The Alexandrian

Shadows of the Empire - Steve PerryShadows of the Empire constitutes one of the largest tie-in events in the Star Wars Extended Universe: It featured simultaneous releases of a novel, comic books, video games, and even a specially-commissioned soundtrack, along with ancillary releases including action figures, trading cards, and the like. Multiple, interlocking stories between the three mediums aimed to tell the untold saga of the events between the end of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The opening of Steve Perry’s novel exercises an interesting conceit to both hook the reader into the action and immediately cement the legitimacy of this “missing chapter”: His prologue begins with the conversation between Darth Vader and the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back. But rather than viewing the conversation from Vader’s end of the holographic communication (as we did in the film), Perry flips to the other end of the line and shows us what’s happening just off-screen as the Emperor speaks with Vader.

(Ironically, Lucas decided to re-script this entire scene for his “extra special” DVD edition of Empire Strikes Back. Ten years from now we’ll have ignorant Star Wars fanboys reading Shadows of the Empire in college and wondering why Steve Perry couldn’t get the lines right.)

I found that this opening worked for the length of the conversation, but then did something of a pratfall as it wrapped up. The problem is that, throughout the conversation, Perry necessarily shows us Lucas’ use of heightened language: “The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.” But once the conversation wraps up, Perry finds himself needing to script some original dialogue for the Emperor. What do we get? “Now, where were we, Prince Xizor?” Chatty cliche.

The book’s ability to convince me that I was actually reading the events between the films went down hill from there. For example, early in the novel we get a lengthy explanation that Chewbacca won’t leave Leia’s side because Han told him to look after the Princess and Chewie owes Han a life-debt. This would make a lot more sense, of course, if the last scene in Empire Strikes Back didn’t involve Lando and Chewbacca flying off in the Millennium Falcon… leaving the Princess behind.

There’s always been an open question in my mind about what, exactly, the plan conceived off-screen at the end of Empire Strikes Back was. It involved Lando and Chewbacca going to Tatooine as an advance team, with Luke and Leia following later. Somewhere along the line, that plan shifted — with Lando infiltrating Jabba’s palace; Chewbacca teaming up with Leia; Luke providing mop-up; and R2-D2 inserted as an insurance policy. Apparently, rather than describing how that plan developed, Perry has decided to simply ignore the continuity of the films altogether. Which, in an effort like this, leaves one wondering: What was the point again?

(Perry also manages to screw up the continuity at the other end of the book, too, having the Emperor leave for the second Death Star about a week before Vader does, rather than the other way around.)

These little inconsistencies are strewn all over the book. For example, Perry also claims that Leia was present on the Millenium Falcon for the conversation in A New Hope which took place on the hyperspace journey between Tatooine and Alderaan (when Leia was, in fact, still imprisoned on the Death Star).

And the problem is that, when the little details are wrong like this, it becomes impossible to accept Perry’s larger leaps. If he can’t even get Chewie’s continuity to track, why would I accept his revelation of Prince Xizor, an Imperial servant wielding as much power as Darth Vader himself? (It doesn’t help that Perry can’t seem to grip Vader’s character. Vader as petulant, sulky, and sarcastic isn’t a portrayal that works for me.)

Perry’s inability to execute this novel effectively is so frustrating, in part, because there are some big ideas here which could have been so right if they’d been done well. For example, the reptilian Prince Xizor — cold and precise in all things — is conceptually a perfect counterpoint to Darth Vader’s essentially emotional nature. Putting Leia in a position where her newfound love for Han is put to the test is dramatically perfect for this transitional period in the saga. The emotional confusion of both Luke and Leia as they grope to understand the true nature of the love and bond between them is very well done.

Unfortunately, there’s those pesky details. And it’s not just a matter of those details sometimes being distracting, it’s also a matter of those details frequently sabotaging the strongest elements in the novel:

If Prince Xizor actually was the coldly calculating, fiendishly clever, incredibly subtle crimelord that the novel keeps claiming he is, then he’d be a villain capable of standing toe-to-toe with Darth Vader. But when it comes time to show us the actual details of Xizor’s cunning plans and machinations, what we actually see is irrational, illogical, and frequently thuggish. (Of course, Vader himself isn’t particularly up-to-snuff, either. In one scene he’ll be amazed at the Emperor’s ability to see a hidden truth with nothing but the Force to aid him. In the next, he’ll be apishly destroying video cameras in an attempt to keep the Emperor from seeing a hidden truth.)

If Leia’s love for Han were actually put to the test, you’d have some interesting drama and character development: A crucible from which Leia’s love could emerge stronger and purer than before. Instead, Perry just slips her some date rape drugs.

