Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Book Review: Swords in the Mist

Book cover for Swords in the MistThis one starts out well, is muddled in the middle, and then ends a bit disappointingly.

"Cloud of Hate" opens this collection. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are hanging out on guard duty for a benevolent patron when a malevolent fog rolls in. It seems that an enemy of the patron has invoked the god of Hate to murder said patron. Leiber switches back and forth from our heroes arguing over their financial predicament to the Cloud of Hate as it flows through the city, recruiting dangerous men for its violent task. Leiber excels here, juxtapositioning the witty exchange between our heroes with the visceral violence of the malevolent deity.

"Lean Times in Lankhmar" follows. While Fafhrd and Mouser are not strangers to bickering and arguing, it is a rare instance when the two let it overwhelm their friendship. In this story the two part ways. Mouser goes to work for a crime lord while Fafhrd forswears all of his indulgences and takes up a life of religious poverty, working as an acolyte for the sole priest of Issek of the Jug, a very minor god in Lankhmar (There's a bit explaining the difference betweens gods in Lankhmar and gods of Lankhmar). Mouser's boss gets a sizable chunk of his revenue via the protection racket. And as the religions in Lankhmar grow in popularity, so does his interest. Ultimately, Mouser is forced to target Fafhrd's newfound religion to exact tribute. This is another great one for Leiber. He crafts an excellent piece from start to finish.

But then the rest of the stories decline in quality.

"Their Mistress, the Sea" picks up right where "Lean Times..." leaves off. Herein it serves as a bridge to the next story. It's not really a story at all, just Leiber telling us what happened between stories.

"When the Sea-King's Away" is an odd tale. Fafhrd and Mouser hit a doldrum in the sea. No wind, no currents. They're stuck. Overnight, a hole in the ocean has appeared. Fafhrd wants to explore it in hopes of finding treasure and mermaids. Mouser is too nervous about drowning when the magic that holds the hole open collapses. Mouser stays on the boat while Fafhrd climbs down a rope to the bottom.

While there was some intriguing mystery, the storytelling dragged. The story is primarily told from Mouser's POV, and since he stayed on the boat, much of it is him fretting about his friend. When he does finally decide to follow Fafhrd, it's a little dull. There were some intriguing details, and I felt that maybe Leiber was trying to channel Lovecraft (He was a fan), but there just wasn't enough splendor amidst the muck. "The Sunken Land," which can be found in Swords Against Death was a far better usage of Lovecraftian elements and the sea.

"The Wrong Branch" is like "Their Mistress..." in that it serves as a bridge to the next big story. Leiber tells us what happened to our heroes as they sailed in a roundabout way across the sea back to Lankhmar, seeking out Ningauble of the Seven Eyes for help with their bad luck.

In "Adept's Gambit," Fafhrd and Mouser leave the world of Lankhmar and find themselves on Earth in Medieval times. Finding themselves cursed, the duo seek help from Ningauble in lifting the curse, which takes the rest of the story. Discovering their curse was humorous, at first, but then got tiring. The exchange with Ninguable restored the humor, but the quest to lift the curse went on for far too long. The antagonist was annoying, his story told by his sister. The story that was told smacked of Lovecraft in both style and substance. Now, I'm a fan of Lovecraft. When he had a character go off on a long-winded tale-telling, there was a payoff at the end that made it all worth it. What Leiber gave us lacked that. After building up to the climax, it fell flat.

Average of stories presented: 3 stars


Sunday, October 1, 2023

Book Review: The Ophiuchi Hotline

original cover for The Ophiuchi Hotline drawn by Boris Vallejo courtesty of WikipediaAfter supremely advanced aliens invade Earth to liberate the planet's intelligent species—whales and dolphins—the majority of humankind is exiled into space, where, by means of bioengineering, they begin to adapt to and thrive in their unforgiving environments. Cutting-edge tech means that they can modify body parts, regularly store their memories for cloning purposes and even merge with seemingly benevolent alien beings (known as symbs) to create another entity altogether. The discovery of a steady—and mostly indecipherable—stream of data originating from a star system 17 light-years away offers some kind of hope of advancing the species and retaking the homeworld. But when the novel's protagonist (a series of successive clones named Lilo) travels out to 70 Ophiuchi, what she finds may not be salvation for the human species but its damnation.

