Star Wars: Choices of One by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars: Choices of One by Timothy Zahn

It’s no secret at this point that I am of the opinion that Zahn writes better Star Wars than the original creators. I’ve found, though, that his Star Wars books written after that original trilogy are a bit of a mixed bag.

With Choices of One (I actually have no idea what the title means and the cover art is possibly the most hideous thing I have ever seen) Zahn tells a story set a few years or months after the events of A New Hope. Luke Skywalker is a little bit incompetent when it comes to anything other than piloting a fighter and Han is struggling to find his place in the Alliance.

Where most of my problems with this book come from are bound up in the fact that Zahn tried to use many of his own favorite characters but he has used them too much. Thrawn, in the original trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn, was only tenuously believable as a tactical genius because of the strength of Zahn’s writing and his talent for surprises (also the deft weave of Thrawn usually being eight moves ahead but sometimes the good guys surprise him anyways). With successive books Zahn keeps bringing back his characters and making them more and more awesome until they seem to have no checks to hold them back. Thrown becomes almost a cartoon super genius, Mara Jade — possibly the best addition to the Star Wars cannon ever— becomes an ultra competent, compassionate personal assassin for the emperor.

The problem is that it all becomes so unbelievable. Thrawn is so capable that it is cartoonish and the Mara we see in this book who bats blasters away with a lightsaber and uses the Force to pull amazing stunts and brilliant covert operations is hardly the Mara from the books that take place nearly ten years later who has to be instructed by Luke on using a lightsaber before approaching C’baoth.

Thrawn is fiercely loyal to the Emperor simply because he believes in the efficacy of supreme rule and dictatorship — which is fine, if not for the problem of the Emperor’s extreme prejudice for any non-human species. Does this not bother Thrawn at all that, although an exception is made for him there is no guarantee that the rest of his people will be treated as anything less than slaves?

Because of the early setting Luke is forced to spend most of the book sitting and waiting for other people to do things. He’s not given an opportunity to pilot anything, which at this point is his only real skill. He carries his lightsaber around and thinks about using it a few times but knows he has no skill. Han and Leia are at their usual best diving into the action and generally getting into the thick of things, though their plot trail is mostly a dead end that could be left out completely without changing the story too much.

That’s because they are only here for the set dressing. People want to see our trio of Star Wars heroes. So here they are. The real story being told here is the one of a troop of former stormtroopers who deserted form the Empire because they didn’t like the cruelty and oppression and corruption that they saw there. This is their adventure and the rest of these characters are along for the ride.

The other biggest problem with this book is the fact that we basically have Luke and Mara on the same mission but they can’t ever meet because they don’t know each other until years later. This led to some really contrived situations that mostly amounted to Luke sitting back and waiting to see what other people are going to do before he takes action while Mara charges in and takes care of business.

Those complaints aside, this book is full of surprises in usual Zahn fashion. Nothing is ever as it appears and I was genuinely surprised at a few points in the story. The action scenes are clear and concise and Zahn tells a fun story that has little impact on the characters involved.

If you have too much to read you could probably skip this one. It’s far from the worst Star Wars has to offer, though.

Film – Play-Doh

Play-DohJust look at the dynamic range of this photograph. I could not take this picture with a digital camera, not even with HDR enabled cameras like the iPhone has. The inside is dim and the outside is bright and with my digital camera I have to choose which one I want to see.

I am constantly amazed at the quality of image that photons bombarding chemical deposits on a plastic film can produce.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

I honestly think this is the best book I have read in the last year, if not longer.

My initial reactions on hearing about Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive was mostly dread. There was talk about a world ravaged by huge storms — which sounded uninteresting — and inhabited mostly by crustaceans — which sounded creepy — and had thirty (yes 30) magic systems… which frankly sounded exhausting. I thought for sure it was more than I wanted to chew on.

I finally got around to reading The Way of Kings last year and was completely overcome at the strength of the story being told. All of the things I mentioned about the series are true but in Sanderson’s hands they become a thing of beauty.

He deftly wove a story about characters struggling to survive in the face of grinding oppression into a narrative that started us on the path to discovering this fantastic world.

With that kind of beginning for the series I felt like hopes would be too high, anticipation too poignant for the second book to succeed. When the first book is as complex, emotional and fascinating as The Way of Kings was it leaves readers expecting something even better in the followup.

I have to say that Sanderson has me hooked with Words of Radiance. If The Way of Kings was one of the best series openings I’ve ever read then Words of Radiance is by far the best second novel… which might not sound like much, second novels are notorious for being disappointing. Words of Radiance is not only not disappointing it’s leaps better than it’s predecessor.

Sanderson has grown as a writer by leaps and bounds so that each book leaves me breathless. I do not love every Sanderson book but I’ve never been disappointed.

Words or Radiance is noted for a lot of the things that it does right. Sanderson has said that this series is intended to be ten books long. With that in mind a reader could be forgiven for thinking the series plot will develop incrementally in each book, after all it has to stretch over ten books. However, that is not the case. Sanderson has a tune to play and he hits the notes one after the other with perfect pitch.

