Doctor Who Unbound: Zero Sum

“Unbound” is a term coined by Big Finish Productions, the creators of many Doctor Who audio dramas. It refers to stories in alternate universes, where something happened differently–and then, what happens next? An Unbound story in Doctor Who terms is equivalent to Marvel’s “What If…?” stories, or Dark Horse Comics’ “Star Wars: Infinities” comics (for the oldtimers like me in the crowd).

I wrote this story a few years ago for a charity anthology of Unbound stories, but that didn’t pan out for me, so I’m posting it here. Zero Sum asks the question, “What if the Fifth Doctor’s sonic screwdriver hadn’t been destroyed?” Sometimes it only takes a small event to change a life. I hope you’ll like it.

Several Classic era stories are referenced here, and familiarity with them will help, but is not required; those stories include Logopolis, The Visitation, Castrovalva, Earthshock, Mawdryn Undead, and the six stories in the “Key to Time” arc: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll, and The Armageddon Factor.

This story has also been posted to my Who-centric blog, The Time Lord Archives, and to Reddit’s brand new community, /r/WhovianFanfiction (come out and contribute!).

London, September 1666

One could be locked in a lot of cells in five lifetimes. The Time Lord called the Doctor knew it firsthand; he’d been locked up more times than he could count. This one, located in a particularly grimy cellar, was not one of the better cells he’d experienced, but it was hardly a time to be choosy. If only he wasn’t wearing manacles…

He fumbled in one of his voluminous coat pockets, searching for something to help his predicament. The sonic screwdriver? No, not at the moment—but it tumbled to the floor as he searched. “Oh, for a proper key!” Still, he couldn’t afford to be without it; and he quickly knelt and scooped it up, transferring it to the other pocket before resuming his search. He was still searching when the Terileptil leader entered the room and ordered him to remain still.

Earth Orbit, circa 65,000,000 BC

“Please hurry, Doctor,” Nyssa shouted. “We must get Adric off the freighter!”

“The console’s damaged,” the Doctor replied. “Working on it, though!” He pulled his sonic screwdriver from his coat pocket and leaned into the fissure in the console. “Ahh!” he yelled, shaking his hand as sparks flew.

“There’s not enough time!” Tegan said.

“There will be!” The buzz of the screwdriver came from inside the gap between console and time rotor. “Nyssa, set the coordinates, quickly! Tegan, grab—“ “ —This?!” Tegan shouted, and brushed past the Doctor, cyber-gun in hand. The Doctor managed a quick glance toward the inner doors, where the final Cyberman aboard was staggering in, just in time to see Tegan dispatch it with the weapon. She threw the gun down before stumbling back toward the console, but there was a look of triumph on her face.

“Coordinates in!” Nyssa said. No sooner had she spoken than the Doctor shoved her out of the way and threw the dematerialisation switch.

In the vortex, Time is everywhere and nowhere, and as a consequence it means very nearly nothing. Before the TARDIS could materialize at its destination, the Doctor slapped a control, bringing the time rotor to a halt, leaving the ship hanging in the vortex. He let out a sigh of relief, and took a moment to look over his companions. “Is everyone alright?” He helped Nyssa to her feet from where she had fallen, murmuring an apology; then he gave Tegan a cursory examination. Satisfied that no one was injured, he turned back to the console. “We successfully removed ourselves from events before the, well, the inevitable conclusion,” he said, “and as a result we’ve bought ourselves some time.”

“But what about Adric?” Tegan said. “That freighter will have crashed by now!”

“Yes, I’m quite sure it has,” he said, “for someone, somewhen. But for us, it has yet to happen, until we emerge from the vortex again. We can’t go back and change anything we’ve already experienced, but we can try to land at just the right place and time to change what we haven’t.”

Tegan frowned, not grasping it yet; Nyssa stepped in to explain. “He’s saying that we can’t, say, go back to twenty minutes before we left and prevent Adric from staying on the freighter, because we’ve already seen it happen. For us, it’s set in stone. But we can land on the freighter in the same minute in which we dematerialised, and rescue him off it, because for us, his fate isn’t sealed yet.”

“Correct,” the Doctor said. “And the spatial coordinates you laid in are correct, or close enough; but to land with that type of temporal precision, I’ll need to finish these repairs. I don’t dare try it with this much damage.” He glanced down at his sonic screwdriver. “I’ve no idea what I would do without this thing.” Looking up, he gestured at a nearby roundel. “Tegan, there is a toolkit in that storage bin, if you wouldn’t mind; and Nyssa, I could use your help.”

Adric leaped back as the console before him exploded, then turned to see the last Cyberman on the freighter collapse to the deck. He sighed, and turned back to the monitor. “Now I’ll never know if I was right.”

He tore his eyes away from the screen as, behind him, a wheezing, groaning sound filled the air. As the TARDIS materialised with its familiar thump, he was already moving; Tegan met him at the door, slamming it behind him. Seconds later, the freighter, minus one TARDIS, exploded.

Earth Orbit, circa 1983

It still baffled Adric that there could be two of this old soldier-turned-schoolteacher, the Brigadier; but there was no question that it was true. And at the moment, it was all that he and the strange (and apparently non-human) schoolboy, Vislor Turlough, could do to hold this younger version back. “I say, let go of me!” the Brigadier said. “Didn’t you hear that?” Showing surprising strength for his age, he shoved Adric off of his right arm; then he twisted and got a lock on Turlough’s wrist, and sent him rolling across the deck of the starship. Before they could recover, he hurried through the nearby laboratory door.

Adric and Turlough cleared the threshold just in time to see the younger Brigadier and his older counterpart raise their hands, and touch. A blinding flash of light and force sent them flying.

Some time later

The lights of the console room were low; even a time capsule sometimes must bow to the needs of its inhabitants, and maintain some form of day and night. Tegan, Nyssa, and Turlough were elsewhere, presumably asleep in their quarters, when Adric entered the room. The Doctor sat in an old, oak chair near the entrance door, one piece of the odd collection of furniture which seemed to appear and disappear in the room at the Doctor’s whim. He was deep in a thick, leatherbound book, but set it aside when Adric arrived. “You’re up late, Adric. What can I do for you?”

Adric seemed hesitant to speak; he glanced around at the room before leaning against the console. “You don’t sleep much yourself, Doctor.”

“Oh, here and there, when I need to, but sometimes I forget when that is,” the Doctor said. “But I don’t think you came to ask me about my sleeping habits.”

“Right to the point, eh?” Adric took another look around, and then nodded. “Alright then. I suppose that’s just as well.” He paused. “Doctor, I haven’t brought it up lately, but…I still want to go home. You know… to Terradon, or… or wherever my people landed. In E-Space.”

He expected the Doctor to shut him down, but to his surprise, the Doctor only nodded, looking thoughtful. “You’ve given more thought to how to make it happen, I suppose.” The charged vacuum emboitment, or CVE, which led to E-Space had been destroyed with most of the others at the Master’s destruction of Logopolis. The memory was always fresh in the Doctor’s mind; fully a third of the universe, including Nyssa’s home in the Traken Union, had fallen to runaway entropy at that time. No mass murderer in the history of the universe could hold a candle to his old friend-turned-enemy the Master now. Regardless, E-Space was closed; perhaps the Time Lords could create a route to the minor universe, but the Doctor was in no position to ask them.

Adric grew more confident at once; he had prepared for this. “It’s a matter of mathematics,” he said. The calculations… well, they aren’t easy, but… but, they’re just numbers! It can be done. And I’m close! I know I am!”

The Doctor nodded again, thinking. When he spoke, it seemed to be a new topic. “Adric, why do you want to leave the TARDIS?”

Had he said it with any kind of hurt, or pleading, or anger, or resentment, Adric might have bristled. Instead, the question held only one feeling: honest curiosity. The Doctor, it seemed, really wanted to know the answer—and now Adric paused, wondering if he himself knew the answer. “Because… well… it’s getting a little crowded here, isn’t it?” His meaning was clear; but again, the Doctor only nodded, and waited. Finally Adric looked away. “I don’t really belong here anymore.”

“Adric,” the Doctor said, “you’ll always have a place here, as long as you want it.”

“But it’s not the same, is it?” The sudden outburst seemed to startle even Adric, but he kept on. “When I first came aboard, it was you and me and Romana and K9, and you were…”

“—Different,” the Doctor completed. “I may have been a different man, but I haven’t forgotten him. Go on.”

“Alright,” Adric said, “you were different. And you’re a genius, and so was Romana, and of course K-9, when I was the only one I’d ever known. And suddenly I had so much to learn, and it was… it was…” He faltered.

A moment passed, and then the Doctor saw it. “Adric… we were like a family to you, weren’t we? Romana and I, you saw us as, sort of, your—“

“I never really knew my real parents,” Adric interjected. “Not well, anyway. So, yes, I guess… anyway. And then Romana stayed behind, and K9 went with her, and then you… changed…”

“I see where this is going, I think,” the Doctor said. “It was at the same time that Tegan joined us, and Nyssa—and now we’ve added Turlough to the mix. I suppose it is getting a bit crowded.” He stood up, and stepped over to the console, then put a hand on Adric’s shoulder. “Adric, you will always have a place here. I told you that, and I meant it. And, though you may not see it now, Tegan and Nyssa both care for you very much. You weren’t here to see their reaction when we nearly lost you, but they would have made you quite proud, I think. Turlough… well, he has a lot of growing to do.” He frowned for a moment, then went on. “But, regardless, I want you to choose a path that will make you happy. If you are happy here, so be it—but I won’t try to compel you to be happy here. If your happiness means going back to E-Space, then I will do whatever is in my power to take you there.” He met Adric’s eyes, and the boy managed a smile. “Now, what do you need to finish your calculations?”

Adric had the answer ready. “I want to go back to Logopolis.”

“But Doctor,” Tegan objected, “Logopolis was destroyed! Along with—“ She faltered, and glanced at Nyssa.

“Oh, go ahead and say it,” Nyssa said. “Along with Traken. It hurts, of course, but there’s no dancing around it. And, Doctor, she’s right! How can we go back there when it doesn’t exist anymore?”

“Well, to be perfectly correct, she’s wrong,” the Doctor said. He worked his way around the console as he spoke, not meeting anyone’s eyes, instead checking settings and flipping switches. He was in a state of excitement—any challenge always had that effect on him—but one could tell he was anxious about their reactions as well. “Logopolis, the planet, still exists. The city, and the people, ceased to exist due to the increasing entropy as the Master closed the CVEs. But, when the mass inrush of entropy took place, it was directed outward from Logopolis onto the rest of the universe.”

“Okay,” a new voice said, “so what?” Turlough had kept silent during most of the Doctor’s revelation of his plan to return to Logopolis, but now he spoke up. “If that’s true, then going there won’t accomplish anything. And if I understand this correctly, then we can’t go back to when the Logopolitans were still alive, because we—well, the four of you anyway—have already been there. We can’t change events.”

“Very good, Turlough,” the Doctor said. “And you are correct. Violations of the first Law of Time tend to create dire circumstances, paradoxes. We can’t risk it. But!” He made a final adjustment and then stopped, resting his hands on the console. “There is a way around it. Honestly, it’s so simple, I’m surprised you haven’t seen it already.” He glanced at Adric, who waited against the wall. “Do you want to explain it?”

For his part, Adric was subdued; but there was excitement in his eyes. “We go back to an earlier time, before our first visit to Logopolis. Probably several years earlier, at least.”

“Exactly!” the Doctor interjected. “We want the Logopolitans at the height of their powers, but before any hint of their upcoming… well, their demise.” That thought seemed to bring him back to reality a bit, and he looked at them soberly. “But they absolutely must not be told what is coming. I don’t need to tell any of you how knowing the hour and the manner of your own death could be a problem. Don’t you think it would be easy for me to find that out, using the TARDIS? But I shield you from that knowledge, because no one should have it. Not even me. Now, extrapolate that notion to the Logopolitans. Their deaths had an enormous impact on the universe. What would happen if they knew enough to prevent it?” At that last, his gaze lingered on Nyssa’s face.

Nyssa caught his expression. “Don’t worry, Doctor. As much as I would give anything to bring back Traken, I understand. We don’t know the ramifications for the rest of the universe.”

“Or time itself,” the Doctor replied. “Or even for us. We may not be visiting our own history directly, but our actions on this trip have the potential to change our own past. We may not directly violate the Laws of Time, but we can certainly do so indirectly.” He looked at each of them in turn. “We must be very careful.”

With that, he threw the dematerialization switch, sending the TARDIS into the vortex.

The TARDIS stood, half-hidden behind a rocky crag, on a hillside a mile from Logopolis. Tegan, Nyssa, and Turlough sat on the boulders scattered in the vicinity, watching as the Doctor and Adric, tiny in the distance, headed for the oddly helical arrangement of low stone buildings that comprised the city. Something was odd about the view; Tegan had caught it and remarked on it at once upon their arrival. “Where’s the radio telescope?”

“Remember that we’ve come to an earlier point in the city’s history,” the Doctor had said. “The universe’s entropy hasn’t reached critical mass yet, though surely the Logopolitans are aware that it is impending. They won’t have constructed their replica of the Pharos project yet—in fact, the original telescope on Earth has yet to be built. That, of course, means we’ve landed as we expected; the current Monitor of the Logopolitans is, I believe, the grandfather of the Monitor we previously encountered. With any luck, Adric can get what he came for, and we can keep the Logopolitans from handing down word of our visit to the next generation.” With that, he had planted his hat on his head, and made his way down the hill with Adric following.

“And so we wait,” Turlough said, scowling. “For how long? Weeks? Months? This block transfer thing, if it’s so complicated, we could be here for years.”

“Oh, you have someplace you need to be?” Tegan sneered. Despite the Doctor’s odd faith in Turlough, she had yet to grant him any trust.

“Tegan,” Nyssa scolded her. “It’s a valid question. We’re talking about mathematics so complicated and variable that they can’t be done by a computer.”

“Exactly,” Turlough said. “Clearly not even the Doctor understands it, or else he would teach Adric himself. Who knows if this will work at all, let alone how long it will take?”

Tegan scowled. “Adric is no normal person when it comes to mathematics. If anyone can grasp it, it’s him. You’ll see.”

Sensing that the conversation was not going to get any better, Turlough gave it a moment, and then stood up. “Well. If you need me, I’ll be in my room, I suppose.” He turned toward the TARDIS. Tegan made a motion as if to stop him, but Nyssa interrupted her with a look.

“The Doctor,” she said when Turlough had closed the door behind him, “says he has the same privileges as the rest of us. Besides, it’s not like he can fly away without us.”

Tegan’s frown deepened. “Nyssa, there’s something about him, I tell you. I can’t put my finger on it, but eventually I will.” She sighed. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

The TARDIS corridors never confounded Turlough the way they seemed to do to the others. Perhaps sensing this, the Doctor had given him a room further from the console room, down several winding corridors. Turlough wasn’t certain, but he suspected the corridors moved, somehow; but so far he had always found his way.

This time, he had barely closed the door when the floor–the deck? What did one call it in a time ship?–lurched beneath his feet. He felt a wrenching sensation in his stomach, and his vision narrowed as green light sparkled around its edges. For a moment he lost track of time. When his senses reasserted themselves, he found himself on the floor (definitely a floor; too neat for a deck). He clambered to his feet–and found an unwelcome but familiar figure surveying him. “Guardian,” he breathed. “What do you want?”

“Watch your tone, Turlough,” the Black Guardian said. “I’ve come to set you back on track with our arrangement.”

Turlough swallowed, suddenly nervous. This was a being of great power indeed–outside time and space, maintaining the order of the universe, but doing so as a force of eternal darkness and chaos. Turlough wasn’t sure whether to call him evil, but it certainly worked out to the same thing. It was true that he had struck a deal with the enigmatic Guardian: freedom from his exile on Earth in exchange for the task of killing the Doctor. Turlough neither knew nor cared what had led to the Guardian’s frenzied desire for revenge, but he knew one thing: the Doctor had proven to be a difficult man to kill. Turlough remained committed to the cause, perhaps, but he had quickly lost his stomach for the task. “Why should I kill him now?” he demanded. “I’m already free of my exile. Earth is behind me now.”

“But you haven’t returned to your world, have you?” the Guardian said. “You’ve seen the way the Doctor operates his TARDIS. It’s a miracle he ever lands where he intends. He won’t get you to Trion–and that’s if you tell him about it. But you haven’t done that, have you?” Turlough was silent. Some things, like the truth of his homeworld and his own past, couldn’t be shared, even–especially–with the Doctor and his companions. “Only I can finish our bargain and get you to Trion,” the Guardian continued, “and only–only!–if you uphold your end.”

Angrily, Turlough relented at last. It was a trap, and he remained caught in it, if he ever wanted to see his home again. “Fine. I suppose you have a plan? If you haven’t noticed, the Doctor isn’t here at the moment.”

“He’ll return. And he will take you and his pets to the city of the Logopolitans.” Turlough didn’t question it; the Guardian seemed to have as much grasp of time as the Doctor, and possibly more. “Your task will be simple this time. I won’t even ask you to attack him directly. You will simply wait until the right moment… and deliver a message.”

“A message?” It sounded simple, but… “What message? And to whom?”

The Guardian told him.

Adric’s training took eight days. The Doctor returned during the night of the second day, and moved the TARDIS into the city. At the urging of the Monitor–a bald man with the features of his future grandson, but much younger–the group took guest rooms in the city, and attended a reception dinner before being given freedom to roam. The Doctor, however, caught each of them in turn and admonished them to stay close to the TARDIS. “I’ve spoken with the Monitor and urged him to keep our visit off the records,” he said, “but remember that every encounter we make here, and every person to whom we speak, increases the chance that we may change the future. They’ve given us hospitality, and I won’t insult them for it, but… stay close.” He quickly disappeared again, off to audit Adric’s lessons.

On the final day, the Monitor escorted the Doctor and Adric back to the TARDIS. Nyssa and Tegan met them in the surrounding courtyard as they said their goodbyes. “It’s been quite a pleasure,” the Doctor was saying, “and I have to say that I’ve rather enjoyed the lessons as well. Even if,” he added, “they were over my head. It’s not often I can say that, you know.”

“Humble to a fault, Doctor, as always,” the Monitor said with a grin. “And the pleasure is all mine. We Logopolitans have spent centuries shaping our minds toward the thought patterns necessary for these calculations. Even so, you have seen that we require many minds in concert to make our calculations effective. It is a rare and surprising event when we encounter a mind like young Adric’s, born to the ability to grasp it all on his own. He is quite exceptional.” He paused, then added, “Of course, he won’t be able to maintain a steady state of computation for long periods. We manage this by working in shifts, but he is one alone. Still, he can create temporary structures, and permanent ones which do not require maintenance. That should be sufficient for your purposes, I think.”

“Quite,” the Doctor said, a bit hastily. He had made a point of not telling them exactly what Adric intended to create; had he done so, they would surely have insisted on creating the CVE for him, which would have had a much greater chance of upsetting history. “Well, at any rate, we thank you again, Monitor, both for the lessons and for your generous hospitality. But, we really must be going.” He shook hands with the Monitor, and turned toward the TARDIS; then he frowned. “Where is Turlough?”

“He went out walking…” Tegan began.

“I’m here, Doctor!” Turlough interrupted. The group turned to see him entering the courtyard from one of the many passages, flanked by two Logopolitans. The Logopolitans stopped at the entrance, and Turlough crossed to the TARDIS; but a look passed between the duo and the Monitor, who gave them a quizzical frown. “Sorry, I lost track of the time,” Turlough said as he joined the others.

“No harm done,” the Doctor said, and opened the police box door. “Monitor, we’ll be off now, I think. And it looks like those fellows want a word with you.”

“Yes, quite,” the Monitor said; but the Doctor and his companions were already disappearing into the TARDIS. The Monitor shrugged, and went to confer with his subordinates.

The Doctor threw the dematerialization switch the instant the inner doors closed, sending the TARDIS groaning into the vortex. “In a bit of a hurry, Doctor?” Nyssa said.

“Well,” he said, “yes, I suppose so. Oh, no, nothing’s wrong, precisely,” he said, forestalling her next question, “it’s just that… Nyssa, I’ve explained that we Time Lords can perceive the flow of time as a sort of sense, not as clear as most, but a sense nonetheless. And the longer we stay in Logopolis, the more I feel the weight of our every action on the timestream. I think we’re alright, as planned, but it’s best we get away quickly.” He circled the console, setting coordinates.

“So, what now?” Turlough said. “How long until Adric makes his attempt?”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel quite refreshed after the last week. It’s almost been like a holiday. So, if you’re ready,” he said to Adric, “we can get started right away.”

