Marc Thompson THIS WEEK. I would like to keep filling my commute with Star Wars, but I also recently managed to pick up a cheap copy of the first Dresden Files book and I have been threatened with bodily harm if I do not read some Patrick Rothfuss. I am not sure there is a losing scenario in this case.