Vector Prime by R. A. Salvatore (1999, Del Rey)
Vector Prime is the first novel of a nineteen-book series called The New Jedi Order. These were the first post-Return of the Jedi books published under the current Del Rey license. The basic idea behind this lengthy series was that, in contrast to the Bantam Star Wars novels, the Del Rey books would be a series of ongoing, chronologically sequential events with an overarching narrative, rather than a loose conglomeration of trilogies and stand-alone novels.
The marketing push for The New Jedi Order was arguably the biggest an expanded universe storyline ever received. Popular fantasy author R. A. Salvatore was chosen to write the inaugural entry in the series, and a commercial was released for Vector Prime narrated by Mark Hamill, reprising his role as Luke Skywalker. I’d embed the video, but Tumblr doesn’t seem to want to let me do that, so you can check it out here.
In terms of plot, Vector Prime is a lot like the pilot episode of a TV series: mostly expository, establishing character relationships, introducing new characters, and generally setting up a new status quo. It’s been twenty-one years since Return of the Jedi (that’s 25 ABY, if you’re keeping track). Leia has reduced her role in New Republic politics, Luke is considering reestablishing the Jedi Council as it was under the old Jedi Order, and Han and Leia’s children are now quite close to being full-fledged Jedi. On a gloomier note, Luke’s wife Mara is suffering from a mysterious and, in all other cases, terminal disease.
The disease, we learn late in the novel, is a weapon of the New Jedi Order series’ antagonists: the Yuuzhan Vong.
The Vong are a race of aliens from beyond the galaxy. They are followers of a religion revolving around a pantheon of bloodthirsty deities, the belief that technology is an abomination… and the notion that it’s their destiny to conquer a certain galaxy far, far away. The story of Vector Prime details the events leading up to, and the initial battles of, their invasion.
The book also includes the first death of a major character from the Star Wars films. Chewbacca sacrifices himself in favor of Han’s son Anakin Solo, stranding himself on a planet about to be decimated by its own moon.
It’s a lot of momentous stuff with a lot of impact on the expanded universe chronology packed into one book.
So, is it any good? Well, yes and no.
R. A. Salvatore is a good writer, capable of conveying powerful emotional catharsis— and that’s evident in this book. Mara’s quiet struggle through her illness; Luke’s efforts to support his wife without taking away her dignity; the debate between Anakin and Jacen over the role of the Jedi in the galaxy; and especially Han’s profound grief after Chewie’s death, all ring true. Old and new characters, and their relationships to one another, feel exactly as they should, and there are many emotionally touching passages to be found here.
Salvatore’s action passages, including one-on-one duels, narrow escapes, and sprawling space battles, succeed at holding the reader’s interest and conveying a sense of intensity. A few of them are among the best I’ve read in a Star Wars book so far.
For me, though, the major plot elements leave a lot to be desired. From what I can gather, the book was basically plotted by a committee comprised of editors, authors, and Lucasfilm advisers. George Lucas himself even got involved a little bit, but mostly only to veto ideas that would too closely resemble the upcoming prequels, and to shut down some truly god-awful proposals, like killing Luke Skywalker.
As it is, Salvatore purportedly received death threats from crazed fans over the death of Chewbacca. That’s absolutely deplorable, and would be even if he’d actually had anything to do with the decision to kill the character. If you’re that sort of fan, you want to go home and rethink your life.
Being a relatively sane person, I don’t harbor any ill-will toward anyone involved in Chewbacca’s death, but I do think it was very poor storytelling. The idea behind killing Chewbacca was that, with a main character dead, the reader would get the impression that nobody was safe, and that anything could happen in this new series. I suppose that Chewbacca’s death accomplished this, but getting rid of a character that was already underused in previous books, and getting rid of him a relatively unceremonious fashion, was a cheap and uninspired way to do it. I love the work of Joss Whedon, but Star Wars is not Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly. In this interview, Timothy Zahn points out (and I happen to agree with him), that Star Wars isn’t some parable about the grim realities of war and death; it’s “an old-fashioned good-versus-evil saga,” and killing characters for no better reason than to keep readers guessing isn’t consonant with that thesis. Unlike Zahn, I’m not against killing off major characters, period, but they certainly deserve deaths of a more heroically significant order than the one Chewie got.
Perhaps more problematic than my issues with the shock-death of Chewbacca are the Yuuzhan Vong. I’m far from sold on these villains, and they’re going to have to carry a nineteen-book series. Pumping up the Vong on the back cover as “an even darker enemy” than the Empire was an unwise comparison to invite, given that they don’t come anywhere close to being as compelling as Palpatine or Vader. These aliens have some interesting characteristics, like their religious fanaticism and their biotechnology, but these concepts do nothing to overcome the fact that the Yuuzhan Vong characters in Vector Prime share utterly interchangeable personalities.
In Vector Prime, there is a lot of good writing on display, and the characters feel right. The idea of a more cohesive series of Star Wars novels is a good one, and despite my misgivings, Salvatore did leave me interested in what will happen next. It would be unfair to judge such a long series on just its first entry, in the same way that it would be unfair to judge a lengthy television series on its pilot; that said, The New Jedi Order has its work cut out for it if it’s going to impress me.