Adric’s usually sullenness was gone, for once, and he nodded. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” he said.

“Right! No time like the present,” the Doctor said. “Or rather,” he added, “the future. Since we’ll need to do this at a time after the closure of the Logopolitan CVEs.” He hit a final control, and the time rotor began to rise and fall.

No one’s eyes were on Turlough as he tugged at his tie and grew pale.

The time rotor slowed, but didn’t stop. “We’ll get a better result if I start while we’re still in the vortex,” Adric had said. “I can set the temporal elements, then build the spatial and dimensional elements on top of them. This CVE will be more stable than the Logopolitan version, because they were forced to work from the spatial components first. I won’t have to work as hard to maintain it, either.”

Now, as the TARDIS slid closer to its target–a point in space far from any civilization, some three hundred years after the destruction of Logopolis–Adric stood with his hands on the console, and closed his eyes. His lips moved, subvocalising, but no sound could be heard. “Is that all?” Turlough whispered to Tegan, who stood for once beside him, against the wall; she shushed him.

On the other side of the console, the Doctor winced. “Are you alright?” Nyssa said, moving to his side so as not to disturb Adric.

“Yes, I… I’m fine, thank you.” He shook his head. “For a moment I felt something… it’s nothing.” He returned his attention to Adric’s face. Long minutes passed, and the Doctor winced again, putting a hand to his temple. “Oh!”

“What?” Nyssa said. Tegan and Turlough had noticed his discomfort by this time, but remained by the wall.

“Nothing, I just… I think I may be feeling some cast-off effect of our journey. Nothing serious, I think.” He straightened. “It will pass.”

At that moment, Adric looked up at him. “Ready, Doctor!”

“Right! Here we go, back to reality!” The Doctor pulled back on the dematerialization switch, and the time rotor picked up speed, sending them careening out of the vortex and back into space.

Everything happened at once. The ship shuddered, hurling Tegan and Turlough to the floor; the three around the console grabbed on and maintained their footing, but only just. The lights dimmed and began to pulse, and the time rotor began to spark and flash red as the TARDIS’s familiar groaning grew loud. Over it all, the cloister bell–the TARDIS’s warning of catastrophic danger–began to toll.

Worst of all–though it took Nyssa a moment to see it–was the Doctor. With the last toss of the floor, the Doctor lost his grip on the console and fell, rolling away from Nyssa. As she watched, light–pale, shot through with sickly prismatic shifts, but pervasive–surrounded him. It was different from last time, perhaps, but it only took a moment to recognize it: the Doctor was regenerating. “Adric!” she shouted. “What are you doing! What’s happening!”

Adric’s eyes were wide now, staring in horror at the Doctor. “It’s not me! I’m not doing this! My calculations were clean, I swear!”

On the floor, the Doctor moaned in apparent agony, and began to writhe. “Well, something’s happening!” The cloister bell’s volume increased, and smoke began to pour from several roundels on the walls; Nyssa recognized them as compartments which housed electronics of various types.

“I don’t know!” Adric shouted. “It’s not me!”

“No,” a new voice said, “It’s me!” All eyes swung toward the scanner, where the Black Guardian’s face could be seen.

“Who are you?” Tegan demanded. “What are you doing to the Doctor?”

The Black Guardian assumed a hurt expression. “The Doctor hasn’t told you about me? How offensive. I am the Black Guardian of Time. Once, your Doctor wronged me in a manner that your mortal minds won’t comprehend. I’ve pursued him since, and now, my revenge is accomplished!” He smiled, an expression made more cruel on his severe face. “And you have none other than Turlough to thank for it!”

Nyssa and Tegan turned to Turlough. He glared at the Black Guardian. “So much for keeping your end of the bargain, Guardian. Throwing me to the wolves, eh?”

“Turlough,” Nyssa said, “you struck a bargain with this monster?”

“Oh yes,” the Guardian said. “In exchange for passage off of the Earth, he agreed to kill the Doctor for me! Shall I tell them what you’ve done, Turlough?” He laughed. “While you were preparing to leave Logopolis, Turlough did a favor for me. Such a small thing… he simply passed a message.”

“What message?” Tegan demanded.

“It should be obvious,” the Guardian said. “He went to the Logopolitans and gave them a warning. He told them what will become of them in two more generations.”

“The Master!” Nyssa exclaimed. “Turlough, you warned them about the Master? The Doctor warned us all not to let them know the future!”

“He said it would be a fair exchange!” Turlough said. “Think about it. If they knew the Master was coming, they would be ready for him. He would never shut down their Pharos project, and the CVEs they created would still be there. That means the universe would still be intact!” He looked at Nyssa. “Nyssa, that means your home would still be there. Traken will still exist! And all it costs is one life.”

“Turlough, you idiot!” Nyssa shouted. “Didn’t you think about how it would cost his life? Even if you overlook the rest of the things the Doctor told us… he only regenerated last time because of what happened at Logopolis!”

Turlough turned his gaze to the Doctor, who continued to twist in pain. The light had grown more intense around him, and was now shot through with red. To everyone’s horror, his hair had gone from short and blonde to curly and dark, and he seemed to have become taller. His face seemed to be in flux; now the gentle mien of the familiar fifth incarnation, now the chiseled features of the fourth. “He’s… he’s de-regenerating?”

“Oh, it’s worse than that, young friend,” the Guardian said. “Your actions have created quite the paradox! The battle with the Master, which you have now prevented, caused the Doctor’s regeneration; but events since that time led you back to Logopolis, and allowed you the opportunity to prevent those very same events. Do you see what you’ve done? The Doctor will stabilize in neither form–and the paradox will tear his TARDIS apart! I applaud you, Turlough. You’ve done something not even I could accomplish!”

Turlough gave another glance at the Doctor, then turned back to the Guardian. “Undo it,” he said. “Undo the paradox! This isn’t what we agreed to!”

“Vislor Turlough, it is exactly what we agreed! And I cannot undo this paradox even if I wished to. My powers do not lie that way. Nor,” he added, “do I have the power to pluck you from the paradox, of which you are now a part. I’m afraid I will not be able to keep my promise to you. But consider, the universe you are bringing about is a better place–” he glanced at Nyssa– “worth the Doctor’s life to you. Isn’t it also worth your own?” His face faded from the scanner.

“Wonderful,” Turlough said, “What do we do now–” He turned toward the others, just in time to see Tegan do a very unladylike thing: she swung a spanner at him, catching him just above the temple. A blinding flash exploded behind his eyes, and then all went dark.

“Damn, but that was overdue,” Tegan said.

“Doctor!” Nyssa shouted. “Doctor!” She hovered over him, afraid to touch him in the throes of regeneration. “Can you hear me? We need you!”

He twisted again, stifling a scream; and then his eyes flew open. Disconcertingly, they were two different shades of blue. “No,” managed to say, in a voice that carried an odd harmonic, as if also in flux. “You don’t need me–” and this time it was the fifth Doctor’s voice– “You need Adric!” Fourth Doctor’s voice. “It’s up to him!” The harmonic flux returned. He let out a piercing shriek that echoed from bass to tenor, and closed his eyes. The regeneration energy seemed to swirl over him.

“Adric?” Tegan said. “What does he mean?”

Adric took a step back from the console. “I don’t know exactly,” he said, “but I know what I can do. I can keep the paradox from tearing us apart, at least for awhile. Block Transfer Computation can do that. Do you know it’s a part of creating a TARDIS?” He shook his head, realizing the urgency of the situation. “It means abandoning the CVE.”

“Adric, if the paradox destroys us, you won’t need a CVE!” Nyssa said. “You’ll be dead with the rest of us!”

He nodded. “Right.” He stepped back to the console and took a deep breath. “I’ll get us back to Logopolis. If anything can overturn this, it’s there. And I can hold us together in the meantime… but I don’t know what to do when we get there. We’re already part of events.” He closed his eyes and began to mutter calculations. Shortly the ship’s shuddering ceased, and the lights ceased their pulsing; but the red glow remained in the time rotor, and the cloister bell continued to sound. Adric reached for the navigation panel, and made a few adjustments; then he threw the dematerialization switch.

No smooth materialization this time–the TARDIS careened out of the vortex and into reality like a grenade into a wartime trench. The battered police box–perhaps more battered than usual–slalomed into the atmosphere of Logopolis at a severe angle, its outer shell heating up until it glowed, then burst into open flame. Inside, Nyssa hauled on the stabilizer controls, desperately trying to drag the crashing ship into a stable flight path, while Adric clung to the console and did his best to hold the ship together. The cloister bell thundered through the console room, louder and faster than before. The TARDIS fell toward the city, then leveled off–but not enough, not enough. Its base struck a Logopolitan house hard enough to tear a hole in the roof; the TARDIS skipped off and tumbled end over end. Internal gravity held its inhabitants on the floor, but inertia sent them skidding around; Nyssa lost her grip on the controls just in time for the ship to crash into an alley. By some miracle, it righted itself in the final impact and fetched up against a wall, sending a cloud of dust and stone into the air.

“Is everyone alright?” Nyssa shouted, picking herself up from the floor. She didn’t wait for an answer, but ran to the Doctor, ignoring her own bruises. He had slid nearly to the exit doors. His features continued to flux, and now his height had begun to shift as well. Energy ran in a mad swirl of colors all over him. “Doctor!” she called as she knelt beside him. “Doctor, stay with us! We’re back at Logopolis, but we don’t know what to do!”

The Doctor only groaned, thrashing about on the floor. In the opposite corner, Turlough and Tegan were picking themselves up; Tegan angrily shoved herself away from him. “Ow…” Turlough moaned, rubbing his head, and then glanced at the scanner. “We’re back at Logopolis? So… we’re, what? Going to prevent the paradox?”

Tegan turned on him. “YOU stay out of this!” she shouted. “You’ve done enough already!”

“Nooo….” the Doctor groaned. “No, he’s… he’s right. Have to stop… but mustn’t… first law!” He collapsed back from the effort.

“The First Law of Time,” Adric said without opening his eyes. He was visibly sweating from the effort of maintaining his calculations. “But… we’ve already broken the First Law! Or rather, Turlough did. He gave the Logopolitans knowledge of their own futures. That’s what caused this.”

“Paradoxes…” the Doctor muttered. “One problem… at a time. Fix!”

Nyssa looked at the others, doubt in her eyes. “I don’t know what he’s suggesting! If we interfere here, we’ll be breaking the First Law again. Won’t that create another paradox?”

“I don’t know,” Tegan said. “But we have to do something!”

“What is the First Law?” Turlough said.

Nyssa gave him an annoyed look, but then realized that he hadn’t been with them long enough to hear it explained. “It’s a law that the Time Lords enforce for the sake of keeping time intact and preventing paradoxes. It says that they mustn’t meet themselves out of order, or meet other Time Lords out of order, or pass on information about the future that has the same effect. It’s that last part that you broke on the Doctor’s behalf by telling the Logopolitans about the Master.” She paused, seeing a strange look on his face. “What?”

Turlough stepped toward the console, thinking. “Time Lords can’t meet out of order, or pass on information.”

“That’s what she said,” Tegan said.

“Adric,” he said, “when have we arrived?”

Adric didn’t have to check the console; he could feel it through his grip on the TARDIS. “About five minutes before you talked to the Logopolitans. If we’re going to do something, it has to be now.”

“Turlough, what are you thinking?” Nyssa demanded.

“I’m thinking,” he said, “that he’s a Time Lord… but I’m not.” Suddenly he slapped the switch that opened the inner doors; and he bolted out, leaving them stunned behind him.

It was Tegan who recovered first. “Come on! I know what he’s going to do. We have to catch him!” She ran for the door. Nyssa glanced at the Doctor, then Adric, and jumped up to run after her.

“Adric,” the Doctor moaned. His voice was more like that of his fourth incarnation now, though his body was more like the fifth. “Adric, can… can you hear me?”

“I’m here, Doctor,” Adric called. “I… I can’t spare the energy to come to you. Too busy concentrating.”

“Adric, you have to… to trust me… do what I say. Ahhh!” He gasped and bent double, then regathered his strength to continue. “The Bl… the Black Guardian… won’t let them… interfere. You… you have to stop him.”

“What? Me?! How?” Adric said. “I can’t–”

“You’re the… the only one… who can,” the Doctor managed. “Block Transfer… it works in… all dimensions… at once. It’s… it’s the only thing that can… can hold him!”

Adric knew it was true. “That makes sense, but… Doctor, if I let go of the TARDIS, it will come apart! And I can’t do both!”

“Trust me! Not all… at once. There will be… a little time… just enough. Do it, Adric… now!”

Adric nodded, and closed his eyes again.

Turlough raced through the narrow streets. Nyssa and Tegan pounded after him. Had they known where he was going, they would have tried to intercept him; but only he knew where he had met the Logopolitans. They narrowed the gap, but it wouldn’t be enough.

He came to a halt as a green swirl formed in the air ahead of him… and the Black Guardian stepped into the street. “Back to play the hero, Turlough? I can’t allow that. You’re too much the villain!” He raised a hand, power swirling around it–and walls of what appeared to be glass appeared around him, trapping him. “What? Impossible! No power in your possession could… Adric,” he said, realizing. “Fool boy! I’ll–”

“No time for that now,“ Turlough said as Tegan and Nyssa rounded the corner behind him. He darted past the imprisoned Guardian, and raced toward the next intersection. At the same moment, another version of Turlough stepped from an angled passageway into the intersection, facing away, and headed down the opposite street. “Just have to catch–”

He didn’t get to finish, as the combined weight of Tegan and Nyssa piled on top of him, driving him to the ground. “Let me go!” he managed. “It’s about to happen! I have to stop him!”

“You can’t!” Nyssa said. “The First Law–”

“It can’t get any worse!” Turlough said. “At least we’ll cure this paradox! It’ll buy us time, and maybe the Doctor or the Time Lords can figure out the rest!” Suddenly the street shook beneath them. A glance back revealed the Black Guardian, surrounded in a nimbus of darkness that thundered against the walls of his prison. He was pouring everything into his attempt to break free–and the city felt his rage. Stones fell from the nearby walls.

“And what were you going to do to him?” Tegan demanded.

“The same thing you did to me!” he grunted. “Tackle him! Stop him from talking to them! Anything!”

Exhausted at last, they released him and fell back on the ground. “Turlough,” Nyssa said, “you can’t do that either!”

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Even if you’re right about the paradox,” she said, “you can’t touch your other self. Remember the Brigadier, on Mawdryn’s ship? The… oh, what did the Doctor call it?” “The Blinovitch Limitation Effect,” Tegan said.

“Right! If you touch your other self, there will be a temporal energy discharge. With time so fragile already, it might be catastrophic! We can’t risk it!

“Then you take him! You already know you can!” He jumped up and started running again as the street shook again, more violently this time. Nodding, they climbed to their feet and ran after him.

They made it only a half dozen paces, before an unearthly screech sounded behind them, and the street shook with its greatest tremor yet. The building to their left collapsed in a roar, filling the street, cutting them off from Turlough. They could just see over the rubble pile; but as they tried to climb, it shifted, sending them back to the ground. “Damn that guardian!” Tegan shouted. “Turlough, do… something! Just don’t touch him! Go!”

He gave them a final look, and ran.

Turlough stopped at the end of the street, where it made an L-turn to the left. Just around the corner, he caught a glimpse of himself, standing in front of the building out of which the two Logopolitans would shortly come. It was only a few paces… but what to do?

Behind him, another building fell in an explosion of dust and stone. His other self looked back; Turlough ducked aside, avoiding being seen. Perhaps the explosion would scare his past self away… but, no such luck.

“Turlough!” a voice called behind him. He turned… and saw the Black Guardian, near the previous intersection. He was still encased in the computational walls, but as Turlough watched, the Guardian flickered and vanished, and reappeared ten paces closer, dragging his prison with him. “It’s too late, boy! Even now they come. You can’t undo this paradox!”

Turlough stared at him for a long moment. “I’m through serving you,” he said. “The Doctor is a thousand times the man you’ll ever be. I trust him to know what’s best for the universe, and for Logopolis, and… and for me. I won’t do what you want again.” He paused. “Or even the first time!” Darting back toward the intersection, he snatched up a fist-sized, jagged rock from the rubble of the fallen building, and stepped around the corner toward his other self.

“No!” the Black Guardian shouted.

“Goodbye,” Turlough said through clenched teeth. Then he drew back his arm, and hurled the stone at his other self.

He had one final moment of clarity, in which he saw the Black Guardian vanish in a scream of rage and a burst of flame. Then the stone struck the back of his other self’s head, and everything went dark again.

Tegan’s head swam as the world coalesced around her. She couldn’t recall passing out, but she saw that Nyssa was waking up as well. What had happened?

Rubble still filled the streets, but the Black Guardian was nowhere to be seen. Nor was Turlough; but from the direction of the TARDIS, a figure in cricketing clothes picked his way around the stones and came toward them. Adric trailed behind him.

“Doctor,” Tegan said, “you’re back to normal!”

“Quite,” he said. “And it’s a good thing, too. As much as I enjoyed being my old self–well, when I was him–one must always look forward, not backward.” He offered a hand to each of them in turn, lifting them to their feet. “And I daresay the Logopolitans will agree. They just saw us off, you know–the past version of us, that is. Since we’ve managed to tear down part of their city, they’ll be glad to see this ‘us’ gone as well.”

“That’s a bit unfair,” Tegan said. “This was the Guardian’s work, not ours.”

“True,” he said, “and a nasty bit of work it was, too.” He glanced back at Adric. “But, thanks to Adric here, it was not as nasty as it could have been. A job well done, Adric.”

“So, what happened, exactly?” Nyssa said. “And where’s Turlough?”

“Well,” the Doctor said, “I think Adric can answer that better than I can. After all, by way of his battle with the Guardian, he was here, after a fashion.” He nodded at Adric.

“It’s…” Adric started, then paused. “Well, maybe we’d better look. I want to be sure of what I saw.” He led the way over the rubble, and past a second pile further down the street, to an L-turn. Rounding the corner, he stopped. “I was afraid of that.”

Nyssa made the turn, and stopped short. “Oh. Oh, no.”

Tegan came after her, with the Doctor following. When she saw what awaited them, she stopped, and made as if to speak, then closed her mouth. Finally she said, “So that’s how he fixed it.”

Ahead of them, Turlough–the past version of him–lay still on the ground. Blood pooled around his head, and stained a large, jagged rock beside him. Of the present version of Turlough, there was no sign. “Yes,” the Doctor said gently, “it seems our Turlough sacrificed himself to stop the former Turlough from doing the Black Guardian’s task.” He paused. “Quite noble of him, wouldn’t you say? I think we all underestimated him.” At his side, Tegan nodded, and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“Doctor…” Nyssa said. “I know it was all in the moment, and we all barely had time to think, but… couldn’t he have talked to himself, or something? We didn’t let him tackle himself, because of the energy discharge–”

“Which was the right decision,” the Doctor said. He closed his eyes and concentrated. “A paradox, you understand, is a closed time loop. It repeats itself, ad infinitum. This paradox has been transformed into an open loop by Turlough’s sacrifice. It circles back on itself only once, and then rejoins the normal flow of time. It’s hard for me to feel the flow of that loop, now that we’re on the other side of it, but… I sense that it could have worked out no other way.” He looked at each of them in turn. “Turlough instinctively grasped something that there was no time to explain. You see, Time seeks to close paradoxes. It can’t tolerate them, as a rule. And also as a rule, violations of the first Law of Time tend to create paradoxes. There are some exceptions, but that’s what generally happens. I tried to warn all of you not to violate the first law. That could have created a second paradox on top of the first, and time would have come apart catastrophically here. If Turlough had talked to himself, it would have created such a violation. Similarly, if he had touched his other self, the discharge of temporal energy would have torn time apart, as you rightly assumed. The only safe course was to take action that didn’t pass knowledge to his past self… and that’s what he did. Rather violently, I’m afraid, but I hardly see that he had any alternative.” He fixed both women with a stare. “And lest you go to blaming yourselves, remember that had you communicated with past Turlough, it would also have transmitted information, and been a violation of the first law.”

“So, why did this not cause another paradox?” Adric said. “I mean, if Turlough prevented himself from telling the Logopolitans, then the events that led us to come and stop him never would have happened. We shouldn’t exist here, now.”