Besides the Gaea trilogy, Varley's other big series is the Eight Worlds saga. But it's really two different series, parallel universes that share the same technologies (memory recording, cloning, genetic engineering, sex changes, null fields) and meta plot elements. The latter being that highly advanced aliens have invaded Earth to save cetaceans from humans by dismantling all of our infrastructure overnight.

The first series consists of several short stories, novelettes, and the novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline. The second series consists of his "metals trilogy": Steel Beach, The Golden Globes, and Irontown Blues.

While it might seem like The Ophiuchi Hotline is the first story in the series, it's actually the last; the short stories actually precede it. Anyway, hundreds of years have passed since the invasion, and humanity is doing fine, scattered throughout the solar system. There are some Free Earthers who think that the time is right to attack the Invaders and reclaim Earth. It's a misguided plan, but humans and hubris...

Our protagonist is Lilo, a successful bioengineer who's been condemned to permanently die for crossing a line with her work. Permanent death means that all her memory and personality files get deleted and her clones dissolved. Normally, death is just a reboot from your last save, thus enabling people to live for centuries just by getting downloaded into a new clone body. Boss Tweed, leader of the Free Earthers and former prison warden, keeps her alive (and many others) as his slave, forced to help find a way to find a weapon to use against the Invaders.

The Hotline? Oh that doesn't become a plot point until midway through the book. The first half is primarily about Lilo trying to escape. Eventually there are three Lilos—as seen on the cover—each with her own storyline. At first it was a bit confusing trying to figure out if we were still on the same version of Lilo or if we'd moved on to another one. Ultimately, we figure it out, and we're able to follow their storylines to their conclusions.

For such a small book (180 pages), it seems to have quite a bit of filler. Varley wanders off on tangents for things—like fashion on Pluto—that seemed to have been added to hit the reader with "weirdness from the future!" World-building? I guess.

While I'll give him credit for the being the earliest author I've read where gender is a spectrum, sex is typically passionless, boring. It's put on the same level as playing cards with the neighbors on a Saturday night. Just something to do. I'm getting the feeling that's where authors in the 70s thought we were headed. In future work, Varley does a better job.

Oh yeah, that Hotline stuff. Well, it wasn't really important or impressive. Varley amazes us throughout the novel with all these incredible technologies ("Far out, man. I can grow bacon on a tree."), the advance aliens use a film projector to show a video to Lilo. Yeah, film. On demand sex changes and all kinds of body modifications, but he still has people centuries from now using film.

This is very much a first novel. Fortunately, having read his later works before this one, I know that Varley gets better. His novels become more cohesive, the storylines become easier to follow, and characters become richer. Hell, even the sex gets better. I think I need to swear off 70s sci-fi. I think the authors and the editors were all a bit too caught up in the times.

2.5 stars


Thursday, August 31, 2023

Book Review: A Memory Called Empire

book cover for A Memory Called EmpireAmbassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn't an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her station from Teixcalaan's unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

From the onset of A Memory Called Empire, intrigue piqued my curiosity. How did the Lsel Station ambassador die? And what is so terrible about the Teixalaanli Empire that a Councilor on the station longs for a potentially even more dangerous foe to step out of the shadows? And it continues throughout the story, answers leading to more questions, until the underlying issues of the moment are resolved at the end.

Mahit made for a good protagonist. I rooted for her and her budding cadre of allies as she sought out the answers to the questions that were linked to her survival and those of her home, Lsel Station. I liked her even though I didn't share her love for Teixcalaanli culture. That's not to say it wasn't interesting. The importance of poetry in their society from top to bottom (competitions at parties!) was intriguing without being too literary. Their naming conventions (a number coupled with an physical object) struck me as unique. And Mahit's need to point out the differences between her culture and Teixcalaanli, from facial expressions to vocal manners, revealed such subtle differences that I couldn't help but wonder if Martine was trying to draw Earthly comparisons. Anyway, I enjoyed Martine's world-building.

Action was limited, but the threat of violence was always present. In seeking answers into the death of her predecessor, she stuck her nose into places where it wasn't welcome. Were it not for the setting, one could easy mistake this story for a political thriller.

