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Dark Nest I: The Joiner King (2005)
Written by: Troy Denning
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 526 (Mass Market Paperback)
Series: Star Wars

Why I Read It: I'm on a mission to catch up on all the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels that I missed since late 2005. The first step is to read all of the books I bought but never read, and then once I catch up with those, I'll go and buy the books I missed and then read those. Whatever happens with the movies now that Disney's in charge, Star Wars was my first SF-nal love, and I've missed these books and these characters.

The premise: ganked from After triumphing in Star Wars: The Unifying Force, the heroes of the New Jedi Order return in a dazzling new adventure!

Luke Skywalker is worried: A handful of Jedi Knights, including his nephew and niece, Jaina and Jacen Solo, have disappeared into the Unknown Regions in response to a strange cry for help that only they could hear. Now the alien Chiss have angrily lodged a formal complaint, accusing the missing Jedi of meddling in a border dispute between the Chiss and an unidentified aggressor.

Luke has no choice but to head to the Unknown Regions for serious damage control. Han and Leia follow, intent on protecting their children from what could be grave danger. But none of them are prepared for what they find when they reach their destination.

A colony of mysterious aliens is expanding toward the edge of Chiss space. The leader of the alien nest is resolute. Adept in the Force, he is drawing old friends to his side, compelling them to join the colony and meld their Force-abilities with his, even if it leads to all-out war. . . .

Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. And I also want to point out: there will be spoilers, at any given moment, for the entire run of Star Wars books up until the date the current book was published. So if the Star Wars are something you want to get into, stop now and read THIS instead. I don't recommend anyone reading this review unless they've read the book I'm reviewing now, due to aforementioned spoilers, so stop now or -- if you have read the book -- carry on!

I remember when this trilogy was announced/published, though my memory isn't the most reliable thing of late, so maybe I've got some details wrong. But what I remember is that the-powers-that-be wanted to inject a different feeling into the EU novels, something that felt more like fantasy. Haters will laugh and say that all of Star Wars is a fantasy, but I think the aim was structure. Maybe more of a quest story. Or something. The titles for the books certainly have a fantasy-ring to them (The Joiner King, The Unseen Queen), but beyond that, I'm not sure what they're talking about.

Perhaps it's the Killiks and the way they're able to communicate with one another. The way they're able to absorb other species and races into their mold to create something larger. Hive Mind, Will, whatever you want to call it, it uses those who are Force-sensitive and starts to transform them. And it's pretty creepy.

Given that this is my first real foray into Star Wars novels since mid-2005 (I don't count the novelization of The Force Unleashed, because it was the novelization of a video game and frankly, it wasn't very good; it also wasn't about Luke, Leia, and Han and their children), I found myself getting reacquainted with the universe and the characters. On one hand, it was easy: I know these characters, and have read hundreds upon thousands of pages of their exploits. Denning also did a good job referencing things to remind me that yes, I had read that particular background story, and that book was X (one exception: I can't for the life of me remember the name of the story where Han develops his distaste for insect-like aliens: I remember reading it, but I just don't remember the title(s) involved). But of course, there were also a lot of things I'd forgotten, transitions that were hard to make because I was wracking my brain trying to remember exactly how The New Jedi Order had ended and what had come out of it. I was trying to remember where those characters were psychologically, so I could match them up with the characters I was seeing now in The Joiner King.

It was tough. I really, really wish I'd gone ahead and read this trilogy when it was released in 2005, when the NJO series was still fresh in my mind. Because I think that would've helped. Maybe.

As it stands, it was hard to read Jaina's character. And Jacen's. It was hard to read and see the Jedi handling the Force differently, though this part is probably due to the fact it was a very recent development and I've spent far more pages and time with the Light Side and Dark Side of the Force verses the Unifying Force, where intent matters, not how the Force is used. Or something.

And the funny thing is, and I won't spoil anything, I do know some of the events that happen to these characters in later books. So it's fascinating to watch, say, Jacen, explore all the different variations of the Force and becoming someone that his friends and family don't fully recognize and aren't fully comfortable with. It's also kind of sad to see the way he used Tenel Ka, because he was such a sweet, innocent boy in the Young Jedi Knights series, and while I shipped those two together then, I think I'd gotten over that. But also, Tenel Ka is just a cool character, and while I know she knows what's going on, it still hurts to see Jacen in that mature kind of light.

And I don't know how to articulate my issues with Jaina, other than bluntly: for a while, it seemed like she was fighting becoming a Joiner, yet when Han, Leia, Luke & Mara arrive, she and Zekk are suddenly one mind, Joiners, and no longer the people I know and recognize. Weren't they fighting? How did this happen, or is Raynar fully to blame? I don't know. I just hated the sense of inconsistency. But because I know where Jaina ends up, I'm super-fascinated to see how she develops through-out the rest of the Dark Nest trilogy. I don't like her being a Joiner. I want her back as her own woman.

It was such a weird book. I was rather surprised by how it actually had its own complete arc, because it's a trilogy, and I've rather grown accustomed to trilogies being one big story told over three volumes, you know? But it was nice to have a solid beginning, middle, and end. The resolution wasn't quite what I wanted for Jaina, but I did like where it pushed Leia.