I also found the “revelation” that the Bothan spy mission which uncovered the existence of the Death Star was actually carried out primarily by Luke Skywalker to be fairly insipid. One of the things which made the original trilogy of movies special was the implied depth of the universe: There were things happening in the galaxy which didn’t directly involve the main characters. The Bothan spy mission was a prime example of that, and “revealing” that it was Luke Skywalker all along doesn’t add depth to the Star Wars saga — it cheapens it.

There’s also the problem that the main plot of the novel makes no sense: Vader wants Luke captured alive so that he can convert him to the dark side. Xizor wants Luke killed in order to thwart Vader, his rival. The problem? Well, simply having Xizor say, “I wanna thwart Vader just ’cause!” is kinda weak and relatively pointless. So Perry tries to raise the stakes by having Xizor set things up so that it will look like Vader had Luke killed. Why? Because Vader promised the Emperor that he would deliver Luke alive; so if it looks like Vader killed Luke, instead, the Emperor is going to be pissed off at Vader.

The only problem here is that Vader did not, in fact, promise the Emperor that he would deliver Luke alive. What he actually says is: “He will join us or die, Master.” And, in fact, the Emperor wanted Luke dead from the get-go; Vader was the one who suggested the possibility that he might be turned instead. Xizor, remember, knows this because he watched the whole conversation.

So you’ve got an Emperor who wanted Luke dead, but is willing to entertain the possibility that he might be turned into an asset. Why, exactly, would killing Luke piss the Emperor off?

And you’ve got Vader who just got done convincing the Emperor that Luke might be more valuable alive than dead. Why, exactly, does Xizor think it would be believable, in any way, to make it look like Vader then promptly turned around and ordered Luke’s assassination?

Xizor’s plan is just stupid. Which is the problem with most of the plans in this novel:

Attacking an Imperial outpost because Boba Fett’s ship is docked there may make some kind of sense. Failing to (a) anticipate that Boba Fett might simply fly away in his ship; or (b) keeping some kind of look-out to track him if he does fly away… that’s stupid.

Arranging for the destruction of a rival’s shipyard in order to send a message to their leadership that you’re not going to tolerate them honing in on your territory makes sense. Of course, it makes more sense if you didn’t simultaneously dispatch your top assassin to kill the organization’s entire leadership.

Failing to learn a vital piece of information until it’s too late for you to do anything about it does not constitute a devious plan on your part. No, the fact that your rival also found out about it too late to do anything about it doesn’t make it devious, either. And, no, cackling into the narrative camera isn’t going to change anything.

Other bits of stupidity:

– Leia’s top secret password for receiving secret intel is “Alderaan”. (It will no doubt baffle the Imperial crypto-analysis teams for weeks.)

– Leia is baffled that Vader isn’t disguising his interest in tracking down Luke. (Because after confronting Luke directly on Cloud City , chopping off his hand, and telling everyone involved that his real goal was luring Luke to him, it would make perfect sense for Vader to suddenly start pretending that he has no interest in Luke.)

– I never knew this before, but apparently Vader hates subterfuge and deceit. (Did Perry even watch Empire Strikes Back?)

– Leia goes to considerable effort and calls in a life-debt to confirm that Prince Xizor runs the Black Sun crime syndicate. Once she’s done that, she says: “Well, it seems as if that much of X’s story is true.” The only problem? X didn’t tell her that. Lando did. (And it proves nothing. If I said, “I’m the Vice President of the United States . The President of the United States is George W. Bush and he would like to meet with you.” You couldn’t prove the veracity of my statements by calling in a life-debt to confirm that George W. Bush is, in fact, the President of the United States .)

– The introduction of cross-species mating to the Star Wars universe seems a trifle Trekish.

– Princess Leia’s inner voice will be played this week by none other than… Queen Latifah.

– If you’re in a large high-rise building full of work-a-day stiffs, you should feel absolutely no compunction about blowing the building to kingdom come. After all, the guy who owns the building is a crook — so anyone working in the building must be equally complicit. The building is in the middle of an incredibly crowded urban area? Well, all for the better. After all, anyone living anywhere near a building owned by a crook deserves to die.

– The Rebel Alliance does not, in fact, have any problem dropping military vessels into orbit around Coruscant, blowing a bunch of stuff up, and then leaving again. The Imperial navy won’t even bother responding to activity like that.

– The Empire has a holonet which stretches from one side of the galaxy to the other… but Coruscant doesn’t have a communication network that will let you place a phone call to any point beyond the planetary horizon.

In the end, the novel’s very structure fragments. Scenes become shorter and shorter, until — finally — they’re little more than three-paragraph segues of disjointed action. Under those conditions it becomes impossible for Perry to maintain any kind of character development or plotting. The short, staccato beats of his narrative become a discordant mess.

GRADE: D-

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