Shield of Lies by Michael P. Kube-McDowell (1996, Bantam)
Before the Storm, the first book of The Black Fleet Crisis, leaves the New Republic on the brink of war with the Yevetha, an alien race that believes itself superior to all others and plans to assert superiority by “cleansing” their sector of space of all other “vermin.”
Curiously, Michael P. Kube-McDowell lets the New Republic—and the reader—dangle on that brink for the first two thirds of the second book, Shield of Lies. In my experience, books that are part of the same series usually follow the same structure. Before the Storm, like most Star Wars novels, was written in third person limited fashion, with character perspectives changing between chapters and page breaks. Shield of Lies isn’t very different from this, but instead of changing which character he follows whenever it seems appropriate, McDowell has divided the novel into three sections: “Lando,” “Luke,” and “Leia,” respectively.
The “Lando” section follows Lando, Lobot, Artoo, and Threepio as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the Flying Dutchman-esque spaceship on which they’re stranded as it skips around through hyperspace. The ship’s many strange and mysterious qualities, when taken with Lando’s constant quipping, remind me a little of some delightfully oddball passages from L. Neil Smith’s The Lando Calrissian Adventures. The fact that McDowell makes good use of Lando is a point in favor of The Black Fleet Crisis; many expanded universe authors neglect him.
The “Luke” portion of the novel has Akanah, who has promised to help Luke learn more about his mother, leading the Jedi from planet to planet, searching for the nomadic and secretive Fallanassi tribe. Luke begins to become suspicious of Akanah and her motivations, and Akanah continues to question Luke’s methods, but the two of them wind up developing a certain level of affection for one another nonetheless.
The third and final section of Shield of Lies, “Leia,” finally revisits the conflict that ended the previous book. Leia is faced with making a decision as to how to address the aggression of the Yevetha, all while battling political wheedling and manipulation from within. Throughout this trilogy, Leia’s idealism butts heads with the more pragmatist approach of the New Republic’s military and covert operations personnel.
I’m not against the idea of changing up the structure of novels within a series as described above, but in this case, I think the decision was a mistake on McDowell’s part. Each portion of the book is enjoyable on its own, but dividing the action into sharply delineated thirds gives Shield of Lies a less cohesive feel. More importantly, it disrupts, to a certain extent, the feeling of continuity between the first and second books of this trilogy. I imagine that having the reader wait until the last third of the book to find out more about the Yevethan crisis was meant to build suspense and anticipation. This isn’t a bad idea, but the payoff here isn’t enough to justify the buildup. This may have been a better option for the trilogy’s third installment.
This does mess with the pacing, but ultimately, this flaw doesn’t prevent Shield of Lies from being a good read. The book retains most of the strengths of its predecessor, and ends on a cliffhanger that had me immediately reaching for the next book upon completion.