Saturday Star Wars: Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review and Lingering Questions

Hullo everyone, and welcome back to Saturday Star Wars!

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’m riding high on a Star Wars wave which’ll keep me pumping out regular editions of this column for a few weeks, at least!

Today, I’ll share with you an excerpt of my Chaos Rising review, which you can read in full over at the Fantasy Hive:

I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.

Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.

One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.

To read the full piece, click on the link above!

Right, with all this wonderful praise in mind, I’ve a mind to ask several questions. Some spoilers below, read at your own peril! Here’s what I want to learn in the next book:

  • Who guided Yiv the Benevolent? The very last scene at the end of Chaos Rising offers us a name, but what’s behind that name? Is this an agent of the power that has the Chiss Ascendancy desperate enough to fake Thrawn’s exile?
  • Is that exile faked? Timothy Zahn confirmed as much in 2017’s Thrawn, but could it be that this might be retconned, or that it was a lie told by Thrawn to close the gap between him and his foe in that piece, Nightswan? With the political clime against the senior captain the way it is within the Ascendancy, that is a distinct possibility.
  • How far is Thalias going to enter into the politics of the Mitth family, to keep the politically inept Thrawn safe? One of the finest scenes in the book showcased her conversing with the ailing Patriarch of the Mitth, and his revelations about Thrawn will doubtless place her in the thick of family politics. This leads me to my next question…
  • What will be the repercussions for Thrawn? Though he has succeeded with flying colours, the Chiss are staunch isolationists, loath to strike against someone without provocation. Yes, Thrawn managed to skirt through the lines and succeeded in what was necessary — but he was told there would be consequences, and I don’t doubt they will cost him.
  • And my last but most important question: Did Ar’alani and Thrawn bone? When she made commodore, a rather suggestive few lines hinted towards the possibility.

Those are the leading questions — when I return to them a year from now, I do hope I’ll have answers to all of these. Until then…

Join me over the next three weekends as I review Volumes 5, 6, and 7 of the Doctor Aphra graphic novel! That sounds exciting – it’s exciting, isn’t it?

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips — Book Review

The world of middle-grade fantasy fiction must be charming indeed, if Jack Meggitt-Phillips’ debut is anything to judge by.

The Beast and the Bethany is the charming story of 511-year-old Ebeneezer Tweezer, the most selfish man in all the world; and of the orphan Bethany, the naughtiest kid in all her orphanage. What connects these two? One is intent on feeding a monster; the other is destined to be the monster’s snack.

Yum!

This is a story of personal growth; though one has lived half a millennium and the other hardly eleven years, Ebeneezer and Bethany have led a similar existence — one of survival rather than living. For Ebeneezer, survival has become a goal in of itself; for Bethany, it’s a necessity, to hide the vulnerabilities of a lost young girl. As you might imagine, neither one likes the other much, at first; but both find they’ve a lot to learn.

And the Beast? What a ghastly villain! And what an appetite it has! I’m not one to cannibal-shame, but eating a Bethany?! That’s just severe, that is. Everything else, I could look past — the puking, the incurable appetite for new experiences, the frankly ridiculous amount of puking, and of course, the admirable appetite of a growing boy–blob, I meant blob.

This is an entertaining book; I chuckled well more than once, downright laughed a couple of times. Levity is key in a good middle-grade book about monsters eating children, but no less so than moments of emotional release — and The Beast and the Bethany delivers just such excellence.

I disliked the sequel-bating at the end, however – what is this drive to extend perfectly charming stories, anyway?!

All in all, an excellent debut on the part of Jack Meggitt-Phillips – if you have a child, or are interested in children’s literature, this might very well make a fantastic gift. The illustration are beyond charming, themselves, and excuse the purchase of this book on their own!

Thank you to Egmont and TheWriteReads for offering me an Advanced Review Copy as part of the title’s blog tour.

Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

Over the last ten months, I’ve began to look to Rachel Cusk’s work with a reverence bordering on religious fervour. Her Outline trilogy* is revelatory, and does what few novels ever manage – it updates character, changes the narrator’s role to little more than a lens to look through. Further, it sacrifices that central individuality of the focalizer almost to the point of eliding the very notion of that individuality.

As you see, discussing Outline awakens a deep passion within me, for the craft as much as the ideas given voice. The same can be said of Coventry, which demarcates its seventeen essays into three parts: the first section, “COVENTRY,” examines topics of a deeply personal nature to Cusk, drawn from her own experiences; the third section, “CLASSICS AND BESTSELLERS,” tells of important authors and their works, and is generous in its praise (and on one account, in its deft critique) of all of them; and last but not least is “A TRAGIC PASTIME,” the second section, which seems to criss-cross the boundaries between the two, its four essays on topics both personal and literary.

The six essays falling into the “COVENTRY” section are universally strong; “Driving as Metaphor” takes a topic I would find snore-inducing on any other day, and turns it into an engaging conversation about this strange activity, which isolates and shifts the behaviour of the individual. It examines also people like myself, who “appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.”

“Lions on Leashes” is about children, and how they grow from the protagonists of a story told by their parents into free agents with a will of their own. It’s about the way parents dictate their children’s lives, and about that point when it is no longer impossible, when the physical authority parents use to enforce their will is no longer an available tool. It’s also about “the hysteria around maternal ambivalence,”(93) which society “turns into something blatant and grotesque.”

Cusk’s words here, especially, connect to one of my favourite Greek tragedies: “Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.” This fits in exceptionally well with my essay on Euripides’s Medea. Find the time to read it — this Greek tragedy is still relevant today. If you get your hands on “Lions on Leashes” — which, outside of Coventry, can be found in the NYTimes — read the two together, there’s almost a dialogue between them.