“Yes, well… remember that I said that time seeks to close paradoxes–or open them, as the case may be. In doing so, it can’t tolerate a violation of the first law–but it can tolerate violations of lesser laws. Our being here, as relics from a timeline that ceased to exist with the opening of the loop, is a violation of one of those lesser laws; but time is quite happy to put up with it, in order to correct the greater paradox. The only concession is that the present version of Turlough ceased to exist. Well, and also, the moment of correction to the timeline was a bit much for the two of you, being outside the TARDIS as you were. That’s why you passed out.”

“You make it sound like time is alive,” Tegan said.

“Hmm… I suppose after a fashion, it is,” the Doctor mused. “At the very least, it’s non-linear… and it holds mysteries that even the Time Lords have yet to uncover.” He clapped a hand on her shoulder, and turned her toward the TARDIS. “Let’s be going, then.”

The Doctor held the TARDIS door for Nyssa and Tegan. “We’ll swing around and collect Turlough’s body before the Logopolitans move it,” he called after them. “He deserves a proper burial… but not here, where it might risk more paradoxes.”

As Adric made to step inside, the Doctor stopped him. “Adric… what do you think? Do you still want to construct a CVE? Return to E-Space?”

Adric dropped his eyes for a moment. “I think,” he said, “that the things I wanted have caused us enough trouble for now.” He paused. “Maybe someday, when we can be sure the Black Guardian won’t try to interfere. But not today.” He ducked past the Doctor, and inside.

The Doctor watched him go, and smiled. “Good answer.” Then he stepped inside, and closed the door… and with a familiar groan, the TARDIS slipped away.

Revisiting Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Here we are, nearing the end of the year! And as always, Christmas is a great season for nostalgia, so let’s indulge ourselves!

I didn’t set out to read this Star Wars novel, Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry; it doesn’t quite fall into the era that we’ve been discussing. But, I went in search of a few scenes I recalled, and one thing led to another…and here we are! But it’s a worthy diversion, and I think it’s a fun read as well, so we’ll take a look at it.

Released in April 1997–just a few months before my high school graduation– May 1996 (corrected–see end of post) Shadows of the Empire is unique for its time in that it was released as a multimedia event. In addition to the novel, there was a video game for the Nintendo 64 game system; several comics; a soundtrack; and merchandise such as toys and trading cards. The story as presented in the novel disagrees in some particulars with the video game and the comics; but for our purposes, I’m going to treat the novel as canon.

However, as I recall events at the time, it was the video game that garnered the most attention–in fact, it was released first, in time for Christmas 1996. The game was big news at the time; although there was never really a shortage of Star Wars games, the last console game was 1994’s Super Return of the Jedi for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (which is still one of my lifelong favorite games, but I digress). Shadows of the Empire was much hyped; although I’ve never played it myself, I hear it held up well. As a result of the game’s importance to the project, the book includes some conceits that fit a video game much better than a novel; it focuses largely on the character of Dash Rendar, the game’s protagonist (even though he isn’t the main character of the book), often shoehorning him in where he really doesn’t seem to belong; other characters seem to fade, if not into the background, at least toward it.

Where does Shadows of the Empire fit in?

We’ve been covering the post-Return of the Jedi era–but here, we’ve just missed it. This novel takes place just before that film–literally; it ends with Luke programming his holographic message to Jabba the Hutt in R2-D2’s recorder. And that’s exciting! Or at least it was at the time. Present (Disney-led) canon, I understand, has filled the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with comics and related stories; but in 1997, no one had covered that period. We had no idea what went on in the approximately six months between Han’s capture at Bespin, and his rescue on Tatooine. All we knew was that Luke grew in confidence as a Jedi; built a new lightsaber; and coordinated the plan to rescue Han.

Shadows of the Empire begins midway through that period. While Luke retreats to Tatooine to work on his Jedi skills–not to mention replace his lightsaber–Leia and Lando search for Boba Fett, who has not yet delivered the frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt. Their search leads them to recruit the help of freelance mercenary Dash Rendar, the insufferably arrogant–but highly skilled–Corellian who briefly fills the gap of Han’s absence. (I’m certain that was a consideration in the creation of Dash; he dresses and acts much like Han, has a similar history with the Imperial Academy, is from the same planet, and flies a ship that, for all its stated differences, looks very much like the Millennium Falcon.)

The novel also introduces Black Sun, the premier criminal organization in the galaxy, led by the charismatic Falleen Prince Xizor (pronounced “She-zor”, or “sheeee-zor” if you’re his furniture–long story, read the book). Xizor is positioned as a rival to Darth Vader, and therein lies the major conflict of the book. Recall that this book takes place shortly after Vader’s battle with Luke at Bespin; Vader is determined to recruit Luke to the Dark Side. Therefore Xizor sets out to kill Luke instead, and thus undercut Vader in the eyes of the Emperor. The plot threads come together when Leia–unaware of Black Sun’s involvement–seeks out Xizor to gather information on who is attempting to assassinate Luke. But Vader is seeking the same information; and as soon as he has it–conveniently at the end of the book–he destroys Xizor with prejudice.

And that’s the plot! For all that the book is a few hundred pages long, the plot can be boiled down to a few broad strokes. But, no one comes to this book for the plot–no, it has better selling points.

Character Studies

When I read this novel twenty-plus years ago, I had neither the resources nor the experience to properly assess the characters. We can do better now–and what I found is that there’s some surprisingly good work here.

Newly established characters are a bit shallow. It’s noticeable with Xizor and his servant, the human replica droid Guri; it’s far more egregious with Dash Rendar. But I don’t blame the author here; I expect that he was tied to the video game portrayals. Dash is all ego; Xizor is all confidence and seduction. (Xizor is a Falleen, a reptilian-descended humanoid species, and there’s a great abundance of references to his cold demeanor and self-control, until suddenly he turns on the seduction with Leia.) Guri is more of a blank slate; she’s portrayed as having a personality composed chiefly of impatience and disapproval, but the portrayal is much more sparing than with the others.

But, the movie characters! Ah, there Perry is allowed to give his best, and he does. Vader especially is portrayed well; we get a rare and welcome look into his inner world. He’s moody, impatient, disdainful toward Xizor, guarded toward the Emperor, alternately proud and overconfident toward Luke…and he’s a surprisingly good leader. It’s a bit of a cliche that Vader kills underlings that fail him–but he doesn’t do that here (although he does choke at least one); and he is indulgent and rewarding toward those that serve him well. We see his frustration with Xizor’s interference, his anger at himself for his inability to heal himself (more on that later), and his respect for the Jedi (for their skills if not their morals). Vader here isn’t just snark and violence; he’s thoughtful, calculating, and human. He still experiences the full range of feelings, not just the darker impulses.

Luke is portrayed as the young Jedi he still is. We’ll soon get used to seeing him be more confident, and progressively more powerful; but this is not Grandmaster Luke Skywalker. This is a young Jedi who’s been hurt for the first time, and is learning caution. He’s still impulsive and sarcastic, but he’s growing. It’s a refreshing change from the later renditions we’ve been covering.

We see Leia at an uncertain moment in her life. She’s backed away from the leadership of the Rebellion in order to locate Han; and she’s uncertain where their relationship is headed. She thinks often of the last exchange she had with him–Leia: “I love you”; Han: “I know”. Her resolve is tested by Xizor, who has the unfair advantage of powerful nature pheromones (in hindsight, it’s a bit squicky, but in true Star Wars fashion it’s subdued). Give her credit, though–as soon as she’s made aware of what is happening, she’s able to resist Xizor.

Lando has a good showing here as well. He’s almost a father figure to Leia for much of the book, or rather, somewhere between “father figure” and “reluctant accomplice”. It’s a good look for him, and he’s able to show off his talents with regard to piloting, and to navigating the criminal underworld. I could do with more of this Lando.

All in all, not a bad portrayal for our heroes!

Set Pieces

But for me, the highlights of the novel are found in certain scenes that I’d consider iconic. The first is Luke’s construction of his lightsaber (actually divided into a few scenes over the first half of the book). Disney canon has done much to change the lore surrounding lightsabers: introducing the term “kyber crystal” (a corruption of “Kaiburr crystal” from Splinter of the Mind’s Eye), giving us the concept of “bleeding” a crystal, and removing the idea that Sith used synthetic crystals. But, in the late 1990s, this book gave us much of what we knew about how lightsabers were constructed. Luke retreats to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home on Tatooine, where he uses items left behind by Obi-Wan to construct first the saber, then its synthetic crystal. He worries that he’s done it wrong, until he successfully activates the green blade for the first time. Twenty-four years later, those images stay with me.

The second scene that stuck with me is of Vader. We find him sitting in one of his hyperbaric chambers, like the one seen in The Empire Strikes Back, stripped of his armor and helmet. Only here can he breathe in the ambient environment. Then…we see him embrace the Dark Side of the Force, and open the chamber. With the power of the Force, he forces his lungs to return to their undamaged state, smoothing out burned tissue…and he takes a breath of free air. But his elation at succeeding is so strong that it overrides the rage that connects him to the Dark Side, and his power slips away, and his lungs return to normal. But by the end of the novel, he can maintain for several minutes, and he is determined to restore himself fully.

This scene, I remind you, was written years before we watched Anakin fall to Obi-Wan’s blade on the burning stone of Mustafar. And yet, it captures perfectly everything that would one day inform that scene. I’ve never forgotten it. What if Vader had succeeded? What if he had healed himself? Later stories would show that the Force can indeed be used for healing. What if he had succeeded? Would this, perhaps, have eventually been key to bringing him back to the light? We’ll never know…but we can wonder.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s going to feel like light reading; but it’s pleasurable reading. It’s worth it for the things I’ve mentioned above, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. So, check it out! And if you can, pick up the game and the comics. Star Wars is meant to be an experience, and this story more so than others.

Next time: The next book in our lineup is still Dark Force Rising; I’ll see you there. Happy reading!

Edit: I stand corrected on one detail: The novel launched in 1996, not 1997, and was released prior to video game. However, I stand by my suggestion that the novel was written based on the game, not the other way around.

Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire can be purchased from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can read Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.



Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: Then and Now

Here in the year 2021, I’m not particularly given to rereading books. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I can only seem to fit in so many books in the course of a year–my cap seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 52 books, an average of one per week. That’s a far cry from the likely hundreds I would read in a year as a child and teenager, back when a decent book would last me a day or two; and I definitely feel the difference! So, with so little room in the calendar (not to mention the crushing weight of my own mortality), it usually feels like a waste of time to go back and read a book again.

But, balance that against the realization–too late in life–that there are no rules for this sort of thing. Add in the additional realization that it’s okay to do things that make you happy. Put that together, and sometimes I find myself making exceptions. So, each year, if you look at my list of books read, you’ll see a few rereads. I’ve even made it a thing here on this blog; my “Revisiting Star Wars” series consists mostly of books that I read back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

First edition cover

And that’s where we are today. Last week I was wandering through the Raleigh County library, looking for something to read, trying to take a break from the stream of politics and nonfiction I’ve been digesting lately. I found myself looking through their collection of Dean Koontz novels, trying to locate a particular novel that had come up in a conversation (I’m still not sure which book; they didn’t have the one I suspected, so I couldn’t verify). No dice there–but my eyes strayed down the same shelf to Koontz’s sometime rival, Stephen King. Before I even realized it, I had checked out two old favorites: The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three.

Over many posts on this blog, I’ve talked about the various fandoms that make up the tapestry, if you will, of my childhood. I never set out to be comprehensive about it, only to mention things as they came up; and so I’ll add another one today: From about age ten or eleven on, I was a huge fan of Stephen King. (Now, I can already hear someone saying it–“You shouldn’t be reading Stephen King at that age!”. And you know what? You might be right. Maybe I shouldn’t have. And maybe my parents shouldn’t have allowed it. But they did, and here we are. As well, I’m generally of the belief that if a child is old enough to understand a book, they’re old enough to read it; it’s my job as a parent to give them the framework to assimilate and properly handle the information they find. My parents took the same path, and I think I turned out alright.) That fan status eventually led me to The Gunslinger, the first book in his Dark Tower series.

There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, that can be said about this series. Eventually I’ll dig deeper into it; the series is an entry on my Great Reddit Reading List, and once I’ve finished this reread I’ll add a post for the series as a whole. But, a few points are important from the start. First, Stephen King himself considers The Dark Tower to be his life’s work, his magnum opus. If you read the introduction from the later books in the series, he’ll talk about the development of the series over the years, and how for years he was very concerned that he might die without finishing it. Ironically, it was a brush with death–in the form of a Plymouth van that hit him while he was walking–that got him to finish the series. Second, the overwhelming majority of King’s works are interlinked in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways; and The Dark Tower is the lynchpin (his word, not mine) that holds them together. (If I may toot my own horn for a moment, some time ago I created a subreddit devoted to that very topic, /r/StephenKingdom, which could use a little love and attention–check it out, if you’re so inclined!)

In the grand and ancient year of 1990, I knew none of those things. (And full disclosure: I’m not certain I read it in that year. It had to be close, though.) All I knew was that my mom handed me this novel, titled The Gunslinger, and it caught my attention. It was purely visual at first glance; this copy was (as I have since learned) the 1988 Plume edition, gorgeously illustrated by Michael Whelan. Those illustrations, as much as the text, shaped my image of the gunslinger Roland’s world for years to come–still do, if I’m being honest. (That copy, long gone now, came from the same library where I checked out today’s edition; but years later, I finally obtained my own copy of the Plume edition.) And then I opened it to that line, that famous opening line, that thousands of fans around the world can quote:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

So simple, and yet so arresting! Those words have stayed with me, and probably always will.

The gist of the story is simple. Roland is the last gunslinger, the last of a line of knights who bear guns rather than swords. His world is dying; his nation fell long ago, and all his friends are gone. He is on a quest to seek the Dark Tower at the center of the world, where he will do he knows not what, to set the world right again and arrest its decay. But for now he hasn’t found the path to the Tower yet; to that end, he seeks the mysterious sorcerer known as the Man in Black. Along the way he will meet–and lose–a child from another world, our world, a boy named Jake Chambers. In doing so, he must choose between the Tower and his own soul.

The Gunslinger as written originally (a process that took King twelve years, from 1970 to the first publication date in 1982) is a good story; but it doesn’t quite fit with the later entries in the series. King often says he doesn’t write by outline; he has a general idea of where he’s going, but fleshes the story out live, in the course of the writing. That older edition is the only edition I had ever read–until now. The copy I picked up this week is the final revision of the story, released after the end of the series in 2003. Upon completion of book seven, King decided that the original novel needed a refresher for the sake of consistency; and so he brought the text in line with the rest of the series. The changes are not substantive in the sense of new scenes–there are only perhaps two or three of those, and none of them large–but are mostly details corrected, or hints of Roland’s past added.

The Gunslinger wipes out the village of Tull. Art by Michael Whelan.

I had the leisure of sitting down with both texts at hand, the original and the revision, and making comparisons as I went along. I didn’t read word-for-word in both texts; I limited my examination to those parts where the revised text seemed to strongly indicate there had been revisions.

And what did I find? Well…I found that it was anticlimactic at best. King didn’t make substantial changes. And there’s a strong argument that his revisions made the story better. But, I didn’t expect that; because I remember when this version launched, and I remember the brief hubbub that resulted. You see, there are fans–you’ll find them in any fandom, not just here–who would scream at changes like this. There were fans who did exactly that when this revision came out. How dare you mess with the sacred texts! How dare you change anything about this thing we know and love!

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Are the texts sacred? Just who does a text belong to, once it’s released into the world? Does the author get to retain creative control once the creation goes public? Should they?

That’s a complex question. In a legal sense, the author usually retains the right to adapt, revise, edit, and reissue the work as long as it’s in compliance with whatever contract they had with the original publisher. But let’s be honest: We’re not talking about someone’s legal rights, are we? The only court we’re concerned with here is the court of public opinion. And, well…the public can be fickle! Two examples spring to mind:

First, there’s George Lucas. Now, let’s not even get into the matter of what Disney’s Lucasfilm has done with Star Wars; no, I’m going further back. Are you a longtime Star Wars fan? Back to the 90s and early 2000s? Alright, brace yourself. I’m going to speak a phrase that will likely give you flashbacks. If you were in the trenches back then, you know. Ready? Here goes:

Han shot first.

I know, I know! Seek therapy if you must. But for a certain generation of Star Wars fan, that phrase brings back thoughts of horrible infighting within this fandom–all because George Lucas made one tiny change to a movie. When he released the Special Edition of Episode IV, A New Hope, he altered the cantina scene so that Greedo, the Rodian bounty hunter, shot at Han Solo right before Han shoots Greedo. In the original film, only Han shot; Greedo never got the chance (which is why, when someone says “Han shot first”, my usual answer is “Han shot only“). Now, I get it. Lucas did this to make Han not look like a freaking murderer. That’s important, given that Han is one of the heroes of the story. But the revision is a product of its time; no one in 1978 thought Han was a murderer. They knew it was a gunfight, even if Greedo wasn’t fast enough. And yet this sent ripples through the fandom that persist to this day. Did Lucas have the right?

The gunslinger on the beach. Art by Michael Whelan.

Example number two: Harry Potter. After the seven books (and movies!) of the series were finished and released, author J.K. Rowling took to the internet to begin a long series of retcons to the material, most of which was absolutely unnecessary. It flew largely under the radar until the changes became more random and bizarre (wizards used to defecate on the floor wherever they were, then magically get rid of the evidence, did you know?). Since then, though, there’s been a huge debate in that fandom over whether Rowling’s changes are to be considered binding, and whether she even has the right to do so at all. (This is separate from the often-intertwined issue of Rowling’s politics and beliefs on sexuality, which is yet another highly charged issue in the fandom–but it’s irrelevant to my point here, so I’m not getting into that.)

It’s not an issue that will be resolved easily, in part because there doesn’t seem to be an across-the-board answer. What works in one fandom is not guaranteed to work in another. It’s tied up with the issue of how the fans feel about the author in general; and it hinges sometimes on how substantial the changes are, sometimes on the age of the work, sometimes on the level of popular consciousness of the work (Harry Potter, for example, pulls in huge numbers of fans due to having been very successfully adapted to film). With all these variables, what’s a fan to do? What’s an author to do?

I’m far from an authority, but I’d suggest the following:

If you’re a fan, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Absolutely you have the right to expect an author or creator to maintain the standard or level of work that they promised you (looking at you, Game of Thrones television creators). But if you’re not pleased with something in a work of fiction, maybe don’t destroy the author for it. Criticize if you must, but try to keep it civil. Remember that it’s the author’s work, not yours; if you want to write your own, you can–that’s why fanfiction exists–but you can’t expect that the author will do everything the way you would do it. Otherwise, what do you need him for?

If you’re an author, use a gentle hand when revising. If the work has been published, and especially if it’s grown popular in its current form, consider that to a degree, it belongs to the world now. Of course you still own it, but you’ve sent it out to live its life now, and you should if at all possible let it do so. Where sequels or related works may require changes to the released work, by all means make them–but strive to keep it as subtle and close to the original work as you can.

I for one am glad that Stephen King took this route with his revisions. I think his work is stronger for it, and I know that he retained most of his fans. Things could have gone very differently.

Instead, we continue on our own search for the Tower.

I’ll see you there.

The Gunslinger is available from booksellers everywhere.

Revisiting Star Wars: Heir to the Empire

At long last! We’ve come to something truly exciting! (Well, for me, at least.)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away the year 1991, Star Wars was dead. Not dead dead, perhaps, but close enough. The last movie, Return of the Jedi, released in 1983. There had been a decent run of comics, but the last issues had released in 1988. The two animated series, Droids and Ewoks, had run in 1985. The most recent novels were 1983’s The Adventures of Lando Calrissian. A few video games came out, but they were adaptations of the films, not original material. Toys still existed, but the river had become a stream, and then trickle. The only ongoing piece of Star Wars media was the tabletop roleplaying game. For all practical purposes, Star Wars had run its course; and we fans were watching it fade into the sunset.

Enter Timothy Zahn.

I have not taken the time to delve into just how Zahn’s first Star Wars novel came to be commissioned. My perspective, rather, has been that of a fan, and that’s how I’ll address it here. But I can still remember, late 1991 (or perhaps early 1992), visiting my local libary’s bookmobile, and coming upon a blue hardback book…with Star Wars across the top. Already a huge fan, I remember my heart leaping into my throat at the discovery of this new–this new!–novel, Heir to the Empire. I was twelve years old.

