Star Wars: Rogue Planet (Greg Bear)
Three years after the events of The Phantom Menace, Anakin and Obi-Wan are sent to the mysterious world of Zonama Sekot to find out what happened to a Jedi named Vergere whom was living on the world, and has not been heard from in quite some time. Raith Sienar, future developer of the Death Star and many of the Empire's TIE fighter variants, is convinced by a young Tarkin to lead an expedition to the planet and acquire one of their organic spaceships for study. Sienar has misgivings, but agrees nonetheless, taking a recently acquired Trade Federation fleet to the planet. Anakin and Obi-Wan arrive first, going through the various rituals and customs required to obtain permission to grow a ship, including meeting with the strange ruler of the world, known only as the Magister. The Magister grants them permission to build the ship, and during the process of picking out the seed-partners, twelve of them latch on to Anakin, while only three join with Obi-Wan. According to the Sekotans, Anakin has acquired the largest number of seed-partners ever, and his ship, should it adapt to the increased number of partners, will be magnificent. Meanwhile, Sienar continues to have misgivings about both the legitimacy of the mission, and the capability of his squadron. He reprograms the droids with his own directives, and sends a Blood Carver assassin down to the planet to try to diplomatically retrieve a ship. Anakin and Obi-Wan meet with one of the architects in order to design their ship, and the process of constructing the ship commences.
Meanwhile, Sienar's mission begins to fall apart, the Blood Carver fails, and some of his droid starfighters defy programming and move to attack the planet, exposing his squadron. Tarkin arrives nearly simultaneously and assumes control of the fleet, ordering all ships to attack the planet. Shortly after the ship has been constructed, the platform is attacked by droid starfighters, and the assassin shows up, attacking Obi-Wan and capturing Anakin, forcing him to pilot the ship back to Tarkin's orbiting control ship. The ship is too low on fuel to do this, however, and Anakin pilots them instead to the Magister's palace, hoping to find fuel there. Instead, the palace has crumbled, and the Magister is nowhere to be found. Anakin kills the Blood Carver in a fit of rage, and makes his way into the palace. Inside, he discovers that the Magister is in fact long dead, and the planet is controlled by a strange presence known as Sekot, Sekot relays a message from Vergere about her new whereabouts, revealing that an invasion by a species totally alien to the Force nearly destroyed the planet, and that she went with them to learn their ways and convince them to remain peaceful. Exiting the palace, Tarkin and his forces surround him and capture both him and his ship, placing them in a cargo hold. Obi-Wan and Charza Kwinn (Obi-Wan and Anakin's method of access to Sekot) fly after them. Tarkin attempts to force Anakin to talk about the ship, but cannot, and Obi-Wan arrives, forcing Tarkin and Sienar to evacuate before he blows the doors to the cargo hold open. Anakin and Obi-Wan barely escape in the ship, flying offworld as the planet begins to move using a strange type of engine and hyperdrive. They quickly exit the system, along with the remaining stragglers of Tarkin's force. In the epilogue, the ship dies, Tarkin gets a promotion because of the Death Star plans (which Sienar was happy to disown), and Vergere's whereabouts remain unknown, as do those of Zonama Sekot, now rumored to be traveling amongst the stars.
The plot started kind of slow, with a garbage pit race that seemed to take forever in relation to its importance to the story. The main plot is hit and miss, the mystery of Zonama Sekot is quite interesting, but several of the concepts (most notably its method of breaking orbit and flying to another star system at the end of the novel) were incredibly hard to imagine. The other concepts were pretty cool though, such as the living ship, the intertwined organisms, and even the various rituals and such that Anakin and Obi-Wan needed to do before they were permitted to make a ship. The main failing of the plot, however, was the conflict. I do not understand why Tarkin manipulated Sienar, and why he felt the need to take a ship by force when he could've simply gotten one himself. The nonsensical conflict is tertiary to main focus of the story-the mystery of Vergere and explaining the world of Zonama Sekot. There seemed to be an overall focus on explaining the world and its customs that in my view made the plot take a backseat to the descriptions. Some of the character driven side plots such as Obi-Wan and Anakin's interactions with Qui-Gon, and Anakin's first taste of the Dark Side are interesting, but not often touched upon.
The characterization in this book is excellent, coming three years after Phantom Menace, the author nails Anakin and Obi-Wan's relationship at this point in the saga, and their interactions were probably the highlight of the book. Anakin's motivations have taken a bit of a shift from Phantom Menace, and he has become much more self conscious, taking offense to the mention of his upbringing in this novel when he happily discussed it with his friends in Phantom Menace. Tarkin is also an interesting character, he is rarely mentioned in the Expanded Universe, and his motivations here are quite interesting. His human-first ideals are one of the rare occasions when racism is brought up in Star Wars, and it was definitely a glimpse into both his character and future Imperial policy that allows for very few aliens to become soldiers. The other characters of the novel are a mixed bag, Charza's species and his interesting modifications to his ship were highlights, but the inhabitants of Zonama Sekot were somewhat dull. Sienar is interesting at times-when he is sort of a reluctant villain and very unsure of the task he has been given-but he falters a bit at the end when he doesn't really do anything besides attempt to placate Tarkin.
For the most part, the prose is very good. Considering the odd nature of the things described, I usually had no trouble understanding what was going on. The only two times where I didn't get what was going on was during the race at the beginning, and when the planet was preparing/launching into space. The former was one of the worst points of the novel, especially because I couldn't understand it, even if I could, it would've been a waste of fifty pages because it didn't really do anything besides introduce us to one of the minor villains later in the book. The latter probably was more important, but is substantially harder to write (and visualize) so I don't mind that as much.
The book does Anakin and Obi-Wan's evolving relationship post Phantom Menace very nicely, and using Tarkin as one of the villains was appreciated even if the book had a somewhat glaring lack of conflict and action. The living world concept is also take it or leave it, although the author does a generally acceptable job of describing it, it just didn't connect with me. A good, but flawed, read.