One element that made the book even better was the humor, dry as it was. In one instance, Mahit is attending a party for government functionaries where there was a poetry competition. Her liaison, Three Seagress, approaches her.
    "Are you going to finish the drink?" asked Three Seagrass when the noise had died away.
    "Yes. Why?"
    "Because I am going to have to talk about Fourteen Spire's use of assonance for the rest of the evening, and you're going to have to listen, and we should both be slightly more inebriated."
    "Oh," said Mahit. "When you put it like that..."

Mahit and Three Seagrass develop a friendship, but overhanging their relationship the whole time is the spectre of colonialism. Teixcalaanli citizens are taught to view everyone outside their borders as "barbarians", no matter their level of civilization. As Teixcalaan-phile Mahit constantly seeks out acceptance and camraderie among her contacts, she occasionally crashes into a wall that reminds her of this fact: She will never obtain what she seeks.

I really enjoyed this book. There was engaging world-building, dashes of humor, and enough intrigue and tension to ignore the lack of action. Looking forward to reading the next book.

4.5 stars


Friday, June 23, 2023

Book Review: Fugitive Telemetry

book cover for Fugitive TelemetryThere's been a murder on Preservation Station and Murderbot has been called in to solve the case!


Ok, so yeah, the murder happened, but our favorite SecBot is actually a suspect at the start of the investigation. But as Murderbot puts it:

No, I didn't kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn't dump the body in the station mall, for fuck's sake.

You can almost hear the eyeroll.

Murderbot is interested in the case as it wants to rule out that the murder was related to GrayCris, the nefarious corporation out to eliminate Murderbot's favorite human, Dr. Mensah. She recognizes that this is an opportunity for Murderbot to improve its relationship with Station Security. After Murderbot provides an alibi that Station Security accepts, it works with them to track down the suspect because murders just don't happen on Preservation Station.

The full station threat assessment for murder was at a baseline 7 percent. (To make it drop lower than that we'd have to be on an uninhabited planet.)

Station Security is still leery of Murderbot as it's a SecBot, which avid readers of this series know is a Security Robot, a machine capable of lethal violence second only to Combat Robots. Its chief also doubts Murderbot's investigative skills.

    "Yes, I've had experience with investigating suspicious fatalities in controlled circumstances."
    Indah's gaze wasn't exactly skeptical. "What controlled circumstances?"
    I said, "Isolated work installations."
    Her expression turned even more grim. "Corporate slave labor camps."
    I said, "Yes, but if we call them that, Marketing and Branding gets angry and we get a power surge through our brains that fries little pieces of our neural tissue."

Of course, Murderbot is leery of Station Security as well, since, you know, they're humans. And getting along with humans is not something Murderbot was programmed for.

I didn't make an expression because I knew Indah would be more annoyed by me not reacting than by me reacting.

But Murderbot and the Station Security personnel try to make the most of a situation that neither side wants to be involved with to solve the case.

Fugitive Telemetry is another solid entry in a fantastic series. However, I don't expect a series of cozy mysteries involving Murderbot to become a thing. ;-)

4 stars


Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Book Review: The Light Brigade

book cover for The Light BrigadeThe Light Brigade: it's what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back... different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.

Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don't sync up with the platoon's. And Dietz's bad drops tell a story of the war that's not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.

Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it's hard to tell the difference.

This was a hot mess.

Before I start, ignore the comparisons to Edge of Tomorrow. This is nothing like it. In that movie, Tom Cruise's character dies constantly only to loop back in time. Dietz, the main character and narrator in The Light Brigade, not only doesn't die all the time but moves forward and backward in time, which is more like Billy Pilgrim's experiences in Slaughterhouse-Five.

The story started out well. We're introduced to Dietz just before basic training, and we can tell that Dietz is a hothead, act-first-think-later kind of person with lots of baggage having grown up poor and lacking corporate citizenship. The basic training experience is brutal and puts the new recruits into awful situations. So it seems like this will be a grinder sci-fi novel focusing on the brutality of war and what it does to soldiers. Nope. Once Dietz experiences teleportation, we get a broken time travel story. For the record, if the transporter (the whole "busted down into light to travel" is totally reminiscent of Star Trek's transporter) ever broke down in Star Trek, you can bet that Scotty or O'Brien would be all over it, trying to get it repaired. Losing people in transporter accidents is horrible. But this is Bones' worst nightmare with people materializing in walls and with limbs misplaced. Here, it's just another day on the job. A lot of resources go into training soldiers; they're not disposable. And if you can teleport a soldier and all their gear, why not just teleport a nuke?

