Category Archives: Star Wars

The cover to Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Lost Stars.

Star Wars: Lost Stars review

If Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is an indicator of the new Star Wars expanded universe, then I think we could be looking at something pretty cool.

I was a big fan of the old Star Wars EU. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wiped the slate clean. No more Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Dash Rendar, Galen Marek, Ysanne Isard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Star Wars EU had decades to build up success and history. There was a lot to live up to.

Lost Stars is a YA novel about two lovers, Thane and Ciena, both in the service of the Empire. Thane defects to the Rebellion. Cue tragic romance. I won’t lie, I really wasn’t sure about it. Could a couple of unknown, star-crossed lovers shoe-horned into the original trilogy really compare with the Thrawn trilogy?

Spoiler: it can’t. But it’s still good.

But by ending the war now, before it truly begins, the Death Star will save more lives than it took.

I wasn’t sure a YA tragic romance was a good fit for Star Wars, but actually the tone is almost perfect. That has something to do with what Lucas made, and something to do with Gray’s writing. She gets the feel of Star Wars. She captures that brisk sense of adventure so well you feel you could be reading a novelisation of deleted scenes. Almost

And the best thing Lost Stars offers is its fresh perspective. Thane and Ciena rationalise Alderaan as a necessary evil, a space opera Hiroshima. And the destruction of the Death Star is a terrorist act, a war crime that slaughters thousands of good officers. And these contrary viewpoints work well because Gray isn’t writing villains or ciphers. She’s writing complicated characters. Thane is a cynic, sure that no government is perfect, content to work with the one in place until he can no longer abide its methodology. Ciena is an idealist, seeing the order and the stability the Empire has to offer.

And who is this General Calrissian? Thane decided not to ask that question out loud. If the Rebel Alliance was happy turning over its two most critical missions of all time to a bunch of brand-new generals, okay, fine.

I’m always sceptical when a writer tries to weave new characters into an existing story. It smacks of a retcon. Why did we never see this guy? Why did they never mention her? But Gray pulls this off well. Thane and Ciena aren’t big players, and the only movie characters they meet are minor. Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain/Admiral Piet, and even they only have brief appearances. These cameos offer little glimpses and expansions to their characters and, by not leaning on the main cast of the trilogy, Gray builds a sense of a much vaster galaxy.

This also allows Thane to question who the Rebel heroes are, since he never sees them involved in any real military efforts, yet they always seem to be in charge. It’s funny, and a nice nod to the fact that both Thane and Ciena suffer from the same illness of Luke, Leia, Han and co.: they’re often in situations they don’t belong for the sake of the plot. Thane obviously becomes an X-wing pilot but is given ground assault duties. Ciena is a deck officer but gets sent out in TIE fighters. But this is Star Wars. Our heroes can’t be constrained by realism. Which is why a con man and a gas miner was allowed to lead the greatest Rebellion offensive of all time.

Sometimes we’re loyal to more than one thing. When there’s a conflict, we have to choose which loyalty to honor.

The biggest problem with Lost Stars is that it’s trying to serve two masters: the story and the hype. Released in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the cover is splashed with promises of exclusive content that ties into the new film and never-before-scenes from the Original Trilogy. Thane and Ciena don’t just find themselves in situations they don’t belong. They find themselves shoe-horned into events. Events conspire, contort even, to bring both into contact with Alderaan, Yavin, Cloud City, Endor. And in order to fit all that in and get some post-Jedi events, the plot takes big jumps through time. Sometimes it feels like Thane and Ciena’s Greatest Hits, and the final showdown seems a bit rushed, slotted in with very little explanation at all.

Which is a bit sad, because there’s a good story in here. And if Gray had been given a bit more space and fewer marketing boxes to tick, there was the potential for a deeper, more meaningful telling to match a deep and meaningful tale. The story between set pieces shows a war more devastating than anything the films portrayed, and the galaxy she created was big enough that Thane and Ciena didn’t have to be at every movie battle. Personally I think it would have been stronger for it.

Lost Stars doesn’t always navigate its way around the Original Trilogy perfectly, but it’s an enjoyable story, well-written, with strong characters. Being YA it doesn’t have the heft of the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s got the fast-paced adventure Star Wars is known for. I’d readily pick up a sequel.

Poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Spoiler-Free Review

In the days leading up to The Phantom Menace I bought into the hype. Hard. I watched the Duel of the Fates music video almost constantly. I knew the soundtrack backwards and forwards. But, though I tried to love it, the film let me down. So this time around I played it cool. I watched the first two trailers a few times. Then that was it. No hype for me. No excitement. No expectations. Or low expectations, if you prefer. I wasn’t going to let The Force Awakens break my geeky little heart.

I needn’t have worried.

Warning: while I won’t spoil a thing in the words ahead, the truly spoiler-phobic should wait until they’ve seen The Force Awakens.

“Didn’t we just leave this party?”

There have been a few accusations that The Force Awakens is a remake of A New Hope. Those accusations are extreme and you can dismiss them. There are similarities, to be sure, certain elements that recur (super weapons, anyone?) But this is not the same film. And the stuff that looks similar has a new twist on it, keeping the call-backs fresh and familiar at the same time, so you smile when you see them instead of rolling your eyes. Abrams does play on your nostalgia, and I often got the feeling this film was made for those who saw the originals when they were young, rather than for the young themselves (unlike the prequels; there’s not one poo joke in The Force Awakens).

“Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”

Rey is my new hero. She was my favourite, not just a worthy successor to the strong female role of Princess Leia, but a layered, earnest character of loss and independence and capability. On the opposite side, Kylo Ren is my new villain. In one film, Abrams made Ren more interesting than Anakin was over six. Both Rey and Ren have typical Abrams twists in their stories. Rey’s tend to be either emotional or uplifting. Ren’s are mostly shocking. But both characters are strong and engaging, pillars on which The Force Awakens can rest safe.

Finn and Poe were, I thought, not as strong, but still great. Finn is a great mix of fear and decency and loyalty. Poe is a funny, capable character. And the two have a great chemistry. I want to see some more Finn/Poe bromance, please.

“I’m out of it for a little while and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”

A sad, but good, side-effect of such strong new and central characters is that it sidelines the old cast. We always knew that Luke, Han and Leia would only be in The Force Awakens to pass the torch. Elevated to the status of legends and generals, they are supporting cast only, but the strength of the new cast means that isn’t a disappointment. In fact, sometimes it felt like Abrams was shoe-horning in some of the old faces. Han was a great presence, but poor Leia was woefully underused, and don’t get me started on the droids.

“Vader doesn’t want you at all, he’s after someone named Skywalker.”

And Luke. Where is Luke Skywalker? Absent from the trailers, posters, TV spots, toys, and et cetera, this is a question so important it’s actually addressed in the opening crawl. Luke’s role in The Force Awakens was, for me, the biggest flaw in the film because it wasn’t quite tied up. My wife disagrees; she says it’s all there on the screen. But I say, just as with the ending of Breaking Bad, that Luke’s story needed just one more moment. Something to tie it up and acknowledge the journey. Just two words would have made a huge difference. Ask me what they are once you’ve seen it.

The other big disappointment? A certain character is barely a presence in The Force Awakens. If they don’t return, I shall become angry and use my magic.

“Look at the size of that thing!”

I’ve written a lot about the characters. That’s my bag, I suppose. But as for the rest, well, there was no prequel-esque reliance on CGI. The Force Awakens has real sets filled with real people and costumes blended with computer effects where necessary. This is the lived-in, functional world of the originals that you felt you could touch, not the sterile CG fantasy of the prequels. But, despite that, The Force Awakens has a grander sense of scale. Scenes are bigger, unhampered by low budgets or green screens. The camera can move across enormous battles and the Star Wars universe feels bigger for it.

The Force Awakens feels different. That was natural, since Lucas isn’t calling the shots anymore. So there is more modern camera work, different techniques, more twists and turns in the storytelling. But it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Different doesn’t mean bad. This is still a Star Wars film.

“My ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.”

There’s a reason I’ve been quoting the original films throughout this review. They have a place on a pillar in my consciousness, seminal and influential and, yes, untouchable. Abrams et al realise this. The Force Awakens is their attempt to create something worthy of those films. It doesn’t always work; the plot has some holes as a direct result of that effort. But they use the original trilogy as an inspiration and a strength, and that lends strength to their film. I’ll never love The Force Awakens the way I love the original trilogy. But I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to love it in a very different way. And I will. It’s a worthy sequel, one I’ll watch again and again, and I’m already looking forward to Episode VIII.

