Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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This film is Episode IX in the Skywalker saga. It is #3 in the current trilogy of episodes, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). It was directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot and released in December of 2019 by Walt Disney Studios. Stars include Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Ben/Kylo Ren, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. There are also appearances from Carrie Fisher as Leia, Mark Hamill as Luke, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. Composer John Williams is featured as Oma Tres. This review contains spoilers.

Emperor Palpatine has returned and is building an armada on the planet Exegol. Kylo Ren captures a Sith wayfinder device that leads him to the Emperor, who demands that he kill Rey. Meanwhile, Rey is training to be a Jedi under Leia Organa. Finn and Poe obtain intel that Palpatine has returned, and a group of Renaissance fighters leaves on the Millennium Falcon in search of a wayfinder device so they can get to Exegol. On Pasaana they encounter Lando Calrissian, who gives them helpful information. Ren locates Rey through their Force bond and arrives on Pasaana, where Rey confronts him and Chewie is taken prisoner. C-3PO has seen the inscription that leads to the wayfinder, but is forbidden by its programming from translating. The group goes on to Kijimi to find a hacker, where Poe encounters an old friend/enemy Zorii. After obtaining the information, they mount an expedition to rescue Chewie from aboard an Imperial battleship. Ren tells Rey she is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and General Hux reveals himself to be a spy, allowing Chewie, Poe and Finn to escape. The group moves on to Kef Bir, where Rey locates the wayfinder on the remains of a wrecked Deathstar. Ren destroys the device and the two duel. Leia is dying and tries to reach Ren. Rey takes advantage of his distraction dring the duel and deals a killing blow, but then relents and heals him with her own life force. Upset by what she has done, Rey takes his ship to Ahch-To where she means to become a hermit like Luke, but Luke appears and convinces her she is wrong. She takes Luke’s ship and leaves for Exegol, where she expects to face the Emperor in a final battle. Is there any way the Renaissance can win?

In general this went very well. The actors have grown into their roles since the first film of this series, bringing a dignity and authority to their characters. It’s a fairly long movie at 1 hr. 22 min., but the plot keeps everybody moving, jumping from planet to planet in a quest to find the Emperor’s hidden stronghold. We encounter various colorful characters along the way while Rey and Ren keep up their personal conflict from within the Force. An interesting symbolism emerged when Rey was revealed as the Emperor’s granddaughter. She and Ren/Ben are a dyad within the Force, two sides of the same creature, presumably, we expect, representing good and evil. They grapple with love and hate and swing first one way and then the other, seeking for balance. Besides this excellent screenplay, Abrams has produced a visually artistic movie using both the live and CGI elements. He’s also made amends to the older fans, bringing back characters from the previous films, including Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and a host of others, through various glimpses and voices. The story ends, as it began, on Tatooine.

I was mostly pleased with this. On the not so positive side, the action sometimes seems a bit frantic; there were no quiet moments of reflection/decision, and it skips from world to world like driving down the street. Supposedly the Emperor’s battle fleet is docked within the planet’s atmosphere, but I wondered about action on the wing of one of the battleships. Shouldn’t the air be a little thin for that? Can’t the people inside the ship get out there to deal with things? And why do people keep disappearing? I know they’re supposed to be absorbed into the Force, but it still irks me.

Controversies: Others weren’t quite so happy with the screenplay. Social media producer Klaudia Amenabar complained on Twitter about Rey needing men to help her succeed when she should have been powerful enough to do it on her own. Joonas Suotamo (a.k.a. Chewie) replied, calling this toxic fandom, and a squabble ensued. See a summary article about it here. Also, I’ve seen some comments about this installment generating the widest split between fan and critic ratings of any of the Star Wars films: 86% to 54% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. This is a gap of 32 points, apparently for catering to the masses.

Although this film didn’t quite pack the sense of wonder the first Star Wars movie did, it’s a very satisfactory ending to the series. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

More on sales!

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I’ve sold another story. This one is a gothic dark fantasy about a wolf child, to be available in 2020.

“Possession” to Winter Wolf anthology, Deadman’s Tome

Also, Sensory Perceptions from Jay Henge is now available from booksellers. The link is to the Amazon listing. My story “The Mending Tool” about a lonely wife made the description in the listing. Enjoy!

Sensory Perception

Review of The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

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This is a paranormal novella published by Gollancz in 2018. The story is set after the fifth but before the sixth novel in the author’s Peter Grant series. This review contains spoilers.

Commuters on the Metropolitan line are reporting strange encounters, oddly dressed people who seem to be trying to deliver a message. The travelers call police, but tend to forget the whole thing before response can get there. Sergeant Jaget Kumar calls Peter Grant, investigator for London’s Special Assessment Unit (a.k.a. the Folly). Peter brings along the unit’s summer intern, his teenaged niece Abigail, plus Toby the dog for the ghost hunting operation. Can they figure out the message and lay the ghost to rest? And what about that odd child that turned up part way through the investigation?

