Tuesday, March 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "Heir to the Jedi" by Kevin Hearne

There are some nice character moments in Kevin Hearne's Heir to the Jedi, but I can't shake the feeling that it's not the same Luke we saw in the films...

From the publisher's summary:
A brilliant alien cryptographer renowned for her ability to breach even the most advanced communications systems is being detained by Imperial agents determined to exploit her exceptional talents for the Empire’s purposes. But the prospective spy’s sympathies lie with the Rebels, and she’s willing to join their effort in exchange for being reunited with her family. It’s an opportunity to gain a critical edge against the Empire that’s too precious to pass up. It’s also a job that demands the element of surprise. So Luke and the ever-resourceful droid R2-D2 swap their trusty X-wing fighter for a sleek space yacht piloted by brash recruit Nakari Kelen, daughter of a biotech mogul, who’s got a score of her own to settle with the Empire.
Of the three adult Star Wars novels released since the EU relaunch (including A New Dawn and Tarkin), I think Heir to the Jedi is the most interesting. But it also has the weakest plot. As the publisher's summary notes, Luke goes on a mission to retrieve an Imperial cryptologist. It's the same premise as last year's Honor Among Thieves. Luke and Nakari basically bounce from one planet to another on a series of small adventures, but that seems more like the backdrop for the story rather than the story itself. I doubt anybody will be surprised at the ending of the book. Certain things have to happen. However, how it happens actually becomes interesting. This is definitely a book more interested in characters than in plot or action.

At its core, Heir to the Jedi is about Luke's relationship to the Force and to other people. Most of the old EU stories set in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back seemed content to treat Luke as already a fairly skilled Jedi. Hearne realizes that at this point Luke had not had any training in the Force other than Ben Kenobi's instructions on the Millennium Falcon. In Heir to the Jedi, we get to see Luke struggle with basic Force skills. For example, we see the first time Luke uses telekinesis. It's  a worthy payoff not just because it's a significant accomplishment but is also so humble. The ending provides an important payoff of a different sort, both in Luke's relationship with the other characters and his relationship to the Force. It subtly contrast Luke's decisions with those of his father.

That said, something about Luke's characterization in this novel feels off. In the Star Wars mythos, Luke Skywalker is the archetypical quest hero. He fights with a "laser sword," directly echoing medieval knights. He's also a fighter pilot, echoing the view of jet fighter jocks as the modern form of knights (at least during the 1970s and 1980s). Luke seems ill suited to "cloak and dagger" missions. In Heir to the Jedi, the Rebellion sends Luke to act as an arms buyer, but that seems more like Leia's area of expertise. I couldn't help but ask why the Rebels wouldn't send a professional retrieval team to rescue the cryptographer (incidentally, they do so for the cryptographer's family). Luke even talks about how he could find enjoyment in planning recon missions, which seems very different from the character we see in Empire Strikes Back.

Much has been made of Hearne's decision to write this novel from a first-person perspective. The only other Star Wars novel narrated in first person is Michael Stackpole's I, Jedi, but even that novel featured Corran Horn, a character who did not appear in the movies. Some fans were worried about the use of first person for a major character, whereas others thought it would provide for an exciting change.

Surprisingly, for most of the book, the first person narration did not really affect my reading of the story. For better or worse, it's generally not intrusive. The narrative and action flows pretty well, with a few observations and insights from Luke. So if you don't like the idea of reading a story in the first person, I wouldn't worry too much. Near the end, there are a few excellent character moments in which Hearne takes advantage of the first-person narration to tell us how Luke feels. At a few points, seeing Luke's thought process helps explain why he ultimately did not fall to the Dark Side like his father.

Overall, I'm glad I read this book, mostly for the payoff at the end. I wish the book had created an original character rather than use Luke in order to avoid some of those character inconsistencies. However, if you can overlook a few moments here or there, there's actually a decent coming of age story in Heir to the Jedi.

Overall: 3.5 Lightsabers

[I received an advance version of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

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