Shadows of the Empire
by Steve Perry
Bantam Spectra ©1997. 385 pages (paper). Hardcover edition © 1996.
Last summer, after reading a number of serious, scholarly works on deep subjects such as theology, I was looking for some light reading. I settled on Shadows of the Empire, a best-selling Star Wars novel that had recently appeared in paperback. I was not disappointed. Shadows of the Empire is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the familiar science-fantasy universe of George Lucas.
It had been a long time since I had read a Star Wars novel. About a decade ago, I read Splinter of the Mind's Eye, only to be annoyed by what I considered continuity glitches when Return of the Jedi was released. In that novel, for instance, the budding romance between Luke and Leia continues to develop, but in the final movie of the trilogy, we learn that Luke and Leia are siblings. Apparently Lucas had not yet finalized his storyline when that novel was written. I became suspicious of the novels, always wondering if they truly reflected the official Star Wars plotline.
Shadows of the Empire, though, promised to be different. It was set in a very specific time frame, between the end of The Empire Strikes Back and the beginning of Return of the Jedi, and was written long after both films were made--and specifically as a bridge between them. Hence it was firmly anchored in a well-established continuity, not flapping about vaguely. Moreover, Shadows of the Empire was released (first as a video game, then as a lavish "The Making of . . ." book, finally as a novel) amid considerable fanfare. It seemed to have George Lucas's attention. It was not likely to lead me astray.
Author Steve Perry obviously paid very close attention to the films that anchor his book. Far from being just one more money-maker in the immensely lucrative Star Wars product line, Shadows of the Empire actually contributes to the story told in the movies. In this novel we learn many things that become important in Return of the Jedi: how Luke continues his training in the ways of the Force, how Leia comes by the bounty hunter garb she wears in the movie's opening scene, and why a thermal detonator causes such alarm among Jabba the Hut's cronies. If you had become accustomed to thinking of thermal detonators as just high-tech hand grenades (a notion reinforced in the LucasArts computer game Dark Forces ), think again. After seeing what just one of them can do, I was forced to admit grudging respect for Jabba's cool.
One of my favorite things about this novel is its treatment of Force abilities, which we often get to experience along with the wielder. When Luke uses the Force to maintain his balance on a tightrope, for example, the rope seems as wide as a normal pathway to him. He sees the moves of a blindingly fast opponent in slow motion when he trusts the Force, and his light saber twitches in his hand as if of its own accord to block an incoming blaster bolt. Perhaps even more fascinating are Darth Vader's unsuccessful attempts to heal his withered lungs with the energies of the Dark Side, and his harrowing method of maintaining his skills and blowing off steam--light saber combat with his murderous dueling droids. Though stronger and faster than human beings, the droids don't stand a chance.
Speaking of Vader, readers will have the chance to see him in unusual circumstances--for most of the novel, Vader is on the defensive. His opponent? Not Luke but the oily Prince Xizor, head of the interstellar criminal enterprise known as the Black Sun. Xizor is nursing an old grudge against Vader, a grudge of which Vader is unaware. Meanwhile, the Emperor is content to play his two powerful lieutenants off one another, using each to his own advantage. Perry depicts Vader as primarily a man of action, a superb fighter pilot and deadly swordsman, someone who has of necessity learned to play the political games of the Imperial court, but does so without relish. The arrogant, calculating, reptilian Xizor, on the other hand, is the consumate game-player and manipulator, and often seems to have the upper hand. Because Xizor is so thoroughly unpleasant, I found myself in the odd position of rooting for Vader, the villian I love to hate.
This would not be an authentic Steve Solomon review if I didn't find a thing or two to criticize, so here goes: First of all, everyone in the Star Wars universe must be in a terrible hurry, because no one seems to have time to pronounce the full names of things. In one of the earlier novels, I recall that the term "navigational computer" had been shortened, not to the sensible "navicomputer," but to the inelegant "nav 'puter." Similarly, in Shadows of the Empire we learn that people don't go to the bathroom, they use the "refresher"--annoyingly shortened to " 'fresher." "Wookie" is only two syllables, but someone insists on referring to Chewbacca as a "Wook."
Speaking of Chewbacca, Perry has coined an irritating neologism--harn--which seems to refer to the Wookie's characteristic howl. In this novel, Chewie is constantly "harning" his disapproval, concern, and so on. Given that most of Perry's readers probably don't speak German, it is perhaps an unfair criticism to note that Harn in that language means "urine." I'll leave the images that association conjures up to your imagination.
A more substantial criticism concerns some rather graphic violence. Criticizing violence in a Star Wars story may seem odd, given the huge amount of mayhem in the films--countless blaster bolts, gigantic explosions, vicious light saber duels--but there is something chillingly "up close and personal" about at least one scene in this novel: After besting an opponent in hand-to-hand combat, one of Xizor's operatives puts a blaster pistol to the helpless victim's eye and fires to make certain he is dead. Although Perry spares us any description of the gory aftermath, I found this scene rather shocking. Star Wars, after all, is supposed to be family entertainment.
Another criticism concerns sex. Sex in Star Wars? The closest we get to sex in the films is a passionate kiss between Han and Leia, and the sexiest costume is the bronze bikini Jabba forces Leia to wear. In Shadows of the Empire, however, we see Leia in the throes of passion, on the very brink of stripping naked to have intercourse with someone she hardly knows. This scene is not gratuitous; there is a very good, plot-related reason for it. Moreover, this degree of sexual content is regularly equalled in soap operas and surpassed in movies, so why is this an issue? Once again, this is Star Wars. Like the blaster bolt in the eye, this frank a treatment of sexuality just seems somewhat out of place. Similarly, we learn that Xizor has on occasion ordered a droid he owns, which has been designed to be indistinguishable from an attractive young human woman, to have sex with him. This sort of behavior is entirely in keeping with Xizor's unscrupulous and hedonistic character, but the inclusion of this bit of information seems to cross the line drawn in the Star Wars films: hint at seediness without actually depicting it. One glance around the Mos Eisley cantina is sufficient to convince us that Ben Kenobi's remark about "scum and villainy" is on the mark; there's no need to depict the scum and villains in detail.
Still, all in all I can recommend Shadows of the Empire as a solid and satisfying addition to the Star Wars storyline. Perry is a good writer who knows his material, provides insights into his characters, and delivers plenty of action. Star Wars fans should feel right at home in Perry's universe.
Written January 25, 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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