In the years since, I’ve seen many other fans recount similar stories. As well, I’ve seen many new fans come along and discover Heir to the Empire for the first time–something that is especially gratifying here in the era of Disney’s Lucasfilm and its new canon. Timothy Zahn continues to write for Star Wars, even bringing into canon many characters and concepts from his Expanded Universe work; but here we have the one, the only, the original. And now, after thirty years, here I am again, at this oldest of old friends.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this novel, and its two sequels in what has come to be called the “Thrawn Trilogy” (after its villain), saved Star Wars from oblivion. The Expanded Universe, such as it was, was long in its grave when 1991 came around. Heir to the Empire changed all of that, and breathed new life into this franchise, sparking off a veritable horde of books, comics, and then games, and ultimately television. I would argue that it’s not beyond belief to say that without the Thrawn Trilogy, we might never have had the Special Edition films, the prequel films, and everything that has come with the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm–no Rogue One, no The Mandalorian, no Clone Wars, no sequels (well, that might not have been so bad, but I digress). Or possibly we would have eventually had new material–but what form would it take? It’s impossible to predict.

So, let’s dive in! We’ll take a look at this novel, and then talk about the effect it had on everything that came after. Let’s get started!

As always, there will be spoilers ahead! For a less spoiler-filled review, skip down to the second line divider–but no portion of this review is completely spoiler-free!

It is five years after the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of the Emperor and his apprentice, Darth Vader. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, and has taken control of much of the Empire’s territory, including the capital world of Coruscant. Led by the Provisional Council under Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, and the Bothan Borsk Fey’lya, the new government seeks the good of the galaxy, but is not without its own infighting. Former Rebellion heroes seek the future in their own ways: Luke Skywalker seeks information regarding the Jedi in his quest to reestablish the order; Han Solo and Leia Organa have married and are expecting twins; and Lando Calrissian has established a mobile mining operation on the superhot world of Nkllon. Leia continues her diplomatic work on behalf of the Republic; and Han, having resigned his military commission, seeks out smugglers to help the Republic with much-needed shipping capacity.

The Republic labors under the idea that it has the much-reduced Empire on the back foot; but the tenuous peace is about to break. From the depths of the Unknown Regions, the last of the Empire’s Grand Admirals has returned. The Chiss named Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Grand Admiral Thrawn, has assumed control of the fleet, and is prepared to take the fight back to the Republic. Thrawn is a genius of nearly unparalleled military acumen; and he has discovered a secret: An Imperial technology storehouse on the planet Wayland, defended by the mad Jedi Joruus C’baoth.

Thrawn wastes no time assembling his advantages. From the planet Myrkr, he obtains native creatures called ysalamiri, which can repel the Force in large bubbles around themselves. Using this ability to contain C’baoth, he recruits the dark Jedi to coordinate the efforts of his forces, much as the Emperor himself did before his death. He then finds a prototype of a working cloaking shield inside the facility on Wayland…and one other, “almost inconsequential”, bit of technology. But it is not without give-and-take; and in return, C’baoth demands something Thrawn may be challenged to provide: new Jedi students in the form of Luke Skywalker, his sister Leia, and her unborn, Force-sensitive children.

In the course of her diplomatic duties, Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are nearly kidnapped by Thrawn’s servants, the deadly Noghri. A second attempt occurs, this time with Luke present. Han formulates a plan to hide Leia away; but to keep her connected to the situation at home, he needs a slicer (the Star Wars equivalent of a hacker) who can penetrate diplomatic sources. For that he turns to Lando on Nkllon. They arrive just in time to fend off a raid from Thrawn’s forces, who manage to steal a number of Lando’s “mole miner” machines. Lando agrees to help, and connects them with a talented slicer. They decide to secretly send Leia with Chewbacca to Chewie’s home planet of Kashyyk; meanwhile they modify C-3PO to imitate Leia’s voice, and Lando accompanies Han and C-3PO on the Millennium Falcon. With Lando’s help, Han is able to approach arch-smuggler Talon Karrde at his base on the planet Myrkr.

But Myrkr is more pivotal to events than anyone knows. It holds a secret: the Force-repelling ysalamiri; and unknown to Karrde, Thrawn’s forces are returning for more. Meanwhile, Thrawn locates Luke and sets an ambush for him; with his X-Wing crippled, Luke is stranded in deep space. He is picked up–captured, in fact–by Karrde’s lieutenant, a woman named Mara Jade–who has her own personal vendetta against Luke, for reasons she holds very close. On Myrkr, Luke manages to escape into the forest, with Mara in pursuit, just as Han and Lando arrive–and just after Thrawn’s troops arrive.

Meanwhile, on Kashyyk, Leia and Chewbacca are stunned to learn that Thrawn has seen through their ruse, and has sent assassins again. The formidable Wookiees fight off the Noghri; but one survivor is captured, and Leia interrogates him. She is caught off guard when the Noghri realizes she is Darth Vader’s daughter; it names her the Mal’ary’ush, a figure of importance to his people, and swears not to harm her. It reveals that the Noghri consider Vader the savior of their world, due to events during its conquest by the Empire, and now they will transfer that respect–and service–to her. Or they will, that is, if she will come and present her case on their world, alone. Against her better judgment–but perhaps with a nudge from the Force–she agrees.

Luke and Mara fight their way out of the jungle, battling their own suspicion of each other, as well as the Empire’s troops–and all without the aid of the Force. When the Imperials have gone, they are able to rendezvous with Karrde, Han, and Lando back at the base–only to find that Karrde has decided to abandon Myrkr. Karrde sets Luke free with Han and Lando, and warns them that Thrawn has unwittingly revealed he has plans for the shipyards at Sluis Van. They head for the shipyards to try to intervene; on their way out, they receive alarming news: Leia has returned to Coruscant. She swears that she has resolved the matter of the assassinations, though she doesn’t explain how; and she reveals that there is a suspected leak in Republic intelligence, currently referred to as Delta Source. She also reveals that a potential “civil war” is brewing inside the provisional council, with Borsk Fey’lya grabbing for power.

When the battle erupts at Sluis Van, Thrawn’s plan becomes clear. The stolen mole miners will be used to breach the hulls of several capital ships, allowing troops to board and steal the ships while their manpower is limited. Unfortunately for Thrawn, by way of a mishap in scheduling, Rogue Squadron is present, and holds off the Grand Admiral’s fighters. Meanwhile, Lando–who still has the master codes for the mole miners–is able to slice into their command systems and adjust the settings. Several ships are crippled, but not stolen. Quietly enraged, Thrawn aborts the mission–interrupted, but not defeated.

Ah, nostalgia, what a drug! I will admit that it’s hard for me to look past my feelings for this story and evaluate it based on its merits. Every line felt like an old familiar friend, even though my last reading of it was nearly three decades ago. Still, let’s look at some of the best characters of this novel:

  • Grand Admiral Thrawn: Without a doubt, Timothy Zahn’s greatest contribution to Star Wars–both EU and Canon–is the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Chiss officer, Mitth’raw’nuruodo, is the highest-ranking officer in the Imperial Navy, and thus the de facto leader of the Empire at this point. Our heroes make a point of saying that “we thought we got them all”, referring to the Empire’s Grand Admirals; but Thrawn was a unique case. Previously stationed in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy, his return now bodes ill for the infant New Republic. Thrawn is a master of tactical and strategic acumen, but that alone wouldn’t distinguish him from the likes of, say, Ysanne Isard. What makes him distinctive–his “gimmick”, if you will–is his skill at analyzing a culture’s art in order to determine the best strategies for defeating them. He deploys this skill to great effect at the battle of Sluis Van.
  • Joruus C’baoth and Mount Tantiss: I’m being cautious here not to reveal things we’ll only cover in the next two books. Joruus C’baoth is a Jedi Master from the era of the Old Republic–or is he? Thrawn insists he isn’t, because Thrawn claims to have killed the original C’baoth during a decades-old mission called Outbound Flight. Either way, the insane Jedi has secrets still to reveal–but for now, Thrawn wants him for his ability to engage in battle meditation, the Force skill the Emperor previously used to coordinate his forces and make them more effective in combat. C’baoth comes as a package deal with the Imperial storehouse at Mount Tantiss on the remote planet Wayland, which has its own secrets, pivotal to Thrawn’s plans. He also has an ambition: He wants to train Luke, Leia, and Leia’s children as his own disciples in the Force.
  • Borsk Fey’lya: This Bothan is one of the more enduring contributions to the EU from this novel. Building off a single line in Return of the Jedi (“Many Bothans died to bring us this information”, Mon Mothma), Zahn gives us Fey’lya, who will continue to be a foil and minor antagonist to the Republic for years to come. He sits on the Provisional Council, the ruling body of the Republic, and is setting up for a power grab by the end of the book. He’s also a world class asshole, but you won’t find that phrase in the book! We’ve seen him before, but only because books were written out of order; this is his first appearance in print, but not his first appearance in universe.
  • Talon Karrde: This smuggler boss will be a prominent recurring character well into the New Jedi Order series. I consider him a counterpart of sorts to Booster Terrik, with a similar skill set.
  • Mara Jade: Ahh, Mara Jade. Great adventures lie ahead for this character! For most of the book, we’re told that Mara has a strong grudge against Luke Skywalker, and even fantasizes about killing him. It’s only near the end that we find out why: She was previously the “Emperor’s Hand”, his personal assassin–Force sensitive, but only minimally trained in it, which distinguishes her from a Sith apprentice such as Vader. When the Emperor died, her life collapsed around her; she blames this solely on Luke. However, when she is confronted with the reality of Luke, she begins to question her stand.
  • The Noghri: These assassins and bodyguards will be in the background for years to come. Currently serving Thrawn, they previously served Vader and the Emperor–but they’re about to experience a crisis of loyalty.
  • Gilad Pellaeon: This Imperial captain is very underused here; chiefly he serves as the point of explanation for Thrawn’s actions. However, he too has a bright future ahead, and much fame to be had. As Imperials go, he’s one of the good guys; you can decide for yourself how much that’s worth, but eventually many of our heroes will come to accept him as an ally. Just, not in this trilogy. But it all begins here!

Far more important than any single, character, though, is the tone of the novel. Zahn is reopening the EU here; and he sets the tone for most of the post-RotJ era. Things are optimistic, and not at all gritty or dark. (There’s an argument to be made that Star Wars has some grit as part of its aesthetic, that whole “lived-in future” feeling; but within that framework, things look quite bright!) Zahn establishes several elements of the setting which will help shape the future and its entire tone. We have Luke’s search for the history of the Jedi, and his dream of reestablishing the order; Han and Leia’s children (as yet unborn), who will be major figures going forward; the various remnants of the Empire and their various leaders (including mentions of characters such as Warlord Zsinj, years before their respective stories would be written!); the struggles of the Provisional Council as it reestablishes the Republic; Lando’s various business ventures; Han and Leia’s marriage (an issue that we’ve already seen, but which was established here, and which will be the center of some upcoming stories); the heritage of Darth Vader; the prominence of Rogue Squadron; and a history of the Republic and Empire which differs somewhat from the version we would eventually receive in the prequel films (but not so substantially that it can’t be reconciled!).

Worthy of particular note: This novel is the first time we would see the capital of the Empire, the planet Coruscant, sometimes known as Imperial Center or Imperial City. The idea that the Imperial capital would be an ecumenopolis–a world-spanning city–is not new; it dated back to the earliest drafts of notes for Episode IV in the 1970s. However, Zahn’s vision of the capital world is very different from Lucas’s original notes; and it was Zahn’s vision that won out, right down to the name. When the planet made its first onscreen appearance six years later–a brief appearance at the end of 1997’s Special Edition release of Return of the Jedi–it was the view imagined by Zahn, or something very like it. And in The Phantom Menace, released in 1999, the planet was called–you guessed it!–Coruscant. (We’ll have to wait a few novels for an in-universe explanation of the name of the planet–see you in Dark Apprentice!)

And that’s where we’ll stop for now. If I continue, I’ll end up spoiling the next two books! Overall, it’s difficult to find fault with this book. Prior to the change in canon in 2014, it was practically universally considered to be the continuation of Star Wars canon (along with at least portions of the rest of the post-RotJ EU); and even today it maintains a high level of respect in the fandom. If you’ve come here from Disney-era canon, you are in for a treat! And if you’ve been here all along, well, welcome home–because that’s what it’s going to feel like when you reread it.

Next time: We’ll continue the Thrawn Trilogy with its own personal The Empire Strikes Back moment: Dark Force Rising! See you there.

Heir to the Empire is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.



Revisiting Star Wars: Tatooine Ghost

We’re back! And today we come to the next book in our reread of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (or EU for short, now known as Star Wars Legends). If you’re new to this series, know that we’re revisiting the post-Return of the Jedi era of the EU, with the occasional necessary side trip into other eras. So far we’ve covered The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers (opening within hours of the end of Return of the Jedi); the Dark Forces novella trilogy, by William C. Dietz; Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, by Matthew Stover; the first seven novels of the X-Wing series, by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston; and The Courtship of Princess Leia, by Dave Wolverton. I have unintentionally omitted the collection Tales from the New Republic–I was unaware of it when I compiled my list, but intend to pick it up at some point. Also I have skipped a few relevant short stories, but plan to pick them up in a later post.

We’ve been at this for awhile, so a quick review is in order.

  • What is the Expanded Universe? Like many media franchises, Star Wars has long since made the leap from its initial medium (that is, film) to various other media–from television to novels to comics to video games, and others. Star Wars media beyond the films is typically referred to as the Expanded Universe.
  • What is Legends? In 2014, Star Wars was acquired by Disney along with its parent company, Lucasfilm. At that time, Lucasfilm terminated all projects still in the works, to make room for new projects initiated under Disney’s leadership. As the Expanded Universe was quite large and involved at that time, the decision was made to remove its content from canon. Thereafter only the then-existing six films (Episodes I-VI), the Clone Wars television series (not completed at that time), and a very few bits of print material were considered canon. Since then, a new version of the Expanded Universe has grown up, consistent with current canon and expanding on it, but separate from the original Expanded Universe. That original EU was rebranded by Disney as “Star Wars Legends”; however many fans, myself included, prefer the terms “EU” and “Expanded Universe”, as Disney’s Lucasfilm has not so far actively adopted the terms; and so generally, when in these posts, I say “EU” or “Expanded Universe”, I’m referring to Star Wars Legends materials.
  • What’s the big deal? Fan reaction to the change in 2014 was mixed, and became even more so with the release of Episodes VII-IX, which many fans consider to have been disrespectful to the legacy of the older works (to put it mildly!). Many fans do in fact like and enjoy the newer canon EU; but many fans, myself included, still prefer the older EU/Legends content.
  • What about this series of posts? I was a fan of the EU from its earliest revival in the early 1990s. At that time most material coming out was set in the post-RotJ era, and so that’s what I read, from the earliest releases (the Thrawn Trilogy, which we haven’t covered yet) to the end of the New Jedi Order, which takes place some thirty years after A New Hope. So, it’s largely for nostalgia’s sake that I decided to revisit this era; and I thought I would share the journey with you.
  • What’s new, and what’s not? Good question! “Back in the day”, as it were, I read every novel I could lay hands on, but that was not by any means all of them. I missed out on several prominent entries, mostly due to unavailability–not having internet access until later, I was limited to what I could find at my local library and bookstores. I missed out on the X-Wing series, Dark Forces, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, and today’s entry, Tatooine Ghost, as well as some others to come. I also never made it past the final novel of the New Jedi Order series; there have been quite a few novels after that. For those entries, this will be a first read rather than a reread!
  • So, what, exactly, are you including? Generally, all the adult-level novels in the post-RotJ era. I will not be including anything aimed at young readers, with the exception of the Young Jedi Knights series, which I consider to be essential to understanding some later novels. I will occasionally pick up a few other vital entries, as necessary. You can find a full list at this page, which is also linked in the sidebar menu!
  • Great! Now do the other eras! Haha, not likely! I love Star Wars, but as long as it’s taking me to do this series, I doubt I’ll get to the others in any organized way.
  • Why do you take so long? I’m an avid reader, but I have a lot of irons in the fire, including other reading and writing projects, a busy home life, and a full time job. I appreciate everyone’s patience, and I do try to pick up the pace here and there, but this is probably as fast as I get.

With all that said, let’s look at today’s entry: Troy Denning’s second Star Wars novel, Tatooine Ghost!

As always, there are spoilers ahead! These reviews are not spoiler-free! However I will try not to reveal major plot details as much as possible.

The year is 8 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV), and Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo are recently married. But there’s no rest for the weary, and Leia has led them on a covert mission to a very familiar (to us, that is) planet: Tatooine.

The desert world has a deep family connection for Leia; in addition to being the childhood home of her brother, Luke Skywalker, it is also the childhood home of her father, Anakin Skywalker–or as the galaxy knows him, Darth Vader. But now a new connection has arisen: A famous painting from her homeworld of Alderaan has surfaced at an auction in the Tatooine city of Mos Espa. The Killik Twilight would be enough to draw Leia’s attention anyway, but there’s more: The painting contains an electronic key to the Rebellion’s covert Shadowcast communication network, still in use for vital missions by the New Republic. It must be recovered at any cost–or if not recovered, then destroyed.

Things look promising–until the arrival of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera and its disturbingly well-disciplined troops. As the situation devolves into chaos, the painting is stolen; and more, the thief is an old friend of none other than Anakin Skywalker. Han and Leia head off in pursuit, the Empire close behind them as always–and along the way, Leia must come to terms with the legacy of her father, and the leading of the Force.

One issue–perhaps the issue–with the EU is that it is not a series, per se. Rather, it’s a shard continuity. Many authors contributed to it over the years, but moreover, its books were not written in order. As of this novel, we’ve only made it as far as 8 ABY; however the first books released in the post-RotJ era, Heir to the Empire and its sequels, are set in 9 ABY. The early authors, perhaps, had it easy; broad swaths of time were unfilled, and only the barest of plot points in existing novels had to be respected. It’s fine to write a Truce at Bakura, set in 4 ABY, when the only future events you have to respect are four years later. But, as the universe became more deeply described, and events began to fill up the history and the calendar, it became much harder to work in a meaningful story. After all, when the next thirty years have been fleshed out, it becomes impossible to make any significant changes to the universe–you already know how things will work out.

That’s the situation in which we find ourselves with Tatooine Ghost. While the general trend of the era had been to move forward into progressively later years, Tatooine Ghost is one of several novels that were inserted into an earlier year, bookended by other existing stories. As a result, it’s interesting, but it all feels a bit…inconsequential.

It must be a fine line to walk. For example, Leia experiences visions from the Force in this novel. In the end, she reflects that she needs to talk to Luke about learning to harness the Force–but we already know that it will be a long time before she actually acts on that desire. And so, no real action can happen on that front. The entire book proceeds in similar fashion.

But, I don’t consider that to be a weakness on the part of the author. Denning was, as I said, quite constrained by the era for which he was writing, and to be honest he did the best that the situation would allow. I should mention that there are many fans who do take issue with Denning’s work–apparently he was able to largely shape the direction of the EU in its later years–but we’ll put off covering that until we get there. This novel, in the meantime, is an earlier work, and it’s acceptable, if hamstrung by its timing. (Denning’s first Star Wars novel, the New Jedi Order’s Star By Star, is nothing short of fantastic–check it out if you want a view of what he’s capable of when not constrained by surrounding stories.)

What does this novel do well? More than anything, it ties together the prequel era and the post-RotJ era. Leia meets or otherwise discovers several characters and locations from Episode I, The Phantom Menace. She discovers a video journal put together by her grandmother, Shmi Skywalker Lars; visits Shmi’s long-empty home and the shop formerly owned by Watto; meets Anakin’s childhood friend Kitster Banai; visits Luke’s family homestead (now owned by the Darklighters, previously seen in the X-Wing series); and meets Dama Whitesun Brunk, the younger sister of Luke’s aunt Beru. She also visits Obi-Wan Kenobi’s abandoned hermitage, and finds a datapad left by him (a thread left tantalizingly unpulled!). The overall effect is to bring the two eras together; because, frankly, if one only watches the films, they feel unconnected. The universe of the original trilogy doesn’t feel as though it has much connection to the universe of the prequel trilogy. For this, I’m grateful to this novel.

Further, it fleshes out the lives of characters that previously only existed as part of Anakin’s story–and brief parts at that! We get, for example, a thorough look at the romance between Cliegg Lars and Shmi Skywalker Lars, and at the complicated relationship between Shmi and her owner, Watto. We get to see hints of Anakin’s friends growing up, and of the vacuum he left behind in his absence. It goes a long way toward changing these people from objects to characters, rich and lively–even if sometimes long dead.

