Noir Wars

I keep saying, “I’m not really a Star Wars fan, but…” and then I go on to write about some weird esoteric piece of Star Wars lore, so I guess it’s a bit disingenuous to keep insisting I’m not a fan. What I mean is, I’m not religious about it. I am entertained without being particularly thrilled. I don’t care about canon. I recognize the pop culture significance without feeling all that strongly about it. But mostly, I’m entertained by the sundry back alleys and weird side projects that have cropped up over the years. Star Wars is a world that, at this point, can handle multiple interpretations and variations, and while the current movies seem content to simply rehash the same old, same old (more death stars, more desert planets, more prequels), there’s a bunch of material out there, especially in book form, that is more than happy to ignore the dreary Skywalker family soap opera (“You never played catch with me, dad!” a sullen Kylo Ren yells at Han Solo) and wander down some strange avenues. Part of what I love about the old Han Solo adventures is that, Solo himself notwithstanding, there’s no Star Wars stuff in them. No stormtroopers, no Jedis, no Empire, no The Force; just Han Solo ripping around the galaxy while Chewbacca chugs beer and wears a yacht captain’s hat.

So when I discovered, belatedly, that there was a series of hardboiled detective novels set in the Star Wars universe, I figured yet again I’d put off writing about that giant green bunny rabbit from the Marvel comics and tackle a book full of C3P0s smoking cigarettes and swigging oily gin. I mean, I assumed that’s what they’d be about. It turns out the first of this “Coruscant Nights” trilogy, Jedi Twilight, isn’t full of Yodas in fedoras saying stuff like, “The big deal, what is? Wiseguy are you trying to be? Knuckle sandwich do you desire?” It fits more comfortably into the realm of a cyberpunk interpretation of Star Wars, though admittedly there are many stylistic threads running between cyberpunk and old detective stories.

Jedi Twilight takes place after the events of the film Revenge of the Sith, in which pouty young Anakin Skywalker becomes pouty young Darth Vader, the Republic becomes the Empire, and Obi Wan-Kenobi proves a master of blending in by changing his name to “Ben” Kenobi and hiding Darth Vader’s son on the planet Darth Vader is from, with relatives Dark Vader has met, under the original last name of Darth Vader. So…I guess it makes sense when, in Jedi Twilight, we meet Jax Pavan, an outlaw Jedi who is in hiding under the name Jax Pavan. Following the destruction of the Jedi Order, those who survived have scattered to the winds, and Jax figures there’s no better place to hide than on a planet with a trillion people. He stitches together a hardscrabble existence working as a bounty hunter and avoiding the Force, knowing that if he uses it, Darth Vader will sense him and come huntin’, even though officially the Empire considers the Jedi vanquished and not worth pursuing any further.

Jax is one of several main characters — too many main characters — who all find themselves thrown together into a plot involving a missing droid, some valuable information, organized crime, and Vader’s inexplicable obsession with Jax, a loser who had only been a Jedi for a couple of months before the whole extermination of the Jedi thing happened. The plot is fairly rote in its way, and the story cluttered with too many points of view, but what keeps the book interesting is the setting. The setting of much of the action of the prequel trilogy of films, Coruscant is the heart of the Republic, a massive city-planet with dozens of layers. Jedi Twilight spends most of its time in the lowest levels, where for most people life under the Empire is no better or worse than life under the Republic, when life wasn’t very good. It’s a seedy world of gangsters, murderers, hustlers, strip clubs, bars, and garbage dumps, populated by the discarded and disenfranchised that felt abandoned by the lofty likes of the Jedi Council and the Republic politicians long before Darth Vader came huffing and wheezing onto the scene. Stylistically, it’s Star Wars filtered through the lens of Richard Morgan’s neo-cyberpunk classic Altered Carbon, though without the graphic gore and hardcore sex.

Though not an overtly political book, Jedi Twilight does skirt some social issues. There’s the aforementioned problem of class and representation, of the political and religious leaders losing touch with the common people, of the fact that regime change might be a big deal to the royals and the Jedis and the wealthy but for the average ugnaught on the street, life is just about holding down a job and feeding your family. There’s also, in a sort of cyberpunk-lite way, a story about interpreting sentience, about when an artificial creation — a droid of course, this being Star Wars — becomes a person with freewill, and at what point treating such a being as property and a slave becomes morally repugnant. A droid by the name of I-5YQ forces the issue by being freely capable of self-determination and creativity where other droids have been artificially limited by their keepers. This throws a monkey wrench into the worldview of a number of characters, not least of all Jax himself, who despite his supposedly noble Jedi values finds himself too rigidly trained to think of droids as anything but programmed machines.

