This review contains minor spoilers.
For vastly experienced Expanded Universe fans, Timothy Zahn might just be one of the most polarizing authors in the Expanded Universe. Not due to any controversy, mind you. For some, Zahn is the veritable godfather of the Expanded Universe and, thanks to The Thrawn Trilogy, can literally do no wrong. For others, Zahn seems to be the embodiment of tired storytelling, as he tends to rely heavily on characters created over two decades ago. But for the vast majority of those who purchase Star Wars: Choices of One, the author is simply an afterthought. Although Choices of One is a pseudo-sequel to the rather forgettable Allegiance, any fan can approach this novel without any prior information and enjoy the book.
In fact, Choices of One doesn’t just continue the trend of high-caliber Star Wars novels published in 2011. In a triumphant return to form, Zahn’s latest might just be one of the best Star Wars books published in the last several years.
Unlike other authors in the Expanded Universe, Zahn writes with a flair for the dramatic. Whereas most stories are content to simply tell the story, Choices of One is layered. It could almost be labeled as a thriller, given the unrelenting pace as each new reveal is uncovered. But even more, the book is a mystery. I can’t recall the last time I was so enthralled with a Star Wars book, as mystery after mystery presented itself. Even the answers to mysteries tended to, in turn, lead to entirely new mysteries. At no point, though, does the book feel too complicated or bloated. Zahn keeps Choices of One flowing at a great pace, from start to finish. As can be expected from this kind of story, it also leads to some great twists throughout the book. An experienced reader will likely see several coming, but there were a few that surprised even me. In fact, I verbally cried out at one twist – a scene that is virtually destined to be later recalled as one of the best moments in the Expanded Universe.
The cover of Choices of One depicts Mara Jade and the Hand of Judgment stormtroopers, who, despite being introduced fairly late in the story, are some of the major characters in the book. Mara is just fantastic throughout the novel, in a way that I did not expect. In fact, I never realized how much I missed Mara Jade’s character until I reached the final pages of Choices of One. It is like the return of a long-lost friend, and one that I think most readers will greatly enjoy. She is still very much the Emperor’s Hand in this book, to the point of acting as an executioner for the Empire and killing. But, as is consistent with her portrayal in the Expanded Universe, her brand of justice is tied to the moral code she was raised with, rather than hatred or anger. She may not show evil, but she does not show mercy either. The Hand of Judgment are another welcome addition, much to my surprise. They serve a great role in Choices of One, playing out the “last job before retirement” role that is usually reserved for heist movies. To his credit, though, Zahn really makes it work in this book. To be fair, most of the Hand of Judgment is forgettable, aside from the leader, LaRone. It isn’t that the other characters don’t have strong personalities, but rather that the story had enough complex parts that the other stormtroopers were not given enough page time to become distinct, memorable characters. All in all, though, it doesn’t harm the flow of the story one bit.
Arguably, though, the real major character of Choices of One is Han Solo. I’ve never read a more perfect portrayal of the character, and he practically oozes Harrison Ford’s charm with each hilarious thought about Leia and his underlying conflict with Luke, the other Rebels, and authority in general. In A New Hope, Han was little more than a smuggler with a good heart. At the end of the day, though, he was still a smuggler. He’s a daring rogue who didn’t seem the type to hang around with the Rebellion. But by the time The Empire Strikes Back begins, Han is not only still with the Rebellion… he’s also established himself in the chain of command. It is quite a leap for the character, and it is a leap that has never really been well-documented in the Expanded Universe. Until now, that is. Han’s slow transformation from his A New Hope character to the Han Solo of The Empire Strikes Back throughout this book is just outstanding, and it proves to be one of the most memorable parts of the entire book. Luke and Leia also have decent characterizations, although neither are anywhere near the level of Han’s portrayal. In large part, that’s because Zahn did not have much to work with. Princess Leia has small moments where the reader can see into her shell, but she spends most of the book with a hardened shell that makes her come across as rude and, frankly, unlikeable. But then again, this is how Leia is consistently portrayed during this era. Luke, on the other hand, is extremely whiny and naive. With so many books showcasing Luke serving as the Jedi Grandmaster and being completely confident in himself and his abilities, it is very awkward to read a portrayal where he is constantly remarking that he isn’t a Jedi. This is the Luke of A New Hope, and he is far from the heroic Jedi he will eventually become. To be fair, the characterization allows for Mara Jade to step up as the real hero… but that works for this time period. It is important to see Luke very unsure of himself, even if the whining does carry on a bit much as the story progresses.