And, most of all for our purposes, it gives us insight into the early days of the marriage of Han and Leia–though this almost feels like an afterthought. When we next see the Solos, they’ll be embroiled in the battle with Grand Admiral Thrawn (who makes a covert appearance in this book–see if you can spot him!), and on the way to parenthood, and we’ll rarely ever get to see them focus on each other without such concerns again. This is, for all practical purposes, as close to a honeymoon as we’ll get to see them be. Though hectic, this story feels like a vacation of sorts for them. (Full disclosure: They do get an actual honeymoon in the short story Corphelion Interlude, which we’re skipping for now–but in typical Solo fashion, you can bet it’s not much more relaxing!)

Overall: It’s not a bad story–but I could say that it’s also not a necessary story. If your chief concern is the progression of the overall plot, you might skip this one. Tatooine Ghost is introspective, thoughtful, and not of particularly great consequence for the larger story. But, if–like me–you like having a well-established and deep background for your stories, with unique and varied and most of all well-drawn characters, then you may want to read this one. Check it out!

Next time: The next novel in our chronology is Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the first entry in the Thrawn Trilogy and arguably the father of the modern EU, as novels go–so we’ll pick up there! But, it will be a while before I can begin; I have some other projects that need attention first. In the meantime, read along and share your thoughts! See you there.

Tatooine Ghost is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.



From Star Wars to Star Trek, The End of an Era

We come together today to mourn the death of an era.

Now, I’m not here to complain about the direction a franchise is taking. If you’ve been here, you’ve already heard my thoughts on that. Things change, and canon rolls ever on, and every generation makes the material its own–and though it’s not always fun for those of us who are old-timers, it is the way things ought to be (if, of course, we want the fiction we love to live).

But, we can mourn an era, even as we acknowledge the place of a new development. And so we’ve come to do today.

Artist Unknown

I’ve talked a lot about Star Wars, and Warhammer 40,000, and Doctor Who–all franchises I love, and in some cases have loved for my entire life. I haven’t talked much about that other “Star” franchise, Star Trek. There’s a reason for that–two of them actually. For one, I simply only have so much time, and so many irons to put in the fire at one time. But for another, this blog has concerned itself more with books than with movies and television–and it’s been a very long time since I was conversant with the Star Trek “litverse”, as the fans sometimes call it. Oh, I’ve very occasionally looked at a book here or there; but almost without fail, those books have been from my own childhood or teen years, or even older. And for once, we’re not looking that far back!

To explain, you need to understand the state of Star Trek media over recent years (and by recent, I mean since 2000), and also a bit of in-universe lore as well.

Prior to the much more recent introduction of television series Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, things had been a bit…let’s say odd, in terms of televised or filmed Trek. The last movie of the original continuity was Star Trek: Nemesis all the way back in 2002, and the last television series was Star Trek: Enterprise, which ended in 2005, and which you should absolutely watch because it’s fantastic. In short, no one was doing anything with Trek on the screen, or at least not the Trek we’d all known and loved. I say this from the observations of an uninitiated outsider, not from any documented evidence; but, the consensus among people with influence seemed to be that we’d done all we could do there, the actors were aging…Trek was done. So of course, it’s time for a reboot! And that’s exactly what happened. Star Trek–the original series, that is–got a big-screen reboot in three films from 2009 to 2016, mostly creditable to producer J.J. Abrams. As fans are wont to do, we all endlessly debated/cursed/screamed/finally kinda sorta accepted the films, but it was rocky for a bit there.

That’s where the in-universe lore comes in! The saving grace of the reboot was that it wasn’t technically a reboot–it was a spin-off of sorts. Through shenanigans and time-travel hijinks, the reboot became an alternate universe, stemming off of the one we knew, which we now call the “Prime Universe”–and all at the cost of one Spock (not worth it, but what do I know). Thus, the universe was saved! Except for the planets Romulus and Remus, but who cares about them! We can still have stories set in the Prime Universe!

And for a whopping twenty years, give or take, that’s exactly what we got! Just…not on screen. No, what developed instead was one of the greatest collaborative writing projects I’ve ever seen, right up there with the Star Wars EU/Legends (and probably even bigger in the end), Warhammer 40,000’s Black Library, and the SCP Foundation wiki. That project is the “post-finale” era of the Star Trek Litverse.

And what a grand project it is! Check out this flowchart:

Even the title of the chart is impressive!

Depending on how you count it, that’s up to twenty-four series of novels, all linked and interwoven together. Some twenty-five novelists came together to create this amazing shared universe, and together they took the Trek universe to places it could never have gone on television. Characters grew and changed; some came along, some left, and some died. New ships were introduced, new conflict, new regions. Star Trek was alive, more so here than on the screen, and it was amazing. I haven’t dug into this era myself, but I’ve watched from the outside, seen the chatter about it, and even just a glimpse is impressive.

And now, it’s coming to an end.

Three days ago, author David Mack announced on his blog that the end is nigh. You can read about it here. The gist of the story is something we could all have predicted, though no one wanted to. Star Trek has the same rules for its secondary (read: non-film, non-TV) media as nearly any other franchise: Such media, including novels, must be consistent with current television and/or film canon, such that it supports those expensive flagship projects rather than competes with them. Things have been a bit lax the last few years, allowing authors in the Litverse time to scramble toward completion of projects–but now, with a whopping four series running (Discover, Picard, Short Treks, and Lower Decks) and new projects predicted, the piper has come calling, and it’s time to go. The Litverse is not consistent with the creative direction of the new series, and developments in the Litverse have deviated too far to be grandfathered into the new canon. In short, Star Trek’s Litverse is experiencing what the Star Wars Expanded Universe experienced in 2014: relegation to secondary status in order to make way for new, canon-consistent materials.

Mack and his fellow authors have learned something from Star Wars, though, and they aren’t being caught unawares. When the announcement was made regarding Star Wars, there was no time to cap off the existing storylines–several novels remain unpublished, and we never see the deaths or other ends of our major characters (except Chewbacca–RIP Chewy, we still love you!). But, a wrap-up is coming for the Litverse, in the form of the aptly named Coda trilogy, which will be released over the next few months.

I can only hope that the fans will take this change with as much thought and preparation. Over in the Star Wars fandom, we haven’t always shown our best face in light of the changes to our universe. It’s getting better, I think; but we’ve had some rough moments. I think Trek fans, who have always been optimistic about the future (after all, that’s the core of Trek, that optimism!), will do a little better–and I wish them the best. I hope to join them myself at some point.

Artist Unknown

And so we salute the Litverse today. Neither gone nor forgotten–but laid to rest, and its place is well earned.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m grabbing a flowchart and heading to the bookstore.

Revisiting Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia

Yesterday, while preparing to post the previous entry in this series, it occurred to me that for all the work I put into these book reviews (both here and over on The Time Lord Archives), I’m essentially just writing book reports. It’s junior high school all over again! And that’s a bit deflating to consider, until a friend reframed it for me–that a skill picked up in school continues to bring me pleasure today. Which, I think, is a much more charitable–and more valid–way to look at it. After all, though I appreciate every reader and follower, I really do this for myself, as an expression of the pleasure I’ve gotten out of books over the years.

That sentiment rings doubly true with me today, because, unlike yesterday’s novel, today’s novel launched while I was still in junior high (if only barely; I finished junior high two months later). Released April 1, 1994, that novel is The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton, and was it ever a nostalgia trip for me! To explain: The last seven books we’ve covered are the first seven books in the X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston–none of which I read at the time of release (1996-1999). Aside from not being particularly interested at the time in what felt like an offshoot of the main series of Star Wars novels, I also couldn’t afford them; I did my reading via the library, and they didn’t have the X-Wing novels. So, for those books, as with Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, this project wasn’t a reread; it was the initial read. Not so with The Courtship of Princess Leia! I’m not certain that I read it immediately upon release, but it had to have been within the first year; I do know I had not read very much else in the Expanded Universe at that time, possibly only the Thrawn Trilogy (which we have yet to cover). So, for me, this was early days indeed.

The cover I remember from my teen years, and I assume the original. I still prefer this version.

That sentiment is true for the novel itself, as well. Only five of the new era of EU novels precede its publication: The Thrawn Trilogy, The Truce at Bakura, and Jedi Search. (To clarify: This is not including the young readers books, such as The Glove of Darth Vader, of which there were an equal number at that time. While the canonicity of those books can be debated, they have little influence on continuity, and we aren’t considering them here.) Fans of the later EU are going to find this novel to be a bit rough around the edges.

So, let’s dive in! As usual, there are spoilers ahead, although I should say that the major points of this novel have been well known among EU fans for a long time.

The events of this novel pick up shortly after the events of Solo Command, and flow immediately from those events. Han Solo returns to Coruscant after the apparent destruction of Zsinj’s flagship, looking for rest and expecting to reunite with Leia Organa–only to walk in on a most distressing event. Leia has been seeking a treaty with the reclusive Hapes Consortium, a monarchy covering at least 63 worlds, which possesses a large battle fleet and a fabulous amount of wealth, both of which the New Republic needs if it is to continue to deal with the remnants of the Empire. However, coming as a surprise to both Leia and Han, the treaty is contingent on a marriage proposal for Leia from the Hapan crown prince, Isolder! Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker is searching for records of the pre-Empire Jedi; his search leads him to mention of an obscure planet called Dathomir.

Han and Isolder quickly devolve into a hostile rivalry for Leia’s affections, in which Han is undercut by the efforts of the many diplomats who want to see the marriage take place. Desperate to impress Leia, Han gets into, and wins, a high-stakes card game, which nets him ownership of a planet. He plans to present it to Leia as a prospective home for the displaced Alderaanian people…only to find out it is deep within Warlord Zsinj’s territory. The name of the planet? Dathomir. Seeing time tick away, Han kidnaps Leia and takes her to the planet, but is shot down in orbit, and discovers the planet was interdicted by the Empire (that is, no landings or launches were permitted, cutting the planet off from all transportation). Isolder follows him there, and with assistance from Luke, arrives only minutes after Han and Leia–and, along with Luke, is promptly shot down as well. Luke saves Isolder’s life via the Force, and Isolder, his worldview shaken by this act, becomes a student of the Jedi way (although he lacks force sensitivity). Luke discovers a centuries-old Jedi ship crashed on the planet, a mobile training academy called the Chu’unthor; shortly after, he and Isolder are captured by a Force-powerful woman named Teneniel Djo. Soon reunited, our heroes–Han, Leia, Luke, Isolder, C-3PO and R2-D2–find themselves caught in an impending war between Teneniel’s tribe of Force-sensitive “witches” and their evil counterparts, the Nightsisters. The Nightsisters are seeking a way off the planet to spread their dominion; and they have just become aware of the Millennium Falcon, which is damaged but repairable.

Heavy spoilers here: In the end, several things are accomplished. The Nightsisters are defeated; Han trades ownership of the planet to the tribe; the Falcon is repaired; Zsinj is at long last killed by Han, and his ship, the Iron Fist, is destroyed; Luke obtains the extensive records from the Chu’unthor; Isolder weds Teneniel Djo and commits Hapes to joining the Republic; and, oh yeah, Han and Leia get married. It’s a strong transition to the next phase of the EU, and a lot of ground is covered!

A later cover, which appears to have been used on more editions than the original.

So, what of those points? Let’s look at a few, and I’ll give you my thoughts.

The Nightsisters and Dathomir: When I first read this book, this was the only mention of Dathomir in existence. At the time, it seemed like just another interesting planet: Fascinating, sure, but probably just a one-off location, much like Mimban in 1978’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. Little did I know back then that Star Wars is guilty of that one utterly insane flaw that plagues franchise fiction: Never being able to let something go! This is a more egregious problem in Star Wars than in some other franchises, because of the sheer size of its universe, and it happens all the time. Rightly speaking, a backwater world like, say, Tatooine should not be as pivotal or as frequently seen as it is; but it shows up constantly, and everyone who’s anybody has been there. (“Well, if there’s a bright center of the universe, you’re on the planet it’s farthest from.” ~Luke Skywalker, A New Hope) Something similar happens to Dathomir, both in the EU and in current canon, where this planet that was so unknown that none of our heroes had heard of it or could look it up, takes on a much greater significance. Now, to be fair, it’s understandable for it to become significant in the future from this point; Teneniel Djo becomes the Queen Mother of Hapes, and her daughter becomes both Queen Mother and a significant Jedi. But the planet becomes significant for other, much less justifiable reasons, both in the future and the past. Likewise, the Nightsisters prove just too irresistible for later writers, especially in canon; they become a surrogate family for Darth Maul, and their history becomes quite muddled as compared to the simplicity found in this novel. It may be inevitable, but I find it disappointing; I much prefer the pristine, backwater Dathomir we see here, and the powerful but also pitiable Nightsisters we see.

The Chu’unthor: In 1994, this was the most striking part of the book to me, and yet it’s largely downplayed. These days, I understand the line the authors had to walk; the overall story of the EU could advance, and there seemed to be a plan for that, but no one could advance it too quickly. Thus, a discovery such as the Chu’unthor and its records should have been earthshattering–a real and powerful boon for the nascent Jedi order–but they are rarely mentioned again after this, as I recall. This is one instance where further expansion would absolutely be merited; and indeed it does get some elaboration on its lore, but mostly via supporting materials such as sourcebooks. What a pity; this was a great start, but it fizzles out later.

It’s worth mentioning that we’re seeing the early stages of something that is quite prominent in upcoming years. Luke’s attempts to restart the Jedi order really get started here, though there are nods to it in earlier stories (and of course some later stories had already been written–when I say it starts here, I mean in-universe). Remember that this all occurs before the prequel trilogy was produced. Things look very different from their final forms; for example, Luke concludes here that the Jedi never had a planet-bound training center at all, and instead had the Chu’unthor as a mobile academy. Obviously the Jedi Temple on Coruscant wasn’t a thing yet–it would be five more years before The Phantom Menace established it. Fortunately, the EU proved to be flexible enough to incorporate those changes when they came about. Chiefly it did this by making the Empire very effective indeed, especially in terms of expunging the memory of the Jedi; we’ve already touched on this a bit with the X-Wing series and the Jedi museum on Coruscant, which the Emperor had packed away. Still, throughout the EU’s lifespan, there’s always going to be some tension between the prequels’ portrayal of the Jedi–stiff, regimented, regulated, centralized–and the wild variety that springs up in the early days of the EU (which we’ll see when older Jedi are proven to have survived the Emperor’s purge).

Isolder and Teneniel Djo: Theirs is a great, if abrupt, romance. It’s almost too abrupt–one could get whiplash at how fast the affections of these two change–but in context that makes sense. Both characters are highly motivated people of action, prone to making quick but impactful decisions; Teneniel Djo even tells Isolder directly that women in her society often choose their husbands very quickly, with little time for forethought. I’m quite happy for them; but I have always thought of their marriage as a stepping stone for the purposes of the EU, as it’s going to get fairly little discussion later in favor of their prominent daughter, Tenel Ka. As for their kingdom (er, queendom? It’s decidedly matriarchal), Hapes, the level of intrigue and barely-veiled violence described leads me to only one conclusion: Game of Thrones in space! If ever there’s a spinoff in need of being written, it’s that one.

Zsinj and the Iron Fist: Here is the true payoff of the novel, and I would strongly suggest that Wolverton had no idea when he wrote it–rather, it’s mostly creditable to the work of Aaron Allston in Solo Command. That novel and this, I believe, are best read in quick sequence, as they function as an unofficial duology. Courtship was written in media res with regard to the war against Zsinj, which is in hindsight impressive to me. Wolverton gives us the end of the war, and hints at what has gone before, in a way that very much suggests that this is a sequel. The problem? It isn’t. In fact it was written five years before the book that would detail the events that Courtship establishes. And so, Allston completes the cycle. Wolverton tells us about some of the systems to which Han had chased Zsinj; Allston shows it to us. Wolverton describes the planetary Nightcloak (an invisibility cloak of sorts around the planet Dathomir); Allston shows us the prototype that saves the Iron Fist from destruction. The two books are so tightly woven that the only significant error I found is that Courtship implies that Iron Fist is a lesser class of Star Destroyer, rather than a Super Star Destroyer. It’s really marvelous how well the two books coordinate.

Han and Leia: Here we come to the purpose of the book. Timothy Zahn had already established in the Thrawn Trilogy that Han and Leia were married at some point; and as it’s unthinkable that such a prominent event for two of the “big three” characters would go undocumented, here we are! It’s a chapter that needed to be told. Ironically, the wedding itself only gets just a brief and cursory description, totaling about a page (I think; I did my reread in ebook form, so the page length varies), all told from Luke’s perspective as a late-arriving guest. Well, I suppose the title is “The Courtship of Princess Leia”, not “The Wedding of Princess Leia”. And yet, this simple scene is going to lay the foundation for two decades of stories to follow; Han and Leia’s marriage is one of the cornerstones of the post-RotJ EU, and no one would dare to suggest it’s anything less than rock solid (looking at you, The Force Awakens). Well, okay, maybe not exactly that. But this is a historic moment! Fun trivia: It’s not the only take on their wedding! The young readers Jedi Prince series–which we aren’t covering here–touched on the marriage of Han and Leia, four in-universe years earlier, in its final installment, Prophets of the Dark Side. That book featured Leia planning her wedding, and seeing a vision of Han and two children (ostensibly their twins Jacen and Jaina, already established in the Thrawn Trilogy). The plan was for the wedding to be interrupted, then addressed in the next and final book, which was never released. (Credit to Redditor /u/QualityAutism for this trivia.)

Before we go, here’s a hint of what is to come: There’s a minor, comedic plot thread here in which C-3PO, eager to help Han win Leia back from Isolder, digs into Han’s past and discovers that Han is the descendant of a king of Corellia, and thus hereditary king himself. Threepio goes on to call him “King Solo” throughout the book, before discovering on the day of the wedding that Han’s ancestor was a usurper and false king who was rightly deposed–much to Threepio’s horror and Luke’s humor. (Luke locks him in a closet to keep him from interrupting the wedding with this news.) It’s just a bit of silliness, but it presages the rather major topic of Han’s actual lineage, which we’re going to dig into in depth in the Han Solo Trilogy and the Corellian Trilogy–but that’s all a long way off.

Opinions have swayed over the years regarding The Courtship of Princess Leia. These days it gets a bit of flak, and doesn’t often make it onto fans’ “essential books” lists. Perhaps there’s justification for that. The story is choppy; things happen fast, without much setup. The characterization is uneven; Han, who has just come off being a decorated Republic general, gets drunk and says and does things that seem jarring coming from him. Some of that can be attributed to love making people both desperate and crazy, but it’s a little over the top (he literally shoots Leia with what amounts to a date rape gun, then kidnaps her). It’s probably not a story that would play out the same if written today–but it needed to be written. I personally consider it essential, not for its intrinsic qualities, but because it details such an iconic moment in our heroes’ lives. We need this story for what lies ahead.

So, that’s it! We’re over the hurdle of Han and Leia’s wedding, and all is smooth sailing ahead! No, of course not. After all, what’s a wedding without a honeymoon? And that’s what we’ll cover next time, in Troy Denning’s novel, Tatooine Ghost (accompanied by the short story, Corphelion Interlude). See you there!

The Courtship of Princess Leia is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.



Revisiting Star Wars: X-Wing: Solo Command

We’ve done it! We’ve reached the end of the X-Wing series! Or, well, almost. That still counts, right?

When last we checked in with the pilots of the New Republic, we saw the formation and further adventures of Wraith Squadron, Wedge Antilles’s unique squad of screwups-turned-pilots who moonlight as commandos and intelligence agents. Rogue Squadron sometimes covered similar ground…but not particularly effectively–remember Corran Horn getting beaten to a pulp in an Imperial spaceport? For the Wraiths, it’s the order of the day, and they’re surprisingly good at it. They are, essentially, the Suicide Squad of the Star Wars universe–they’re washouts, occasional criminals, men and women with some very checkered pasts, and the guilt and burdens that go with those pasts. And I love every minute!

But, all good things must come to an end, and this is the last hurrah for Wraith Squadron–for now, anyway. Likewise, it’s the end of the X-Wing series, for now. We will indeed see a few more stories, one just a few books away, one much further–but both of those are later installments. We are, for the time being, done with the X-Wing series. So, if this is the last hurrah, let’s make it a good one!

The book is 1999’s Solo Command, by Aaron Allston, and it’s unique among the X-Wing series…but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s dive in!

As usual, expect spoilers ahead! I’ll try to keep the bulk of the plot unspoiled, but some details are just unavoidable.