The title screen for the game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Why Star Wars: Force Unleashed Deserves to Be Canon

I’m seeing a lot of retrospective reviews of the Star Wars films in the lead up to the release of The Force Awakens. Given that it isn’t a film, it’s not surprising The Force Unleashed isn’t being included. But it really ought to be part of the Star Wars canon, for one reason alone:

The Force Unleashed is the Vader story we were promised by the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas asserts that the Star Wars series is the story of Anakin Skywalker, his fall and his redemption. But the originals are Luke’s story, not Anakin’s. So whilst the prequels chart the fall, the originals don’t deliver on the promise of a similar tale of the redemption; that’s relegated to a plot twist in the final film. To tell Anakin’s story, we should have spent time with him in the darkness and seen him fight his way back to the light. Which is exactly the story of The Force Unleashed, albeit via a different character.

Set between the prequels and the originals, the video game focuses on Galen Marek, Vader’s secret apprentice. Taken by Vader as a child, Galen was raised in the Dark Side to be Vader’s assassin and his ally in overthrowing the Emperor. The Force Unleashed is Galen’s time mired in darkness and his journey to the light. A journey that is, perhaps, more interesting than Vader’s own.

The key to Vader’s redemption is the relationship between a father and son. When Sean Williams wrote the novelisation of The Force Unleashed, he focused on the relationship between a man and a woman. But the key to Galen’s redemption is, in fact, that same father/son relationship, only reversed. After all, Vader is more or less Galen’s adoptive father. But Vader displays no paternal warmth or regard for his charge. He treats Galen no better than a tool. And, despite a lifetime of anger, hate, disdain and misuse, Galen is still loyal to his master, or his father. Like a dog whose master kicks him, Galen might sometimes hates Vader, but he can never bite.

Vader inadvertently sets Galen on the path to the light by urging him to stoke a rebellion, to distract the Emperor so Vader can overthrow him. In doing so, Galen is forced to commit acts of heroism to attract his newfound rebels. He is exposed to decency and good. He is given agency and space to grow close to his pilot, Juno. All steps towards the light, and all the more interesting because it tears him between his new friends and his old master. Whereas we have to rely on Luke telling us he feels conflict in Vader, The Force Unleashed shows us how torn Galen is, how he struggles to reconcile his growing goodness with his habitual darkness. But that darkness can’t be broken by Galen’s friends or his love for Juno; it can only be broken by the man who nutured it.

Because, again, it’s Vader that pushes Galen into the light by betraying him for the final time. When Vader casts him aside, you can see the anguish, the confusion and the hurt in Galen’s face. He is abandoned. Lost. It’s a beautiful, tragic moment, sold by great acting. A moment in which a character can find light in his darkest moment. His Sith father has disowned him. But he is finally free to disown his old teachings. To become a Jedi.

The Force Unleashed also has some great supporting characters (like a droid programmed to kill Galen yet also keep him alive), plenty of tie-ins with existing canon (Princess Leia, the Clone Wars, the birth of the Rebellion), and the aforementioned superb performances from Sam Witwer as Galen and Matt Sloane as Vader. But even if it didn’t, giving us such a fantastic journey out of the Dark Side is enough to earn The Force Unleashed a place in the Star Wars canon.

Plus it’s a darned good game to boot.

The Force Awakens teaser has garnered a lot of excitement.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Trailer – Review

Let me get this out of the way; I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. I know it was only a teaser. But I was hoping for a little more than some disconnected images. What can I say? I love Star Wars and I’m greedy.

That said, I’ve watched it a few times now and I’m cautiously optimistic. It looks like some of my wishes for Star Wars Episode VII have been granted but, alas, not all of them. So how did I do?

Bring Back the Original Cast

Well, none of them are in the teaser. I think that’s a bit of a shame; it suggests they’ve only got minor roles, which I think misses some great opportunities.

That said, we got lots of original props: X-Wings, the Millenium Falcon, TIE fighters and stormtroopers. Great to see the latter; the Empire wouldn’t roll over and disappear the moment Palpatine was gone. And it’s always good to see the Falcon. But it’s been thirty years. While I love X-wings and TIE fighters, surely they’d have invented some new ships?

