Survivor's Quest (Timothy Zahn)
In Survivor's Quest, the successor to the Old Republic era novel Outbound Flight, we are treated to Luke and Mara's voyage into Chiss space to view the wreckage of that long ago intergalactic voyage. Along the way, our star duo tries to uncover a mystery behind strange sabotages and thefts on the Chiss vessel, while also attempting to dig up the truth about the ship's many guests, including a group of soldiers from the Empire of the Hand. The second half of the novel is essentially a large battle sequence in which Mara and Luke do what they do best, and if you are a fan of the duo at all, this book will not disappoint in the slightest.
In the first part of the book, Luke and Mara are pulled from other duties when a message comes from Chiss space informing them of an old space wreck, the Outbound Flight, recently found on an uninhabited world. They agree to come along, but immediately they encounter strange happenings on the Chiss ship. This part of the book is devoted to figuring out the culprits behind the acts of sabotage, and uncovering the truth among the book's many shady characters. This part is quite similar to last year's Shadow Games, with our heroes acting as detectives, interrogating suspects and inspecting evidence to make their hunches. Luckily, despite our heroes' incredible skill in the force, they do struggle a bit with coming up with a solution and it isn't as simple as finding impressions on an object or using mind tricks to flush out the truth. There are plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing, and enough conflicting motivations to give it layer It isn't an awe inspiring detective story (and if you have read the original novel you will be able to piece it together fairly quickly) but it is a nice change of pace and a fun contrast to the latter part of the book.
The second half of the book is all action, and this is where it gets good. Mara and Luke tear through the new menace with a capable and awe inspiring ease, tackling everything they throw at our heroes with ease and occasionally a bit of creativity. Granted, they aren't facing the most capable or memorable villains in the Star Wars universe, but this is still a fun use of the characters. The focus shifts from the detective work of the first half of the book into an obviously more familiar groove for author Timothy Zahn, and the result is a conclusion that delivers on the book's initial promise. There isn't as much exploration of the society of Outbound Flight as would have been optimal, especially considering how interesting the society seems given the brief tidbits we are shown, but there is a sub plot concerning their views toward force-sensitives that definitely gives their culture a deranged undertone.
This book does a wonderful job of showing the relationship between Mara and Luke, and in fact their dynamic proves to be one of the highlights of the novel. The two share an easy banter that helps relieve a lot of the tension from this book, and the respect and love they have for one another is simply but poignantly shown. However, Luke is a surprisingly static character in this book, and it is actually Mara who changes a bit as a result of the story. She begins to question her loyalty to the New Republic and ponders how she was able to survive the Empire, leading to an internal conflict that is a bit stale simply because we've seen similar things out of her from the Thrawn trilogy. A bit of fresh air is breathed into this otherwise trite identity crisis by Luke's unyielding love for Mara, helping her through these issues in a way that he couldn't before. The two are certainly at their best in this particular book when they are together, and while this book isn't as deep of a look into Mara or Luke as might be expected, it fits with the pacing and will make fans of both characters very happy.
The rest of the cast is adequate, but hardly exceptional. Jinzler is portrayed with interesting shades of regret and loneliness, and it was refreshing to see a relatively important character who wasn't a pilot/diplomat/Jedi/soldier. He manages to succeed mostly on the variety presented in his occupation, but he is also a fairly conflicted character, even more so than Mara in this book, and having more or less a regular guy work through his problems in the Star Wars setting is something we unfortunately don't see much of. Everyone else is less interesting than he is though, and they do tend to fall a bit more into a tightly defined, plot driven role. Formbi was far more interesting in the original Outbound Flight novel, because here he lacks much personality beyond his devious scheming, and his military commander Drask is a mostly generic character that manages to be somewhat endearing towards the end of the book, both otherwise is totally forgettable. Even Fel is there mostly to create Mara's crisis of allegiance while also acting as an unknown quality during the first half of the book, with allegiances and plans unknown to the reader. Our villains are even more generic than the support characters, being the kind of faceless, incapable nuisance that fits relatively well for a one off adventure, but would quickly grow old in a second or third appearance. There are a handful of civilians from Outbound Flight that have roles in this story too, but unlike Jinzler they never come across as being all that interesting. Instead, Zahn has done a great job of building the society that emerged from the rubble of Outbound Flight and giving us all kinds of allusions to the history of the place since the tragic crash landing.
One of Zahn's biggest flaws as a writer is a tendency to talk up his characters, even when they are barely/not at all relevant to the story at hand. While his action scenes are solid and he puts forth a fantastic effort to immerse us in the society that has sprung up around Outbound Flight, the Thrawn worship in this book is comical and makes it very hard to take seriously. It should first be noted that Thrawn does not appear in this book. At all. Despite this, Zahn manages to interject Thrawn's genius into nearly every chapter of this book. Whether it is praising Thrawn for so precisely disabling Outbound Flight's weapons, expressing dismay that Thrawn was unable to finish off a group of aliens, or repeatedly letting us know just how incredible Thrawn's intellectual capacity was, we get an embarrassing overload of Thrawn love in this book. Everyone, from two of the Jedi who managed to defeat him-twice- to the Chiss delegation who have a well known dislike for Thrawn's tactics, bows before his prescient knowledge of all things strategy, and it makes this book an extremely awkward read at times. Like the typos in Splinter Cell: Checkmate, every time another sentence came up out of nowhere mentioning how great Thrawn is, I was totally sucked out of the story and uncomfortably reminded of a particularly dull fan fiction effort. Thrawn may indeed be an interesting, pivotal character for the Star Wars expanded universe, but that doesn't justify his bizarre treatment in this book. The worst part comes at the end though, and the only solstice I can take from what was clearly an effort to bring Thrawn back from the dead- again- is that we have yet to see it actually happen, nearly a decade after the book's publication.
Despite having a somewhat mediocre mystery as the focal point for nearly half the book, and fawning over Thrawn a little much for my tastes, this is a really solid story. Fans of Luke and Mara's relationship will love their presentation here, as Zahn renders their unique dynamic better than anybody, and the latter half of the book is a straight forward action romp that shows our heroes doing what they do best. Survivor's Quest is by no means an essential piece of Star Wars lore, but you could do far worse.