Picking up where we left off in Iron Fist, we find General Han Solo–yes, that Han Solo, making his first substantial appearance in the X-Wing series–consolidating his command for the final push against Warlord Zsinj. Zsinj, you will recall, has been the focus of the Wraith Squadron section of the series, replacing defeated (probably) Ysanne Isard as the antagonist of the hour. Zsinj gets most of his story told here, but he didn’t originate here; the fandom first met him five years earlier, in The Courtship of Princess Leia. That book is still to come for us, though! Except for the Imperial Remnant itself–the official Empire, if you will–Zsinj’s fragment of the Empire is the largest and most aggressive, and he has been giving the New Republic a run for their money for a long time.

I can’t say that Zsinj is the type of character I would like in real life (and of course he’s not meant to be liked)–but I will say that he’s a fascinating character. He’s a counterpoint to Isard. Where she was all hate and cool self-collection–after all, the Republic referred to her disparagingly as “Iceheart”–Zsinj is volatile and moody. While he’s still a fantastic strategist, he gives in to his emotions in the moment, often proclaiming that he can’t do one thing or another, or exulting over a victory he believes is sure. Where Isard crushes the spirits of everyone around her, Zsinj feeds off of their emotions and their reactions to him. He’s vain and foppish, at the same time that he’s shrewd and calculating, and both facets are equally him. Allston makes a powerful effort here to make Zsinj a real character, not just a monolith at which the Rogues and Wraiths will hurl themselves. (More on that when we get to The Courtship of Princess Leia.) We didn’t get a particularly good look at him in the previous two entries, but here, the veil is pulled away.

Perspective in this story switches among the Rogues and Wraiths, with a generous dose of Wedge Antilles, Warlord Zsinj, and Han Solo thrown in–but generally still follows the Wraiths as much as possible (after all, this is still Allston’s work). With the viewpoint bouncing around as much as it does, individual Wraiths don’t get as much screen time as they did in the last two books; primarily it’s Garik “Face” Loran and Lara Notsil/Gara Petothel who hog the spotlight here (but in a good way; their stories needed to be told). Numerous threads from the previous entries get tied up here: Face moves into a command position; Lara’s loyalties are resolved (I won’t spoil it, because we’ll see her again further down the road); Piggy (the modified Gamorrean in the squadron) gets some closure regarding his origins; Wedge returns to Rogue Squadron; and oh yes, Lieutenant Kettch is vindicated!

That last bears a moment of explanation, because it’s so entertaining. There’s been a running joke throughout the Wraith Squadron trilogy, in which the Wraiths convince Zsinj that they have a genetically-modified Ewok, named Kettch, among their pilots. Kettch is reputed to be as intelligent as a human, but–owing to his short stature–requires special prosthetics to fly a fighter. The Wraiths take the trick so far as to acquire a life-size Ewok doll and put it on Wedge’s lap during a mission, so that anyone looking into his cockpit canopy will believe the ruse. The story is just believable enough that Zsinj–who is aware of the bioengineering lab that created Piggy–falls for it. Doll Kettch gets a final showing in this book, and that seems to be the end of it…until Lara raids the biolab, and discovers (you guessed it) an intelligent, pilot-trained Ewok who uses prosthetics to reach the controls.

It’s a great joke, and one that would only work here–but it only works because Allston spent three books earning it, setting up the joke in a believable way. And this, I might add, is the sort of thing he did well in every instance. If Allston introduces a new element to the story, you can bet it’s going to pay off, and pay off well–but never in a “deus ex machina” fashion. The payoff will never seem strained, never seem to have been sprung on us; you’ll get there and exclaim “of course, I’ve been expecting that!”–even though it never truly occurred to you ahead of time.

And yet, I didn’t find this book to be as enjoyable as the previous two. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a particularly large difference. It’s that, in the previous two books, one very much gets the impression Allston is having fun for the sake of having fun. He’s still having fun here–but there’s a goal in mind. It’s time to land this plane. And, while I consider that to be a strength of the story–you’ll see what I mean when we get to the next book–it also makes it just a little less enjoyable, because there’s always an element of grind when you’re trying to reach a goal. You can’t just enjoy the ride the way you did before.

But, read it anyway. You’ve come this far. Land the plane.

Now, a taste of what’s to come. I’ll expand on this point in the next post, but let’s tie it together for the moment. When the Expanded Universe (today’s Legends) kicked off in 1991, with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the field was wide open for new Star Wars media. There had been previous entries, of course, including comics and books; but there hadn’t been a novel since 1983’s Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka, and there was practically nothing out there that expanded on the post-Return of the Jedi era. The pace was slow for a few years even after Heir, with only a few novels in the first few years. But by 1999, when Solo Command released, the field was already starting to become a bit crowded. Solo Command is actually quite the latecomer; nearly all of the novels between Return of the Jedi and the New Jedi Order series had already been released. (In fact, Vector Prime, the first book of the NJO series, released late in the same year.) And so, Allston (and Stackpole; after all, the Wraith novels proceed directly from the Rogue Squadron novels) had the perhaps unenviable task of wedging (pun definitely intended) their stories into the middle of an already well-established continuity.

But, Allston delivered, in the best way possible. His story fits nearly perfectly with the events of the next chronological novel, The Courtship of Princess Leia. I’ll go so far as to say that it would be hard to fully appreciate Courtship without first reading Solo Command; the books form a sort of unofficial duology that makes so much more sense as a unit. It still amazes me, after all this time, that Courtship set up the elements that it did, such as the end of Zsinj’s war with the Republic, and just…left them dangling for five years, until Allston came along and fleshed it out. It makes me wonder how much planning there really was behind the scenes, because it seems like something that must have been coordinated.

So: Read this book! It’s possible that one might look at the entire X-Wing series as non-essential reading; in many ways it is, in fact, a pleasant “extra” for the post-RotJ EU. Solo Command makes it harder to hold that opinion, I think; if you want to proceed onward–and of course, if you’ve come this far–you’ll want (dare I say need?) this book as well. At the very least, you won’t be disappointed; you’ll find it enjoyable.

Next time: We shift gears, and follow Han Solo back to Coruscant, where he gets a most unpleasant surprise! We’ll take a look at Dave Wolverton’s 1994 novel, The Courtship of Princess Leia. See you there!

X-Wing: Solo Command is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.



Let’s Read the Horus Heresy! Part 9: Battle for the Abyss

Over the last few books, the Horus Heresy series has stepped away from the “present day” of the Heresy to cover some important prequel events. The two books created a “bookend” of sorts; we looked at the I Legion under Lion el’Jonson, and the XX Legion, the last to be established, under Alpharius. The I Legion, the Dark Angels, will be loyalists during the heresy (though ultimately with an entirely separate betrayal within their own ranks–but that’s a story for another day), while the XX Legion, the Alpha Legion, will join the traitors–but with a twist (that I won’t spoil again here!).

Now, though, it’s time to step back into the action. We’ve seen the two great ambushes that Horus orchestrated to purge as many loyalists as possible from his ranks–the ambush at Isstvan III, and the Dropsite Massacre at Isstvan V. But there are plenty of loyalist legions left, and they won’t stand idly by while Horus comes for the Emperor. They, too, must be taken down if Horus is to win this war. There is perhaps no more loyal legion than the XIII Legion, the Ultramarines, under their primarch Roboute Guilliman–and so they become the target for the traitor XVII Legion, the Word Bearers under Lorgar. Lorgar, you will recall, is the first Primarch to fall to Chaos, long before Horus; it was his machinations that led to the fall of Horus at Davin. This is a Legion totally given to Chaos; and they have plans to destroy the Ultramarines before the alarm can even be raised. And thus we come to Battle for the Abyss, by Ben Counter.

Spoilers ahead! If you want a more spoiler-free review, with just my thoughts on the book, skip ahead to the last dividing line in the post.

The Furious Abyss

Hidden in the depths of the solar system is the moon of Jupiter known as Thule. This minor celestial body has been hollowed out by the Mechanicum of Mars, then converted into a massive, single-use shipyard; and hidden inside that shipyard grows a monster. The Furious Abyss is a new creation, an Abyss-class battleship, the largest ever constructed by the Mechanicum. Its engines are enormous, its armament unmatched–and it is entirely under the command of the Word Bearers legion. It is early days in the Heresy, and most of the galaxy is unaware of the treachery of the Warmaster and his aligned Legions, which include the Word Bearers. But they will know soon enough; for the Heresy is about to announce itself. The Furious Abyss takes flight for Macragge, the homeworld of the Ultramarines, to set an ambush that will open the way for an invasion of the entire system, and the destruction of the XIII Legion.

I need to stop here and talk about the Mechanicum for a moment. Since the colonization of Mars many thousands of years ago, the planet has been its own entity, sometimes even rivaling Terra. It is wholly given over to the pursuit of technology, hence the name of its ruling organization: the Cult Mechanicus, or the Mechanicum. They are a religious body as well as a political one, seeking oneness with their proclaimed god, the Omnissiah. Much has been written over the years as to whether the Emperor is also the Omnissiah, and I won’t get into that here–but it’s the pretext of that claim that allowed the Emperor to ally the Imperium with the Mechanicum rather than try to conquer them. This alliance is the reason the Emperor’s symbol is the aquila–the double-headed eagle, with one head representing the Imperium, and the other representing the Mechanicum. Since that day, the two have functioned as one, with the Mechanicum cranking out the ships, armor, and weapons that the Great Crusade requires. Mars’s influence also covers other bodies in the solar system, such as the shipyards around Jupiter, which explains Thule’s selection for the construction of the Furious Abyss. At this time, it appears that elements in the Mechanicum–all the way up to their leader, the Fabricator-General–have decided to throw in their lot with the traitors.

I could not find art of the Furious Abyss.
All art is of the related Gothic battleship,
from which the Abyss-class design was drawn.

The Furious Abyss–or just Abyss, for convenience–is captained by a Word Bearers admiral named Zadkiel, who is a true zealot indeed, and also quite paranoid. They aren’t called the Word Bearers for nothing; their form of Chaos worship is a dedication to the Word of Lorgar. They literally have scriptures that guide them in the pursuit of Chaos. As a symbol of this, the Abyss carries an experimental weapon, a plasma lance, in its prow–which is shaped like a massive book of scriptures.

The Fist of Macragge

Somewhere between Terra and Macragge, an Ultramarines cruiser called the Fist of Macragge sails the void, captained by Brother-Captain Hektor. The ship has been recalled to Macragge (or Ultramar, as the system is called–it also includes the planet Calth, among others, all under the jurisdiction of the Ultramarines) to muster for a campaign to liberate the planet Veridan from the Orks. On the way, it is supposed to stop at Vangelis Spaceport, a popular transfer point, to pick up a contingent of Ultramarines who wait to join the campaign.

The ship never makes it to Vangelis. Instead, its proximity alarms sound as it suddenly encounters the largest ship any of the crew have ever seen. The Furious Abyss wastes no time; it immediately fires upon the hapless cruiser, testing its weapons. Hektor never gets a chance to learn the name of the ship that kills him–but he does manage to get the astropaths to send a warning.

Vangelis Spaceport

Let’s meet our protagonists! This story features a motley collection of Space Marines from various Legions, as well as Imperial Navy officers from the Saturnine Fleet, an older and storied fleet that is about to be retired. We have the Ultramarines who were waiting for the Fist of Macragge: Brother-Captain Cestus; his honor guard, consisting of Battle-Brothers Antiges, Saphrax, and Laeradis; and several unnamed squad members. There’s the VI Legion Space Wolves; it’s a small squad, led by Wolf Guard Captain Brynngar and his Battle-Brother Rujveld, and comprising several lower-ranked Blood Claws. There is a squad of the XII Legion World Eaters, Angron’s Legion (unaware that their Primarch and much of the Legion have turned traitor), led by Brother-Captain Skraal. And then there is a single representative of Magnus’s Legion, the Thousand Sons: the psyker Brother-Sergeant Mhotep, who serves as fleet captain of the ship Waning Moon. From the Saturnine Fleet, we have Rear Admiral Kaminska, captaining the Wrathful; her helmsmistress, Venkmeyer; and her Principal Navigator, Orcadus. The Wrathful will be accompanied by four escort attack ships; also, a Captain Vorlov, of the mothballed ship Boundless, will bring his ship and crew to join them..

All of the above are stationed at Vangelis Spaceport, awaiting various assignments. Cestus, Antiges, and Brynngar are old friends, having fought many battles together. The World Eaters, on the other hand, are looked upon cautiously by all others involved; their inheritance of their gene-father Angron’s renowned fury and battle-rage, makes them a bit suspect in everyone’s eyes. Mhotep keeps to himself until things kick off; and the Saturnine fleet staff–well, they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Interstellar communication is a tricky thing. It can only be done via psyker, aka astropath; and astropaths are not known for transmitting text very well. They communicate instead in images and feelings, which must be parsed and interpreted. That would make things difficult enough; but when the message–no, the psychic death scream–from the Fist of Macragge comes in, it’s so overwhelming that a burst of power escapes from the receiving astropaths, damaging the station. Cestus, Antiges, and Brynngar leap into action to shut down the damaged main reactor; but in the process, Cestus gets caught in the psychic blast, and gets a vision of the projected course of the as-yet-unknown Abyss: Macragge. He knows, with a cold certainty, that the ship is going to attack Macragge. Worse, it is accompanied by a disturbance in the Warp that prevents communication; there is no way to warn either Macragge or Terra in time. Cestus will be forced to act.

A Desperate Alliance

Cestus calls a conference of all the available Astartes. Over their objections, he lays out what he knows: that the unknown ship has destroyed the Fist of Macragge; caused the inadvertent damage to Vangelis; and is en route to Macragge for some form of ambush. Then, he demands an alliance to stop the Abyss.

It’s a difficult thing to ask. One would be hard pressed to find a more disparate group of Astartes than the Ultramarines, Space Wolves, and World Eaters. It is made worse when, for reasons of his own, Mhotep arrives and volunteers himself and his ship and crew. Mhotep is a psyker, as is his entire Legion, and this does not sit well with Brynngar; the tension between the two will be an ongoing problem. (At this point the Council of Nikaea has already passed, and Magnus’s legion was censured for their sorcery; most legions still have their psyker Librarians, but the actions of the Thousand Sons are a step too far for many. It doesn’t help that Mhotep is here for reasons he determined through psychic divination.) But somehow, through sheer force of will, Cestus obtains the commitment of the others. At the same time, his honor guard is busy commandeering ships; and the flotilla they acquire happens to be that of Admiral Kaminska, who–in addition to the prospective mothballing of her fleet–is near retirement herself. She, too, will be a source of contention, as she simmers under Cestus’s command of her fleet; but the knowledge of the end of her career will drive her to give everything to this cause.

It’s a small fleet of seven ships that departs Vangelis: The Wrathful; its four escorts, Fearless, Ferox, Ferocious, and Fireblade; the Boundless; and Mhotep’s Waning Moon. The ships set off in pursuit of the Fearless Abyss, hoping to catch it before it can reach the Tertiary Coreward Transit, a major route through the Warp.

Meanwhile, Zadkiel sharpens his weapons, in the figurative sense. He deals with a young and ambitious Word Bearer named Ultis, whom he begins to shape into a weapon to hurl at his enemies–both to defeat his opponents, and to remove a potential rival. He is interrupted when the Abyss’s sensors detect the approaching fleet.

First Engagement

Perhaps things might have gone very differently in this book if Cestus and his people had known about the Heresy. As it is, they will hold back at first, unable to believe that other Astartes could have turned on the Ultramarines. But the message had made it clear: These were Word Bearers, brother Astartes. It seems impossible to believe. Nevertheless, Cestus sends in one of the escorts to make first contact, with Mhotep’s ship following along.

Zadkiel refuses to answer any hails; but he chooses instead to make contact with Mhotep, hoping to bring the psyker over to his side. The attempt fails; and the Abyss opens fire. The Fearless is destroyed in the first salvo, and the Waning Moon is struck and damaged. Cestus gives the order to engage and destroy–to break the Abyss in two.

As the battle heats up, Zadkiel releases the first of many unexpected weapons. Torpedoes strike the Waning Moon, but they seem to do no damage–until they begin chewing through the hull. Once penetrated, they explode inside the ship’s armor. A chain reaction begins that will ultimately scuttle the ship–but for now, it holds on and continues firing.

The Abyss weathers the attack, returning fire, but taking no decisive action; and so the Boundless launches fighters and attack craft. It looks promising–until the attack ships’ crews begin to turn on their pilots, killing them and causing the ships to crash against the Abyss’s hull. It suddenly becomes clear that this battle isn’t just conventional; it includes a psychic attack from the Word Bearers, driving crew members to turn on their own.

The escort ships move in to attack, and it seems the Abyss is just going to allow it–until the giant book that comprises the ship’s figurehead begins to open. It reveals a massive gun barrel–an experimental plasma lance. The weapon fires, shearing off the rear third of the Waning Moon, and setting the ship into its death spiral.

No one has ever seen such a weapon in action, but Cestus has heard of it, though that is little help now. Mhotep, having survived the blast, is unable to contact the Wrathful; but he manages to escape his dying ship in a life pod. The Abyss turns its attentions to the Boundless, which is already suffering damage; at Kaminska’s direction, Vorlov breaks for an escape via Warp. That leaves only the Wrathful, Ferox, Ferocious, and Fireblade in action. The Abyss launches fighters–something that typical doctrine says that no ship can do, when also bearing such monstrous onboard weaponry–and begins overwhelming the escorts. At last the squadron must disengage; but the Ferox is unable to escape, and is destroyed. Many of its crew escape in life pods. The Ferocious dies next, its bridge destroyed and its command crew dead. The Abyss pulls away, heading for Warp, but it takes time to intercept and destroy the Boundless on the way; it softens the ship up with more hull-breaching torpedoes and magnetic pulse torpedoes, then finishes it with the plasma lance.

The Wrathful fakes an escape, to hide their pursuit of the Abyss. As the crews of the Wrathful and the Fireblade regroup, they take a moment to gather strength and make repairs. They collect lifepods, including Mhotep’s. Further, they try again to contact Terra and Macragge, only to find something horrible: Not only is contact impossible, but the Astronomican–the Emperor’s psychic beacon that enables Warp navigation–has vanished! It appears obscured by Warp storms, which seem to have arisen at the worst possible time. Nevertheless, they follow the Word Bearers into the Warp.

Cestus takes this opportunity to reinforce his coalition and his authority. The various dispositions of the Astartes, as well as Kaminska, are beginning to wear at the bonds between them. Nevertheless, he manages to hold things together–for now.

Aboard the Abyss, we get a glimpse of how the psychic attack was carried out. The Word Bearers employ supplicants: mutated psykers whose powers are reinforced through suffering and the Warp. With the supplicants, they can bend the Warp to their needs, and set any number of tactics in motion. However, doing so is strenuous, and in each effort, some supplicants die. Three have been lost already. Zadkiel doesn’t care; it’s a worthy cause, in his eyes. And he now employs them a second time: He launches some into the void, where their psychic death scream has an unprecedented effect: It collapses the Tertiary Coreward Transit entirely–with the pursuing ships inside.

Through the Warp

The Warp is always dangerous. There is always a risk of psychosis, mutation, and even death when passing through it. Worse, if the ship’s Gellar fields collapse, things out in the Warp can get inside. With the collapse of the Transit, the first risk became reality, and crewmembers began to suffer and die. As well, contact with the Fireblade was instantly lost. As the crew struggled to restore order, Cestus and his men debated how to deal with the Abyss–if they can even catch it. At the same time, he is forced to negotiate rising hostilities between Brynngar and Mhotep.

Kaminska’s navigator, Orcadus, explains the situation with the Transit. The Warp is like a wilderness, crossed by (mostly) stable and safe roads; but now the road they were on has vanished, and there is only wilderness. The only option is to follow the Abyss as closely as possible–but it will be neither safe nor easy, and dangerous things live in the Warp.

Things come to a head with Kaminska, as she finally rebels, verbally at least, against Cestus’s seizure of her authority. However, to her great surprise, Cestus admits his error, and apologizes. Thereafter, the Admiral recommits herself to the cause. However, before they can proceed any further, the Gellar field blinks–and something finds its way in.

Aboard the Fireblade, the crew falls victim to Warp psychosis–and something worse. We don’t get to see the full damage here, but we next see the ship coming in to dock with the Wrathful. Kaminska allows it, against her better judgment–something is off, here. Before the Wrathful’s crew can respond, they find themselves swarmed with daemonic presences, manifesting inside the ship. The crew mounts a defense, but it falls on the Astartes to do the dirty work; and they do, taking the battle down to the docking level. However, this is a battle against the Warp, and arms alone won’t prevail; and so Mhotep forces the other Astartes out of the dock, stating he will seal it from inside and activate its auto-destruct sequence. Mhotep strips the illusion off the entities, and finds them to be all extensions of one creature, which has completely possessed the Fireblade. He brings his full power to bear, and banishes it back to the Warp. Mhotep survives, though unconscious, but it is revealed to Brynngar that he only did so via “sorcery”. To keep the peace, Cestus is forced to confine Mhotep to a cell.

