Star Wars: Shadows Of The Empire (Steve Perry)
Set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Shadows of the Empire attempts to explain Luke's character progression, the search for Han, and Vader's relationship with the Emperor. Other smaller bits of information, such as how Leia acquired the disguise used in RotJ, the recovery of the Death Star II plans, and the construction of Luke's new lightsaber are also presented. A new character, Xizor, is introduced early on, and while he is only a passable villain in relation to our heroes, he is a great foil for Darth Vader. Against Leia, and later Luke and company, Xizor is a bit too prone to monologuing, both internal and external, and this takes a substantial amount of menace out of his character. With Vader, however, he contrasts so nicely that the plotting and jostling for the Emperor's favor actually ends up being one of the strongest elements in the book. Dash Rendar, a lesser version of Han Solo, is also introduced, and his primary function seems to be serving the role that Han couldn't for this book. Unfortunately, Lando does a much better job of this, and Dash fails to change the characters in any way, or make a unique impact on the story. As a result, he feels like a forced tie in to the video game adaptation of this story.
The plot progresses at a fairly fast pace, and the constantly rotating viewpoints help break up some of the slower moments in the first half of the book. After Luke leaves to collect the information on the Second Death Star, things really heat up. The rest of the novel is basically one action sequence after another, and each is better than the previous. Xizor's unique pheromone talent comes into play here, and while his interaction with Leia felt out of place for a Star Wars novel, it does a good job of forcing Leia to explore her relationship with Han. The solution to this near disaster felt a bit implausible, mostly because it didn't work the first time she tried it, and the only thing that changed for the second effort was Chewie yelling at her about it. The attack on Xizor's castle, though well written, is also concluded in a somewhat weak manner. The group produces thermal detonators, previously unmentioned in the story, and uses them to force Xizor to let them go. They then proceed to blow up the castle anyways. The conclusion, an epic space battle above Coruscant, is handled quite well, and overall the book successfully bridges the two episodes, while providing an entertaining story with several explosive action sequences.
As previously mentioned, the two new characters achieve mixed results in endearing themselves to the reader. Xizor is absolutely ridiculous from character conception (A reptile with a ponytail? absurd) to execution (too many monologues, smug statements, not enough actual menace). Dash just seems irrelevant, a better, more unique character could've accomplished the little he did in the book. This weak characterization doesn't apply to the pre-existing characters. Luke's journey from struggling apprentice to full fledged knight is expertly handled, dealing with his insecure feelings and slow but sure mastery of the force and Jedi principles. Leia is also portrayed realistically, juggling her feelings for Luke and Han but maintaining a fierce resolve to free Han from Boba Fett. Though her internal conflict between the two men is something that seems awkward today (and did even when the book was published in 1996,) it is realistic based on the way that the characters were portrayed in Empire Strikes Back. Lando takes the place of Han here, and in fact this is one of my favorite portrayals of him in the Expanded Universe. Not only is this one of his biggest roles in terms of importance to the story, but he also has to present the swashbuckling swagger and "grey" morality otherwise missing from the Alliance due to Han's capture. C-3PO and R2 are adequate in their minor roles, as is Chewbacca.
Vader is the true standout here, however. His relationship with Xizor starts off as purely political, two servants attempting to earn favor in their master's eyes. But when Xizor realizes Luke's connection to Vader, their interactions become even more tense and intriguing. The lengths Vader goes to in order to protect his son from danger present a more human portrait of Vader, and it seems that some of his misgivings concerning the Emperor in RotJ are already present here. This makes his character in the sixth movie even more interesting, and gives this book a sense of continuity. Vader has some powerful villain moments, even if his role in opposing the main characters is minimal. The only drawback overall is that he is presented as being Xizor's equal, when Xizor doesn't even come close realistically. The characterization here is accurate in comparison to the movies, and does a great job showing development from Episode five to six.
The author's prose is simple, and only partially effective. He excels in describing the myriad of action scenes contained in this book, and there is really only one (when the Bothans attack the ship holding the Death Star plans) that falls flat. The dialogue is fitting, though not always engaging, and descriptions are effective but not particularly detailed. The simplistic writing style is further hampered by constant disregard for the "Show, Don't Tell" rule. Nearly everything is spelled out for the reader, often in as simple a manner as possible. Subtlety is not this book's strong suit, which is a disappointment considering the potential here for some truly brilliant plotting. Overall the competently written, though ultimately bland, style manages to bring to life action sequences, and little more.
A good bridge between the final movies in the Star Wars saga, Shadows of the Empire succeeds because of its realistic characterization and good action sequences. The new characters aren't memorable, but the old ones, particularly Luke and Vader, are given enough room to grow in order to keep things interesting.