Death Star (Michael Reaves and Steve Perry)
Death Star is a standalone novel detailing the construction, origins, and design of the infamous super weapon featured in Episode IV: A New Hope. The tale of eight original characters, all of whom connected to the project in some way, the book juggles these viewpoints with those of established movie characters like Admiral Motti, Tarkin, and Darth Vader. This enormous cast of PoV characters ultimately is too big for its own good, and while the idea of showing all the different elements of the Death Star is an appreciated one, very few of the stories manage to actually resonate due to the choppy and rushed way they are presented. Couple this with a weak second act and you have a novel that would have been better served as a technical guide (such as the recent guides to Vader's suit and the Millennium Falcon.)
The plot consists of the stories of each of the new characters: a prisoner, a guard, a pilot, a bar owner, an architect, a gunner, a doctor (Uli Divini, a character first featured in the Medstar Duology by the same authors,) and a librarian. As you might imagine, each of the stories spends a good deal of time focusing on their individual part to play in the Death Star project: the bar owner obsesses over the type of patrons she is getting, the funding from the Empire, and her purpose on such a massive battle station, while the architect is busy bringing her expertise to designing the various mechanisms the Death Star will need, which serves as an excellent opportunity to mention many of the more technical details of the project. When focusing on the actual ins and outs of living on the battle station, everyone's stories hold up rather well. It is interesting to learn about the less exciting elements of the Death Star and to see how it was viewed by everyday people. Unfortunately, as actual stories, nearly all of them fall flat. The biggest problem is that the characters generally aren't interesting, but the lack of any real conflict is also a problem. The doctor having to do routine work because of personnel shortages is particularly bad, but the guard's random struggles with Force sensitivity and the droll meditations of the librarian are of little interest either. The short choppy chapters and rapid point of view shifts do little to help things by further severing any connection the reader may try to make with the characters. Seven of the eight characters eventually meet up and with little preamble they all decide that they want off the battle station. The group's bonding is utterly contrived and something that we see very little of. One minute half the group doesn't even know one another, the next they are plotting treason and desertion together. Only the gunner, incidentally the only character never to interact with the rest of the cast, is given a truly meaningful story in his change of heart concerning the use of the weapon and his role in it. Getting inside the head of the man who pulled the trigger on such a powerful weapon is a compelling experience that the rest of the book is sorely lacking.
To prove the more macro level plot lines, and to give us some of the only noticeable conflict in the early acts of the book, we spend some time with Tarkin and Vader and their attempts to ferret out a movement of Rebel spies that have infiltrated the station. This segment gives us some great insights on the relationship between two of the Emperor's most important servants, and manages to introduce some actual action into an otherwise drab first half of the book. Also, Daala shows up and we get a potentially hilarious retcon involving why she was such a massive failure in the Jedi Academy Trilogy (massive head trauma.) These early scenes featuring the two men, in addition to Admiral Motti (the man Vader choked during the conference scene in A New Hope) do a great job of showing the upper level Imperial machine at work, and make a strong attempt at carrying the otherwise bland book. Unfortunately, even their scenes start to suffer with the start of the second act.
The second act pushes the book into territory covered by the movies. While this allows for some bona fide action, the real problem here is that it starts to read uncomfortably like a novelization of A New Hope. Lines and scenes are lifted straight from the movies, sometimes to little real benefit to the actual plot of this book. These scenes are simply uninspired rehashes that manage to do nothing more than fill space, and they are far from the worst thing to happen in this half of the book. Most embarrassing is when the book's characters are inserted just outside of the frames of the movie. The doctor tends to Leia after her interrogation, the guard unlocks the detention level turbolift for Han Luke and Chewie, and the architect realizes-too late-what the Rebels are trying to do during their desperate assault. It seems kind of cheesy to put them just outside of the movies like this, needlessly working this story into the plot of A New Hope in a way that further dilutes whatever was supposed to be going on with the main cast. The conclusion is predictable and lacking, relying on a hastily explained and poorly executed escape sequence that leaves the fates of the main characters mostly to the imagination.