Second Engagement

While the damage to the Abyss was not substantial, it *was* substantial enough to require some work before pushing on to Macragge. Only one suitable shipyard lies within range–the shipyard at Bakka Triumveron. It’s here that the ship would be at its most vulnerable, a fact known to both Cestus and Zadkiel–but, Zadkiel thinks they’ve lost their pursuers. Cestus presses the advantage and sets an ambush.

The shipyards are a ring of orbital platforms around the planet, each with its bubble of atmosphere. The loyalist marines come at the Abyss from its blind side, which means crossing a section of the ring on foot. They deploy in squads that quickly get separated; their goal is to fight their way to the ship and board it before it can take off again. Along the way, the World Eaters, in an attempt to stoke the fires of their combat rage, kill a number of civilians.

Let’s talk Space Marines for a second. Although all Astartes have the same basic design, the legions vary in the specifics of how their genetics play out; each Legion’s genetics are based on their own Primarch, who differs subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) from the other Primarchs. This means that sometimes a Legion’s geneseed–the organs that alter their genetics and make them into Astartes–will have a flaw that affects their capabilities, behavior, or both. Add to this the fact that the Primarchs are a varied bunch of people, with vastly different leadership styles, and one Legion suddenly doesn’t look much like the others. With the World Eaters, Angron’s Legion, the consensus seems to be that their geneseed wasn’t truly flawed; but it did tend to push the World Eaters to be angry, brutal, and relentless, much like their Primarch. Then, as well, Angron was raised as a slave in the gladiator pits of Nuceria, and was implanted with a terrible piece of old technology called the Butcher’s Nails. This brain implant made him even more brutal, subject to terrible rages that made him almost unstoppable in battle. Upon becoming Primarch of the World Eaters, he reverse-engineered the device and had nearly all his Astartes implanted with it–making them also prone to such fury and rage. That rage is powerful, but also feeds on violence; and so, when the World Eaters kill the civilians here, they consider it to be an acceptable action in order to be ready before they reach the Word Bearers–but it’s going to come back on them later.

In the end, the battle outside the Abyss is short but brutal. One important Word Bearer–Baelanos, Zadkiel’s second in command–gets crushed; he lives, and is recovered by his fellows, but is badly injured. We’ll come back to him later. Of the loyalists, only one–the World Eater captain, Skraal–makes it aboard the ship and survives. He is forced into hiding inside the guts of the ship, hunted by the Word Bearer Reskiel, Zadkiel’s third in command. The other World Eaters are killed; most, but not all, of the other loyalists make it back to the Wrathful as the Abyss launches again. Notably, Cestus’s friend and second, Antiges, is killed–but Brynngar manages to take a prisoner: the young Word Bearer, Ultis.

While all this is happening, the Word Bearers are preparing their next strategem: They are rousing someone named Wsoric.

Toward Macragge

Brynngar’s men attempt to torture and interrogate Ultis, but with no success. With no choice left, Cestus is forced to release Mhotep to psychically interrogate the Word Bearer; this decision is nearly a breaking point between Cestus and Brynngar. Mhotep also warns Cestus about the sentient beings of the Warp, before going to deal with Ultis.

While this is going on, the Wrathful comes under attack by Warp entities again; and one of them finds a way inside, possessing a man on the ship’s lance (i.e. energy cannon) decks. The resulting creature begins killing everyone on the deck. Cestus and his remaining honor guard attack the creature; quickly afterward, Brynngar and his men join them. After a few more deaths, they are rescued by Mhotep, who–having broken Ultis–now comes and uses his powers against the beast. He no longer has reason to hide his power from the others, and so he uses it freely here. As soon as it is vanquished, he passes out.

Aboard the Abyss, Skraal has an encounter with Zadkiel, who tries to tempt him to change sides, castigating him for his slaughter of the innocent civilians; but Skraal resists the temptation, and flees deeper into the ship. Over the rest of the Warp transit, he will lose his sense of time, and very nearly his sanity, as he tries to stay alive. Eventually he discovers Antiges’s remains, and learns they have been used for the sacrifice that will summon the Warp entity, Wsoric. He watches as the apothecaries use the remains for divination, determining that the mission is still unknown to Macragge.

Brynngar has finally had enough of Cestus’s sanction of Mhotep. He challenges Cestus to a duel for control of the expedition. It’s a tight battle, and Brynngar clearly has the advantage; but in a clever trick, Cestus manages to win, much to the relief of everyone watching. Later, Brynngar agrees to submit to Cestus, but warns him to keep Mhotep away. It seems Cestus has won the battle, but lost a friend. Shortly thereafter, Brynngar has a vision of his youthful trials on his homeworld; and Mhotep wakes up.

Mhotep uses his powers to push the information he gained into Cestus’s mind. Cestus considers it a violation, but, ever the pragmatist, he will use the information anyway. He learns that the Word Bearers plan to destroy Macragge’s second moon, Formaska, sending fragments to rain down on the surface. This will keep the planet and its fleets busy, while the main force of the Word Bearer fleet destroys the muster point at Calth, thus eliminating most of the Ultramarines before turning back on Macragge itself. At Macragge they will use virus bombs to kill anything still living. Mhotep reveals that he came here because he had traced his destiny to this point, and knew he had to be here to resist the traitors.

As the Abyss presses toward Macragge, a warp storm strikes the Wrathful, the first sign of Wsoric’s presence.


As the Wrathful fights through the storm, Cestus calls a final conference and reveals the Word Bearers’ plan. He and Kaminska make a plan–but it will be the final plan. It is unlikely anyone will walk away from this fight.

The Abyss leaves the Warp near Formaska. The Wrathful follows shortly thereafter as the Abyss prepares to bombard the planet. The two ships join battle, and the Wrathful is quickly crippled; but it launches shuttles toward the Abyss. The plan is to get in through the Abyss’s open torpedo tubes before they can be closed–and this close, it has a chance of succeeding.

Most of the Astartes, and a few of Kaminska’s guardsmen, make it aboard. (Mhotep is not among them–we’ll get back to him.) The Astartes begin fanning out through the gun decks, destroying what they can–but they know it won’t be sufficient. With the final battle at hand, Zadkiel pulls out all the stops; he sends Reskiel and a number of the Word Bearers to intercept the loyalists, and then releases the remaining supplicants to lead a psychic attack. Cestus still intends for now to destroy the cyclonic torpedoes that would shatter Formaska. One of his battle-brothers, badly wounded, sacrifices himself to set off the detonator that will destroy the cyclonics.

At that moment, the supplicants strike. Cestus finds himself in the midst of a long, repetitive vision of hell, in which he fails, over and over again. Brynngar also suffers a vision, in which he is fully a wolf–and unknowingly, he kills his own “pack”, his Blood Claws. Meanwhile, back on the crippled Wrathful, Kaminska orders her crew to evacuate, but the bridge crew requests to go down with her and the ship. Kaminska accepts, and honors them, but it is cut short when the Helmsmistress, Venkmeyer, falls ill. Kaminska realizes that a daemon has possessed her, and tries to kill her, but it is too late.

By the time Mhotep frees himself from his cell, the ship is weirdly vacant. He arrives at the bridge just in time to see Kaminska die at the hands of the daemon in Venkmeyer’s body. The creature erupts from Venkmeyer’s form, and becomes a massive, scorpionlike creature–this is Wsoric, fully manifested at the behest of the Word Bearers. It has gorged itself on the crew, and has grown powerful–but Mhotep is ready for it.

Brynngar shakes off his vision and is horrified by what he has done; but he stays focused. He finds himself in the weapons lockers, where he encounters Baelanos–who is midway through the transformation into a dreadnought. Dreadnoughts in 40K are oversized suits of armor, in which an otherwise mortally wounded Astartes is permanently sealed (or “entombed”, as they phrase it), in order to keep fighting. They are long-lived and powerful–but Baelanos is only halfway there, and his armor isn’t sealed or complete. Brynngar engages him.

Cestus survives and escapes his own vision, defeating his own doubts and fears. He fights his way through another squad of Word Bearers, and manages to reach the armories. But before he arrives, Baelanos is about to kill Brynngar–until Skraal, somehow still alive, manages to finish off the would-be dreadnought.

As Mhotep’s battle with Wsoric carries him throughout the failing Wrathful, Cestus, Brynngar, and Skraal restock their weapons and head for the Abyss’s reactor decks. One round of cyclonics has been destroyed–but there are still options left to the Word Bearers, and the only chance is to destroy the ship. And the only way to do that is to blow up the main plasma reactor–much as nearly happened to Vangelis station.

Final Engagements

On the bridge, Zadkiel’s high priest, Ikthalon, attempts a coup, but is killed for his trouble. At the same time, the loyalists reach the reactor deck and engage the Word Bearers there, preventing the ship from activating its engines. Zadkiel sends Reskiel to intervene. Skraal turns the tables on Reskiel’s men, hunting them one by one and ripping them apart. He kills Reskiel, and rejoins Cestus and Brynngar to head to the main reactor. The losses prompt Zadkiel to take the matter into his own hands, and he heads down to lead the defense.

Mhotep is dying of his wounds. Wsoric exults in his supremacy, insisting that there was no chance of Mhotep killing him–but, that was never the plan. Mhotep reveals that he only intended to wound Wsoric badly enough to stop him from sustaining his presence in realspace, sending him back to the Warp. He sets off his remaining grenades, inflicting the final damage that sends Wsoric back; he is caught in the explosion, but lives long enough to watch Formaska approach as the dead Wrathful crashes.

At the enormous main reactor, Zadkiel arrives just before the loyalists can head inside. Skraal buys time by attacking the Word Bearers, though it will be suicide. Just outside the radiation shield, Cestus asks Brynngar for his remaining grenades; but, knowing it will be a one way trip, Brynngar hits Cestus and stuns him. He asks his old friend to avenge him; then he takes the grenades and goes inside.

Above, Zadkiel kills Skraal–but not before Skraal cuts off half of Zadkiel’s gun hand. Zadkiel goes to take the others, though it is too late…inside the reactor, Brynngar primes his bombs, and then leaps into the reactor core.

The explosion begins a chain reaction through the entire reactor network. Zadkiel, knowing his ship is going to die, runs for the shuttle bay to escape. There he meets Cestus, and the two fight their final duel. Even now, throughout it all, Zadkiel–zealot to the end–tries to convince Cestus of the rightness of the traitor cause; but he fails. With a final blow, Cestus cuts off his head. Then, at last, he awaits the destruction of the Furious Abyss, and his own death, knowing he has done his duty and completed his mission.

That was a long summary!

Battle for the Abyss is no longer than the other books we’ve seen (or at least not much longer); but it crams an amazing amount of action into its pages. There’s no careful setup here, no backstory; it barely delves into the progress of the Heresy at all. Instead it leaps into the fray, guns drawn and chainsword whirring, and never stops, right up to the final lines.

The obvious downside is that one cannot start here. You’ll be utterly lost if you do. Who are the Word Bearers? Why are they traitors? Why does no one know what’s happening? How did we get here? You’d have no idea! But, we didn’t start here, and so we can appreciate this story for what it is.

The other important point is that this is only half a story. The overarching story is the battle for Macragge and Ultramar, the planet and system of the Ultramarines legion. But, that battle happens in at least two parts: The attack of the Furious Abyss on Macragge itself, and the attack by the rest of the Word Bearers fleet on the Ultramarines muster point at the planet Calth. We only get the barest glimpses of the attack on Calth–actually, all we get is some of the lead-up to that battle. We’ll have to wait for another time to find out what happens there. This is emphasized by the book’s ending; when Cestus dies, the story ends, because it’s strictly told from the point of view of internal characters (who, spoiler, are all dead by then).

Cestus is a true soldier of Ultramar, through and through. Space Marines are known glory-hounds, regardless of their Legion; it’s a major motivation for them. Cestus carries out his mission, knowing it will be fatal to everyone involved, knowing full well that no one will ever know their story, that no glory will accrue to their names, because there’s no one left to carry the word of their exploits. He does it anyway, and never flinches. In so doing, he pulls together some very disparate warriors, and somehow makes a unit out of them. He dies knowing his only consolation is seeing his homeworld safe–not a small thing, no, but very lonely as consolation goes.

I wouldn’t want every book to be like this. I don’t think that dropping us in with no context, nothing to link to the larger narrative, is always the best tactic. It works here, though, and that is enough for me this time.

If we’re looking for a comparison from outside the 40K fandom, I’d go with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. You have the same tale of a ragtag group of warriors, full of conflicting motivations and secrets, taking on themselves a one-way mission to save millions of lives from a massive, spacefaring, technological threat. You can carry the comparison all the way down to the one character who is visibly supernatural in nature, and the final battle against the enemy’s leader. None of the protagonists survive–they’ll never even know for sure if they were successful, because elsewhere, the battle still rages. But they know, before they die, that what they’ve done will give their people a fighting chance. It’s a thing of beauty, if horrifically tragic!

One thing I love is the way the various Astartes here are portrayed. The Ultramarines and the Space Wolves will remain loyalist, so we’re glimpsing them in their prime, via their representatives here. We get their differences highlighted while still seeing the camaraderie and companionship they feel. Then there’s the Thousand Sons, represented by Mhotep, and the World Eaters. Those legions will ultimately be traitors–in fact, the World Eaters already are; it’s just that this squad is isolated and doesn’t know it. So, we get an exceedingly rare glimpse of them as loyalists, before their fall. I especially loved seeing Skraal, the World Eater captain, having his internal struggle against both the temptation to heresy, and his own impulses. We don’t often get to see World Eaters be true heroes (or so it appears, anyway), but Skraal is every bit a hero, no matter how much he scares the hell out of Cestus and the others. As for Mhotep…well, the topic of psykers in 40K is always going to be complicated, and this is no exception. But he’s an honorable man, and determined to stand against corruption, and soon enough that quality will also be in short supply among his legion. We’ll take it while we can get it.

If I were rating these novels–and again, I’m not–I wouldn’t put this one near the top; but not because it’s bad. It’s just that this book is not a very general sort of book–it’s very targeted, very precise. I certainly enjoyed it, but again, you wouldn’t start here, and you need the background of at least the opening trilogy in order to understand it. I have to take a few points off for that. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, and I definitely enjoyed it; so, if you’ve read everything up to this point, absolutely make sure you don’t miss this one. Besides, we still have the second half of the story to tell!

Next time: We’re going to divert a bit and start looking at the supplementary series, the Primarchs of the Horus Heresy series. These short novels, one to each Primarch (or almost all of them, anyway) are intended to shed more light on the Primarchs and how they became who they are. I’m not going to tackle them in order–they aren’t in chronological order anyway–but rather, as a Primarch rises to prominence in the Heresy series, we’ll pick up his Primarch novel. We’ll begin with Fulgrim: The Palatine Phoenix, by Josh Reynolds. And when we get back to the main series, we’ll pick up with book nine, Mechanicum, by Graham McNeill! See you there.

The Horus Heresy series, and other Warhammer 40,000 novels, may be purchased from the Black Library, or from many booksellers.



Let’s Read the Horus Heresy! Part 8: Legion

We’ve come far enough that I feel new arrivals could be confused about where we are in the Horus Heresy series. Therefore, starting today, I’m including in the post title the title of the book or story we’re covering. Note that the part number will not match the number of the book we’re covering; we started with some general material, and then also, later we’ll be covering entries that don’t fit into the numbered novels of the series. Today’s entry, for example, is book number seven in the series, but part eight of the blog series. It’s Legion, by Dan Abnett, and it’s a long one, but also a great one–so, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead! If you want only my thoughts on the book, without (as many) spoilers, head down to the last divider line in the post and start there.

The Nurthene Campaign

Last time we took a break and looked at some events decades prior to the Heresy. Today we return to the very cusp of the Heresy, with the campaign to take the planet Nurth. It’s a desert planet, a degraded human colony world that is down to pre-industrial technology; and yet, it proves to be very difficult to bring to compliance. (Let’s go ahead and get this out in the open: There’s Chaos involved. Isn’t there always? But of course no one knows it at first.) The expedition fleet is the 670th (just how many expeditions are there?!), and for once, it’s not a Space Marine operation!

Well, at least not at first. We’ll get to that. The 670th is made up of units of specially bred or enhanced, but mostly normal, humans, all from the “Old Hundred”. The Old Hundred are the units that the Emperor allowed to persist after the Unification of Terra, due to their valorous service of him. They’re technically Imperial Army, but they’re the elite, not just standard guardsmen or soldiers. We’re introduced to a unit called the Geno Five-Two Chiliad (mislabeled on the Warhammer Wiki as the Geno Two-Five Chiliad, in case you’re looking things up), who will be the primary viewpoint characters of this book. They’re a unit of soldiers all bred from proprietary genetic lines, literally born to the task of fighting. They are led by their female members, holding the rank of Uxor, who are literal mother figures–their eggs are harvested at the outset of their careers in order to breed new soldiers for the unit. However, this harvesting somehow unlocks latent low-level psychic powers, called the ‘cept (presumably short for “perception”), which they use to bind the unit together and lead them. The Uxors’ ‘cept is short-lived, only lasting a decade or less before wearing itself out, after which the Uxors retire and become support staff for the unit. Meanwhile, on the combat side, the unit’s male leaders carry the rank of Hetman, and answer directly to the Uxors. There is also another relevant rank, that of Genewhip; Genewhips are the “internal affairs”, if you will, of the Chiliad, rooting out defection, betrayal, crime, and other disciplinary issues.

Relevant Chiliad members: We’ll focus largely on two Hetmen, Peto Soneka and Hurtado Bronzi. Their immediate superior is a young and precocious Uxor named Honen Mu. Another Uxor, Rukhsana Saiid, is nearing the end of her ‘cept, and will be retiring soon, if she makes it that far. And then there’s Genewhip Franco Boone, whom we’ll get to later.

The Alpha Legion meets with the Geno Five-Two Chiliad.

The expedition is led by the Lord Commander Teng Namatjira, a longtime veteran who is a bit vain–okay, more than a bit–but very competent. Very little gets past him. He is aided by Jan Van Aunger, the master of the expedition’s fleet; and a squad of Lucifer Blacks, a highly skilled unit of the Old Hundred, whose numbers have been depleted to the point that they now hire out as bodyguards rather than joining the front lines. The Lucifers are elite among the elite–they are few in number because they took heavy losses in the Unification Wars, and because they lacked the replenishment infrastructure of units such as the Geno Five-Two Chiliad. They are led here by Bajolur-Captain Dinas Chayne. (Technically, the Lucifer Blacks aren’t declared to be part of the Old Hundred. I looked at their wiki page, and it also does not mention the Old Hundred. However, their description and history seems to strongly indicate that they are, and so I’m going with that interpretation until I see proof to the contrary.)

As our story starts, it’s two years before the beginning of the Heresy, and several months into the Nurthene campaign. (That two years is going to absolutely fly by, which brings me to something I haven’t emphasized til now: Time is a bit fluid in 40K. This owes largely to the great lengths of time it takes to travel through the Warp–you can be weeks or months on a single trip. We’ll be very near the start of the Heresy by the time we finish here.) The expedition has taken great swaths of the planet, and has driven the Nurthene back to the vicinity of their capital, Mon Lo. We open with the battle for the last remaining Nurthene-held city aside from Mon Lo, the city of Tel Uthan. It’s not going well, because the Nurthene have something that Namatjira calls “air magick”: A strange power that prevents anything in the airspace above Tel Uthan, as well as other effects. The Chiliad has pulled into barracks for the night, but one company–Peto Soneka’s Dancers–is still out. Hurtado Bronzi catches a hint that something bad is about to happen, and attempts to rouse his own company to go back out and help the Dancers out; but he is ordered back. He plans to go anyway–and when he tries, he is interrupted by a giant of a man: An Astartes calling himself Alpharius.

It’s a name that stuns him practically to silence. For Alpharius is not just an Astartes; Alpharius is the name of the Primarch of the XX Legion, the last legion to form, the last Primarch to be found, the Alpha Legion. Their fame is already legendary, and they have a different outlook, a much more pragmatic one, than their brother legions. But, what are the Alpha Legion doing on Nurth?!

