ALTA Special Review: Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber

Zombies in Star Wars have existed a long time, with varying origins (8, according to Wookieepedia, unless some connection between the various “species” is identified).  It wasn’t until last October, however, that Joe Schreiber reminded us that zombies are best known not for a Fantasy/Adventure setting, but as a form of Horror incarnate.

Death Troopers introduced us to the zombies infestation known as Project Blackwing, a pet project of Darth Vader that caused the living to get sick and return as ravenous undead.  Vader was no alchemist, however- his experiments generally had a basis in history.  Where, then, did Blackwing come from?

Darth Scabrous is unique, even among the Sith.  He performs twisted experiments, and is spoken of in frightened whispers among the Sith students of Odacer-Faustin.  And he dreams of immortality.  His only downside?  His name doesn’t truly portray the depths of his evil insanity.  Sure, Scabrous fits with the zombie plotline pretty well.  But something with an apostrophe would have been more… fitting.  And I don’t mean “Scab’rous”.  No, maybe “R’lyeh”.  Darth Ph’nglui.  And, you know what, maybe not being the same species as every single student at the Academy (save one Zabrak) might have made him a little more terrifying.

Besides the shadowy Darth Scabrous, we’re introduced to Agricultural Corps Jedi (I guess this was before the AC became the Island of Misfit Jedi) Consular, her brother, an experienced Jedi Guardian, Tulkh, the only significant non-human to feature as more than a plot device and Bounty Hunter, a host of Sith Warriors that at times seems to focus on a “main” character but ultimately leaves them all half-developed and inconsequential, Pergus Frode, a mechanic with serious Smuggler tendencies… wait a second, is this a horror novel, or another The Old Republic tie-in?

As you can probably guess, my biggest gripe with this novel is the characters.  The casting for this book was even less inspired than the barely acceptable Dynasty of Evil cast, despite presenting us with a much larger cast to potentially develop and a Dramatis Personae of fifteen individuals.  In fact, while I usually prefer a larger cast, in this case I think two or three less Sith students would have been a blessing, as it would have allowed Schreiber to develop these characters to the extent that made Dynasty of Evil‘s characters bearable.

But while I’m looking at characters, there’s someone rather obvious that it seems I’m overlooking.  Dail’Liss, the Neti librarian, really exists for two reasons, summed up in the following quotes:

“The Jedi’s particular talent is botanical telepathy, plant language.  Right now she is communicating with the spirit of an orchid, a flower whose presence she trusts implicitly, and … I want you to speak to her in the voice of the orchid, do you understand?”

and

Behind them, a sprawling, gangling thing that looked like a living tree was dragging a long mesh of dripping black roots and branches toward him.  Its eyes reflected only madness.

That’s it.  That’s the sum of Dail’Liss’s existence.  He has more scenes, of course, but that’s why he exists.  He was created for the graphic novel that was never intended to exist, much like the Wookiee zombies of Death Troopers.  Which reminds me- according to Red Harvest, zombies will take a bite out of a tree?

Okay, so the characters are a little bland, but what about the zombies?  Well, as MizzeeOH pointed out in her review, it’s incredibly difficult to create menacing zombies without compelling visuals.  More often than not, it comes down to the mood of the reader- is the reader expecting and visualizing a terrifying, rotting corpse with blood dripping from its jaws, or a falling apart rubber suit moaning for braaaaains.  Many authors are adept at setting the mood so that the viewer has no choice but to visualize the most terrifying thing that matches the text.  Stephen King, for example, makes a living off of his ability to do just that.  Other authors succeed at setting a mood where anything seems possible, suspension of disbelief goes beyond the willful, provoking perceived imagery matching the most realistic movies.

Red Harvest and Death Troopers, however, make steps in this direction, but not enough to follow through.  A lot of this is the word count- there’s just not enough writing in each scene to set a mood without the reader putting a conscious effort in to how they want to read it.

For a non-zombie example of this, we have the Sith academy and the students themselves.  It’s clear from the first chapter that Schreiber is making an effort to set the same kind of mood that dominated Drew Karpyshyn’s Path of Destruction, a Darwinistic collective where treachery and potential death lurk around every corner.  Instead, we get the feeling of juvenile hazing, where newcomers are assaulted not for being a potential threat to other ambitious would-be Sith, but simply for being the weakest and easiest targets.  Add that to the fact that these students are clearly nowhere near as powerful, self-assured, skilled or hardened as the ones at the Korriban Academy (we even get a scene of the students trying not to throw up at the site of the carnage left by the zombies, an attempt at setting a horror mood that comes across as too little, too late) and none of them are very well developed, it comes off as Academy-lite.  Nothing is very impressive and you’re therefore not very shocked to see Sith students slaughtered the way you would be at a more prolific Academy.  Their version of teamwork doesn’t make survival much more likely.