Characterization is, perhaps not surprisingly, a little thin due to the massive cast. Introducing seven (not counting Uli, the doctor whom is mostly characterized by his recollections of the experiences in Medstar more so than by anything that happens in this book) point of view characters and attempting to do interesting things with them in the span of a book shorter than four hundred pages is a massive undertaking, and it is perfectly understandable that the authors fall well short of crafting intriguing characters with memorable personalities. Besides the gunner, nobody stands out as being particularly interesting. The characters sound very similar and seem to have the same kind of internal questions and beliefs; there is hardly any friction in the group despite their varied backgrounds and allegedly unique personas, with the only thing separating one from the other being the most basic of details (name, gender.) The incredibly contrived romantic duos that pop up out of the main cast is unconvincing as well, with these sub plots being put on the back burner and hastily developed in favor of piling on more info about the Death Star. When all but one character has the exact same internal conflict over whether or not the Empire is in the right, and their external interactions consist of painfully sitcom-esque scenes and dialogue, the characters act as little more than window dressing to be manipulated according to the story.
As for the established characters, the authors aren't exactly bold in imagining any of these figures, but they also avoid stepping on any toes with the end result being that we get some useful insights into these characters. Tarkin and Motti benefit the most from this, with their motivations and histories being a bit clearer after this book, while Vader is beneficiary to a portrayal that nicely captures his more menacing, imposing side. The established characters are handled respectfully overall, and they are a much better presence in this book than the disappointing and bloated original cast.
The prose is chock full of interesting tidbits and factoids about the construction of the Death Star. While it is often painfully inserted into the main plot, this exposition is very useful for filling in unanswered questions and plot holes concerning the Death Star's construction. Due to elements beyond the authors' control, the history of the project is still a bit of a mess, as is the way in which the Rebels acquire the plans, but it is still a strong effort to bring the station to life and fill in those elusive technical details. Learning about the Death Star is one of the strongest aspects of the book, and the world building at work is definitely worthy of notice, but unfortunately covering all of this stuff comes at the dire expense of both the plot and the characters.
The rest of the writing is dull and mostly inoffensive. The dialogue perfectly matches the abysmal stories the characters find themselves in: lots of dumb jokes, one liners, and heavy handed passages when it is time to get serious. Using made up terms to depict real life things is also quite frustrating, it pops up a few times but by far the worst is "Fem Fortune" instead of "Lady Luck." I don't really understand this one because Lady Luck is already in Star Wars in the form of Lando Calrissian's ship. Why not just call it what it is? These name alterations are obviously supposed to be clever, but more often than not just come across as cheesy and distracting.
Action consists almost entirely of unarmed combat and dogfighting. The unarmed scenes are actually a rare highlight when they pop up, showcasing a form of fighting rarely seen in the Star Wars universe, and providing some of the few exciting scenes in the book. Dogfighting is more generic and completely awful, with the worst scene coming when a small fleet of X-Wings decides not to use their hyperdrive and instead engage in a suicide run on the under construction Death Star. They literally don't even fight back, and the rest of the flight scenes are simple training scenarios with little weight attached to them. Additionally, the big events of the second act lack much in the way of tension despite the limited time and unfavorable conditions hampering our heroes in their efforts to escape. The combination of uninspired re-hashing of movie scenes and dry descriptions of the unfolding narrative combines to utterly sink this final act and render the story all but useless.
Death Star is a near disastrous book. Despite succeeding in its mission to educate readers on the Death Star, the book fails to craft a coherent and enjoyable narrative to encase all this exposition in. Instead we are handed a cast much too big for the novel with a scattershot story featuring a dreadful final act. Fans of the Death Star will enjoy reading up on the technical details, but there is a wiki for that, and no reason to waste your time trudging through this book to enjoy them.