The Cestus Deception (Steven Barnes)
This book is about Obi Wan and Kit Fisto's mission to Ord Cestus to attempt to halt the production of extremely powerful bio droids that can give even Jedi a run for their money. The ensuing plot involves Obi-Wan's dealings with the leadership on Cestus, aided by a snail like lawyer named Doolb Snoil. Meanwhile, Kit Fisto attempts to train a militia on Cestus in order to serve as a backup in case Obi-Wan fails. Naturally, he does, and the latter half of the novel is spent using violence and sabotage to bring the Cestians around.
While the premise is hard to follow, namely the extremely confusing science and rationale behind the bio droids, the biggest failing of the plot is that what the Confederacy is hoping to get out of it just doesn't make sense. The droids are revealed to be completely useless at the end of the novel, and so it can be assumed that Dooku wanted the Jedi to overreact and punish the Cestians, resulting in negative public opinion. This isn't quite as high stakes as something like droids that could actually kill Jedi, and in fact seems quite contrived considering the fact that the Seperatists are already despised by much of the galaxy for their outright genocidal actions. As such, this plot doesn't really have any weight in the Star Wars universe at large, and as a result the political maneuverings that are so central to this novel fail to maintain interest.
Another flaw is the bizarre choice of villains. Though the cover art features a giant picture of Count Dooku's head, he isn't seen in the book at all. Instead, Asajj Ventress assumes the role of head villain. This is a bad choice because she isn't a diplomat or leader in the way Dooku is, and her powers are far less developed. Also, her style (brutal and imposing) does not mesh well with the political intrigue and shadow games prominently featured in this book. Dooku would've been a much better choice.
Not all is bad here, though. There are some genuinely good scenes involving life as a clone trooper early on in the book, including an interesting look at the harsh methods of training the clones. A scene where the Kit pretends to hijack a train and Obi-Wan pretends to stop him is also a standout. In fact, the fight scenes in general here are actually very good, with a focus on Jedi hand to hand tactics and fighting styles that is unique to the novel, but fitting in the Star Wars universe.
The romance between clone trooper Nate and Sheeka, a former lover of Jango Fett, is also very prominent. The relationship takes some pretty predictable turns, and explores many of the same aspects of clone psychology featured in Karen Traviss's Republic Commando books. It starts off interesting, particularly after the great opening chapters featuring Nate, but after Sheeka rescues Nate, it takes a more cliche path, and the resolution to this sub plot is predictable and therefore hollow. By comparison to many of the other romances involving original characters (Jedi Trial, Ruins of Dantooine, Medstar duology), this is a standout, but on its own, it is merely average.
Overall, a few brilliant scenes and a moderately good romance subplot aren't enough to overcome the illogical plot and ineffective villain.
Characterization here could've been alot better. Obi-Wan is probably the best of the bunch, being portrayed mostly accurately in comparison to the movies. I especially enjoyed when he attempted to deceive his ally in the Cestus court, G'Mai Duris. To me, it was foreshadowing of the well-meaning lies that he would tell to Luke in the Original Trilogy. As previously mentioned, Nate and Sheeka are mediocre characters, but more than sufficient for their role in the story. G'mai Duris is also a very sympathetic character, coming across as someone who is in a very tough spot, but handling it with integrity and intelligence.
The rest of the characters are substantially worse. Kit Fisto was a great idea here, shedding light on a minor player in the movies could've been really cool and a great contribution to the EU at large. Unfortunately, he isn't given much of a characterization. Much of the time spent with his character involves detailing what a great Jedi he is, or explaining/reinforcing some alien facet of his appearance or culture. His personality is barely developed, and even the few POV sequences that he gets do him no favors. Ventress isn't as lame as she was in Dark Rendezvous, but she still lacks any real sense of menace, and is prone to too many cliche moments and phrases. More a caricature of a villain than an antagonist in her own right. Dloob Snoil is also an awful character. His appearance (giant snail) is extremely tough to swallow, as is his name (Lion's Blood, a book by the author, spelled backwards.) His personality is also cliche heavy, he's the coward that manages to become brave at the most convenient moment, then dies saving someone else. That is really all there is to him, he is also a lawyer, and as such features prominently in the early part of the book, but he never develops a personality that manages to overcome his conceptual shortcomings.
The prose here is perfectly mediocre. It generally neither enhances or detracts from the ideas presented. This leads to a bland, boring read. Even scenes that are cool in conception (the aforementioned train hijacking, hand to hand fighting) aren't very thrilling in execution because the wording is so passive. This hurts the political scenes even more, as interactions between Obi-Wan and the Five Families lack any kind of tension or excitement.
Bland writing aside, the author does do a mostly good job with dialogue, Ventress and a handful of other cliche one liners aside. I also enjoyed the world building here, as the history and cultural aspects of Cestus were presented in an adequate fashion. The X'Ting were an interesting species, power balance of the world were also handled well. Descriptions of the underground cities were sometimes very hard to visualize, and in fact there are very sparse details for most settings in the novel. Overall very bland prose, but decent world building.
The Cestus Deception had potential, particularly in the character of Kit Fisto, but it doesn't live up to it. Boring writing, and a flawed plot, along with a villain quickly becoming one of my least favorite in the Star Wars universe, makes for an underwhelming Star Wars title.