If the zombies aren’t very scary unless you imagine them that way, do they at least live up to the hype as lightsaber-wielding undead Sith?  Well, we certainly don’t get Force-wielding Lichs that threaten to dominate everything alive (although that’s the goal, though I’ll let you read it to figure out the final part of Scabrous’s ritual).  We do get one zombie that wields Force Lightning, but unfortunately, it’s never really followed through on.

Probably the most interesting scene as regards the capabilities of the zombies (though this may be nothing new- it’s been some time since I read Death Troopers) is when a herd of zombies use lightsabers to coerce a Sith student into tricking someone for them.  Another scene made for the graphic novel that was never intended to be made, besides being a pointless scene that attempts to bring a character back into the novel without their final role being obvious.

The scene fails at that.  In fact, every character’s role is rather obvious, though the survivors aren’t all.  Much of this is again a casualty of the word count.  Only Scabrous and Zo have consistent page time, which is a real shame given the suspense and traditional zombie plotlines that could have occurred if others had been followed in the same manner.

What’s left to discuss?  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- characters, that is.  Zo is the hero, and as such, completely manages to dismantle the threat that the situation has.  Oh, she’s generally helpless enough.  The problem is that she not only has an extraordinary midichlorian count, but she has such power as to cause plants to grow at about ten times their normal rate, and a connection with… well, let me tell you about the Murakami orchid (which appears to be named after one of several Japanese figures found on Wikipedia).

The Murakami orchid is “the most Force-sensitive” flower, which has the side effect of making it sentient and able to communicate telepathically with such a gifted Jedi botanist as Zo (short for Hestizo).  The flower is a necessary and difficult to find ingredient in the ritual used to create the concoction that would cause the zombie plague, the predecessor of what would become Project Blackwing.  Even after being dissolved into the liquid used for the ritual, at a command from Zo, the Murakami orchid can grow vines that kill zombies from within.  It makes the zombies about as threatening as if Night of the Living Dead starred a cleric with Turn Undead.

The other “good” character is Trace, Hestizo’s brother, an apparently gifted swordsman who cuts throguh the Academy’s Blademaster and much of the Academy in the process of interrupting the final part of the ritual to turn Darth Scabrous into an immortal, conscious undead Lord.  The saving grace of this character is the fact that Scabrous doesn’t allow him to bring about the worst possible cliche ending that Red Harvest could have had, which gave me a few seconds to think that the best ambiguous ending it could have had before that, too, was prevented.

Which brings us to the Bad, Darth Scabrous.  Actually, there’s not much to talk about here.  In the opening chapters, they lay out the groundwork for his reputation.  When he actually appears, he completes the zombie formula, is bitten, protects himself with an apparatus designed to slow his transformation, and makes it his goal to capture Hestizo for his unknown ends.  He has one fight, which is somewhat noteworthy, but that’s about the extent of it.

And the Ugly, our Whiphid bounty hunter.  Tulkh is like a blend between Bossk, a bit of Boba Fett’s silence, and of course every unsympathetic Whiphid ever to face Star Wars fiction.  At first, Tulkh is really just a silent, deadly Bossk, but as time goes on he appears just enough to seem out of place before uncharacteristically coming to save the girl who he had updated just to keep his bounty (the Murakami Orchid) alive.

In the end, what really hurts Red Harvest is its short length.  I know I keep harping on this, but far from disliking it just because it’s too short (though I admit I prefer longer, more in depth stories), the story varies from being obvious, undeveloped and completely out of place, all because nothing is seriously developed and very little is foreshadowed.  It’s as though the story was pared down to its bare essentials, but in the process scenes like the equivalent of everything Han does between arriving aboard the Death Star and shooting Darth Vader were cut out.  Red Harvest is almost a really great zombie novel, but it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants or how to get there.  Still, it’s a fun read, if a bit predictable, and worth checking out if anything I’ve described here appeals to you.

This idea, though, of achieving immortality with an orchid and a Force user with a particularly high midichlorian count intrigues me.  Now, where would I find such a mark…

MizzeeOH: Don’t even think about it.

Well, it was worth a thought.

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