Monday, July 6, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "Dark Disciple" by Christie Golden

The latest canon Star Wars novel, Dark Disciple actually comes from a script written by Katie Lucas, Matt Michnovetz, and Dave Filoni for The Clone Wars animated TV show before it was canceled. In Dark Disciple, the Jedi Council sends Quinlan Vos on a mission to recruit Asajj Ventress to help assassinate Count Dooku. I’ll try not to reveal too many spoilers, which is especially difficult for this book, and will focus on plot developments that happen during the first quarter of the novel.

Although Quinlan Vos and Asajj Ventress are both fan favorites, I’d never imagined that they’d appear together, much less in a Clone Wars novel. Yet, after having read the novel, the pairing seems natural. They’re both strong, sexy - yes, sexy - characters who have touched the Dark Side. Dark Disciple is a character study of how these two learn to trust and respect one another.

Before I go on, I want to reassure readers about Quinlan Vos. Both Vos and Ventress initially appeared in DarkHorse’s Republic comic series (no longer considered canon). Ventress became a key character on The Clone Wars TV show, showing more depth and nuance than the comic version. By the end of Season 5, she had turned her back on Count Dooku and had become a bounty hunter who sometimes worked with the Jedi. By contrast, many fans were disheartened by Quinlan Vos’ single appearance in “Hunt for Ziro” because he came across as a shallow beach bum rather than the brooding, sensual Jedi who had flirted with the Dark Side.

Fortunately, Dark Disciple does much to rehabilitate Quinlan’s character. The Quinlan Vos in Dark Disciple isn’t an exact copy of the one from the Republic comics, but it’s clear that the comics inspired Katie Lucas and Christie Golden. In fact, the novel is an interesting example of how, after Disney rebooted the Star Wars continuity, authors can take themes or characters from the old Expanded Universe and repurpose them for the new canon. As the saying goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” So, if you'd been frustrated by Quinlan's portrayal in The Clone Wars, I highly suggest reading Dark Disciple to put your mind at ease. At the same time, the book is accessible enough so that readers unfamiliar with the comics can follow the story (although readers should at least have watched all six seasons of The Clone Wars).

One facet of Quinlan Vos from the Republic comics that plays an important role in the novel is his sexuality. In the comics, Quinlan was depicted as an epitome of masculinity. The comic artwork typically emphasized his physical body, making him possibly the first Star Wars beefcake. Quinlan was the only Jedi to pursue passionate romantic relationships openly. All this makes him an excellent foil for Asajj Ventress, who is also a sexually charged character, albeit in a very different way. Even in The Clone Wars, Asajj Ventress had a creepy way of flirting with her enemies, especially Obi-Wan Kenobi (remember when she kissed a Clonetrooper just as she killed him). Yet, Quinlan’s flirting stems from a desire to be closer to people, whereas Asajj’s puts a distance between her and other people. Quinlan sought intimacy, whereas Asajj feared intimacy.

This guy is back!
The banter between Quinlan and Asajj in Dark Disciple is as witty as the best encounters between Asajj and Obi-Wan in the show. Quinlan's first encounters with Asajj are often awkward. He tries flirting with Asajj to put her off guard, and she views him as a meddling beach bum (indeed, the book explains that Quinlan sometimes acted like a beach bum to put others at ease and because he enjoyed his work as a Jedi). But they soon become partners, and then something more. Although they don’t agree on much, they soon realize that they enjoy the other’s company and even develop affection. Fortunately, the book doesn't rush to get to the action; it takes its time to allow their relationship to grow naturally. The narrative alternates between their points of view, allowing readers to see how each perceives - and misperceives - the other. 

Star Wars doesn't do romance particularly well. Aside from Han and Leia in Empire Strikes Back, most Star Wars romances feel forced or too sudden. In the old Expanded Universe, Luke Skywalker proposes to Mara Jade out of the blue. Yet, perhaps because they’re both strong, sensual characters, the relationship between Quinlan and Asajj works. I truly believe that Quinlan is the one man who could get Asajj to lower her defenses. And Asajj gives Quinlan a much more tempting reason to leave the Jedi Order than the Republic comics ever did. Like many relationships, there are times when their love is selfless, and other times when an unhealthy attachment blinds them to deeper problems. Having been in a serious relationship, I could identify with the way a small gesture or look might make all the difference.

I’m tempted to call Dark Disciple the first Star Wars romance novel, but that would minimize the rest of the novel (and evoke unwanted comparisons with Fifty Shades of Grey). As much as I would love to have seen the produced episodes, I actually think this story works better as a novel. The ability of the narrator to get inside the characters’ heads helps to convey the complex emotions they’re processing. Also, there are some very sensual moments, including kissing, that might not have survived the censors at Cartoon Network. Christie Golden chooses to play the story straight, as a romantic tragedy, and downplays the sometimes over-the-top nature action scenes it inherited from The Clone Wars.

I’m reluctant to talk much more about Dark Disciple because I don’t want to spoil the novel. I’ll simply say that this is easily the most meaningful of the new canon novels in terms of character development and its impact on the overall saga. Indeed, Christie Golden has set a high standard for characterization in the new Star Wars novel line. I enjoyed learning about - caring about - Quinlan Vos and Asajj Ventress. I was also fascinated to see how the story incorporated elements of Quinlan and Asajj's stories from the Republic comics - almost as if adapting the comic to a new medium. If you cared about either of these characters - or just like reading about strong characters, I highly recommend Dark Disciple.

Overall score: 5/5 Asajj Ventress death kisses has posted some of the concept art and animatics designed for the unproduced The Clone Wars "Dark Disciple" episodes. I recommend checking them out before reading Dark Disciple as they’ll help crystalize some of the imagery in the novel.

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