Jedi Search (Kevin J. Anderson)
Jedi Search is the first book in the Jedi Academy Trilogy series, a triad of novels set after the events of the Thrawn Trilogy, and detailing the further adventures of Luke Skywalker and company. Filled to the brim with a wide array of new ideas and characters, including the force sensitive slave Kyp Durron and the interminable Admiral Daala, the book is a strong opener to a new series, though it does have a small handful of flaws.
The book basically consists of two main stories: Han and Chewie's unfortunate trip to Kessel and Luke's efforts to rebuild the Jedi. Han and Chewie's diplomatic voyage to the prison world of Kessel comprises most of the plot. In an effort to relive their glory days and seek out old smuggling contacts, the two head to Kessel but end up finding a hostile pirate fleet lead by former acquaintance Moruth Doole. Doole is the man that caused Jabba to place a bounty on Han's head in the movies, so there is quite a bit of underlying tension in their scenes, besides the usual prisoner-warden dynamic. More interesting though is the punishment that Han and Chewie find themselves enduring for landing on Kessel- working to acquire spice from the pitch black recesses of Kessel's inner caverns. The caverns are inhabited by all manner of spooky creatures, including the legitimately terrifying energy spider, and the author does a fantastic job of describing what it would be like to be unable to see while trapped in a tunnel with an arachnid that is capable of draining all the warmth from your body. Their work in the tunnels teams them up with Kyp Durron, a long time worker that knows the ins and outs of the system on Kessel. Initially more of an acclimating device for the reader than anything, Kyp's luck and inexplicable skill eventually leads to the revelation that he is a Force sensitive, though little is made of it in this book.
The second half of Han and Chewie's voyage takes place after a frantic escape into the heart of the black hole cluster around Kessel, in a research facility known as the Maw Installation. The Maw was a secret base set up with the purposes of lying in wait and developing as many catastrophic weapons as possible. Led by Admiral Daala and consisting of a force of troops that has not seen leave in many years, the navy guarding the Maw isn't nearly as potent as it is portrayed as being, but once again the world building helps salvage the sequence, and we get a handful of engaging action sequences for our efforts. Han and Chewie don't have the most logically sound or compelling story line, but it is an action packed thrill ride with some of the book's best examples of world building.
Luke's attempt at rebuilding the Jedi starts with the discovery of a strange device that can scan for Force affinity, along with a new reflex Luke finds that Force sensitives possess. With the testing methods nailed down, Luke sets off across the galaxy to investigate strange occurrences and unusual people. In this book, we only see his meetings with two potential recruits, gas miner Streen and colonist Gantoris. The meets are a nice insight into the tactics Luke is using to sell the idea of the Jedi Academy to his students, and the dynamic between the pupils and Luke feels right. The only complaint with this plot is that it is heavy on important happenings and interesting insights, but very low on actual conflict. Gantoris lays out some deadly tests for Luke to pass, but otherwise there is no overarching villain or sense of urgency for Luke to get this task done as soon as possible.
The trip to the Maw Installation eventually leads Han to cross paths with scientist Qwi Xux and her experimental weapons lab. The lab is home to a variety of designs, including the nearly complete Sun Crusher prototype. The Sun Crusher is basically a compact, deadlier version of the Death Star, and the ridiculous one-upmanship that must have inspired the idea behind this weapon really undercuts what was a promising development for Qwi's persona (a designer of evil weapons who is possibly unaware of their true purpose) by designing a machine that can only rationally be used to blow up stars and kill billions of people. The inclusion of a super weapon of this magnitude is almost certainly a bad omen for the rest of the book, but it plays very little role here, and overall the plot is an imminently enjoyable affair.
Characterization is a strong element of this book. Leia, though she doesn't play the most important role in the story, has a skillfully managed character arc that touches on her new life as a parent and her responsibilities in the New Republic. The guilt she feels about never being able to see her children, along with the duty she still feels to her faction, are two very powerful emotions that are easily relatable. This book also introduces Anakin Solo, Leia's third child, born just a few months before the start of this story. As you might have guessed, Anakin doesn't play a huge role in the story, but his presence is something of a wake up call to Leia, who vows to be more attentive in his early years than she has been so far with her twins, whom she has barely seen in their two years of life. The family dynamic is highly enjoyable, but the rest of the cast is pretty good too.
Luke has the expected internal struggle of trying to figure out how to become a great teacher and leader for a new generation of Jedi Knights, and with a little help from his friends he manages to get his hunting off on the right foot. His conflict isn't as interesting as Leia's but it is arguably more important, and Luke gets some great teaching/leading scenes where he flexes his muscles for new recruits Streen and Gantoris. Han and Chewie are perhaps the most muted. Their straightforward escape/capture/escape story arc doesn't lend itself well to in depth characterization, but they are portrayed faithfully here. Lando is the only real disappointment, lacking a bit of his usual charm, and newcomer Kyp Durron fails to establish himself in any meaningful way after this first book, but otherwise this is a strong showing in the character department.
Our antagonist, Daala, is a wonderful idea gone horribly wrong. Much like Thrawn, she is billed as being an outsider in the Imperial military that is more capable than her comrades. Unlike Thrawn's wholly skill based rise to the top, it is insinuated that she more or less had a romance with Grand Moff Tarkin to earn her top secret posting. Add to this a strict eye for discipline, but a lax one for strategy, and you have a character that is all brawn, no brains. She is very blustery in the scenes she appears in, scheming to take over the galaxy with a fleet of just four Star Destroyers, yet she manages to lose a fourth of her super disciplined armada before she even manages to leave the Maw Installation. It is an embarrassing attempt to pull off an interesting concept, and unfortunately the rest of the antagonists, which for this book is just pirate king Moruth Doole and some generic prison guards, add little to the equation.
Compared to many other works by the author, I was pleasantly surprised with the prose in Jedi Search. The dialogue isn't up to par with the likes of Timothy Zahn, but there is still a legitimate attempt to make characters sound like they did in the films, while avoiding the use of too many dumb clichés and lines ripped straight from the movies. I also appreciated the action scenes, which were a nice variety of skin-of-the-teeth chases. There are very few action scenes in this book that aren't chase scenes at heart, but luckily the stakes and dynamic behind each of them is altered enough to keep them fresh, and the presentation isn't half bad either.
The only real flaw in the writing is the embarrassing stream of asinine ideas that the author throws forth. Worst by far is the idea of blob races, basically the sci fi equivalent of horse racing. A mercifully short expedition by Lando and the droids to determine whether or not a frequent big winner at the races is force sensitive, lucky, or in on a fix manages to deliver nearly all of the most cringe worthy writing in the book. The blobstacle race, complete with "blobstacles," is an idea straight out of the most unreadable young adult literature in the Star Wars universe. It is an idea so dumb, so tongue in cheek, and so half hearted that it really had no place in the book. Other bad ideas include: automated floating lunch trays, the Sun Crusher, and Luke randomly using the Force to throw Jacen and Jaina around a room, because nothing screams "peace-loving Jedi Knight" like using your telepathic powers to nearly drop your sister's babies on their heads.
Jedi Search is a very good book, made all the more surprising by the low scores I have given this author in the past. Ignoring past grievances allows me to see a strong showing here with only a flimsy antagonist and some dumb ideas as true flaws. Definitely worth your time if you are remotely interested in Star Wars.