09 July 2012

Guest Post — Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan


One day I happened to overhear a student talking about Star Wars novels, and I told him that Del Rey Books has sent me some over the years, and that usually I donate them to libraries, since I rarely read series fiction or media tie-in novels (rarely, but not never; heck, I used Jeff VanderMeer's Predator novel in a class once). I asked him if he'd like the ones that were currently sitting in a pile somewhere in my house, and he said sure. I had recently done a big library donation, so didn't have much more than a few advanced copies, but I brought them in anyway. When I gave them to him, at first I thought he was disappointed that they were ARCs without finished artwork, but it turned out his silence and immobility were the behaviors of a die-hard fan in bliss, as I had given him a novel that was hugely anticipated and not due to be released for at least another month.

It was then that I hit upon an idea: Here was a thoughtful, articulate, well-read student who was also a knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and I wondered if he would be willing to write a post or two for this blog in which he explored not just the specific books I gave him, but the attraction of the Star Wars universe for him and other fans, since the audience for this blog, as far as I know, is not mostly composed of readers as committed to the Star Wars universe as he. I love learning how people value books and movies and art of all sorts, and this seemed like a great opportunity to learn about the attractions of Star Wars fandom.

And so I give you Michael DiTommaso with a post on Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan and the life and purpose of a Star Wars fan. He writes the "Ask a Star Wars Geek" column at T.X. Watson's Blog-Shaped Thing, and has recently joined the staff of Beyond the New Jedi Order

I hear that Michael is working on a comprehensive post about multiple Star Wars books and their attractions, and if we are kind and encouraging, perhaps he will allow me to post it here once he's finished...


Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan
reviewed by Michael DiTommaso

I am not Matt Cheney, just to get that out of the way. I am instead the self-proclaimed biggest Star Wars fan in New England — a contention that's yet to be successfully challenged. How could I possibly claim such an audacious title, you may ask youself. Well, I've read about 133 Star Wars adult novels, and about 15 more young adult novels, as well as a couple of the comics. I've played several of the games, and read a maybe a dozen more short stories, all of these licensed parts of the Star Wars franchise. Of couse I have seen the movies themselves, many times.

It's kind of my hobby. The fact that it is Star Wars and not something else derives from three factors: firstly, as a kid, I watched the original trilogy of movies, and got excited about the prequels coming out (by that time I had already begun reading the X-Wing series, one of my favorites to date). Secondly, Star Wars was accessable (my godfather owned over 90 books, which he eventually gave me, though by that time, my love of Star Wars had already been sealed, and I owned my own collection of books). The third and biggest factor, though, is I didn't want to stop reading, and for that, Star Wars was (and is) perfect.



Star Wars, as a franchise, includes about 140 adult novels right now, and more are being written all the time. These books (and also the games, comics, and TV shows) comprise the Star Wars canon. They are written by dozens of authors, all of them published in their own right, fantasy and speculative fiction writers. As Star Wars canon, these books act as one, giant, continuous story. Any given book, when well done, is enjoyable as a discrete story, but can also be enjoyed for what it contributes to the larger narrative. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a larger, more complex story told in so many media with the exception of, well, actual history.

With that established, I wish to present you with my thoughts and impressions of the recently released Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which came out last November. It was the fourth Star Wars novel by Drew Karpyshyn. He also was one of the writers for the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video games, upon which the characters of this book are based. In fact, this is a continuation of the story of that game's protagonist, finishing the tale of one of the most powerful Jedi to ever exist.

Revan, who in the games went from Jedi to Sith and back again, has a fair sized fan base in the Star Wars fandom, and the time has been ripe for this novel for some time. Karpyshyn definitely gives the fans what they've been waiting for, and stays consistent to the continuity of the Star Wars universe. Having written the Darth Bane trilogy (which takes place in the same era but almost three thousand years later), he makes no continuity faux pas, which is always pleasant when reading new Star Wars fiction.

That being said, this novel didn't stack up to the quality previously exhibited in the Darth Bane trilogy when it came to the prose. It was flabbier than it needed to be, with lots of sentences laying out exactly what just happened where it was often unnecessary. In chapter 5, for instance, Revan visits the Jedi Temple. The following sentences appear in a several-page infodump:
They had done their part; it was time for [Revan and his wife] to fade from history and live out the rest of their days in peace.