Don’t Rehash the Originals

I think this wish has been granted, if only for the stormtrooper without a helmet. You know someone deserves support in Star Wars if you can see their face, so I’m hoping this guy is our hero. A sympathetic stormtrooper is definitely new ground.

But that’s Tatooine, isn’t it? Why is this desert backwater so important to this universe?

Tell the Saga of the Skywalker Family

The teaser neither confirms nor rules this out, but something tells me neither of these new characters are related to Luke. Again, a shame, but understandable. The “episode” moniker is noticeably absent from the title, so I don’t think this is a trilogy. If you’re opening up the films Marvel-style then they can’t all be about Skywalker sprogs.

Make Use of Those Force Ghosts

Again, no sign. With Luke in a supporting role, I don’t think Abrams is going to bother. Except maybe for Yoda. Because it’s a Star Wars film and Yoda sells toys.

Lay Off the CGI

Partially granted. All the ships and the speeder look CG, but there were no evidence of green screens; those were real locations. Huzzah!

Don’t Resurrect the Sith

Well that was always a long shot. And what’s going on with that new lightsaber?

Have More Female Characters

Well we got two characters and one was female. And the other was black. So I’m claiming this one as granted. Yay for diversity!

Was the teaser strong in the Force? Or was it a polarised power coupling? Let me know in the comments!

IMG_3868.JPG

7 Wishes for Star Wars Episode VII

I think the Internet has been having a constant nerdgasm since Disney announced they were buying Lucasfilm and making a new Star Wars film. I can’t blame it, I’m right there too. I’ve been following the gossip and rumours and speculation with as much anticipation as I had in the run-up to The Phantom Menace.

I know. I never learn.

That said, I’m cautiously optimistic about the news. After all, Disney bought Marvel and the Avengers was my favourite film of the year. I reckon we’re in for a treat as long as Disney do seven things:

1. Bring back the original cast

Let’s face it, when we go to a sequel we want to see the characters we saw last time. We don’t want a new cast. So bring back Luke, Leia and Han. Give us a Luke still struggling with the change from Jedi Knight Errant to Jedi Master. Give us Leia crushed under bureaucracy and fighting to make sure her rebellion doesn’t dissolve into political nonsense. And give us a Han lost and fearing irrelevancy, not sure what to do on the right side of the law. Fertile ground for passing the torch into our new heroes!

2. Don’t rehash the originals

If you’ve not seen Prometheus, look away now because I’m about to spoil it. Seriously.

Prometheus is just a rehash of Alien. You’ve got the eggs/vases, facehuggers/oil snakes, xenomorphs and crazy robots ad nauseum. And while it may have been a financial success, it made for a poor film.

In the same vein, don’t use Luke as an Obi-Wan character only to kill him halfway through the film. Don’t have another superweapon. Don’t have the hero be a Jedi discovering his heritage. No secret family members. No Tatooine; we’ve seen enough of it. It’s a big galaxy with plenty of opportunity so let’s make the most of it.

And no incestuous kisses. Just no.

3. Tell the saga of the Skywalker family

This is how Lucas often described the story of Star Wars in the early days and I think it’s paramount to stick to this vision. The Prequel trilogy followed Anakin. The Original trilogy followed Luke. The Sequel trilogy should follow Luke’s kid. Retaining the Skywalker link will help keep the story cohesive despite the gap between films.

4. Make use of those Force ghosts

Speaking of links, get Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor and Frank Oz back and helping out from beyond the grave. Skywalker Jr. could probably do with their help. Plus there’s a lot of narrative potential in having those three watching their successors rebuild the universe they remember (and helped destroy).

5. Lay off the CGI

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a beautiful, sumptuous visual feast. And so much of it was built in real life. The Prequel trilogy, on the other hand, is already showing its age.

Build some sets for crying out loud.

6. Don’t resurrect the Sith

The Sith have been the villains for six films now and digging up some more will feel a little tired. Timothy Zahn proved you could create a great Star Wars story without Sith villains. His trilogy of books set after Return of the Jedi had Grand Admiral Thrawn as the foe; no Force, no lightsabers, but a brilliant foe nonetheless. Plus we’ve never actually seen what the hell a Jedi does when there isn’t a Sith to whale on.

