Hard Contact (Karen Traviss)
Republic Commando: Hard Contact is the first in a series of novels that explain some important aspects of clone life, while raising important issues about the ethics of the clone army. To boot, the book is an excellent, fast paced adventure novel with surprisingly strong characters. Compared to fellow Star Wars videogame tie ins (Ruins of Dantooine, Force Unleashed,) Hard Contact is in a class all by itself as an extremely solid work.
The story is a fairly straightforward assignment for four clone commandos thrown together after the deaths of their former squads. They are tasked with infiltrating a lab on the planet of Quillara and extracting the lead scientist, Dr. Ovolot Qail Uthan, from the facility. The good Dr. is hard at work on a toxin that will prove instantly fatal to clone troopers, so their success is of the utmost importance. Predictably, the mission goes awry and the clones are put in one disadvantageous position after another. Luckily for them, they have the help of Jedi in training Etain and the shape shifting Gurlanin Jinart. There are plenty of great action scenes throughout the book as our heroes tangle with confederate battle droids, alien militias, and a Mandalorian warrior named Ghez Hokan.
The strongest aspect of the book though are the clones themselves. Despite having rather forgettable names and identical appearances, the author does a great job of brining each one to life and creating distinct personas for them. Each one has a separate role in the squad and a personality all their own, and the squad's camaraderie is great. Etain is the only character that develops in a meaningful way over the course of the story, going from completely out of place Jedi padawan to a dedicated and in control leader. She also throws a wrench into the dynamic between clones and serves as catalyst for many of the more philosophical questions posed throughout the novel. Ghez Hokan is an excellent foil for our clone commandos as he is basically a representative of the culture that many of the clone warriors strive to emulate. He is a complex character in his own right, and the only true drawback to him is that the final fight scene is extremely anti climactic. This could be applied to the entire ending however, as we are given no real denouement, and one character's fate is left entirely ambiguous. It isn't a terrible ending, but it is rather abrupt.
The aforementioned philosophical questions have been raised in many clone wars era novels, including The Cestus Deception, the Medstar Duology, Jedi Trial, and Wild Space. In those novels, it didn't work because the clones were somewhat underdeveloped and the sub plot was a very insignificant aspect of the story overall. Here the clones get top billing, and the ethical dilemma is given the care and attention it needs to be profound. As a result, this is one of the "deeper" Star Wars novels, and this alone separates it from most video game tie ins.
Because the novel is set almost entirely on the world of Quillara, the author has an excellent opportunity to do some extensive world building. Quillara is fleshed out as a world inhabited by farmers, under Confederate occupation. The farmers have clashes with the Gurlanin, who are being driven out of their homes by the expansion. This motivates Jinart to help the Republic, and gives her character a bit more flavor. The world is also populated by the usual strange creatures and such, which show up early on to briefly oppose our heroes but play little role in the overall story.
The writing style is very good, if simple, and is punctuated by excellent/humorous dialogue, swift and exciting action scenes, and plenty of background information on life as a clone. This the most thorough examination of the clone's behavior, training, and mindset available.
Hard Contact is a great novel with very, very few flaws. The ending is rather abrupt and open ended, and I didn't care for Jinart all that much, but that's about it. Fans of straight up action novels with a slightly philosophical side will love this, as will anyone who enjoys the Clone Wars or Star Wars in general. Highly recommended.