Dark Apprentice (Kevin J. Anderson)
Dark Apprentice, the second book in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, is a stunning turnabout in quality from the first work. Here, the dumb ideas that merely lurked around the fringes of Jedi Search are explored more vigorously, and some of the dumbest plot lines ever are thrown into the fray just to create conflict and give certain characters something to do. Featuring some of the worst character portrayals I've yet to encounter in a Star Wars novel, Dark Apprentice is an abomination of a novel that asks you to throw out common sense and all you know about your favorite characters in order to enjoy it in the slightest amount.
Of the roughly four main story lines, the most offensive is easily the one that sees Han and Lando resume their rivalry over the Falcon. Han, flustered about Leia potentially being in danger, gets snappy with Lando because he is helping Chewie fix up the Falcon, and eventually the two decide to play another game of sabacc to determine the owner of the Falcon, once and for all. While this alone is incredibly out of character, the fact that this random tangent becomes a center element of Han's story in this book is unbelievable. Han loses, mopes around for a long time, then they play a few more times and eventually Han wins it back with absolutely nothing changed. Besides being an utterly pointless waste of time, Han's willingness to gamble his most prized possession for no discernable return makes no sense, nor does his huffing about Lando working on his ship. Their relationship seems a bit more solid than that, even in the films; how is it ok for Lando to fly the Falcon into the Death Star, but not for him to perform repairs on it with the help of Chewie? The two basically get nothing done in the entire book besides arguing about who earns the Falcon, so this is a total waste and an angering mischaracterization of the duo.
Another infuriating sub plot involves the continued adventures of Admiral Daala. Deciding that linking up with the other Imperial forces in the galaxy would be a terrible move, she instead opts for a guerrilla war on supply caravans and random outposts. She only experiences two "on-screen" victories in the entire novel: the decimation of a tiny colony of miners with a direct tie to one of the Jedi apprentices, and the raid and destruction of a lone ship. The first, already a near irrelevant victory, becomes even more so when the only man with a direct tie to the colonists is killed, negating all emotional impact the tactically insignificant move may have had. The second seems to scare absolutely no one, and certainly doesn't impact the New Republic in any meaningful way. More daring plans, such as the bombardment of Mon Calamari, inevitably lead to failure, and after two books Daala has established herself as a laughable, astonishingly incompetent antagonist with little to offer.
More stupidity can be found in Luke's ongoing quest to create a New Jedi Order. We are presented with some admittedly enjoyable training sessions where Luke actually acts the part of wise Jedi master, but unfortunately the various trainees, many of them introduced in passing, don't get any kind of development unless they are about to fall to the dark side. Additionally, Luke comes across as kind of clueless. After one trainee is burnt to a crisp, he just shrugs and says "that's a shame, I might be a terrible teacher" then goes back to business as usual. No attempt to find an underlying cause or investigate the obvious symptoms from the events leading up to the death is made, and Luke comes across as kind of dumb as a result.
Things get really bad with the arrival of Kyp Durron though. Kyp, a character introduced in the previous novel, has decided to join the Jedi to learn more about the Force after his long period in captivity by various factions. There could be a promising story here about Luke using his experiences with the dark side in the Dark Empire comic book to teach Kyp and keep his anger from taking him down the wrong path, but instead Luke seems mostly oblivious while Kyp is possessed by evil Sith and becomes increasingly obnoxious and argumentative. In fact, Luke doesn't seem to realize anything is amiss until Kyp is flying out of the hanger with a stolen ship. Luke then proceeds to use none of his incredible array of force powers to even try to disable or destroy the vehicle, and Kyp makes good on his escape. The way Luke basically hands Kyp the keys to the Sun Crusher is truly embarrassing, and this regressive and clueless portrayal of Luke is an enormous missed opportunity.
Then of course, there is the business of the Sun Crusher itself. As a super weapon, it is a logical step up from the Death Star, even if it does seem over the top in that it is relatively small and literally indestructible. Silly games of one-upmanship by the author aside, the major problem with the Sun Crusher is the way everyone seems to react towards it. The New Republic spends almost no time studying it, instead opting to send it to the middle of the gas giant Yavin. There are a few problems with this thinking: Yavin is an inhabited system, so therefore people are near it and could potentially retrieve it, if it truly is indestructible someone will come up with a way to get it out sooner or later, and why not do something more permanent? Why not just send it on auto pilot into a black hole? Alternately, program it with a random set of hyperspace coordinates, evacuate, and trap it in hyperspace forever. Of course, all of this is conveniently ignored so that the ridiculously overpowered super weapon can have its time in the spotlight.
As if that wasn't enough, the fourth and final main thread involves Leia and Admiral Ackbar. Ackbar is a woefully underdeveloped character in the Expanded Universe, but unfortunately outings like this do little to help his image or advance his character. Here he is a moping, indecisive leader that is a shell of his former self. The way others treat him isn't much better, as he is condemned for a mechanical failure that caused the destruction of an important structure on a backwater and forgettable world. Despite the various facts at work: it wasn't his fault, his skill actually saved many lives, including Leia's and his own, the natives aren't holding it against the New Republic and want nothing more than to be left alone, and Ackbar is a bona fide war hero, he is still left hanging by many in the New Republic elite. Because of this, he throws a pity party and retires to his home world, where Leia must then travel to coax him out of his premature retirement. It is a decent use of Leia's diplomat skills, but at the same time it keeps her from developing a relationship with her children (something I was anticipating) and it comes at the cost of Admiral Ackbar's dignity.
Just so Wedge doesn't feel left out, he gets to engage in a painfully boring, haphazard romance with Qwi Xux, the woman who developed the Sun Crusher. While Wedge, a character who participated in the raids on both Death Stars, doesn't seem the type to go courting people who build weapons of mass destruction, this issue is barely touched upon in the few scenes we get with the two. Instead we get some really cheesy typical romance scenes and the destroyer of super weapons seems perfectly at home with the creator of them.
The only other element of any significance in this book is a brief sequence where the twins, Jacen and Jaina Solo, become lost in the underbelly of Coruscant. This is probably my favorite part of the whole book. More so than the rest of the book, it reads like a young adult novel, but it seems to be more honest with itself, and the simplistic, sensible premise is an enjoyable first adventure for the two. It is also a great look at Coruscant's underbelly, and a welcome distraction from the awful central stories. This would be a kind of terrible addition in most books, but it works well enough here.
This book was so bad that it made me question my enjoyment of the first book in the series. How could a series go from being so promising to so awful in one outing? Is it me? What is wrong with me, that I liked the first book, which was probably just as dumb? Self doubt aside, this has to be one of the most poorly plotted books I have ever read. All of the various idiocies concerning the story completely distracted me from the writing, and the characters act so strangely (read: do whatever the plot needs them to do) that examining the characterization in this book would be an exercise in futility. An utter disaster, Dark Apprentice has nothing more than unintentional comedy as a selling point.