Dark Force Rising (Timothy Zahn)
Dark Force Rising is the second book in a trilogy of novels concerning the resurrection of the Empire under Grand Admiral Thrawn. This book does a great job of advancing the plots contained in the first one, and with so many different things going on at once, just about everybody will find something to love about this book. Featuring the same strong characters from the previous book, introducing a handful of new ones, and developing the plot in sensible, occasionally surprising ways, Dark Force Rising is every bit as good as its predecessor.
Set moments after the explosive conclusion to the previous novel, Dark Force Rising continues the various plotlines of the previous novel, Heir to the Empire. Leia and Chewie are introduced to the Noghri of Honoghr, and during these segments is where most of the true world building in the novel occurs. The Noghri have long been manipulated by the Empire, who “accidentally” destroyed their world’s ecosystem and have since been “cleaning up” in an effort that is clearly aimed at exploiting the renowned Noghri assassins for as long as possible. This segment contains some of the most intriguing themes in the novel as the Noghri’s situation is readily connectable to real world cultures enslaved in similar ways. Leia truly shines in this role where Han and Luke aren’t there to overshadow her, and she forges a solution in a way that only she can.
Han and Lando are the protagonists in the second major story arc. The duo is investigating charges a “Delta Source” high in the Republic’s chain of command that is known to be supplying information to the Imperials. This is an intriguing sub plot because it is used to present other forms of strife within the Republic, including a deep divide between supporters of Borsk Fey’lya and Admiral Ackbar. The inner workings of the Republic are further revealed when Han and Lando are rescued from the clutches of the Imperials by Garm Bel Iblis, a former Alliance leader that resigned before the Battle of Yavin to form his own resistance army. Iblis is an interesting character anyways, with his many secrets and intriguing past, but he really shines when he forces the duo to confront their views about the Alliance leadership. This segment helps to humanize the Rebellion, which is often portrayed in only the cleanest and most positive of lights. Here we learn that petty bickering and internal disputes are as much a part of the Rebellion as they are in the Empire, but the difference is that in the end, the cause always wins out. Han and Lando are characterized very nicely, and I kind of prefer these two together instead of Han and Chewie, at least in print form. The relationship between the two is conveyed more effectively in print than the one between Han and Chewie. It has the same sense of familiarity, better banter, and more equal participation in resolving conflicts, while Chewie’s unique manner of speaking can only be conveyed so many ways (particularly when the author doesn’t use translations to detail exactly what he is saying.)
Luke has probably the most disappointing sub plot of anybody, though it is far from bad. He spends much of his time in the novel learning from crazed Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth, including presiding over legal matters in the village in which C’baoth rules. These sections are some of the most tedious in the book, though fans of Luke will enjoy his frequent clashes with C’baoth over philosophy, and his doubts about C’baoths methods. This segment is kind of dull though, and C’baoth is easily the least intriguing character in the series thus far, but luckily Luke’s character arc is salvaged by an excellent second act involving Mara Jade. Mara’s plotline carries over from the previous book as well, though it isn’t long before she gets herself into trouble that only Luke can help her overcome: the imprisonment of her boss, smuggler Talon Karrde, on Thrawn’s flagship, an Imperial Star Destroyer. In a segment echoing Episode IV’s raid on the Death Star in more than a few ways, Mara and Luke help break Karrde out of imprisonment. This exciting sequence is one of the strongest in the book and helps to redeem Luke’s otherwise bland arc.
The titular Dark Force, the long lost Katana Fleet, plays a huge role in the events of the second half of the novel. A derelict armada of dreadnaughts, the fleet has enough firepower to turn the tides of the war in favor of whoever gets their hands on it first. The back story behind the fleet is a nice way to talk about events in the Old Republic and the sinister nature of a fleet lost in space is something Star Wars hasn’t seen much of. Thrawn scores his first major victory of the campaign in the climax of the novel, and in fact appears to be too strong for our heroes in this book. An example of a powerful, intimidating villain, Thrawn stymies our heroes at nearly every turn, and in fact his few defeats are the result of luck more than anything else. He is the rare villain that could actually benefit from being more fallible.
One of the few “flaws” with this novel is the blatant continuity errors. Anyone remotely familiar with the events of the movies, and just a hint of background material, will find most of the sections on the Old Republic to be absolutely laughable. Very little of what is written here matches with what we know today. Fans will be particularly confused by references to Leia’s mother and a bizarre, impossible dating system in relation to C’baoth’s life. Of course, this isn’t really Zahn’s fault; these books came out half a decade before anything was set in stone about the Old Republic. The problem is that it hasn’t aged well at all, and anybody reading it in present day will find the discrepancies to be jarring. Additionally, much of the background information wasn’t really essential. The dates attached to C’baoth’s life don’t mean anything to the story, and Leia’s mention of her mother is entirely superfluous. Other details about the Clone Wars and Old Republic are similar attempts at world building that now damage the value of the story instead of enriching it.
The fact that something that wasn’t (mostly) the author’s fault is my main problem with the novel speaks to just how good it is. Everyone will find something to enjoy here, and fans of any one character will come away impressed with just how accurate Zahn is in portraying them. This book is arguably the definitive characterization of Mara Jade, while Thrawn, Karrde, and Leia are all pitch perfect as well. As a continuation of an incredibly good opening novel, Dark Force Rising is excellent, mimicking the Original Star Wars trilogy in tone (bad guys winning at the end of the second act) and plot (Luke learns more about the Force from an old Jedi master) while managing to carve out a niche for itself in the Star Wars universe. Highly recommended.