If you were hoping for some rest for the characters of Way of Kings after the conclusion to that book then watch out. The resting doesn’t last long. Sanderson plunges Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar and Adolin into the crucible that is their world and makes them question their morals and choices in ever increasing emotional arcs.Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

About two thirds of the way through the book I almost put it down, not because it was bad but because I could see what was to come and I didn’t want it. I went into denial. I started thinking about going back to reading Star Wars books because at least those always end happy… I came back to it after just a few minutes, though, because this is a book that begs to be read… to be finished.

Sanderson writes with a message of resounding hope, throughout all his novels but what I find fascinating is the depths to which he can take his characters while still maintaining that overall feeling of hope. These are characters struggling with depression, post-traumatic-stress, trauma induced amnesia, and living in a caste system that systematically beats some people down and trods them into the mud while elevating others upon the backs of the trodden — because of the color of their eyes. In short, every character in these books is broken in some way, emotionally, mentally, even morally. But through all the darkness and despair and very real depression there is hope. That one thing is probably what keeps me coming back to him over and over. As dark as things get they never get gritty or gratuitously violent.

Words of Radiance acts as both a trickle and a torrent of information. We learn only a little about the magic  and the history of the world but the plot jumps past events that I was expecting to wait five or six (or maybe ten) books to see. This works brilliantly. The revelations about the magic systems seem organic and leave a great deal of mystery about what is possible while the plot plunges on ahead and carries us away.

Words of Radiance felt like a book written just for me. I can count on one hand the number of books that I have invested in enough that I genuinely missed the characters when the books were over — the first of these was The Lord of the Rings during the summer between fourth and fifth grade, when the books were over I wanted to cry because I couldn’t spend any more time with them (if Tolkien had written books about Sam being mayor and playing with his kids I would have read them). Even fewer are the books that have gripped me so hard that they left me emotionally affected for days after. Like I said earlier parts of this book were so intense that I had to walk away, even if only for a few moments. For me this is one of the best books I have ever read.

Now let me add a caveat and what is probably the only point of criticism I have for the book. This book is really long. It’s longer than the Old Testament. That is part of the reason I love it so much, it’s written like a huge omnibus of three other books with climaxes happening throughout until the major ending. The length allows Sanderson to take his characters through arcs that are not possible with shorter works, and to build the world slowly and introduce the readers to a place that is at least as complex as our world and far more strange. However, it also means that it is over one thousand pages long… in hardback. Which means that if reading something long makes you want to cry or faint or run away screaming or roll your eyes then perhaps this book is not written for you (the audiobook is 48 hours long).

However, if you love an epic story with characters that you can really get to know and become intimately acquainted with. If you love watching emotionally broken people try to heal and face the truths that they have buried so deeply in their psyches that they don’t even know they are there. If you love a really good story about really good people facing something terrifying and unimaginably powerful then this book is for you…

…but you should really start with the first book.

Film – Construction

ConstructionThis picture might be amusing no matter what format it was taken on but taken in film makes it feel that much more contrasting to me. I really like the themes going on in this picture. There is the homage to the past with the elderly gentleman and the black and white image and right next to it is a TIE fighter made of legos and under construction. It’s like the old and the new side by side.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

The King Must Die by Mary RenaultMary Renault is probably one of the finest crafters of prose on this planet. Her writing reminds me very much of Ursula LeGuin. The King Must Die is a meticulously researched and astoundingly accurate historical telling of the Theseus myth using real world history and realistic extrapolations. It is brilliantly told and exquisitely written. The story is put together so beautifully that there are few, if any cracks.

I just didn’t love it.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what I didn’t like about it ever since I realized I didn’t care for it.

I think it just isn’t my thing. I was excited to read a story about a Greek mythological figure, one told form a historical standpoint — trying to provide realistic bases for the legends that arose around the character. Mary Renault did all of those things and with fantastic style but it was somehow less than I imagined. I had to drag myself through the pages and what appeared to be a short book took me far too long to get through.

I don’t have any real criticism of this book. I suspect if you start reading it you will know rather quickly whether or not you are going to like it.

Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic by Howard Tayler

The Body Politic by Howard TaylerThe Body Politic is a master class in how things can go terribly wrong even when they are going even better than planned. Captain Tagon and his group of mercenaries attempt to play several entities against each other in order to get paid twice for the same job. Then it moves to three times, and then to four. Serendipity seems to be on their side when his schemes work out over and over.

However there are puppet masters pulling the strings behind the curtains and maybe it would be better if things didn’t just fall in your lap.

I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand the story is much tighter than some of the other Schlock Mercenary stories — this is an artifact of Howard Tayler learning form experience how to tell a story — on the other hand it ties up too tidy and nice at the end. Just when things start to feel like the story is about to explode into violence and action it gets resolved much more neatly than I would have expected.

I still had fun reading it. The humor is great. The artwork is passable — I don’t read comics for the art — I read them for the entertainment. I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I have others but I would still recommend it. Or if you don’t want to read this one then jump in wherever.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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