Agents of Chaos: Hero's Trial and Agents of Chaos: Jedi Eclipse are the fourth and fifth books in a 5-year story arc introducing a new threat to the Star Wars Universe that comes from beyond the galactic rim.
As this duology starts off, things look pretty bleak for the New Republic. The invading armies of the Yuuzhan Vong have conquered dozens of worlds, and their progression towards the Core planets seems unstoppable. Book One, Hero's Trial, begins on Kashyyyk, with a poignant memorial service for Chewbacca. Rather than the healing ritual the service is intended to be, it seems to further widen the gulf between the Solo family members. Shortly following this memorial, Han Solo, looking for something with which to occupy himself, for some way to pull together the pieces of his fractured life, responds to pleas from an old smuggling buddy to help locate another smuggler turned Yuuzhan Vong collaborator. Along the way, Han acquires, at least temporarily, a new co-pilot, Droma, of the rare gypsy-like species, the Ryn. Han and Droma's travels take them to the heart of the captured territories, and lead them to uncover an even greater conspiracy. The race is then on to expose this plot before the Yuuzhan Vong are successful in their plan to destroy the Jedi Order.
In Book Two, Jedi Eclipse, Princess Leia becomes more deeply involved in refugee resettlement, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the advancing, displacing Yuuzhan Vong. Han, with Droma in tow, races to rescue Droma's Ryn relations held captive by the Yuuzhan Vong. Meanwhile, Jedi Knight Wurth Skidder allows himself to be snared by the Vong in an effort to better determine how they can be defeated. And the New Republic, finally, goes on the defensive, hatching a plan to lure the Vong to a starfleet-destroying weapon near Corellia.
Well it's about durn time!! At last a contribution to the New Jedi Order stew-pot worthy of the repast that has come before. This duology displays a glimmer of the energy and suspense of the better of the Expanded Universe novels. A spark of novelty. The Yuuzhan Vong, especially in Hero's Trial, start to seem more intriguing, less a rip-off of bad-guys past. And at long last, Han Solo becomes again a recognizable figure. We get to see the process of Han dealing with the loss of Chewbacca; it is sad, funny, achingly Han. Anguished, not quite fully coping, but definitely Han. The other, missing-in-action, drinking-himself-into-oblivion Han was a plot-device; this feels authentic.
Other affects of Chewie's death on some of the Skywalker/Solo relationships are begun to be dealt with as well. Interactions between Han and Luke and between Han and Leia are strained and rueful, but potently real. Four books into the New Jedi Order series to get true-to-character, grown-up conversation. I'd lost all hope! Most painful to witness is Han and Leia's estrangement, but these are two very strong-willed people and their downs are as likely volatile as their ups. We deserve to traverse this difficult passage with them, to not have their bond trivialized by inattention to how these new traumas are affecting them.
Han's new shipmate, Droma, is a fun creation too. No disrespect to the dead, but Chewbacca was not an ideal literary companion for Han. Authors were always forced to make odd decisions on how to get around Chewie's lack of English (Basic) verbal ability. Droma, who can communicate…on the page…in a language we know, serves as a marvelously witty sparring partner for Captain Solo. And his sarcasm and take-no-self-pity cynicism further shake Han loose from his melancholy.
On the larger political stage, the New Republic government's responses to the Vong invasion are less over-wrought and falsely simplistic than in the New Jedi Order: Books 1-3. There is still a whiff of melodrama to the proceedings not found in a Timothy Zahn novel, or in other of the better of the EU works, but Luceno's depiction of the inner workings of galactic governing are overall more natural and grounded. And for true fans of the Expanded Universe, there are interwoven quite a few of the story threads and peripheral players introduced in past tales. The secret weapon being positioned to ambush the Yuuzhan Vong at Corellia comes straight from Roger Macbride Allen's Corellia Trilogy, as does Intelligence operative, Belindi Kalenda. Han's smuggling pal, Roa, was introduced to us in A.C. Crispin's Young Han Solo Trilogy. Vergere, the mysterious companion of the Yuuzhan Vong priestess, Elan, first appeared all the way back (in the timeline) in Rogue Planet. Even Prince Isolder, of (urk) Courtship of Princess Leia fame, has a supporting role.
The Agents of Chaos duology is not perfect. Interspersed with lucid, heartfelt text and astute dialogue and character work, are periodic sections of florid prose and sophomoric, sloppy plotting. And the same sense of "old home week" in the EU afforded the avid fan from the continuum connectivity and Star Wars Trivial Pursuit sort of obscure references, ventures from abundance of arcane detail and edges over into the pat and a trifle forced. Too, the recapping necessitated by the historical minutiae occasionally slows down the story. But perhaps the biggest flaw is not of author James Luceno's making. Despite almost ceaseless physical description of the Yuuzhan Vong, we still don't know them as three-dimensional figures. Their ritualistic, superstitious trappings and behavior make them buffoon-like, not fearsome. The layers upon layers of pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo are beginning to get repetitive and add no genuine insight to flesh these fellows out. Perhaps the intent is to make the Vong threat insurmountable for just the reason that the Vong are zealots who won't countenance any diplomatic compromises. But so far, there is no depth to them. They seem too intractable and limited in their vision to be so invincible. Surely a race that is so xenophobic that they can't and won't get into the mind-set of their adversaries is easily defeated by a military, such as that of the New Republic, with much less restricted scope?
Any book that begins by viewing a scene, and in a very silly way, from C3P0's point of view (as Hero's Trial does), has at least a few missteps to compensate for. But mostly, this duology does what the best of the Expanded Universe novels do so well, that is, deepen our understanding of and link to the Star Wars characters. And here, where those characters' voices finally begin to feel "true", we at last get a sense of the toll taken by the Yuuzhan Vong. Even if the Vong themselves are to-date less than ideal as nemeses, the swath they are cutting through the Star Wars galaxy now has an emotional resonance. Each planet that falls to the Vong is felt as a powerful loss. These are places we've come to know, places that make up the nuance and richness of the enormous Star Wars cosmos, and one by one, everything we care about in that cosmos is being upended. Here's hoping the next installments of the New Jedi Order series keep moving in this positive direction, and not backslide toward the series' inauspicious beginnings.
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