Shadow Games (Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Shadow Games is an intriguing, off the beaten path novel that features a return to the character of Dash Rendar, and a very strong supporting cast. The novelty of the premise and story arc propels the book to overcome some forgettable writing and questionable plot turns.
The story takes place before the Battle of Yavin, and features a younger Dash Rendar's exploits as a freelance freighter captain. This doesn't last for long, however, as Dash's ship is badly damaged, and he has no money with which to fix it. In dire straits, Dash agrees to become a bodyguard for intergalactic holo(rock)star Javul Charn. The rest of the book consists of Dash and his crew trying to get to the bottom of a mystery concerning repeated sabotage of the ship. The mystery, as the cover blurb will attest, eventually ties into the three major organizations in the galaxy (Alliance, Empire, Black Sun) and features major tie ins to the events of Episode IV.
The book quickly delves into the mystery, which is a classic "traitor among a small crew" scenario. Throughout the course of the early part of the novel, near fatal "accidents" threaten to kill both Javul and Dash. Additionally, a Black Sun vigo attempts to push Javul around and threaten her. The suspense is good here even if the suspects are not very interesting or likely characters. The limited cast in Javul's entourage lacks the flair of Dash's companions, and their largely similar personalities prevent any of them from actually seemingly like a probable criminal despite the author's attempts to convince you that it is any given one.
While these sabotages continue to take place, Javul doesn't stop her holotour, and descriptions of the concerts are an important part of the early going. The attractions are a bit out there, and it is nearly impossible to convey any kind of musicianship in written form, but these proceedings weren't too bad. The authors do a nice job of focusing on the visual aspect of the performance as opposed to trying too hard to make up lyrics or explain a rhythm or something.
Eventually, Javul and Dash return to Tatooine to get Dash's ship as the luxury cruise liner they have been on is no longer safe for travel. On Tatooine they hire a new pilot whom is none other than Han Solo. Han has been making cameo appearances in an increasingly disproportionate amount of books recently, but here he is pretty good. His involvement explores the rivalry dynamic between himself and Dash in Shadows of the Empire, and helps foreshadow his future involvement in the Rebel Alliance, so I take no issue with his somewhat brief but very important cameo.
The book loses quite a bit of tension after Javul makes some important revelations about her past. These revelations bring both the Empire and Rebellion into play, and from here the book becomes more of an action adventure novel than a mystery novel-that sub plot is all but forgotten at this point. A big bad bounty hunter shows up on multiple occasions to serve as the principal antagonist, though he is far too shallow to be very effective. The fight scene between him and Dash's crew is well written, however. The Empire also chooses this time to realize what Javul's real purpose is, and parts of the end of the novel could read like deleted scenes from The Empire Strikes Back. Our heroes continually avoid Imperial entanglements en route to Alderaan, where Javul desperately makes an attempt to Han and Dash to remain with the Alliance.
The resolutions provided for the central mysteries are not satisfying, and the fates of certain characters are left open to interpretation. Without spoiling anything, the culprit was predictably the occupant that the authors spend the least amount of time "promoting", and, of course, two antagonistic parties were involved in the seemingly conflicting (some attempts were designed to kill, others only to maim, capture, or intimidate) objectives. The easy solutions to the mysteries tarnished that entire sub plot, though I do give it credit for bringing the mystery genre to Star Wars, something that does not happen very often.
On the whole, the book's story is kind of predictable, but unique in the context of Star Wars. The repeated tie ins to famous characters (Javul is "related" to Princess Leia, Dash's sidekick Eaden is a blood relative of Kit Fisto) are annoying and pointless, and it would've been nice to have a book that is about neither force users or Alliance vs. Empire. That being said, the whole idea of the "entertainment industry" in Star Wars, and the attempt to (atleast for part of the story) bring a mystery into Star Wars renders it one of the quirkier and intriguing stories in recent memory, if not the most well thought out or compelling.