Now, given that I really haven't read a Star Wars book since before I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop (let alone since I started reviewing like gangbusters), I was interested to see how these books would work on a technical level. Some of the things surprised me.

For example: you know how I have my one POV per one hundred pages rule? You know how I hate it when stories break this rule and give me far too many POVs? Star Wars does it all the time, and it didn't bother me a bit. Probably because every POV I got in The Joiner King is actually a POV I've read in previous books. And that sparked the memory that even when I was reading Star Wars books regularly, I didn't like getting to know new POV characters, especially if they were bad guys (which made the NJO a wee bit problematic). But if I already know the characters? I'm good. I'm not saying it's done well, but the exception to this rule of mine is grandfathered in.

I also found the writing style to be a step above the generic writing style people tend to use to write bestsellers in order to appeal to as MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE. In other words, the writing style lacks a distinct voice, all the POV voices sound the same (in a few cases, there was some slippery head-hoppiness, but considering how connected Luke and Mara are in the Force, I can see why it happened), and sometimes things are described that need no description.

For example: Corran Horn spoke in a "throaty voice." Which made me pause: short of having a nasally-sounding voice, what exactly is a throaty voice? Don't all voices originate in the throat if the you're human, which Corran is? I suspect I was supposed to read this as a "deep voice," but perhaps Denning didn't want to be too generic?

It wasn't the standard generic, or as I've been told before, "the seventh grade reading level" (I've heard that if one wants their book to be read by many, you should write for the seventh grade reading level, even if writing for adults), but sometimes, it skirted it.

There were other things that gave me fits, like Jacen being able to get off-planet to see Tenel Ka. It would've worked better if we'd been in his POV when he did it, but no, we just saw him after the escape or whatever it was (same for Tesar). That strained credulity a bit.

There was also some strange use of profanity. The made up words that were used didn't ring any bells, so every time such a word WAS used by one of the characters, I kept wondering, "Was this in the NJO?" and feeling pulled out of the story. I don't expect words like shit or fuck or damn in my Star Wars novels, but very few of the curse words roll off the tongue easily like "frel" or "frak."

Then there was the talk about Artoo: he's never, ever had a memory wipe, which means, of course, that he has all kinds of footage and knowledge about Anakin and Padmé, Luke and Leia's parents. Luke stumbles upon such a recording, and Artoo keeps trying to prevent Luke from learning any more. All of this is cool, something I've been waiting to see now that the prequel movies are out and officially part of cannon. But what was weird was the discussion that "the Artoo was originally an Imperial Design" (page 348).

Really? Because we met Artoo in Episode I, on Naboo. Long before the Empire took over. I'm really hoping I just mis-read that passage, because that's a huge error that should've been caught.

But for all its weirdness, and my transitioning back into the universe, and the writing ticks that distracted me, the book was enjoyable. I loved the meditation on the Force and where the Jedi were going and whether or not it was worth it. I loved getting an explanation as to WHY Palapatine aged the way he did, because Luke thought he could feel it happening to him. I loved Leia taking chances with the Falcon and getting Han out of a tight spot (a nebula, to be exact). And of course, there was humor. Page 405:

"YVH bugcrunchers," Han said over the combat channel. "Go BAM. Use your detonators."

"BAM status requires authorization--"

"Do it!" Han shouted so loudly that his voice reverberated out of five other helmets. "Do it now!"

"Authorization code do it now accepted."

Ah, how I've missed Han and his quips!

My Rating: Worth Reading, with Reservations

Rating these books will be weird, and it'll take some time getting used to. Because truly, I'm rating these books more against each other than I am against a general scale, you know? That said, anything rating "Excellent" or higher should be considered, provided it's friendly to non-SW readers.

In this case, my reservations are partially my fault, because it's been so long since I've finished the New Jedi Order. But the characterizations sometimes left me a little bewildered. I'm hoping that things iron themselves out once the trilogy continues, because as a fan of Jaina, I don't like where this book left her at all, and I'm (rightly) concerned about Jacen.

That aside, it was fun to finally come back and sink back into this universe once more. No, this is not a book I'd recommend to a casual reader, let alone a casual Star Wars fan. This is a book to be read immediately after The New Jedi Order: The Unifying Force, and that series has its own prerequisites. So don't start here. But if you're a regular Star Wars Expanded Universe reader who just happened to miss this trilogy, it's looking like it may not be something you want to skip. I can see things shifting, setting up for a much bigger story (which is an unfair observation, since I already know there's a MUCH bigger story coming after this trilogy). The book has a solid beginning, middle, and end, and it left me looking forward to book two of the trilogy.

My paperback copy included a re-print of Walter Jon Williams' e-novella Ylesia. I don't know if I've already read it or not, but I'm not reading it now regardless, because I'm afraid I won't remember the details I'd need to put the novella in context. Perhaps, one day when I lose my mind and want to re-read all the Star Wars novels in timeline order, I'll give it a go. :)

Cover Commentary: It's okay. I was never hugely excited by the style of the cover. Perhaps the bugs freak me out a bit?

Next up: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin


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