I've had the privilege of receiving advance reading copies of several upcoming Star Wars novels and permission to share my thoughts with readers. I will be posting exclusive reviews on Poli-Sci Jedi. Feel free to share, but if you do so please cite Poli-Sci Jedi as the source.
This review is about Star Wars: Razor's Edge (Empire and Rebellion), due to be released on September 24. The book has been marketed as an adventure starring Leia, our favorite Star Wars politician. Enjoy!
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First, it’s worth mentioning the setup, although I will not reveal spoilers beyond the first few chapters. Leia, Han, and other members of the Rebel Alliance are on a secret mission to procure resources for Echo Base when an Imperial corvette intercepts their ship based on a tip from a spy. They manage to escape to a nearby space station when they receive a distress call from a ship attacked by pirates. Leia is initially reluctant to get involved until she realizes that the pirate ship is Alderaanian. Feeling an obligation to investigate the actions of her fellow Alderaanians, Leia goes aboard the Alderaanian pirate ship. However, the Alderaanian pirate ship is forced back to the pirate base. Trouble and action ensue.
Broadly speaking, there were two things I liked about Leia’s character development in Razor’s Edge. First, I really appreciate that Martha Wells shows us the toll that Leia’s leadership role in the Rebel Alliance takes on her personally. Leia is a strong character and always quick to take charge of a situation. But it’s also clear that it’s stressful. We see Leia become irritated and tire. Not only does this make her a more well-rounded, realistic character, but we also begin to understand why she’d become so irritable by Empire Strikes Back. Whereas in A New Hope she was youthful and idealistic, by Empire she has clearly grown. While I don’t think the plot of the story actually did much to develop this point farther, we do get hints in the narration and Leia’s own thoughts that help us show where the character is emotionally.
Razor’s Edge also depicts Leia’s reaction to the destruction of Alderaan better than any other EU source I can recall. It’s not simply that Leia is sad or mourns for the survivors (which is pretty standard fare and pretty boring). As a former princess of the royal household, she suffers from survivor’s guilt. Moreover, we see her face the accusation that Alderaan’s affiliation with the Rebels led to its destruction. Very early in the book, we see Leia taking a greater and greater burden on her shoulders, especially when it comes to Alderaanians. She feels responsible for the fate of Alderaanians, wherever they might be. She also feels like she has to have faith in her people. The beginning of the book depicts this brilliantly as she takes an almost evangelical interest in redeeming a group of pirate Alderaanians. It’s probably one of the better character dilemmas in a Star Wars novel.
Martha Wells also makes the romance between Han and Leia more realistic. We see quite a bit of awkward sexual tension between the characters. In a few cases, Wells switches quite quickly between points of view, so we get to see both Han and Leia’s reactions. It’s a nice way to show how they keep missing signals. Some of the scenes are funny without being goofy. I love how Han takes an almost perverse pleasure in seeing Leia furious. My favorite moment was right before a battle we see Han and Leia split up into different units, with the each feeling that he/she needed something more from the other.
Unfortunately, I felt the book missed a lot of opportunities to enrich Leia’s character. Aside from the Alderaanian connection – admittedly important – there was nothing about the plot that required Leia to be the protagonist. The pirate Alderaanians was a neat way to explore parts of Leia’s character, but it’s soon overtaken by the rest of the story of “escape from the pirates.” About a third of the way in I felt like Leia was fulfilling the role of any general Star Wars hero. In fact, it almost felt like something out of Brian Daley’s Han Solo Trilogy than something I’d expect from a book about Leia. There’s nothing wrong with Leia taking a starring turn as an action hero, but aside from a few brief moments the story felt a bit disconnected from her character journey. It just felt like an odd setup for the character.
Part of the problem is that Wells uses an odd story structure. About halfway through the book, the action picks up and the resolution to the story begins and doesn’t slow down. Some things happened much earlier than I expected them to. There really isn’t anywhere during which the characters – and the readers – can rest during the middle of the book. Maybe there was just too much to wrap up with both the Imperials and pirates in the story. Maybe Wells just had too many ideas and couldn't fit them all in. I definitely felt like a few characters were built up but not used nearly as extensively as I’d expected. The best analogy is a roller coaster that, halfway through the ride, starts going up and up and up faster and faster and faster without going down or slowing down.
All this means we don’t see enough of the slower, character-building moments that made the Han-Leia relationship in Empire Strikes Back so compelling. It’s a shame because I would think that Star Wars novels would be the ideal place to slow things down and allow readers to dig deeper into the characters. For example, rather than a throwaway line about Leia’s antislavery advocacy as a Senator, why not have her engage in a deep discussion with another character about how she became so invested in the issue, reactions from other senators, etc.
There were so many places in the book where I wanted to see more of Leia convincing people with whom she disagreed. Something more like the brilliant scenes in Timothy Zahn’s Dark Force Rising in which Leia has to convince the Noghri to abandon the Empire. What worked so beautifully in those scenes is that we got to see Leia as a strong leader and diplomat and Zahn kept the focus on where it belonged, on the dialogue. Leia used her brain, not brawn. Imagine how cheap it would have felt if Zahn had resolved the Noghri situation with Leia blasting the Imperial garrison on the planet.
The Alderaanians never go away of course, but I felt it became more of a subplot or background than the main theme of the book. In fact, dealing with the Alderaanians almost became too easy and as if everybody fell into line a bit too quickly. I think part of the problem might have been that, except for the captain Metara, none of the Alderaanian characters really felt substantial enough to have any disagreements with Leia. Maybe if the Alderaanian crew had been a bit more developed or if there had been more friction between Leia and the Alderaanians the subplot wouldn’t have felt submerged later in the book.
It makes me wonder if Wells struggled with a page limit here. I’d imagine with complete freedom Wells could have used all sorts of neat storytelling devices to explore Leia’s character without risking continuity violations. I for one would love to have seen flashback scenes from Leia’s time in the Senate interwoven into this story. For example, rather than just a brief snippet of dialogue telling us about Leia’s antislavery advocacy, we could have had a flashback showing what she did. However, as it stands, Razor’s Edge is a pretty packed book. Wells sets up two threats, the Imperials and pirates, and Leia needs to resolve both. There isn’t a lot of fat on the story in general – events happen that need to happen in order to reach the conclusion. I have no evidence, but I wouldn’t be surprised if DelRey had set a page limit on this book and the other Empire & Rebellion books.
Finally, a small point about the Imperial spy. It’s so bloody obvious who it is! I won’t spoil it here, but astute readers will suspect somebody fairly early on. It’s a shame because it just makes the other characters look dumber than they actually are. Again, to raise the Zahn comparison, the “spy” in The Last Command was something that came as a shock to me at the end, even though rereading the books I noticed little hints. Not so here. Not every Imperial spy has to be brilliant or subtle, but I just felt the payoff was too small for what began as such a big mystery.
Overall, this is pretty solid Star Wars fare. I suspect Leia fans – including myself – will be pleased but also perhaps left wanting more. I do feel that I know a bit more about Leia as a character, but also wish we’d gotten to see other sides to her aside from her action hero role.
4 out of 5 stars.