The characterization of Rendar and his crew, and the chemistry between these three, is the crucial element in this book in terms of characterization.
Dash is presented in a slightly different way than he was in Shadows of the Empire. Where in that book he was all bluster and arrogance, here he is not afraid to show doubt (in himself and in others), compassion, and empathy. These traits make him less of a "super hero" and more of a normal character, they also help to differentiate him from Han Solo, who is written in a more one dimensional manner here.
Dash's crew, the only other highlight, consists of Leebo, yet another sarcastic and outspoken droid, and Eaden, a deadpanning Nautolan. The crew plays off of each other extremely well, even if Leebo is just a carbon copy of I5 from Reave's other novels (though Leebo technically existed first, I5 was characterized in this manner long before Leebo.) Leebo has some of the book's funniest scenes, such as when he adopts a mouse droid, and flirts with the ship's computer. Eaden is a calm and collected warrior of the same species as Kit Fisto. He has a more analytical mind, and isn't as prone to joking as his counterpart, overall he is a fantastic foil to Dash's more emotional nature.
The other characters are nothing special. Javul is an extremely hard character to relate to as it takes nearly the entire novel to coax the real story out of her, and when it is finally revealed, she starts to act more like Princess Leia than a holostar. This ties into some problems with the plot, namely the ham fisted nature in which the Empire and Rebellion are worked into the story, but she still could've been a more complex character. The rest of the crew are mentioned only for plot reasons, and are very poorly conveyed in both the context of the mystery and overall.
Antagonists are basically nonexistent. Edge, the aforementioned bounty hunter, has absolutely no personality, only a very cliche link to Eaden's past. He is an intimidating figure, but not a very interesting character, and his importance to the story is minimal. The Imperials also lack a strong leader, though Vader, Palpatine, and Xizor are all name checked, none of them show up in a meaningful way- the primary Imperials here are the usual bumbling morons.
Overall, as is the case with many of Reaves' books within the Star Wars universe, the characters are very interesting archetypes from a wide variety of backgrounds. Also like his other books, the antagonists generally lack any kind of flair or menace. Unlike his other novels, however, Shadow Games is only somewhat effective at taking those unique backgrounds and melding them into likeable characters, as basically everyone in Javul's entourage is a cardboard character inserted only for reasons of plot.
The prose in Shadow Games is a great, lending itself to both the mystery and action adventure genres. The action scenes, though they are few and far between, are pulse pounding, in particular the excellent fight on top of an arena that results in the death of a well liked character. In these scenes, the author ditches the slow paced and moody trappings present in the rest of the work for fast paced and cinematic descriptions of the unfolding action.
Another positive aspect is the effective descriptions of Javul's work. Its so hard to convey any kind of work, yet alone music, though words, yet the authors do a great job pulling it off. The visual aspect of the performance is the most detailed, however it can often be a little hard to comprehend. As an aside, look for what I think is a reference to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody in the lyrics of one of Javul's songs.
The descriptive phrasing often takes on an over the top and exaggerated tone that fits the theme of the first half of the novel very well. Cheesy lines of the sort you are likely to find in mystery/noire are sprinkled throughout and help to make the novel feel more like a legitimate genre effort instead of another weird Star Wars experiment. The phrasing remains throughout, but it loses its punch when the book shifts to action/adventure in the second half.
The dialogue is similar, though it is a bit more oriented to humor, with Leebo, Eaden, Han, and Dash lending their differing brands of humor to the work, nicely contrasting with the more dramatic tone of the writing. There aren't really any drawbacks to the writing, it is extremely solid throughout.
Shadow Games starts off strong, then devolves into predictability and more traditional Star Wars themes by the end. It introduces several unique, and interesting characters, but it also throws in a handful of random characters just so they can serve as suspects for a handful of pages. The writing is largely excellent, and taken for what it is, Shadow Games is one of the better Star Wars novels released in 2011.