For a military sci-fi novel, there really isn't a whole lot of combat. Dietz's squad either teleports into a battlefield where they're slaughtered or they go into a police action against civilians where they vaporize them. Bodies explode with blood and viscera like a typical episode of Ash Vs. The Evil Dead.

Dietz's internal monologue and conversations with other soldiers are fairly insipid. A lot of dialogue is just repeated. You could make a drinking game out of the phrase "Stick to the brief", a reference to abiding by the mission brief and ignoring everything else. We're told that they're monitored all the time, so they have to watch what they say, but Dietz gets a watch with some kind of jamming device built into it and later corporate causalities have become so high that the corporation doesn't have enough people to monitor every conversation. I guess developing computer algorithms or AI was harder than teleportation. At the end of the novel Dietz suddenly figures things out and becomes all-knowing.

We're told that all of the world's governments have collapsed and been replaced by corporations. But there's nothing vaguely capitalistic about them. Sure they have CEOs, but corporations don't bomb markets and slaughter potential new customers (Mercenaries do, sure, I'll grant you that). Amazon has been accused of putting a lot of small businesses out to pasture, but Bezos did it by shrewdly taking advantage of new business models that the internet enabled. He didn't send a hitman to kill the owner of your local bookstore. In this book, these corporations are feudal empires controlled by kings and queens.

There are these interrogation transcripts that begin to pop up between chapters. Although neither Dietz nor the interrogator is identified, it's obvious it's them. We have to read this lame polemic which gradually turns into an argument which gets rehashed in each interrogation. This book was published in 2019, which means Hurley wrote this 2017-18. The whole interrogation reads like Hurley is taking her grievances with what was going on in the USA at the time and uses the space to rant. Maybe that's why people liked it so much. I think it's meant to be inspiring or make some people think, but while I'd agree with the points made, the way it was done reads like Dietz was just stating the obvious.

1.5 stars


Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Book Review: Number One Is Walking

book cover for Number One Is Walking
I picked this book up during my local Barnes & Noble's moving sale. I went on the last day, and there were several copies of this book present, more than any other of the remaining inventory. I should've taken that as a sign to skip it, but I'm a lifelong Steve Martin fan, so I couldn't resist.

This book is marketed as an illustrated memoir of Steve Martin's acting career. It doesn't come close to be worthy of being called a memoir. It is a collection of various anecdotes from a few selected films which were then boiled down to brief, one or two-page, illustrations. They leave you wondering, "And then what happened?" But rather than provide any sort of elaboration, the book moves on to the next anecdote.

And the anecdotes only make up one-third to two-fifths of the book—I was too annoyed to get any more precise than that as there are no page numbers, and that would require more math than this book was worth. The rest of the book is a collection of New Yorker cartoons that Martin collaborated with the illustrator, Harry Bliss, on. These were fine. They were cute, whimsical notes of satire, but printed one to a page (the back-side being left blank).

Despite this being illustrated, I was hoping for something more. Martin's memoir of his early years, Born Standing Up, was an excellent work detailing how he got his start in show business and ran through his early career as a stand-up comic, including why he gave it up. I was hoping that this would detail his career in film in the same way. It looks like we'll have to wait for that.

2 stars


Sunday, May 7, 2023

Book Review: Johannes Cabal The Necromancer

book cover for The NecromancerJohannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. This time for real. Accepting the bargain, Jonathan is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task. With little time to waste, Johannes raises a motley crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire to help him run his nefarious road show, resulting in mayhem at every turn.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It was fine. I was entertained. There were humorous quips and interesting bits of wordplay. The narrative was thought through and resolved neatly. But I wasn't eager to pick it back up each night when I sat down to read it, if I read it at all. However, I think it would work fine as a TV series as some of the gags require an audio or visual component to truly pull them off.

The book blurb covers the plot. There's a hint of Something Wicked This Way Comes in that an evil carnival roams the countryside causing mayhem. But while that was suspenseful, this story satirizes its horror. As the carnival proceeds via train through the English countryside, each stop presents a encounter with a potential soul to be taken or an obstacle to Johannes's progress. It's a very episodic format, which is fine and why it lends itself to a TV adaptation. It proceeds along at a measured pace until 70-75% of the way through when the carnival train makes its last stop and Cabal's deadline approaches.