And so they had... until Revan started having those blasted dreams. 
We know as readers that he is doing all of this because of his dreams. That has been established. Repeating it made me feel like the author was worried I'd forgotten already the premise on which the main character was operating. At another point, a character makes a comment, and then a page or two later a different character makes the same comment. The second was followed by a statement saying this echoed the earlier comment. It felt a bit like being led by the hand.

The book takes time to build momentum, with the slow start lasting for the first 150 pages. There seem to be two reasons for this: first, for this book to stand alone, it has to fill the reader in with a lot of information, and this is a job it does fairly well. But such infodumping slows the narrative pace considerably. For instance, at the start of chapter 7, Revan meets with one of his old war buddies, a Mandalorian named Canderous, whom he had asked in an earlier chapter to gather information. The next several pages consist less of Canderous explaining the results of his weeks gathering information and more focusing on the history of the characters and the politics of the galaxy at that time:
"Mandalore will rise again, and the Mandalorians will follow."

Revan knew that Canderous was sharing this knowledge with him out of loyalty. They had been through too many battles together for him to keep this secret. Yet he understood why Canderous had been reluctant to speak. He was still a Mandalorian, and feared for the future of his people.

The wounds of the Mandalorian Wars were still fresh in the minds of the Jedi and the Republic. The looming spectre of a Mandalorian army unified by a single war-like leader would not be ignored. [et cetera] 
This is all pertinent information, but there are pages upon pages of it, and that makes events happen slowly.

The other reason for the slowness of the pacing is that there are two story arcs at the start of this book (they meet halfway through). The first is that of Revan himself, which begins in the prologue. We see him go through the slow process of remembering what happened before the Jedi did something to erase his memories after he succumbed to the Dark Side and tried to conquer the galaxy. He has been having dreams which worry him, as he believes them to be Force-visions, and he thinks that they portend danger

While reading about his adventures dealing with that, we are presented with the story of Lord Scourge, a Sith (in both species and religion) in the Sith empire, which is in an area of space called "the unknown regions," at least by the people of the Republic. In this storyline we also get some infodumping, but not as much because Scourge's backstory is not as extensive, nor is that of the Sith empire. Scourge was a promising Sith Lord who was sent far away from the capitol of the empire by his superiors, some of which feared he would surpass them and move up in society — which in Sith society often involves the superior dying mysteriously. He has been called back, however, because something is rotten in the state of Dromund Kaas (the Sith capitol). Then we follow his constant blundering around until...

Around page 170 begins part two, which takes place four years after part one. It is a much stronger read from there to the end, because just before part two, the separate story arcs of Revan and Scourge come together, and in doing so notch up the tension and drama of the story. Revan is captured by Scourge when by happenstance they find themselves in the same system at the same time. Revan spends years uneventfully as a prisoner. When Revan's ex-apprentice finds her way straight into the heart of the Sith empire searching for him, it leads to Revan getting sprung from prison by none other than his captor. The writing here stays with the present of the narrative, and as I read it, seemed to do less of the sort of hand-holding of the first part, perhaps because by then the reader should have a better feel for the characters and their motivations.

The characters throughout the novel were distinct, and there weren't many. This helped create deeper character connections as well as focus more on development of characters. The dramatis personae lists 10 characters. Revan and Scourge I've already mentioned. The other eight include Revan's droid (an astromech droid, not humanoid, who does the plucky droid thing — think R2-D2 and you aren't far off); Revan's wife, Bastila; Canderous; Scourge's superior upon his return to Dromund Kaas, Darth Nyriss; her rival, Darth Xedrix and two of her underlings, Murtog and Sechel; and Revan's old apprentice Meetra.

And that's it. While they interact with other people, those are all minor characters who don't really get developed nearly as much (it is worth noting that Revan and Canderous meet up with a bunch of Mandalorians from Canderous's old clan, which is being led by his wife, who is relatively well-rounded for a minor character, but she isn't in the story long.)  In Scourge's part one story arc, the relationships between characters are very believable, and this makes their interactions interesting and satisfying. In part two, Meetra proves herself to be competent and loyal to Revan, and we get to see her thrown into the mix of characters from Scourge's arc, which gives a slightly different perspective ripe with dramatic irony, particularly when she is sent to Sechel by a third party to get information on the whereabouts of Scourge, ignorant of the connection between the two.

