The Crystal Star (Vonda N. McIntyre)
The Crystal Star is a standalone Star Wars novel set about 14 years after the events of A New Hope. The book is legendary for being far and away one of the worst Star Wars books ever published, a reputation well deserved due to its surreal mischaracterizations, plethora of concepts that are ill fitting of the Star Wars universe, and a dull plot of little importance on any level. It isn't without some triumphs, like strong segments featuring Jaina and Jacen Solo, but The Crystal Star is nevertheless one of the worst books ever to be published under the Star Wars name.
The plot starts with a familiar plot device: Leia's force sensitive children have been kidnapped yet again. The world she is visiting at the time of the kidnapping, Munto Codru, has a noted extortionist sub culture, but Leia is quite certain that ulterior forces are at work. Of course, she is right, and this story line ends up involving Leia making the acquaintance of a captive Firrerro named Rillao and the children, Jaina and Jacen, playing pranks and plotting their escape from their captor, a rogue Imperial leader known as Hethrir. While Jaina and Jacen's part works quite well and would make an above average young adult novel, mostly because of the exceptional voice that the author uses for their scenes, Leia just falls flat. Part of this is her generally bad attitude towards everyone who is trying to help her, but mostly it is because her machinations don't actually amount to much. She shows up right when she is needed and helps out a bit in the climax but otherwise spends a lot of time doing nothing besides worrying.
The second major story line here involves Luke, Han, and C-3P0's investigation into reports of a mysterious powerful presence on Crseih Station, a remote outpost near what is known as the Crystal Star. They soon meet up with their contact, one of Han Solo's old flames, and what follows is one of the weirdest stories to be put to paper for Star Wars. Featuring an incomprehensible Luke Skywalker, forced conflict among the group, and a trans-dimensional blob of goo with healing powers, this truly is an incredibly bad aspect of the book's plotting.
The two stories, that of Leia's desperate pursuit of the kidnappers and Luke and Han's investigation into Waru's power, dovetail for the climax, which is again incredibly strange and rather boring. Everyone ends up jumping inside Waru and eventually the Crystal Star explodes for reasons I don't fully understand. There is a bit of intrigue between Hethrir, Rillao, and his helper Tigris, something that is probably the most enjoyable element of the plot, but even that is undercut by the relatively bland characters featured. Additionally, here is a surprising lack of true action in this book, even in the climax, something that hurts it time and time again, granting us no reprieve from the bizarre plot and forcing us to contemplate the mysteries of Waru far too often.
Characterization is a serious problem in The Crystal Star, badly mangling the characters that we know and love. Luke suffers the worst fate, becoming an indecisive, easily tempted, quick to anger, shell of a man. He accuses Han of cheating on Leia with only the most tenuous of evidence, nearly succumbs to Waru's will despite everyone else knowing he is up to no good, and seems to be very inactive in resolving things in this story. He comes across more as a naive farmboy prone to uncontrollable emotions than a poised Jedi Master that has been through the fire countless times over the 14 years since the Battle of Yavin. In a similar vein, Leia flies off the handle after learning her children have been kidnapped, blaming Chewbacca for letting them be taken despite the heroic Wookie suffering grievous injuries in their defense. She also refuses to talk to R2-D2 for a few scenes because he did something she disagreed with in order to save their skins. She is quite a wreck here, something that becomes immensely disappointing as she continues her desperate search for her children. Easily the best off of the big three is Han, who is given an inoffensive, unspectacular characterization while visiting a portion of his early life and having the opportunity to actually outshine Luke for once.
The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Jacen and Jaina have a great appearance here, working off of one another very well and generally displaying the kind of resourcefulness, compassion, and tenacity that will make them such esteemed Jedi in later novels. Lord Hethrir is a rather generic Imperial warlord that is never really made into a threat. He feels like, at best, a second tier Imperial commander, and a very low quality Force user. His aide, Tigris, is a much more compelling character. Brainwashed into clamoring for Hethrir's love and affection in all things, Tigris spends much of the novel groveling at Hethrir's feet before he is treated to a revelation similar to the infamous scene between Vader and Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Xaverri from the Han Solo trilogy makes an appearance here (technically her debut in terms of publication dates) but does little to impress except to shed some light on Han's early career. Rillao is a decent if somewhat convenient character that doesn't develop much except for when the story demands her to make another painstaking revelation.
The other major problem with this book is that it barely even feels like Star Wars. While part of this is due to the awful characterization of the most important players, much of the blame falls on the author for introducing a ton of creatures that are an ill fit for the Star Wars universe. The list is quite expansive, but includes standouts like wyrwolves (a kind of semi-sentient canine that is actually a pre-pubescent 6 armed alien) and centaurs. There are a few that play more minor roles too, like the ethereal Ghostlings and a poorly explained species known as the Whirlwinds. Of course, I'd be mistaken if I didn't include the trans-dimensional blob of golden goo Waru under the category of "things that don't fit in the Star Wars universe." There is simply no way something this awful and insane was originally created for this setting, and it definitely feels as though Waru was transplanted from some other work that the author was doing. Reading about our brave heroes jumping into a giant golden ball of adjusting scales and gelatin is a surreal moment on par with the lowest moments of the EU that I have personally experienced. With that being said, at least Waru had a point, something the other ill fitting creations in this book really don't have going for them. In trying to make the universe her own, author Vonda McIntyre has rendered it nearly unrecognizable outside of the names of the central cast.
While the reading definitely suffers for the inclusion of all these bizarre characters, the author does make a credible effort with the rest of the prose. There is a conscious effort to include distinct character voices in each of the point of view passages, and this occasionally works quite well. Simple sentence structure and childish wording of abstract concepts help give a sense of credibility and realism to Jaina's sequences, and Tigris's longing to be accepted by his master is voiced very well. Unfortunately, many of the adults are so badly mischaracterized that the effort to create distinct voices for them just doesn't work. Ultimately it is an appreciated gesture that gives the book a boost, but it is undercut by the fact that the author just doesn't seem to understand the most important characters.
There are other strong elements too. The Crystal Star itself, another somewhat esoteric concept, is explained relatively well and isn't nearly as jarring as the other weird stuff in this novel. World building is also a plus, with some nice details of the two central worlds, Munto Codru and Crseih Station, mixed into the main body of the story. Despite all the positive elements, there is quite a bit more to dislike too. Unfortunately dialogue tends to be quite unnatural, except for that of the children, and what few action scenes take place in this book are either incredibly dull in premise (any time Jacen and Jaina stop talking and start fighting) or tepid in execution (the climax.)
Despite some enjoyable elements, The Crystal Star is just too weird for its own good, and undoubtedly would have functioned better as a non-Star Wars novel. Jacen and Jaina's story is a decent one, but other than some competent elements of the writing, this book could not have been any worse. Featuring some of the worst characterizations of the most important heroes I have ever seen, and a weird beyond words storyline, The Crystal Star is a book of minimal importance to the greater canon and certainly one that should be avoided at all costs.