At first, I rooted for Johannes in his quest to acquire 100 souls. His targets were people who were pretty lousy and seemingly deserved their fate. But the more I read of this anti-hero, the more I didn't care for him. His vampire brother, Horst, was the likable one who still retained any hint of conscience. By the end of the story, Johannes improves, but his path is muddy.

Maybe this book would've been a better match for me if I'd read it when I was much younger than I am today.

2.5 stars


Sunday, March 19, 2023

Book Review: Swords Against Death

book cover for Swords Against DeathIn the second installment of this rousing series, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser journey from the ancient city of Lankhmar, searching for a little adventure and debauchery to ease their broken hearts. When a stranger challenges them to find and fight Death on the Bleak Shore, they battle demonic birds, living mountains, and evil monks on the way to their heroic fate. Fritz Leiber’s witty prose, lively plots, and superb characterizations stand the test of time.

This collection of ten short stories picks up shortly after the events in Swords and Deviltry. Although written and published over a span of thirty years, the stories are arranged here in chronological order as per the characters' lives.

Yes, death is a common theme running through this collection. Whether it's dealing with the undead in the catacombs of the Thieves' Guild or battling Death himself, there's more than just combat mortality going on. There are beings long thought dead that have come back to life for revenge, and the dead haunting the living such that they'll do anything to be at peace. As great as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are in a sword fight, sometimes it takes wits to survive. Other times, the odds are so overwhelming that it's best to just run away.

In the first edition of D&D's Deities and Demigods, there was a section dedicated to the Nehwon Mythos. That was my first introduction to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and the beings that dwell there. The stories were an obvious inspiration to Gygax and company, and reading this collection of stories, one can't help but see it. Notable characters that show up here include the alien wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. There's an encounter with the goddess Tyaa and her fearsome flock of birds, Devourer, and, of course, Death.

I really enjoyed "Thieves' House", "The Bleak Shore", "The Sunken Land", "Claws from the Night", and "Bazaar of the Bizarre." I feel that these stories really exemplify Leiber at his best. Besides detailing the prowess of his heroes' swordsmanship, Leiber can set a scene, whether it be fantastic...
The lenses and brass tubes, some of the latter of which were as fantastically crooked as if they were periscopes for seeing over the walls and through the barred windows of other universes, showed at first only delightful jeweled patterns, but after a bit the Mouser was able to see through into all sorts of interesting places: the treasure rooms of dead kings, the bedchambers of living queens, council crypts of rebel angels, and the closets in which the gods hid plans for worlds too frighteningly fantastic to risk creating.
or forboding...
Only his eyes responded to his will, turning from side to side, drinking in details with fearful curiousity: the endless series of vague carvings, wherein sea monsters and unwholesome manlike figures and vaguely anthropomorphic giant skates or rays seemed to come alive and stir as the phosphorescence fluctuated...
My one complaint would be that the POV shifts within the stories were often sudden and jarring with no break to indicate the switch was coming. I don't know if that was a product of the times, but I was taught that that was bad form. But it's not like anyone is going to crucify Fritz Leiber for that.

I enjoyed this one more than the first book in the series. Leiber takes his characters—and the reader—on an adventurous ride through Nehwon, encountering strange and deadly beings, forcing them to use their wits when swords aren't enough. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: It's like a buddy movie for the D&D crowd.

4.25 stars


Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Book Review: The Last Command

book cover for The Last CommandThe embattled Republic reels from the attacks of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who has marshaled the remnants of the Imperial forces and driven the Rebels back with an abominable technology recovered from the Emperor's secret fortress: clone soldiers. As Thrawn mounts his final siege, Han Solo and Chewbacca struggle to form a coalition of smugglers for a last-ditch attack, while Princess Leia holds the Alliance together and prepares for the birth of her Jedi twins.

The Republic has one last hope—sending a small force into the very stronghold that houses Thrawn's terrible cloning machines. There a final danger awaits, as the Dark Jedi C'baoth directs the battle against the Rebels and builds his strength to finish what he already started: the destruction of Luke Skywalker.

I'm struggling to write a proper review. Much of what I've written about the first two books can be applied here: the familiar characters from the movie are flat, Zahn's original characters are well-drawn, and the peril doesn't seem too perilous. Zahn brings the trilogy to a proper close and wraps up all of the plot lines. All that's really left is to figure out how many stars to give it.

