Black Fleet Crisis Book One: Before the Storm (Michael P. Kube-McDowell)
In Before The Storm, the stage is set for yet another monumental crisis to wreck havoc on the Star Wars universe, this time featuring the enigmatic Nil Spaar and the alien Yevetha. Despite this premise being the kind of thing that Star Wars has feasted on many times both before and after this novel's publication in 1996, this book actually manages to avoid being a cliché ridden bore fest through mostly strong writing, a few solid characterizations, and most importantly a heroic side plot featuring Lando and his one-time aide, Lobot.
The main story here concerns Leia's dealings with Nil Spaar as she attempts to convince him to join the greater fold of the New Republic. Spaar of course has very different plans in mind, plans that only begin to come into fruition at the end of the book, and as the plot unfolds we see Han off on a mission to investigate the sector of space that the Yevetha call home. The first half of this book is remarkably free of violence, with only a training exercise of some sort, but it manages to be compelling through well crafted sequences between Spaar and Leia and a relatively intriguing mystery at the heart of the novel. Han's trip into space is pretty good too, and there is lots of world building and name dropping for the more detail oriented fans out there that help fill in some of the gaps of this particular era of the timeline. The main story is fragmented a bit to make room for the two seemingly unrelated side stories, and although one of them is the very definition of filler, the other is a very entertaining ride despite its relatively insignificant status.
Of the two less prominent stories being told here, the one that ostensibly has the most significance is by far the weakest. Luke has resigned as leader of the Jedi Academy in favor of trying out life as a hermit, believing that if Yoda and Obi-Wan did it, then he must give it a go too, if only for the experience. This is a decent way to write Luke out of the main events while also giving his character a bit of progression, but unfortunately his part in the book isn't over quite so easily. Enter Akanah, a Fallanassi mystic with supposed knowledge of Luke's mother, a fellow Force user named Nashira. Wait a minute, Nashira? Everybody knows that Luke's mother was a Senator of the Old Republic named Padme Amidala. Not back in 1996 they didn't, but continuity fans need not fret because this is all just an enormous tease and not some alternate history of our beloved characters. The simple fact that it is so obviously either a lie or a false lead is enough to make this sub plot a negative on the book as a whole, but couple in a total lack of character progression and a very muted dynamic between Akanah and Luke and you have a recipe for a sleep inducing storyline.
Luckily we have a wonderfully inventive tale featuring Lando, Lobot, C-3P0 and R2-D2 to pick up the slack. The ensemble is charged with locating and boarding a mysterious vessel known as the Teljkon Vagabond. Lando and his eclectic team share great chemistry, the process of boarding and exploring the Vagabond is mysterious with all the right stylings for an epic adventure in the next two novels, and a more human element of conflict is introduced through the friction with Lando's team and the New Republic task force he accompanies to the ship. This is easily the most promising aspect of the series going forward, with a tone completely different from the rest of the book but calling to mind the not so serious and adventurous trappings that was emblematic of Expanded Universe Star Wars during its early years.
Although characterization for the most part is really strong, Leia is butchered pretty badly which makes her sequence hard to get through at times. For starters, the plot seems to mandate that she be a naive rookie unaccustomed to galactic diplomacy and ignorant of the many horrid threats that the New Republic has faced under her reign. Despite being invaded by so many groups and barely surviving so many crises, she is enthralled and overly trusting of Nil Spaar, doing things on his terms and blindly falling into his trap despite the warnings of her advisors. She is very emotionally vulnerable and prone to outbursts of anger and blaming, even accusing Han of being sexist simply because he refused one of her dumber orders. She gets mad at Luke for coming to her house and sharing his plans with her, plans which do not include helping her raise her children as she was initially hoping. There are plenty more out of character moments for her in this book, and even though her story manages to be compelling regardless of this, her portrayal seems to miss most of the essence of the character and is a black mark on the book.
Luckily most everyone else is characterized quite well. Chewie is written out of this one early on but he does get a good reason for this that could potentially grow his character. Luke should have been written out of the book, and although he shows up too much doing totally useless things, he isn't bizarrely characterized or anything. He has some wise words for Leia, tries to follow in the footsteps of the Old Republic Jedi a bit, and generally feels like a good character gone to waste in a horrible part of the story. Lando and Lobot have a great rapport, while the inclusion of R2 and 3-P0 add a lot to the skill set and variety of the group. Lobot in particular is intriguing because we know so little about him despite his semi-prominent role in the films (technically speaking at least-many characters with far less screentime have been featured much more heavily in the Expanded Universe.) While he isn't a revelatory character or even one that would be all that interesting without someone else to play off him, he is a perfect fit in this story and coupled with Lando. Han is a lot like Lando in this book, with the added layer of being the father of three force sensitive children. There isn't anything memorable about Han's appearance here, but luckily it doesn't manage to detract from the book like Leia's does. Nil Spaar, our new antagonist, reminds me a lot of the Yuuzhan Vong and it will be interesting to see what directions he goes in as the book progresses, but in Before The Storm he was used more as a mysterious character of unknown goals and motives.
Despite featuring a lot of downtime and significantly less action than most Star Wars novels, Before The Storm still manages to be written in such a way that these diplomatic sequences and verbal exchanges manage to be just as entertaining as the usual conflicts. There aren't many flaws either, outside of an amusing but well worn voice that seems to be applied to most of the characters. The space battles are on the weaker end of the spectrum as well, focusing a bit too heavily on technical jargon and not doing enough to visualize the conflicts, but in the end this is a well written and robust novel that will do little to offend people familiar with the typical Star Wars offerings.
Although Before the Storm isn't a classic Star Wars book, there is a lot to like here regardless of the many mistakes. One third of it is total garbage, and Leia is characterized so bizarrely that her parts are tough to get a feel for even though the plotting is solid and there are a lot of cool ideas at work. However, this is in many ways a forgotten gem of the earlier era of the Expanded Universe because of the superb Lando storyline and a writing style that manages to make even politicking and diplomacy as interesting as space battles and saber duels. Before the Storm isn't for every Star Wars reader, but if you are the type that appreciates a bit of a political look into the Galaxy Far Far Away, then you could certainly do much worse than this.