For one, they’re letting the Dancers get cut to ribbons. When in anger, Bronzi confronts the Primarch, Alpharius admits it’s true–he set the Dancers up as bait, allowing the Alpha Legion to get into the city and rout the Nurthenes, setting the city ablaze. Alpharius emphasizes to Bronzi the brutal logic of the decision; it was tragic, and not to be taken lightly, but necessary in order to distract the Nurthene and break the city.

Elsewhere, Soneka is one of the survivors among the Dancers, though he is wounded. But he himself is confronted by one of the giant Astartes…who also claims to be Alpharius. We will come to see that, as the Legion says, they are all Alpharius–whatever that means.


While the expedition capitalizes on the fall of Tel Urtan and drives the Nurthene back into Mon Lo, the wounded from the Geno Five-Two Chiliad retire to a hospital facility to recover. The facility has a formal designation, but the soldiers simply call it “Visages” for the multitude of statues in the vicinity: stone faces of many sizes. Soneka and Bronzi meet up at Visages, accompanied by a third Hetman, Dimi Shiban. Shortly thereafter, Soneka–accompanied by Bronzi and Shiban–is summoned by the head Medicae (a doctor, in 40K parlance) to examine a body and confirm its identity. It is reputedly one of Soneka’s Dancers, but he doesn’t recognize the body. Soneka doesn’t know what the fuss is–all his men are accounted for, so obviously this one is simply dressed in the wrong uniform–but then, Medicae Ida drops a bombshell: the man has no heart. In its place was a cadmium centrifuge–and that is only the first of the rather extreme internal modifications the body has. And, curiously, it wears a small reptile-shaped brand. They conclude that the Nurthene have infiltrated the army units via surgical modification, but to what end? Bronzi, who is uninjured and still on active duty, sends an encrypted vox transmission to Honen Mu, notifying her privately of the situation. They are directed to take the body and quickly head to a set of coordinates far from Visages. Mu also asks who knows about the body, and Bronzi tells her, but leaves Soneka’s name out, intending to leave him behind for more investigation. However, he takes Shiban with him. Shortly after they leave, Visages is attacked by the Nurthene, and Soneka barely raises the alarm in time to fight off the invaders.

All I could think of when I pictured “Visages”.

Meanwhile, Bronzi and Shiban take the body deep into the desert–where they are met not by Honen Mu, but by the Alpha Legion, who intercepted his transmission and faked Mu’s response. Before Bronzi can react, the Astartes have killed Shiban, and look as though they will kill him, as well.

John Grammaticus

Enter John Grammaticus. This interesting individual will be a character for the duration of the Heresy, and here we meet him for the first time. John, we will find, is a member of the Cabal. Over the course of the book, we’ll find out more about this shadowy group, but I’ll save some time and spell it out now: The Cabal is a group of aliens of various races, which for thousands of years–since before the rise of humanity–has opposed the power of Chaos, which they call the First Annihilator. Their interest now is in humanity, which they generally disdain, but which they acknowledge is instrumental to this era of history. For a thousand years, John Grammaticus has been one of their few human agents; and now he is here to do their bidding: Arrange a conference between the Cabal and the Alpha Legion.

John has a few noteworthy powers. For one, he is immortal, but not in any sense we’ve seen before. He’s not a Perpetual, able to heal and maintain his own body; nor is he just simply gifted with preternatural longevity like the Primarchs or Astartes. Instead, he lives normal lifespans, dies–and then reappears in a new body. We won’t get much detail about how that happens, but it doesn’t seem to be standard reincarnation; he retains all his memories between lives, and there’s no mention of having to grow up from infancy again. His second power is of far more interest to us right now: He is a powerful psyker. That power, in turn, has a unique aspect: He can understand and speak any language he is exposed to, and not only that, but can gather highly accurate information about the speaker, simply from their speech, accent, and dialect. When we meet him, he is living under the guise of Konig Heniker, a Geno officer and spy. Along the way, he has cultivated a relationship with Uxor Rukhsana Saiid, which has–much to his surprise–become genuine. We find him beginning a mission to slip inside Mon Lo and conduct some espionage into the Nurthenes’ magick.

What he finds instead, is Alpharius.

Grammaticus is taken in by a small squad of the Alpha Legion, who know who he is, but not where he comes from, or why he is there. With the aid of a Legion-affiliated psyker, they question him inside the city. He reveals the existence of the Cabal, and that they want to meet with the Legion, believing the Alpha Legion the best and most receptive to their message–after all, this was his mission, so he may as well tell them. He also tells them that Chaos is at work on Nurth, which they already know. However, they discover that another power is at work; and they must cut their questioning short as they come under attack. Grammaticus and the Astartes escape, but in the confusion, Grammaticus also escapes from the Astartes and flees back to the Geno camp.

Joining Forces

Mon Lo locks itself down under siege, and begins to ramp up toward a final assault. This is no normal assault, though; and the preparations are most unusual–the city begins screaming. Everyone can hear it, though it is most likely psychic in nature. This change, coupled with the disturbing news from Grammaticus’s interrogation, causes the Alpha Legion to change tactics and reveal their presence openly to the expedition forces. Alpharius joins his efforts to those of Namatjira, leaving Namatjira in charge, but with Alpharius’s word going very far in Namatjira’s calculations. As the siege tightens, the Geno begins to deal with issues of its own.

The Alpha Legion is never one to share what it knows, and so they do not reveal Grammaticus’s presence to anyone in the expedition, leaving the Geno to figure it out on their own. This results in two parallel investigations: The Geno’s leadership sends Genewhip Franco Boone to investigate suspicions regarding Uxor Rukhsana; and Namatjira begins his own investigation into the Legion’s strange and secretive activities, as well as Rukhsana’s secrets. I’ll say that I feel for Rukhsana; what she is hiding is nothing more than a relationship. And yet, she’ll pay for it dearly.

Shortly thereafter, Soneka–now restored to duty–arrives at Mon Lo, and meets with Uxor Mu–but he quickly discovers that she does not know anything about the body. He concludes, erroneously, that that means that she is in on the conspiracy, whatever it may be.

During Namatjira’s meeting with Alpharius and his squad–which is led by an imposing, oversized Astartes named Omegon–Grammaticus tries to spy on the meeting, but is found by one of Namatjira’s Lucifer Blacks. He is forced to kill the man and flee. Before he gets away, he has an encounter with Boone in Rukhsana’s quarters, and barely escapes by psychic deception–which Boone will see through soon enough. Meanwhile, the Jokers–Bronzi’s company–joins the army at Mon Lo. Soneka sees him and tries to speak to him, but Bronzi brushes him off, leaving Soneka very confused.

Boone’s investigation points him toward Soneka, who survived the ambush at Visages when so many died. Soneka, suspecting Boone is in on…whatever is happening…is forced to flee as well. He is rescued by Bronzi in a land speeder, who drives him out into the desert.

Bronzi and another Geno officer interrogate Soneka regarding the body. Soneka ultimately reveals that he had only spoken with Mu about it, who did not seem to know what he was talking about; and everyone else who knew, died at Visages. Bronzi explains that Shiban is also dead; he had taken a piece of Nurthene bone as shrapnel, and it had begun to twist his mind, causing the Alpha Legion to kill him. They reveal to Soneka that they have become hidden agents of the Legion; and when an Astartes claiming to be Alpharius arrives, they begin to explain to Soneka why he should join them. (The body, as it turns out, was also an agent, killed in battle, but whose remains were needed for analysis. The brand on the body is the mark of the agent corps, which Bronzi and the others now bear as well.)

Alpha Legion Icon

Back at the camp, Alpharius explains to Namatjira about Chaos in the Nurthene society, and coopts the use of Namatjira’s Astropaths–all psykers themselves–to suppress the Nurthene magick. Afterward, alone with his Astartes, he reveals that he is actually Omegon, playing the role of Alpharius. He is aware that Grammaticus killed the dead Lucifer, and has sent their psyker to find him. Meanwhile Grammaticus, injured from his fight, has made his way to an oasis and a hidden cache of supplies, where he treats his injuries before preparing to abandon his mission. He is intercepted by the Cabal, who set him back on task. They tell him that they have confirmed that only two years remain in which to set plans in motion to deal with Horus and the unleashing of Chaos. They reveal that the situation has become more complicated: The Nurthene, it seems, possess a Black Cube.

The End Approaches

Soneka ultimately joins the Alpha Legion’s agents, though the facts that persuaded him are not revealed. He returns with Bronzi to the camp, and presents a cover story, which Honen Mu unwittingly supports, getting Boone off their trail. Mu sets them the task of resolving the matter of what Rukhsana is hiding; and she gives Soneka a temporary reassignment to lead a different company, the Clowns, whose hetman was the now deceased Dimi Shiban. However, at the same time, Dinas Chayne makes the connection that the spy in their midst must be Rukhsana’s spy-turned-lover, Konig Heniker–that is, Grammaticus. He moves to take Rukhsana into custody; Soneka and Bronzi only barely beat him to the punch, delivering her to the Legion for…well, their less than gentle version of safekeeping (read: interrogation by psyker). The duo are then arrested by Chayne; but thanks to the Legion, they are able to present an effective cover story, and are released. Rukhsana is reported to have fled into the desert. Meanwhile Grammaticus sneaks back into the palace, and finds out about Soneka and Bronzi in connection with Rukhsana, but runs afoul of Dinas Chayne in the process.

In the morning, the storm–figuratively and literally–breaks. A massive sandstorm replaces the screaming of Mon Lo, and the Nurthene spill out of the city, attacking in overwhelming force under cover of the storm. The Imperial forces, including the Jokers and the Clowns under Soneka and Bronzi, take heavy losses before the Titans–the massive, heavily armed, walking battle platforms–can be brought to bear. Over it all, the sun fails to rise, and the sky begins to darken; the Imperials come to call it the Black Dawn. And in the midst of the battle, Soneka is approached by John Grammaticus. John gets Peto to take him to the Alpha Legion, where he can hopefully complete his mission. Along the way, he explains a bit of what is happening with the Black Dawn–it is the Nurthene’s final stand against the Imperium, and it will be deadly. Alpharius–the real Alpharius, as noted by John–takes Grammaticus into custody, and Soneka as well. It is then that Grammaticus realizes the truth that the Alpha Legion tries so hard to hide: The Legion’s Primarch is not one man, but two. Alpharius and the giant Legionnaire Omegon…are twins.

While the battle rages back at Mon Lo, Grammaticus explains the Cabal’s request, and the position the Imperials find themselves in now. The Nurthene possess a Black Cube, an ancient relic of Chaos from before humanity. Its activation requires a sacrifice of blood, hence, the battle at Mon Lo and the slaughter of the remaining Nurthene. Once activated, the cube will, through means unknown, render the entire planet hostile to life. Within twenty-four hours, everything on the planet will be dead. John urges Alpharius and Omegon to not only evacuate their Legion, but to get Namatjira to evacuate the expedition, and quickly. He then explains that he was sent to bring the Legion to the discussion table with the Cabal–for what, remains to be seen.

The Meeting at 42 Hydra

Five months have passed since the Black Dawn and the fall of Nurth. The Legion withdrew safely; the expedition as well, though with greater losses–nearly half its strength was lost in the evacuation. By all accounts, though the Nurthene were wiped out, the situation was a rout–especially to the psykers in the expedition, who can feel the demonic screaming of the planet as it dies.

Now, the Legion and the remains of the 670th expedition orbit an uninhabitable planet selected by the Cabal, called 42 Hydra Tertius. John Grammaticus and Rukhsana remain in custody (though separated from each other). John is becoming frantic; he insists that he must go to the surface ahead of the Legion in order to vouch for them, and thus prevent a catastrophe; but Alpharius denies his request. However, the Legion detects a terraformed region of the planet’s surface, apparently made for them; and so Namatjira sends forces down to secure the area, including Bronzi’s company. Meanwhile Alpharius and Omegon meet with Grammaticus to try to gain more information, but are mostly unsuccessful; he only acknowledges that only the Alpha Legion is suitable for the Cabal’s purpose. However, Grammaticus is stunned to learn that Horus is already the Warmaster, meaning that the Cabal’s timetable is wrong; the Heresy is much nearer than expected.

Just prior to the Legion’s deployment to the surface, Soneka comes to John’s cell and rescues him, taking him to a drop pod. Along the way, they rescue Rukhsana; then they make their way to the surface, and then to the meeting sight–where the various alien members of the Cabal begin to arrive. Meanwhile, aboard the expedition’s ships, Dinas Chayne–who has been working over the situation in his mind for a long time–finds Boone and reveals that he is aware that Bronzi is in league with Soneka, and that together they are working for the Legion. They head to the surface to deal with Bronzi, and take him into custody, much to Honen Mu’s alarm. Back aboard ship, they torture him, but he tells them nothing.

Grammaticus greets his masters, but things immediately go south, when Soneka and Rukhsana turn on him. They reveal that they were put here by the Legion, to ensure that the Legion could dictate the terms of the meeting; and they activate a locator beacon. The Legion’s leaders teleport onto the scene, quickly securing the perimeter around the Cabal.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the Cabal agrees to negotiate anyway. First, they force Omegon to reveal himself as one half of the Primarch, joining Alpharius. They explain that Horus is beginning a path that could give Chaos its ultimate victory, something they do not wish to allow. However, seeing that Alpharius and Omegon are unconvinced, they offer to psychically share their knowledge, letting the twins see it for themselves. At the same time, their huge, city-sized flagship bursts through the midst of the fleet and lands outside the conference site. Namatjira, now fully gripped in paranoia about the Legion, prepares to bombard the landing site, knowing it will kill the Legion as well as the aliens.

Soneka, Rukhsana, and Grammaticus accompany the Cabal and the Legionnaires aboard the Cabal’s ship to witness the psychic sharing. As the Cabal shares the vision, they explain that Horus’s war will have only one of two outcomes. In one, Horus wins, and Chaos triumphs; in the other, the Imperium wins, and Chaos declines. However, the Imperium’s victory would be hollow; if they win, the Emperor himself will be struck down, and the Imperium will stagnate, and over time Chaos will seep back in and consume it in a Chaos victory from which there is no return. But if Horus wins, the Imperium will self-destruct, and take Chaos with it. The rest of the races of the galaxy will live, thanks to humanity’s sacrifice. If the Imperium wins, in ten to twenty thousand years Chaos will also win; if Horus wins, in a few generations Chaos will be essentially exterminated. So, as Alpharius says, victory…is defeat.

So, then: if true victor is to be won, then the Alpha Legion must side with Horus.

Alpharius and Omegon both deny this possibility–they are true sons of the Emperor, and loyal. The Cabal then shares the full force of the vision, showing them the truth of the matter; and it is as the Cabal described.

In the end, Alpharius hates the decision…but he knows what must happen. He declares his loyalty to the Emperor, who stands against Chaos, the Primordial Annihilator, and wants nothing more than its overthrow…and so he declares that whatever he does from this moment, he does for the Emperor, though it may not seem that way. Omegon agrees, and determines that they must begin at once. It will begin with dealing with Namatjima, who is now beginning to accuse even the Legion of treason–oh, the irony! And so the Primarch gives the order–and their ships turn on the 670th expedition fleet, destroying it.


Only details remain. Soneka and a few Astartes of the Legion are sent to rescue Bronzi from custody, as the flagship begins to come apart. Along with Rukhsana, the two hetmen are taken aboard the Legion ship. Alpharius himself goes aboard the flagship to ensure that Namatjira does not escape, and kills Chayne along the way. Mu and the other ground forces are abandoned to die on the surface as the terraformed area is overwhelmed by the planet’s hostile natural conditions. And John Grammaticus returns to the Cabal–but, horrified by what he has done to humanity in essentially signing its death warrant, he plans to throw himself out a hatch and die.

I’ve tried to avoid ranking the novels of the Heresy series. There are just too many of them; after awhile, any rankings I made would lose all context under the sheer weight of the series. But, if I were making a ranking, at this point in things Legion, along with Flight of the Eisenstein, would be near the top, or even at the top. It’s a delicious read, cover to cover.

Genre fiction in general–and franchise fiction in particular–gets a bad rap sometimes. The accusation goes that they are formulaic, and thus they don’t employ any real characterization or plot or, you know, depth. I’ll allow that genre fiction is often formulaic–it has to be. After all, is the outcome ever really in doubt? In a romance novel, you know the couple will get together; that’s the point. In a horror novel, things will end badly for the protagonist(s). In a sci-fi novel…well, it depends on the context, I guess, but there are definitely patterns. And in an action novel–especially a Warhammer action novel–the heroes are going to win, and kill a lot of people along the way. What I deny is that this precludes decent plotting or characterization, or even depth.

I’m thrilled that so many of these early books have chosen to tell their stories through the eyes of common soldiers. (I’m including space marines in that, because even Astartes have their version of common soldiers–with only a few exceptions, we don’t see things through the perspective of their leaders here.) It’s hard to really care about a Primarch; we know how it’s going to end for them. Maybe if this series was written from the ground up, that might not be the case; but the fates of the Primarchs have been known for years in the 40K fandom. They’re demigods whose actions are leading up to an unavoidable future, and that makes it hard to see them in any commiserative light. But the common soldiers–ah! Now, there’s something promising! (Same for the iterators and non-military we’ve seen.) I can get into their stories. And Legion is no exception. I truly like Peto Soneka, Hurtado Bronzi, Honen Mu, Rukhsana Saiid. They have echoes of real people whom I’ve known in my life. And those I don’t particularly like–like Dinas Chayne, Franco Boone, a few of the Alpha Legion–well, I at least get them. They’re well-drawn, fleshed-out characters. I felt Soneka’s horror when he saw his company getting cut down; the outrage when he learns it was part of the plan. I sympathized with Honen Mu’s frustration at not knowing what her hetmen were up to, and I felt her horrible resignation at knowing what her fate would be at the end.

With that said, though, the Primarchs of the Heresy are the elephants in the room. We may know where they’re headed, but we still have to acknowledge their actions. The Heresy is, after all, primarily their story. Here we meet the Primarch Alpharius, youngest of the Primarchs (courtesy of warp shenanigans during the scattering of the Primarchs), last to be found, freshest of perspective. He is the Primarch of the XX Legion, the Alpha Legion. If you skipped down to this section to avoid spoilers, I’ll oblige you and not spill the BIG secret–but I’ll throw this bone out there: The Alpha Legion’s shtick is that they strive to be interchangeable. Every Marine, via cosmetic augmentation, strives to look and sound as much like their Primarch as they can, so that anyone can be made to play the role of Alpharius as the situation demands. In a very real sense, as the Legion says, “we are all Alpharius”.

A few entries ago, when we talked about Fulgrim (the novel, that is), I said that we’d be seeing some parallels in a future book. That book is Legion. In Fulgrim, the titular Primarch meets with an alien civilization (the Eldar), who engineer a meeting in order to warn him about Horus’s impending fall into heresy. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this meeting would have taken place around the same time as the beginning of Legion.) Fulgrim shrugs it off, denies that such a thing could ever happen, and slaughters the Eldar. He then skips off back to Horus, and promptly gets corrupted himself, falling to Chaos by way of a daemon trapped in a Laeran weapon. Now, consider Legion: The Alpha Legion under Alpharius is approached by an alien group (the Cabal), who engineer a meeting in order to warn him about Horus’s impending fall into heresy. Naturally, Alpharius is highly offended; but unlike Fulgrim, he hears them out, and comes to believe them. The choice he makes will immediately enter him into the coming conflict…on the side of the traitors. (Ah, but if you read either the novel or the summary, you know there’s more to it than that!)

On the surface, it looks like the same outcome–but, I’m not convinced, and if you know the spoilers I’m not revealing here, you shouldn’t be convinced either. Alpharius has gone over to the traitors, but not to Chaos–or at least not yet. What’s that going to mean for how things work out? And for once, I truly don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I did catch an interesting detail, though: Prior to the meeting, Alpharius and his legion seem to know more about Chaos than Fulgrim did (though certainly not enough). I can’t say that that will or will not make a difference to the Imperium–but I can assure it that it makes a difference to the Primarch, as Fulgrim is currently possessed by a daemon. Maybe he could have avoided his fate, if the Emperor had told him more about Chaos.

It’s certainly seeming like the Emperor has a lot to answer for.

All in all, I would say to read this book. If you must, you can skip the previous book, Descent of Angels; you can skip some upcoming books. Don’t skip this one. You’ll be missing out if you do.

Next time: We’ll shift gears again and rejoin the Heresy in progress, with Battle For the Abyss, by Ben Counter! Also, soon we’ll take a break and get some background with a few of the Primarchs of the Horus Heresy novels, which delve into the minds and motivations of the Primarchs. See you there!

The Horus Heresy novels can be purchased directly from the Black Library website, or from various retailers.