Scourge (Jeff Grubb)
Scourge is a standalone novel set roughly 16 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Featuring a completely original cast, it is the story of Archivist Jedi Mander Zuma's investigations throughout Hutt Space. The unique premise is much appreciated, as is the new look at Jedi that Mander provides. Despite some flimsy supporting characters and a predictable twist, Scourge is a strong showing in the same vein as last year's Shadow Games and Riptide.
The book starts as a fairly straightforward murder mystery. Mander is tasked with investigating the death of his apprentice, Toro, and completing his mission to recover navigation coordinates from the Hutts. From this point, Mander makes some startling discoveries about the nature of Toro's death and the most important aspect of the novel, hunting down and destroying a new hard spice known as Tempest, begins. Mander seeks the help of the Hutts in solving the crime, those of the Anjiliac clan in particular. His indeterminate relationship with the members of the family comprises much of the tension of the novel, though there is the requisite amount of shooting and action too. Mander's investigations take him to a diseased world to find Mika, offspring of the Anjiliac clan patriarch. Rescuing Mika nets him the coordinates and more leads in the Tempest case. From there, he continues to follow the trail up to the top, dealing with the expected Hutt treachery along the way, until the mastermind of the Tempest trade, the Spice Lord, is revealed in what is ostensibly a twist ending.
The twist revolves around the central premise of the novel- Hutts are completely untrustworthy beings that are never quite what they appear. Without giving away actual details, suffice to say that the big surprise concerning the identity of the Spice Lord masterminding the Tempest trade is telegraphed at least fifty pages in advance, when both main suspects go down. This cheapens the ending a bit, but thankfully it is still a suitably explosive, ultimately satisfying conclusion due to the excellent action sequences and overall growth of Mander's character. The plot is solid up until the twist, with plenty of clues, a handful of surprises, and more than enough action sequences to whet the appetite of any Star Wars fan.
Mander is unlike any Jedi we have ever seen. An archivist at the Jedi praxeum on Yavin IV, Mander is more used to careful research than lightsaber fighting and force powers. As a result, the events of the story force him to challenge himself, and push beyond what he thought he could do. He also battles stereotypes present in the minds of his companions that cause him a great deal of self doubt, compounded by the death of his padawan. As a new brand of Jedi, Mander is great. While it would have been nice to see an already existing, underdeveloped character get some attention, Mander more than makes up for it by being many things that a Jedi typically isn't. Unsure of himself and sluggish in a lightsaber fight, Mander's investigations into the Tempest trade force him to confront his deficiencies and improve as an all around Jedi. One skill he has that is put to good use is the Jedi Mind Trick. Notoriously inconsistent and generally poorly explained, the mind trick gets quite a bit of face time in this book, and the mechanics and rules behind it are carefully explained. This was a helpful bit of exposition that came into play a handful of times in the plot, and ultimately helps make sense of the actions and rationale behind use of the iconic hand wave in the movies. The only real flaw is that Mander's logical/analytical side only occasionally comes into play. Much of the plot is still resolved through use of the lightsaber or force, and not the intelligence Mander honed as an archivist.
Mander is primarily supported by three companions. The two females, CSA officer Angela Krin and Toro's sister Reen, are extremely bland and poorly developed. Reen is prone to extremely irrational behavior and never develops a personality beyond being the sister of the victim. Angela is a generic officer type that acts more as Mander's "official support" for the mission than as a truly fleshed out character. She helps him bypass several tricky scenarios, gets him around the Corporate Sector mandates in the area, and tags along for the ride, doing little to stand out from the dozens of helpful officer types seen in Star Wars books. Luckily, the third companion, Bothan spacer Eddey Be'ray, is an interesting character with a certain air of intrigue about him. The author prefers to let Eddey's actions do the talking, often portraying his role in a conversation as a subtle nod of the head, fidget, grimace, etc. We don't learn much about Eddey, but the sheer strength of his strong but silent persona, not to mention the unique way he is written, make him the most interesting character in Mander's squad.
The antagonists are spearheaded by the Anjiliac clan of Hutts. The dynamic between the various members of the clan is very entertaining while it lasts, and this novel features some of the best Hutt/underworld scenes available outside of A.C. Crispin's Han Solo trilogy. Each of the Hutts has a unique role to play, and of course, none can truly be trusted. Fans of Beldorion will be pleased to see yet another force sensitive, saber wielding Hutt come into play here, however briefly. The rest of the antagonists consist of a two bit, toothless clan of Rodians known as the Bomus, and the Spice Lord's underling, Koax. The Bomu are nothing more than cannon fodder for Mander and his team, and Koax has one of the most anticlimactic, disappointing fates this side of the Darksaber.
Writing in Scourge is very solid. The author does a credible job of developing the varied worlds our heroes experience, and does a great job of crafting the lavish palaces used by the Hutts. There is also a subtle humor present in the narrative that I appreciated, and Eddey was truly brilliantly written. Action scenes are told in the brisk, visceral style present in most Star Wars novels, though Scourge features a bit more gore than the average work. There are very few complaints to be had with the writing in Scourge, though the repetition of alien species as background characters (one Hutt uses only Nikto, another Wookies, a third Twi'leks, and so on) was kind of annoying when compared to Jabba's diverse band of followers, and the world of Varl, an interesting premise, is somewhat disappointing (boring) in execution. Overall though, a very strongly written novel.
Scourge is part of a new wave of Star Wars novels that are often the beaten path, often featuring entirely new characters. Like Shadow Games and Riptide before it, Scourge succeeds in truly expanding the scope of the universe a bit, giving us a decent cast of new characters, some exciting new worlds, and an above average storyline. Mander is an extremely interesting Jedi, and Eddey is characterized by one of the most rare methods in Star Wars: the notion that sometimes, fewer words equate to better character development, and the idea that mysterious characters are good. Recommended to any fan of the series, Scourge is a very strong debut for author Jeff Grubb, and a perfectly competent action-adventure novel, with just a hint of mystery mixed in.