Jedi Twilight has some flaws, as most things do, the largest being the previously alluded to preponderance of characters. Though the story ostensibly revolves around Jax and I-5YQ, one couldn’t accurately refer to them as main characters. It’s an ensemble of good guys, bad guys, and those playing both sides, and just about every one of them gets a few chapters spent in their point of view. It makes for a cluttered narrative despite the fact that each character has something interesting going on. This is compounded by the fact that Jedi Twilight is really just the opening act of a trilogy, ending on a cliffhanger of sorts with all of its many plot threads left untied. One gets no sense of conclusion until one has picked up and finished the other two books. None of them are particularly lengthy, so that’s not much of a hassle — and Jedi Twilight is at least entertaining enough to inspire moving on to the second in the series — but it would have been nice if something had been resolved at the end of this first book.

The “hardboiled detective” story claim came from somewhere and has since taken root without many people bothering to challenge it. And I reckon it hits the basic notes without delving too deeply into the genre. It’s true that Jax is sort of hardboiled in the Sam Spade mold of things. He’s not romantic or world-weary enough to be Philip Marlowe, though given the setting, that would have worked better and lent the overall story more power. As it is, he’s a pretty generic “chip on the shoulder” kind of guy who will, naturally, eventually come around. Where Jedi Twilight deviates from the usual detective story format is in the many, many different points of view from which the story is told. Most detective fiction sticks with the main character, but Jedi Twilight is all over the place. Jax is an undercooked protagonist, easily the least interesting of this big jumble of characters.

Author Michael Reaves relies on a serviceable but uninspired generic bitter detective archetype which, as mentioned, robs the story of what could have been a more interesting take on the early days of life under the Empire. Had Jax been more introspective, had he been older, had his thoughts been in any way deep or poetic, Jedi Twilight would have been much more interesting. Instead, it’s all surface, and Jax offers very little to interest the reader. The other main players — which include a Twi’lek “paladin” (a Jedi splinter group fonder of blasters than lightsabers), a wisecracking reporter, a couple of mobsters, an Imperial bureaucrat, and an anti-Empire insurgent — are all pretty stock characters (fitting, really, for a pulpy story told without in a space pulp universe), but giving fewer of them their own chapters might have made more room for everyone to be developed a little better (the paladin Laranth Tarak — the book’s only female character — gets particularly short shrift, as is often the way).

The good guys at least fare better than the bad guys. There’s a handful of villains, none of whom make much of an impression: a random Hutt crime boss, because evidently there always has to be a Hutt crime boss, who gets the plot rolling but plays no real role in things; a couple of assassins named Kaird and Prince Xizor, who have their own thing going; and of course, Darth Vader, who spends most of his time in a lounge telling other people to do stuff. Hey, the first sign of a quality administrator is the ability to effectively delegate. He’s mostly in a “Curses! Foiled again! mode, same as he was back in Splinter of the Mind. Like the heroes, all of them are serviceable without being particularly interesting. Compared to the weird cast of villains one finds in the average Chandler novel, this lot is pretty dull despite their magic pheromones and feathers. Like the heroes, the villains suffer from a lack of meaty development stemming from the fact that, ultimately, Jedi Twilight isn’t a book; it’s the first third of a book, and if you aren’t prepared to read all three “Coruscant Nights” novels, then you’re not going to get much in the way of payoff unless you are really thrilled by the idea of all the main characters finally showing up in the same place and accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Still, there’s just enough stuff to like to keep it moving without me ever feeling the urgent need to finish it in a timely fashion. I was never bored, but I was never not bored, if that makes any sense at all. For those not steeped in Star Wars lore, there’s a lot of jargon slung around, but none of it is particularly important. There are lots of references to events in the prequel movies, but again, if like me you can’t remember anything about those movies, it doesn’t really matter. You get the gist of things explained to you and can move on. I appreciate that this is a small-scale story about a bunch of people who aren’t Skywalkers, living in kind of crummy urban environment, playing for stakes substantially smaller than “the very fate of the galaxy.” I like the grimier (though still decidedly PG-rated) urban setting. I like yet another glimpse into daily life rather than yet another exploration of the political machinations of mythical heroes. And I appreciate that there’s at least a little lip service paid to the fact that, though the Empire might be scary, the Republic was still a place full pf poverty, marginalization, and slavery. I liked it all enough to move on to the second book, Streets of Shadows, and can’t imagine myself not wrapping up the trilogy with the final story, Patterns of Force. Maybe they’ll think of something for Laranth Tarak to do besides stand to the side and shoot things. I’d be happy with a story about her and disgraced journalist Den Dhur.

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