Good points: Aaronovitch creates very warm and engaging characters. His vision of London is diverse, and the police are actually concerned about your problems—we’re sure they’re going to take care of all those things that go bump in the night. Besides that, the narrative features a lot of dry humor, beginning with the name of Grant’s unit, and continuing along in like vein. The story is engaging and carries you to a satisfying conclusion that also sets up future installments of the series.

On the not so positive side, there nothing memorable here. It’s a warm, feel-good story without anything much in the way of depth or social commentary. The diversity itself is a kind of comment, of course, but like the humor, it’s understated. As someone who doesn’t follow this series, I’d liked to have a little more background on Abigail, who seems to be positioned in this installment for a future with the police.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Uncompromising Honor by David Weber

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This novel won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. It was published by Baen in October 2018 and is listed as the Honor Harrington Series Book #19. It runs 784 pages.

In the aftermath of the Yawata Strike, Manticore is rebuilding. Several star systems have referendums scheduled to vote on succeeding from the Solarian League and joining Manticore’s Grand Alliance. The oligarchy that runs the Solarian League, the Mandarins, considers this treason and launches Operation Buccaneer to damage the infrastructure of any star system evaluating succession. Expecting trouble in the founding-member Hypatia system, Alliance RMN rear admiral Jan Kotouč takes five ships to the system, where he defeats a large Solarian fleet commanded by Admiral Hadju Gyôzô, who has planned a Buccaneer attack without allowing for civilian evacuation. This is an Eridani Edict violation. The Solarian ships also fire on disabled Alliance ships, which is a violation of the Deneb Accords. After the Solarians attack Cachalot, they blame the large number of civilian deaths there on the Alliance navy. It is becoming clear that there is a third party playing the League against the Alliance, but attempts to capture their agents only result in their immediate deaths. The Alliance thinks this is a Mesan Alignment. They finally manage to capture a live agent, who bonds with a treecat. Meanwhile, the Mandarins are refusing to believe any third party is involved, and attack the Beowulf system. At the time, Beowulf is hosting an Alliance conference, meaning that a large number of government and naval officials are in attendance, including Hamish Alexander-Harrington, First Lord of Admiralty and Honor Harrington’s husband. The Solarians do little damage, but like the Cachalot engagement, bombs that go off after the fleet withdraws kill millions of civilians. Thinking her husband is dead, Honor goes after the Solarians. Is there any way she can stop the war?

I left a lot out of this summary. As I dropped into the series at episode #19 without any prior knowledge, it took me a while to sort it out. Weber didn’t help a lot, as he didn’t include any kind of summary or cast of characters to bring the reader up to speed. For anyone who’s totally desperate, Baen has a downloadable teacher’s guide on their website (mind-numbing, but informative) that does include a cast of characters and helps the uninformed sort out the League from the Alliance from the Alignment.

This has a lot of amazing positives, and I was duly impressed. Weber has an excellent command of plot, action, and world building and at least decent ability for characterization. Beyond that, he’s really good at setting up dramatic situations. There are at least three situations here that could develop into their own novel (and maybe will at a later date). This includes Kotouč and his second in command, both survivors of the engagement at Hypatia; Damien Harahap, the captured Alignment agent; and various treecats who are learning to shoot pulsars with their little hands. Another of Weber’s strong points is the details of the naval battles, including weapons systems, defense systems, military strategy and how all this would operate in the distance and physics of space. I’m wondering how he keeps track of it all, from characters to missile designations to battle strategy. He must have spreadsheets everywhere.

On the not so positive side, I wasn’t happy with the action line. The story is way too long and moves way too slowly. The action sequences are bracketed by endless discussion from a long line of different characters who try to figure out what the other side is up to and what they should do about it. This makes the novel an intrigue, rather than an adventure story, and bogs it down without advancing the plot much at all. Weber goes to all the work to develop interesting characters and situations (Kotouč, Harahap, armed treecats), and then totally drops them. Honor actually makes very few appearances until the end, apparently unconcerned about the issues until it becomes personal. There are also some inconsistencies; for example, if the Alliance uses regeneration to fix injuries, why does Honor still have artificial parts? I also ended up with unanswered questions about how the technology works, including fusion reactors and gravity compensation that will deal with 32K gees. Okay, this does have some wow factor, but really? And last, I’m wondering how the peace restrictions Honor demands of the Solarian League are going to work out. Won’t this leave the League defenseless against aspiring aggressors?

I’m thinking this novel didn’t quite know what it meant to accomplish. Weber adds a note at the end that he intends to retire Honor Harrignton, but continue to write in this universe. Maybe this was a springboard for other developments?

Four stars.

Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of House of Assassins by Larry Correia

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This novel is epic fantasy published by Baen in February of 2019, and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It’s listed as Book 2 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, preceded by Book 1, Son of the Black Sword, and soon to be followed by Book 3, Destroyer of Worlds, projected for release in 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Ashok Vadal has lost his position as a Protector of the Law, and his magical ancestral blade Angruvadal has self-destructed, leaving only a shard of Black Steel in Vadal’s chest. He has learned that he is actually from the casteless, and that he’s been used all his life as a pawn in a political game by the powerful rulers in Lok. He’s responded by leading a rebellion, but now he has lost Thera, a member of the high-ranking Warrior Caste, who has been kidnapped by a powerful wizard and hidden away in the House of Assassins. Ashok sets out to rescue her, and to fulfil his vow to protect the Prophet. This looks to be a difficult task, so he divides his forces, sending part with Keta to hide out in the South, while he leads a force against the wizard assassins. Meanwhile, Thera’s captor is trying to force her to learn magic so she will either be killed in the Trial, or become one of the House. Fighting his way into the House to rescue her, Ashok begins to realize that they are all embroiled in an deeper intrigue they don’t understand. Is there any way out of it? Or are they destined to play out the game?

This is pretty much first class as far as epic fantasy goes. The world building, the plotting and the characters are all downright awesome. The plot is full of intrigue, political maneuverings and gaming on different levels. At this point, we’re getting glimpses of the greater picture, where Ashok has possibly become the tool of the Forgotten Gods, a hero meant to rescue the casteless and restore Lok to a kinder, gentler place without that restrictive caste system and those awful demons that fill the oceans. Of course, a lot of people are going to have to die before we get there—some of them maybe a couple or three times. Corriea has an entertaining writing style, and his characters tend to be smartass, all with endearing little tics that keep them from falling into stereotypes. Thera, for example, tends to collect weapons that she hides under her clothing, and she has absolutely no control of the Prophet Voice. Gutch, the greedy fat merchant, turns out to be actually quite effective in the carnage. Corriea is pretty good at imagery, too, providing us with some highly visual, cinematic scenes.

The only negative I can point out here is the amount of cruelty and violence. And Ashok is, of course, way over the top as a hero, but Corriea justifies it well. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans.

Five stars.

Review of A Star Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen

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This novel is traditional adventure science fiction and won the 2019 Best Science Fiction Novel Dragon Award. It was published in December 2018 by Baen and runs 382 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Earth is lost in the distant past. Fleeing a terrible war, humanity launched arks that took them to the stars, where they discovered a network of Waypoints operated by Keys that give access to Othespace, and through it to different star systems. However, the number of Waypoint nodes and keys is limited. Humanity has divided into Starstates that operate on different political systems and contend for control of the available systems. In particular, the democratic Constellar system competes with the authoritarian Nautilus system, but is slowly losing ground. Then a new Waypoint opens to a system including a habitable planet. Both Starstates rush to stake a claim. Nautilus sends a military fleet and Constellar drafts civilian spacecraft to beef up their military flotilla, sweeping up Wyo Antagean, son of a shipping magnate, Garsinia Oswight, daughter of a First Family, and infotainer Zoam Kalbi. Can they secure the system for Constellar, or is something else going on that they need to deal with instead?

On the positive side, this is solid traditional SF. It’s strongly plotted, a strategy game between the two fleets that projects how established spaceflight technology and techniques could be used implement travel and set up the space battles. Torgersen goes into detail about the technology. There are a couple of major twists that raise the stakes on this and lead into what I expect will be a series of novels as the issues play out.

On the not so positive side, there are some serious problems here. First, this is mired solidly in mid-20th century technology. The author states that humanity has lost a lot in their years in space, but that doesn’t really excuse this, and I ended up with a lot of questions about how these people are doing things. In an age where I have a link to high-functioning AIs right in my pocket, these characters wonder if thinking machines are really possible. Hey Google tells me where I parked my car in a completely normal voice, so why are these people thousands of years in the future still using a keyboard to type at their onboard computers? Plus, I’m unsure how their fusion systems and weapons work. We don’t currently use fusion because of the high energy requirements and the associated high temperatures—so how did they solve these problems? Why is Constellar launching starships from the ground without shuttles to get back and forth? And Nautilus has only one shuttle? Why are they even using their starships to fight battles? Star Wars pretty much set the standard for smaller, more maneuverable fighters all the way back in 1977. And last, where did these people get the Waypoint Keys and how did they learn to work them? Etc. Lots of questions here.

The second issue I have is with the characters. These people must all be suicidal. They’re throwing the starships at each other like there’s no major cost in resources and human lives, the commanders willing to sacrifice their entire crews without really much promise that they’ll influence the outcome of the battle. Only the recovery of the lost Keys seems really important to them. I can see why humanity is not doing well in space. In particular, Wyo is conscripted and has little choice in the matter, but Garsinia and Zoam come across as really stupid. Oblivious to the fact this is a military operation and that Nautilus forces will be shooting nukes at them, both characters stick their lips out and insist on their right to go along with the expedition. Then, when things get scary, they panic and go off in all directions. They are represented as inconsistent, childish and immature, and this kind of character manipulation is a major eye-roller.

Still, it’s a great plot. Three and a half stars.

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