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Star Wars: 501st by Karen Traviss

1/8/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks

Buy Star Wars: 501s in the USA - or Buy Star Wars: 501s in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 434 page paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-51113-3.

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Although the title of 'Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel' suggests this is a story told from the perspective of Imperial Stormtroopers that is only partially true. Most of the book concerns those Clone Troopers who have 'opted out' of the Empire and run away to do their own thing on the planet of Mandalore. In fact, the commando aspect of the title is a bit misleading, too, since this isn't a book with a great deal of action.

Rather than focusing on the very familiar heroes of the 'Star Wars' universe, Karen Traviss has instead created her fiction around a new set of relatively unimportant people: the foot-soldiers of the Empire who otherwise have no other function than to absorb blasts from laser guns. Done well, this kind of storytelling can breathe new life into an established franchise. Reaves and Perry did precisely this with their novel 'Death Star' for example, telling a familiar tale from an entirely new perspective.

While Traviss has a rich set of characters and lots of ideas, the problem with 'Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel' is that it just doesn't have the brisk pacing we expect from a 'Star Wars' novel. Conversation and character development are good, but there has to be something happening as well and very little happens in this book, at least, not by 'Star Wars' standards. Making things worse is sheer number of unfamiliar characters. Unless the reader has already read the 'Republic Commando' series of books, it's hard to understand what's going on or why any of the character development matters. Indeed, given that all the characters are essentially killers, it's hard to be terribly sympathetic about what happens to them anyway.

Traviss is known among 'Star Wars' fans for her stewardship of the Mandalorian culture. Casual fans may be aware that Boba Fett wore a suit of Mandalorian armour, but Traviss has developed the Mandalorians in a remarkable way, even creating their own language. While that's fun in a geeky sort of way, parts of the book veer into fancruft and the regular use of unpronounceable and untranslated Mandalorian words simply makes the book difficult to read.

The book does have a few redeeming aspects though. The accelerated ageing aspect of the Clone Troopers does make them a bit more sympathetic than they might be and their desire to return to their genetic sire's homeworld of Mandalore is perfectly understandable. It's also interesting to see how a group of soldiers operate as a family trying to look after not just one another ut also an orphan and a homeless Jedi apprentice. This latter aspect is all the more interesting because of the rather negative spin given to the Jedi Knights generally in this book.

Still, the bottom line is that this book feels much too long and contains too little action. The human-interest stories are certainly worthwhile, but could have been dealt with in a fraction of the pages and perhaps carried along by a more boisterous, Star Wars-esque plotline. Recommended for fans of the 'Republic Commando' series, but otherwise not essential reading.

Neale Monks

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