“Making Home” and “On Rudeness” are phenomenal works, which pushed me into deep introspection, as did “Coventry,” the titular essay of the collection examines a very specific phrase I had no familiarity with, “being sent to Coventry.” The connotations it has for family, the relationship between parents and children, and silence make for captivating subject matter.

My favourite piece in the second part, “A TRAGIC PASTIME” is “How to Get There.” It is a beautiful love letter to creative writing and its role in society: “If creative writing culture represents only that — freedom — it is justification enough.” A particularly poignant part of this piece says:

The reattachment of the subjective self to the material object is where much of the labour of writing lies — labour because, in this one sense, writing feels like the opposite of being alive. The intangible has to be reversed back into tangibility; every fibre of subjective perception has to be painstakingly returned to the objective fact from whence it came. The temptation is to elude this labour by ‘making things up’, by escaping into faux-realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subjective self. This is not the same thing as imagination or inventiveness: the feeling of not believing something you are reading arises not from the fact that it is set in Hogwarts School but from the suspicion that it is pure projection. A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes. A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable. (185)

Seems to me that this penetrates at the heart of what makes good speculative and SFF fiction.

“I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” was perhaps one of the weaker essays, though that says little — even the least of them offers an engaging intellectual debate between what’s on the page and the reader.

In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the question of “women’s literature” is examined, dissected with a scalpel and brought home to a conclusion many will find contentious — I, myself, question it with great relish.

The pieces on Lawrence, Ishiguro and Edith Wharton made me care for each and every book Cusk mentioned — I’ve long wanted to read the former two, but I don’t think I’d heard of Wharton, except maybe in passing.

Cusk’s esssay on “Eat Prey Love” is a meditation on the nature of that bestselling book, its main critique that Gilbert’s voyage of self-discovery is, in a word, vapid. “…[Gilbert] might have chosen not to live entirely and orgiastically in the personal — in pleasure — but instead to have renounced those interests in pursuit of a genuine equality. But to say that, of course, would be to take it all much too seriously.” (233)

“On Natalia Ginzburg” offers an excellent cut-off point to the anthology, with a final line that offers a stark glimpse at the role of writing, from Ginzburg’s own collection of essays:

And you realise that you cannot console yourself for your grief by writing . . . Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.’

An excellent reflection on writing to close the non-fiction anthology of a writer so inquisitive, so searching as to the nature and function of writing, don’t you think?

The only element of Coventry I would bemoan is the lack of a proper introduction to this collection, either from Cusk herself or from whichever editor aided in the collecting and publication of these seventeen essays in their single, 250-page tome. I would’ve so enjoyed some small foresight as to what drove Cusk to explore some of these themes — but that’s less criticism than a thoughtful shrug at what could’ve been.

Coventry is a must-have anthology for any lover of the essay, by a modern master of the form.

*I have spoken of both Outline and Transit, here and here.

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler – Book Review

This is my penultimate Philip Marlowe novel and I am so happy with it, you guys.

The Little Sister is as self-reflective, exhausted and close to broken that I’ve seen Raymond Chandler’s PI get. He’s not having an easy time with what promised to be a simple enough missing person case, full of deceptive femme fatales, drugs, corpses and very angry cops. For once, Marlowe doesn’t get his teeth kicked in by the fellas at the local precinct, but it’s not for lack of desire on the part of certain of his new copper friends; makes for a nice change of pace, though, dunnit?

There’s an air to cynicism to The Little Sister which will stay on with you longer than you might be comfortable with; but it’s easy to relate to Chandler for underlining it. The almighty dollar is powerful indeed, folks. That’s a little something the cast of characters, no matter the societal class they belong to, no matter all else that might bind them together, are conscious of; worse than conscious, they’re ready to trod on any joint human relation if it means lining their pockets.

Philip Marlowe is the antithesis of that, a man who, despite his disillusionment with the world at large, has a strong moral backbone, a man unwilling to look the other way when injustice is being carried out. It’s his defining trait, and in the hardboiled world of the old-school crime thriller, it’s as good as you can hope for.

You have to admire Chandler, you have to. What he does with language, the force of his metaphors and flourishes is as much the reason behind the continued popularity of these novels as his plots and characters, perhaps more so. Reading him is like catching a whiff of asphalt fumes in a candy store; sweet as the prose is, it’ll always shock you, the things he comes up with:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And on occasion, when he writes a line like this one: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me,” you know Chandler was a man who could take the piss out of himself, someone who knew how to keep the balance between serious and soul-crushing.

Ray Porter’s narration is, as ever, an easy 5/5. He is my Philip Marlowe, it’s as simple as that.

Few other paragraphs could beat this one for my favourite quote in the novel:

Philip Marlowe, 38, a private licence operator of shady reputation, was apprehended by police last night while crawling through the Ballona Storm Drain with a grand piano on his back. Questioned at the University Heights Police Station, Marlowe declared he was taking the piano to the Maharajah of Coot-Berar. Asked why he was wearing spurs, Marlowe declared that a client’s confidence was sacred. Marlowe is being held for investigation. Chief Hornside said police were not yet ready to say more. Asked if the piano was in tune, Chief Hornside declared that he had played the Minute Waltz on it in thirty-five seconds and so far as he could tell there were no strings in the piano. He intimated that someting else was. A complete statement to the press will be made within twelve hours, Chief Hornside said abruptly. Speculation is rife that Marlowe was attempting to dispose of a body.

Thanks for reading! Have a song to get you in the proper mood for a Marlowe story.