Zahn does a great job at building up to the action sequences in Choices of One, as everything tends to deteriorate in ways that are unexpected to both the characters and the reader. It makes for a thrilling read, not knowing quite how everything will play out. In large part, Zahn gives the credit to characters like Thrawn and Nuso Esva, which allow for the great twists that Zahn’s books are known for. Of special note is the climactic space battle, which just might be one of the best sequences in the Expanded Universe in recent years. For a series called Star Wars, there has been surprisingly little war in the stars of late in the books, and Zahn proves utterly and completely with Choices of One why space battles are needed. Zahn’s references to events that have yet to unfold, from both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, were surprising and delightful additions. Like most of the book, they are unique twists on events that fans have already known, and yet still shed new light on the films.
The only disappointing aspect of Choices of One, in all honesty, is the inclusion of Thrawn, Jorj Car’das and Pellaeon. The first two have roles that are little more than cameos, and were clearly included for the extra nod to fans. Car’das, in particular, could have been cut entirely and the story would not have suffered. Car’das is a very detailed and intricate character, but his background wasn’t even glossed over. It was simply never presented to the reader. That, for me, was very frustrating. Pellaeon has a larger role, but he never quite comes across as a memorable character. To be fair, he is still young and finding his way… but I felt that he could have been swapped out with a brand new character and there would have been no difference in the storyline whatsoever. Thrawn, on the other hand, was a character that was needed. In fact, the entire storyline of Choices of One is essentially a buildup to Thrawn’s showdown with Nuso Esva, a warlord from the Unknown Regions who is an intriguing mastermind and yet completely devoid of any real characterization, and when that conflict finally emerges… it falls a bit flat. The problem is that Thrawn is never really focused on and properly characterized. His portrayal in Choices of One almost demands that the reader have read the books he has already appeared in, at which point the reader will understand his character and temperament much better. But as a standalone, the lack of characterization leads to an inability for the reader to get inside his head and really enjoy his character. The same can be said of Nuso Esva, who operates under mysterious circumstances for most of the book. Yes, it makes for a great mystery… but when the curtain is pulled back and all is revealed… there is a bit of a letdown in the final confrontation. The history between Thrawn and Nuso, in fact, is virtually untouched in the book. I suppose it leaves room for an additional story, but the lack of background regarding the conflict made the tension between the two characters lack a sense of importance. To be fair, both Thrawn and Nuso have fantastic dialogue, but it is again meaningless without knowing the history of Thrawn’s character.
In fact, readers will enjoy Choices of One much better if they have already read Zahn’s other Star Wars books recently. The book ties up a few loose ends from his other tales, and the characters are constantly recalling events from his previous books and short stories. Yes, the book does take place after Allegiance. But Choices of One is hardly a sequel, and the constant references to events that occurred in Allegiance were a bit much in the beginning of the book. Once the story gets moving, though, the references do fall by the wayside as Choices of One is able to come into its own and tell its own story without the reliance on a previous book. There is decidedly less of the “they can’t meet yet!” insanity that plagued Allegiance, where characters who don’t meet until later books just barely avoid coming into contact with each other, but it does crop up a little as the book reaches its climax. Some might groan over one pseudo-interaction in particular, as it feels a bit forced, but it is likely to plaster a small smile on the face of plenty of readers too.
Going into Choices of One, I was skeptical. Focusing on an era where the fate of most main characters are already known is always tricky, and I was disappointed that Zahn was again looking to rely on the bulk of his characters that he invented over 20 years ago. What I didn’t expect, though, was to just flat out love this book. This is the literary equivalent to watching one of the Original Trilogy films, and is truly everything that a Star Wars book should be. In one of his short segments, Thrawn remarks that, “In the end, though, each of us must necessarily leave our creations behind. All we can hope for is to also leave behind a worthy successor to continue our work.” It was the only moment in the entire book that I felt like Zahn was actually speaking directly to the reader. While it could be a subtle commentary on Mara Jade’s character, it also fits as a commentary on Zahn’s own work. At some point, yes, he will have to leave his familiar characters behind and offer up new ones. Perhaps that time is closer than we even realize. But for now, Zahn’s Choices of One offers a triumphant tour de force for some of his most memorable characters.
Reviewed by Chris Carey
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