7. Have more female characters

This one is a bit of a lie because I’d actually like to see Miss Skywalker Jr. but I know that won’t happen. But both trilogies have been replete with males and only one female. Let’s change that. If the lead has to be male (which the marketing department will demand) at least surround him with a variety of female characters (rather than the stock royalty with funny hair in silly clothes). And maybe a female Jedi or two might be nice for a change?

So those are my seven wishes and I think they could produce an excellent film. What do you think? Am I strong with the Force or bantha pudu? What would you like to see from Episode VII? Let me know in the comments.

And may the Force be with you.

Writing Lessons from George Lucas

Last week I mentioned the three last-minute books I bought before I embarked on No More Books 2012. But now I have a confession to make: I was lying.

There was one other book.

That book was Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

A friend of mine called this purchase the geekiest thing he had ever heard. And he’s a huge geek himself. But I don’t care. I love stuff like this, the behind-the-scenes of the writing. It’s a chance to see how other writers work, a chance to examine how they do things and to learn from them.

To prove it, here’s three things I’ve learnt from the geekiest purchase ever.

Steal From Other Stories If Need Be

“I have a bad feeling about this”, a line which ended up in every Star Wars film, was originally in the script for Indiana Jones. But Lucas felt it would work better in Star Wars, so he took it out of Indiana Jones’ mouth and placed it in Luke Skywalker’s. If you’ve an idea that would work great in one project but you originally envisaged it in another, don’t protect one and hurt both. You need to make this current project as strong as it can be.

Remove Characters With Nothing To Do

In earlier drafts, Lucas didn’t kill Obi-Wan. But he found he was making no contribution to the film after the escape from the Death Star. Alec Guinness was going to be very expensive set dressing. So he killed him off.

If a character is a good one, killing them off should feel like a loss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the story. Sometimes it’s a gain.

Don’t Be Precious; Change Whatever You Need to Make It Work

Lucas’ first treatment was radically different to the final film. About the only things that remain from treatment to screen are an empire, a rebellion, a force and a few names. Luke Skywalker was Annikin Starkiller. Obi-wan was after a Kiber crystal. Darth Vader was a bit part.

No writer should be afraid of the red pen, even if it causes the end result to be almost unrecognisable from the first plot outline. If it’s making things better, it can only be a good thing.

(Bonus Lesson: If you’re tempted to create a Jar Jar Binks? Don’t.)

Find out if I learned these lessons by downloading a free copy of my debut novel, The Fey Man!

Let Go, Luke: Should Creators Relinquish Their Art?

This month sees the first rerelease of the Star Wars Saga in 3D. Once again, George Lucas gets his sticky fingers on a new technology and shoehorns it into films he made in the 1970s. These changes are a constant source of nerdy controversy. Fans are angry because the films they love are being changed. Lucas contends that they are his films and he can do with them as he pleases.

But who’s right? Who does art belong to? The creator or the audience?

This isn’t a new question for writers and readers but it’s been academic until now. Ebooks are easy to change. All you need do is upload a new version and poof, the old one is gone. Just like Star Wars, the only book available is the new one, and the only old versions left are those that have already been downloaded.

This may not sound so bad, but I recently tweeted about Ray Bradbury’s argument with some students over the meaning of Fahrenheit 451. He thought it was about the dangers of television, they thought it was about censorship. They weren’t wrong; by making the book publicly available, Bradbury had invited the world to interpret it however they liked. But what if Bradbury had rewritten the book to make his intention more overt and made it the only edition available?

A classic would be gone and something else would be in its place. I don’t think anyone would argue that would have been a good thing. The audience would not have been free to take ownership of the work, to interpret it and love it in their own way. Bradbury would have been dictating how they interacted with his work, constantly recreating it to prevent any opinion of it with which he didn’t agree.

Should creators become curators of their art and allow the audience to take it for themselves? Or, like Lucas, should creators be free to endlessly revise their work to bring it as close to their vision as possible?

Update: I’ve been made aware of R. T. Kaelin, who substantially rewrote his self-published book in an effort to get a traditional publishing deal. Now that Amanda Hocking has made the jump from self- to traditional publishing, I think we can expect to see a lot of people attempting to follow in her wake and with that see a lot of rewritten books. Is this an acceptable path to traditional publication, or should a published book be left alone?