I distinctly remember the way Han Solo uttered "sweetheart" in the movies. It wasn't a term of endearment. So every time he used the term on Leia in this book, I got a bad vibe. It gave me a negative view about his relationship with Leia, who is now his wife and the mother of his kids. Throughout the series, I've felt that Zahn got Han's character wrong, and it's no different here.

Another negative was the character of Joruus C'baoth. He was a windbag with an ego the size of a planet. Sure, he was powerful, but most of the time he was just full of hot air. Contrast him with Thrawn and the differences couldn't be more stark. Thrawn was the brilliant tactician who used a culture's art to gain strategic insight. Cold and calculating, he was the military mastermind that was always two moves ahead of his opponents, and when dealing with C'baoth, he always kept his emotions in check.

The other positives were the smuggler Talon Karrde and his associate Mara Jade. Despite what the book blurb would have you believe, Karrde was the one that struggled to form the smugglers' coalition. His storyline in this book was really good as he tried to outwit the nitwit that Thrawn sent to undermine his efforts. And Jade struggled with her compulsion to kill Luke while also doing the right thing by Leia. Meanwhile, the Alliance was split on whether or not she was an Imperial spy or Alliance ally. But I wasn't too keen on how her internal conflict was resolved. It involved something that I thought had been lost in one of the movies. My reaction being: "No way, you found that? How?"

So in the end, I'd say that this series was consistent. It had its good points and bad points. I was entertained, but in a beach read sort of way. Therefore, I'm going to stay consistent with my rating.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Book Review: Dark Force Rising

book cover for Dark Force RisingThe dying Empire's most cunning and ruthless warlord, Grand Admiral Thrawn, has taken command of the remnants of the Imperial Fleet and launched a massive campaign aimed at the New Republic's destruction. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Lando Calrissian race against time to find proof of treason inside the highest Republic Council—only to discover instead a ghostly fleet of warships that could bring doom to their friends and victory to their enemies.

Yet most dangerous of all is a new Dark Jedi, risen from the ashes of a shrouded past, consumed by bitterness, and scheming to corrupt Luke Skywalker to the dark side.

It's funny. When I started this series, I thought that the titular heir to the Empire was supposed to be Grand Admiral Thrawn when, in fact, it's the windbag-pretending-to-be-a-Jedi Joruus C'baoth. In my defense, C'baoth's storyline tends to take a backseat to all the other storylines that run through the first two books of this series. So it didn't click in my head until this book drew to its conclusion.

Zahn's characters continue to be better developed than the familiar characters from the Star Wars original/middle trilogy of films. They still seem off to me. I think that they're stuck in Return of the Jedi mode. Luke tries to treat C'baoth like Vader. Leia thinks that she can broker diplomacy with the Noghri like she did with the Ewoks. Han and Lando aren't the rogues that they used to be, but they think they still are. Chewie is still Chewie though. And they all get away with it because, well, they do. I guess I'm expecting too much. It's been 40 years for me, but these books are only a couple years removed from the battle of Endor.

As I said, Zahn's original characters are better. Mara Jade struggles with her hate/he's ok relationship with Luke. Captain Pellaeon dutifully serves Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is always a step ahead of everyone else. It comes close to straining credulity at times, but I let it slide. Talon Karrde remains the likeable smuggler. Fey'lya demonstrates that Bothans are really frenemies, and former Senator Bel Iblis reveals some history about the early days of the Rebellion that would make for a great addition to Andor.

As for the storylines, after the surviving special ops Noghri, Khabarakh, informs Leia that he knows she's Vader's daughter, she agrees to accompany him to the Noghri homeworld in hopes of clearing things up and putting these attempted kidnappings to bed. I admit that while this started off like a fool's errand, Zahn built up Noghri society rather well.

Han and Lando try to uncover proof that Admiral Ackbar was set up and find a lost fleet of ships that could turn the tide of the war. I wasn't sure that they were doing anything more than stumbling around from one planet to another, but they eventually got there.

Luke seeks out the rumors of a Jedi Master in hopes of continuing his education, but as this storyline involved C'baoth it was pretty much a nothing burger. Luke eventually leaves to rescue someone and things pick up from there.

So despite my complaining, I am enjoying this series. It's good popcorn fare or a beach read.

3.5 stars