The end itself turned out to be quite surprising, which can be a great pleasure of reading, though in this case, it was a surprise tragic ending. This felt incongruous to the rest of the story, where the characters seemed indomitable. Where before we see Revan able to mow through a squad of Mandalorians while still recovering his power, and are told tales of the tremendous accomplishments he had achieved at his height, at the end of the book, he has again returned to his full strength (and is aided by his old apprentice, his trusty droid, and Scourge), but he fails to destroy the Sith Emperor. This not entirely his own failing. Scourge, who has banded with Revan to destroy the Emperor (who is insane and evil beyond even the comprehension of a Sith) decides that they will not be able to overthrow the Emperor as planned, and kills Revan's old apprentice. This shocks Revan so much the Emperor is able to subdue him. Scourge says his alliance with Revan was just to lure him to his death, and plans secretly to bide his time until a better chance to take out the Emperor comes along.
As a result of this, Revan spends the rest of his life as a source of energy for the Emperor, who puts him in a chamber and draws out his life force slowly, keeping him alive and in agony for many, many years. (There is a silver lining, and I suggest reading the book to find it out. I've spoiled enough for one review.)

For me, the shock settled, and I ended up appreciating the gritty, downer ending, though I wished it had been foreshadowed more in the lead up. It definitely turned out to be one of the more complex Star Wars novels in its conclusion, running the range of emotions on the way.

While this is ostensibly Revan's novel, I don't think he undergoes the most change. He does experience the rediscovery of memories that had been locked away in his mind by the Jedi, and they allow him to become more powerful, if not more complex. Lord Scourge, however, probably has the most compelling changes, learning the value of self-sacrifice (to an extent) in the end in order to accomplish greater goals. Though somewhat subtler than Revan's story, this development was by far more interesting.

The ending leaves the book open to more — if not a direct sequel, certainly at least a book which can pick up on the threads left dangling at the end. With so many books being written in the Old Republic time period (and technically also the Old Republic series, of which this book is one), I feel certain we may see what comes of those tantalizing threads.

There are two reasons why I would suggest picking up this book in particular. The first, if you are a Revan fan and want to read about his fate. The second, if you want to read through all of the Star Wars novels in chronological order (a task I undertook my junior year of high school, and which I finished the summer after I was handed my high school diploma). That isn't to say I don't think this was a good read. It was worth pushing through the slow opening for me. But I think there are better Star Wars books out there to start with for someone who doesn't already have an interest in reading them (the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn being quite possibly the best starting place I can recommend).

As far as novels go, this is chronologically the oldest one to be written yet in the Star Wars universe. The scope of the Star Wars canon books is phenomenal. There are some e-book novellas (which I've yet to read as I don't have an e-reader), which take place 5000 BBY (years Before the Battle of Yavin (AKA Star Wars Episode IV)). Revan takes place 3954 BBY. There are more novels which stretch the next few thousand years, till 67 BBY in Darth Plagueis, and from that point until about 45 ABY (years After the Battle of Yavin), just about every moment in time at points throughout this galaxy, with characters old and new, is catalogued, and can be read about and marveled at.

Star Wars today is far more than George Lucas's original movie about good versus evil in a used-future, romantic space western. Star Wars is the cumulative effort of hundreds of people working together towards the goal of creating something massive, a work of the imagination that examines humanity through the lens of the quasi-scientific and the fantastic. They are works which can make us laugh, and cry, and feel. They have books with characters who appear again and again in the hands of different authors creating people who you can really get to know. There are characters you can follow from when their parents met to after they've died, and see what effect they've had on the galaxy just for having existed. There is something poetically wonderful about that. In a completely fictional universe we can seek out the cause and effect and meaning of people's entire lives, something which doesn't happen in the real world. And that is what makes Star Wars so attractive to me, a guy stuck looking for meaning in an often meaningless world.

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