Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor (Matthew Stover)
This book highlights the relationship the Alliance heroes have with the galactic media while providing one of the most dire, urgent scenarios that our heroes have ever been trapped in. The balance between dark themes seen constantly in the post-NJO Star Wars publishing world and the swashbuckling heroism seen in the films and earlier novels is a crucial part of the success of this novel.
The novel begins with the failed invasion of Mindor by Luke and his Rapid Response force. Through an impressive display, he manages to land an eroding ship safely on the surface of Mindor, drawing a comparison between his abilities and those of Anakin in Episode III. One by one, the other heroes from the movies are lured into the trap that our antagonist, Cronal, has set. Including every central character, even Lando and the droids, was a great idea, and their proper utilization help the book feel even more like the movies.
There are two extremely refreshing aspects of this novel. Firstly, the majority of conflicts are solved through science instead of the force, with only a handful being solved through the use of Force powers. This is a break from the norm in the modern EU in which Jedi have super human powers and can do pretty much anything by thinking about it. A moment in which Luke has a vision of how to escape a predicament, then does it using the physics of the world serves as an example of the excellent balance between the two.
Secondly, focusing more on the way the media shapes the perception of the Alliance heroes was something I could appreciate. In the book, there are several allusions to holovids (movies) that star actors reenacting something that our heroes have supposedly done. Some are warped versions of something that did happen, while others are complete fabrications that serve to trumpet the heroism of Han and Luke. Most interesting is the way the two deal with it. Han doesn't mind it, but Luke is deeply offended, especially when he sees a holovid that modifies some crucial details of his climactic fight with Darth Vader. This particular holovid is crucial to Cronal's plan, as it helps to twist public opinion in a favorable direction. Cronal serves as an extremely effective antagonist. He has an intriguing look, plan, and philosophy. Not to mention, he is given several opportunities to shine and even outsmart our heroes.
The dire predicament allows for some large scale space battles mixed in with smaller scale conflicts involving the main characters. There is something for everyone here in terms of action. Lightsaber duels, pirates, stormtroopers, fleet battles; it's all here, and it's all great. The Mandalorians even show up, and stage a raid on the Imperial compound with their New Republic brethren.
Readers familiar with the author's previous work, Shatterpoint, will notice that two of the original characters from that novel make significant appearances here. The first, Nick, is introduced early on and serves as Luke's sidekick for most of the adventure. His role is very similar to the one he had in Shatterpoint, as something of a foil to Mace Windu, and he is the catalyst for a good sub plot involving the heist and near destruction of the Millennium Falcon. The second, Kar Vastor, was an imposing antagonist in Shatterpoint, but here pales in comparison to Cronal. His role is an important one, and marks an important moment for Luke, but he shows up late and isn't quite as ferocious as in Shatterpoint.
Overall, the plot is extremely solid. From the antagonist's convincing trap, to the utilization of every key character from the original trilogy. These are conventional things that can be found in many a Star Wars novel, however, and what really distinguishes this storyline from so many others is the wide variety of action sequences, application of science, and compelling plot device in the form of the holovids.
Characterization is an extremely strong aspect of this book, though the original characters fall a bit flat.
Central to the story, for obvious reasons, is Luke Skywalker. Not only is he given a storyline that challenges his very belief system, but he also must wrestle with his role as an icon in the New Republic. Once injected with Cronal's meltmassif, following his failure to save several innocent beings, Luke begins to question his purpose and his thoughts become very existential. Luke does, of course, eventually come around, but the journey is one that is extremely important to his character, and one of the few truly "grim" elements of this novel. Outside of this, Luke is handled extremely well. He looks out for his friends, uses his power responsibly, and seeks to preserve life whenever he can. This is one of the best portrayals of Luke in the expanded universe.
Han and Leia have a great dynamic in this book. Everything is pitch perfect, from the way that they frequently trade barbs with one another, to the way that they become more romantic as their situation grows even more dire, this is a classic portrayal of these two. Chewbacca is thrown in for good measure and helps to maintain the chemistry seen in The Empire Strikes Back. Lando is great as a fleet commander, putting his background as a gambler to the test time and again while appearing vain and theatrical as in the movies.
Two unusually strong characters can be found in the droids, C-3P0 and R2-D2. Typically relegated to background roles of dubious importance, the duo are still far from the forefront, however they manage to make an impression in nearly every scene in which they appear. R2-D2 is the perfect gadget in this novel, saving our heroes with his various modifications on several occasions. There is more to his persona, as seen when he goes back to save or die with Luke, and when he contemplates his relationship with C-3P0 (one of the most poignant moments in the entire book.) C-3P0 isn't as important to the plot, but he provides spot on comic relief and, with Lando, provides one of the best relationships in the entire book. His inclusion completes the book and gives it a much needed bit of comic relief, though each of the major characters have their humorous moments.
Besides Cronal, a legitimately good and reasonably complex villain, the antagonists are fairly thin. There is a brainwashed Clone Commander that never develops a personality or significance outside of his brief POV passages, and Kar Vastor, who is just too limited here to feel anything for. Other forgettable characters include Nick's girlfriend, and Mandalorian commander Fenn Shysa. These characters are just not expanded upon enough; the focus is clearly (rightfully) on the movie characters, and the result is one of the most authentic Star Wars novels to date.
The prose throughout is solid, though not quite up to snuff with the author's previous works. One of the strongest aspects is the dialogue, which is both hilarious and faithful to the characters. The best example of this is C-3P0, who manages to bumble about and frustrate everyone with the expected amount of ignorance, and Han, a character that sounds every bit the smuggler that he was in the movies, while also displaying deeper concerns for his friends. The dialogue between Cronal and Luke is sometimes on the cheesy side, but that seems to be in accordance with one of the themes of the book, so I can't fault it.
A flimsier aspect is the description of action. Like I mentioned above, the book's solutions are often very science heavy. While this has the benefit of being a unique spin on the usual Star Wars fare, there is a delicate balance between unique solutions and techno babble. The author manages to successfully balance the scenes usually, but one or two descriptions of the fleet's predicament went completely over my head due to the jargon being used. Other than that, the action scenes are pretty good, there is a good mix of tension and humor so that the situation never feels too dire.
Besides some problems picturing the action, the descriptions are great. Cronal's throne room was impressive and the world of Mindor is built up a bit, though it clearly isn't the focus of this story. The new species introduced is unique enough to color the world, as are the geographic makeup and brief paragraphs detailing the history of Mindor.
The writing style is noticeably straightforward in comparison with Shatterpoint. It isn't bad, but it doesn't work for this book in the way that the often eloquent phrasing did for Shatterpoint. Though the style is largely more direct, there are still a few of the meandering philosophical/descriptive phrases which are extremely entertaining.
A fun, action packed plot and phenomenal characterization make this a must read. Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor is a great book that manages to hit all the right notes despite the large cast, and is unique enough to warrant a recommendation.