Star Wars: Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter (Michael Reaves)
Set mere days before the events of The Phantom Menace, Shadow Hunter begins with a traitorous Neimoidian defecting from the Trade Federation, carrying the plans of their upcoming attack on Naboo with him. Nute Gunray, leader of the Trade Federation, lies about the traitor's whereabouts to Darth Sidious. Sidious, seeing through the ruse, sends Darth Maul to find and kill the traitor and anyone who now knows the secret. Meanwhile, Lorn Pavan, an information broker, is attempting to get his hands on the holocron through a go between, however he is swindled and robbed of all of his money. All is not lost however, as, after a face to face meeting with the traitor, a meeting time is setup to purchase the holocron. The Trade Federation sends a hunter of their own, Mawhi Lihnn, to track down and capture the traitorous Monchar. Lihnn and Maul stalk him back to his house, Maul gets there first however, and kills him and his guards before Lihnn shows up. Before he can appropriate the holocron, Lihnn nearly kills him, but he manages to evade her blasterfire and cause her to inadvertently kill herself. In Maul's hasty exit, he forgets the holocron, and Lorn is able to get it for free, even though he just committed bank fraud to get the funds that he thought he would need as payment.
Next, we are introduced to Darsha Assant, a Padawan in the process of becoming a Knight, her final task does not go as planned however, and her target is killed during the process of extracting him from Coruscant's seedy underbelly. Assant returns to the temple and tells her master, Anoon Bondara, whom seeks proof. Returning to the scene of his death, they find the proof they are looking for, but, while returning to the Jedi temple, they encounter a strange presence in the force. This presence is none other than Darth Maul, chasing Lorn and his droid I5 through the streets of Coruscant. Beckoning for Lorn to join them in their speeder, they manage to just barely evade Maul. However he is not out of tricks yet, summoning a speeder from his ship, Maul resumes the chase. Seeing their desperate situation, Bondara jumps onto Maul's speeder, disables it, and a fight ensues. Bondara quickly realizes he is overmatched, and destroys the dilapidated speeder, killing him and throwing Maul off the platform. Darsha's speeder is in critical condition as well, and they get to cover in an underground transport system just as it too explodes. Inside the tunnels the Padawan and Lorn make their way deeper down into the depths and draw ever closer to the Jedi temple. After a near fatal encounter with the Cthons, cannibalistic humanoids devoid of eyesight, the trio continues to a strange bridge overlooking a huge chasm. Unfortunately for them, as a giant, force invisible monster rises out of the depths, Darth Maul appears on the other end of the bridge. They get out of the situation by snapping the bridge and swinging across the pit. Thinking themselves safe, they come upon a waste disposal plant with a carbonite freezing chamber in one of its chambers. Darth Maul stalks them there too, and Darsha sacrifices her life to buy I5 and Lorn time to temporarily freeze themselves.
The duo awakens half an hour later, and I5 summons and old friend to help them out. Once in their friend's transport, Lorn devises a plan to kill Maul, and instructs I5 to return to the Jedi temple with his friend and tell the Jedi of the occurrences. The acquaintance has other plans, however, and disables I5 in order to sell him as a valuable commodity in the future. Lorn tracks Maul to a space station orbiting Coruscant, he sneaks up on him (using a Taoxin scale to mask his presence) and shots him in the back twice with a stun bolt. Retrieving the holocron from Maul's belt, Lorn is inexplicably unable to kill Maul before he awakens, but is able to make his escape by sealing a blast door. Wounded and being chased by a ruthless killer, Lorn makes his way to the center of the platform, where he encounters Palpatine and his entourage. Believing Palpatine to be a kind hearted senator with Naboo's best interests at heart, he hands over the holocron, and receives medical treatment. When he recovers he is quickly killed by Darth Maul.
Overall I thought the plot was rather average. There is a sense of inevitability concerning the fates of the main characters, but the author does a good job of invoking new and fearsome threats for our heroes to contend with, their trek through Coruscant's lower levels captures the imagination even when we know they must die. Two of the sub-plots, Mawhi Lihnn and Obi-Wan (whom was sent to investigate the disappearances of Bondara and Dassant), seemed somewhat unnecessary. I do not even fully understand why the Neimoidians lied to Sidious, except to bring a wholly unnecessary, cliche character into play. Another problem I had with the plot was the method of the character's death. The author had an annoying habit of killing off characters by attempting to kill Maul in an explosion that he inexplicably survives each time. Mawhii Lihnn, Dashara, and Anoon all die this way and I would've liked more creativity in that respect. Also, Lorn's death was highly aggravating, especially since it was completely unnecessary (he could've simply walked away, but didn't...would've liked to see more of him in a follow up novel or two), and because he had the perfect opportunity to kill Maul, and instead opted for snatching the holocron. Why he didn't simply kill Maul, then take the holocron is beyond me. Surrendering the holocron to Darth Sidious (albeit unknowingly), and dying instantly when Maul encounters him on the final page of the book also taints his character.
Considering you know that the characters are probably dead at the conclusion of the book (minus Maul, who gets a rather anti climatic death of his own), the author does a fantastic job of making you care about them. Dashara is definitely a sympathetic figure, pushing on in her quest to return to the Jedi council despite her fears that she will be kicked from the order due to her failure with the informant. It was interesting to see how she dealt with the death of her master, and her evolving relationship with Lorn, while not entirely realistic, was much better the norm when it comes to similar works. Lorn and I5 were phenomenal as a twist on the usual master-servant relationship between droids and sentients, their dialogue was definitely the highlight of the book, especially I5 and his interesting personality (somewhat like HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic, except with more sarcasm than sadism.) Lorn is also very interesting, having worked for the Jedi temple until being fired because his son was recognized as a force sensitive and he would only interfere with his son's future and training. His changing philosophy concerning the Jedi (cynical and hateful at the beginning of the book, grudging respect and almost admiration by the end) is realistic enough for me. Maul is given a decent characterization very much in line with the movies, being driven solely by two things; his desire to eradicate the Jedi, and his desire to please his master. As such I felt that the author definitely made the right choice in focusing more so on his own characters instead of Maul, using him as the antagonist instead of an anti-hero of sorts prevented the book from becoming bland.
The prose was mostly excellent, the author does a commendable job of fleshing out some of the inner workings of Coruscant, illuminating many aspects I had never really thought of/encountered before. The author also does an excellent job of describing new entities (the Cthon and Taoxin) and action scenes, not just the duels with Darth Maul, but also gunfights and other such encounters. I have only two real concerns with the writing, firstly, the author has a strange habit of picking a really obscure word to describe something, then describing it again in more common terms. I have no problem with complex vocabulary, but when it is coupled with "regular" words I get the impression that the author just implemented them on these occasions to appear intelligent. Secondly, after Bondara's death and Obi-Wan's introduction to the story, there is an annoying tendency when in both Padawan's PoV to explain how they weren't as capable in the force yet as certain masters, and because of that they couldn't do a certain thing. It gets old really quickly, and I'm unsure as to what point its trying to make-we know they can't do what a Jedi Master could do, which is why they are only Padawans.
Though somewhat lacking in plot, the excellent characterizations and vivid depictions of Coruscant's lower levels make this an above average read. Even if you didn't like Darth Maul, you should probably give this book a chance based solely on its new protagonists, because this is actually more their tale than it is Maul's.