Spoiler Free: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams
The time for the first of my Spoiler Free reviews of Star Wars: The Old Republic is here. If you’re like me and hear “spoilers” and run as far away as possible, or even if you just need something to hold you over for another few days, you can finally find out what Sean Williams’s Fatal Alliance is like.
This is a special edition of Spoiler Free, in that there will actually be spoilers available! This review will be posted in two parts- the spoiler free review, in which I analyze the book without any regard to the plot, and the spoilers, which will include the plot summary, my reaction to specific points, and other spoiler-filled details.
The Hutts are doing their best to stay one step ahead of the game when it comes to information in the war-like atmosphere of the galaxy- information, and credits. When a Jedi Knight, a Trooper, an Imperial Agent and a Sith Warrior travel to Nal Hutta under the orders of a Jedi Consular and a Sith Inquisitor, in part thanks to their encounters with a powerful Bounty Hunter to uncover the findings of a Smuggler, you have the makings of a The Old Republic play session and a whole lot of action going on, with everybody after the same prize.
First of all, I want you to take a look at the blurb above. Take a good look at how many characters. As I believe Corax pointed out in his review, all eight starting classes of TOR feature in the Dramatis Personae of this novel. Yes, it’s near a 400-page novel, but I can’t think of any of the absolute best Star Wars authors that have written a story with eight main characters, and Sean Williams has not exactly had an impeccable track record, either. I still do not believe he was trying his hardest when he wrote The Force Unleashed, but just because he didn’t put his all into one novel doesn’t mean that when he really applies himself he will suddenly rise from third-stringer to M.V.P.
To balance this, the characters fall into a few categories. There are two clear heroes, and they pretty much share a plot. There is a clear anti-hero and another character who, if he was more interesting, might be as well, and each of these have their own section of plot. There is an antagonist, if not quite a villain, who does not have his own Point of View scenes but features pretty prominently on his own. The remaining three characters fall into the role of supporting characters, each with sufficient relevance to maintain their D.P. listing. Speaking of the listing, there’s just something about these names- Jet Nebula, the Toy Story dropout, Eldon Ax, the Tolkien-Applegate collabo, Shigar Konshi, the samurai warrior- it’s like they’re almost Star Wars names, but not quite. Something’s off. It’s almost like they were created by casual fans, trying to create something, something…
Emperor’s black bones, these aren’t Star Wars characters at all! They’re- they’re MMO players!
It is pretty clear that this novel is designed specifically to showcase each class for potential players of The Old Republic. Let’s take a look, then, at what Del Rey and LucasBooks will have to do in this novel to succeed at this. To show potential players everything they need to know to get excited about this game, they must show off special features (not all, but at least one combination) of each class. On top of that, they need to show off a similar amount of the gear they’ve been doing their best to get us excited about. They may show off some of the character or planet stories, but that’s not necessarily needed- not in a prequel, especially. Finally, if they wish to avoid alienating fans of a specific class, every character must survive the novel with their loyalties intact. A story about a Sith Apprentice that defects to the Jedi is all well and good, but not for a fan reading this novel to see if their dream of playing a Sith Inquisitor is something they want to spend subscription money on.
Which brings us to the counter points: the themes of a Star Wars novel. Redemption and sacrifice, the antitheses of the last point I mentioned above. No potential player wants to hear that they must sacrifice their character to reach the end of the game’s story any more than they want to be forced to change sides. This counteracts the necessary points, just as the rules of an engaging novel tell you that a novel with eight characters on the Dramatis Personae and several main Points of View, you need a main character to die or go through a major change. Imagine a Final Fantasy VII novelization, that someone avoided the game-changing events of Disc One in order to preserve the Healer demographic. You’re shaking your fists and lighting up your red sabers right now, right? Let’s see if the author avoids this issue.
The book doesn’t take long to get going. A lot of novels with only one or two characters suffer from this, but like an MMO, Fatal Alliance is crowded enough that a weak start would have killed it. Seriously, imagine reading eight weak beginnings before anything got going. This novel would never have gotten off the ground. That’s not the weakness here, which is why it took me a few chapters before I started thinking, “I’ve heard such good things about the new author writing the TOR novels. Why am I not blown away by this book?” I mulled it over for a bit, but in the end I had to flip to the front cover to figure it out. Oh, this isn’t the new author- it Sean Williams again. Way to dampen my spirits. Actually, in that light, this book is pretty good. It’s sort of like how in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Ron claims that Crabbe and Goyle’s avoidance of a “Troll” (Failing) score should automatically have earned them “Exceeds Expectations” (similar to a B) on their exams, except not quite as severe. It’s basically an average Star Wars book, which is a high commendation indeed.
That isn’t to say that the book doesn’t suffer from its own flaws. It’s crowded, and takes just a bit too long to return to each plot. It deals with concurrent plots better than the herky jerky movements of Death Star, for example, but it has the long, stretched out feeling of Allies (I really do beat on Allies, don’t I?). The best (or worst, take your pick) example of this is when one Point of View runs so long that the next POV picks up several hours beforehand- with no warning. You run into things that have changed, but it’s up to the reader to discern whether this occurs before or after the events of the last POV. This, and the way some facts are dropped between Points of View, can make the novel feel disjointed at times, almost as though it were written by multiple authors. Speaking of disjointed, I feel the same sort of uncertainty in this novel that I do in the rest of the material about this era. Half the time, it feels like I’m reading a Clone Wars novel, with an omni-front war being fought just off-screen. The other half of the time, I seem to be reading about the American-Soviet Cold War (which is a fitting metaphor, considering that the ten years before this novel is known as the Cold War in-universe).
Most of these flaws, it seems, are specific to the first part of the book. Yes, this is one of those- it’s a video game book, are you surprised? The book that the blurbs advertise is succinctly wrapped up at the end of Act I, bringing us on to the next part.
What can I say about Act II? Well, it’s smoother. There are less Point of View jumps, mainly because more characters interact with one another, their objectives are more similar, and they spend more time together. This is also where an entirely new set of flaws comes into play. It’s amazing how even the most cliched action plots can require so much of a building action that they start to drag. Actually, this shouldn’t surprise me- the reason why Star Wars: A New Hope will always remain my third favorite film is the amount of building time that Act III requires.
And when I say cliched plots, I mean it. Everything gets thrown into mix here. We need Star Wars themes, we need video game advertisements, we need to follow every single character’s personal story to a greater extent than any player of the game will ever be able to accomplish. It does get a little choppy here, but I think the pacing is an improvement over some of the stretches of the first Part. There is an issue with questions being raised that are never answered, but in all fairness, that’s the fan in me SCREAMING AT THE AUTHORS WHO NEVER GIVE US A CRUMB WHY WON’T YOU TELL ME EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED THAT THE CHARACTERS DON’T KNOW? SERIOUSLY!!! Honestly, these are things that would only have satisfied that part of my brain, that weren’t really needed in the story and would probably have resulted in tedious backstory of the sort that this novel is remarkably free from. It leaves these characters some open-ness, something that exploits the imagination of a role-player and leaves opportunities for the characters and locations to return in The Old Republic. That’s not to say that there is no backstory present here, there is, but it is just enough. I was left wanting more, but not demanding it. Well, really, I was left demanding another book… or another six?
Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of Del Rey