The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the Choices of One.
Choices of One is the latest Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn, detailing the continuation of the events that took place in Allegiance to the point that they will very likely be considered a duology in subsequent timelines. All of our protagonists- Rebel, Imperial or otherwise- from Allegiance make a return in this novel, along with several other classic Zahn anti-heroes.
Which lends itself to why reviewing this novel is so frustrating for me. On one hand, it portrays characters that I love doing what we love them for, as well as giving insights into the politics of the Unknown Regions and background into one of the most beloved and mysterious anti-heroes in the Expanded Universe. On the other hand, it takes all of the flaws in Zahn’s writing that have been evident for years and forcefully throws them in your face.
Let’s start with those points, because if Darth Vader has taught us anything, it’s that pain makes you stronger.
The rank scale is played nearly as poorly here as if it were in a twenty year old Kevin J. Anderson novel. Gilad Pellaeon captained an Acclamator-class starship (the predecessors to the Imperator Star Destroyer) before Luke Skywalker was born, Voss Parck held a Captaincy at about the same time, and a Grand Admiral is several degrees higher than even the most senior Captain. These are all facts that Choices of One chooses to conveniently ignore, although the latter can arguably be justified in canon.
Choices of One is almost like the Bacta War of Zahn’s novels, lacking only two cameos that would cement that designation. I enjoy my favorite characters cropping up as much as the next person, but only if they’re given something to do. In this novel’s case, three cameos were strung together in a role that one or two of them could easily have accomplished, which would have resulted in more screen time for each and therefore better chances at characterization. As it is, for the first two Acts Gilad Pellaeon’s and Thrawn’s disparate plots seem completely removed from the other three subplots and each other, save only the vague references to the Big Bad that indicate the connection that will bring these plots together in the end.
These appearances have another effect, too. Every time a certain two characters are in a scene together, it reminds me of their subplot in another of Timothy Zahn’s novels- the best plot in that book, mirroring the weakest one in this one. It takes a certain level of skill as an author to make readers nostalgic for what is widely regarded as your worst bound series novel. Yay?
Another downside of these characters is something that probably sprang to mind the moment you realized this novel was a Timothy Zahn novel featuring Thrawn and Mara Jade. That’s right, the father of the EU plugged the Game Genie into this Universe again. Suddenly Mara Jade is a brilliant lightsaber practitioner that has Luke in awe at her Mastery as she performs Force feats with no fear of failure or difficulty. You know, the Mara Jade who was only a very rudimentary Force user in Heir to the Empire and the other books leading up to Vision of the Future. As far as Choices of One is concerned, she’s a Jedi Master.
I don’t simply mean Zahn’s favorite characters being overpowered (though they are); what I mainly mean is that almost nobody else has two brain cells to rub together. This is fairly indicative of Star Wars novels in general- other than the chosen few, everybody else is an idiot. Considering the mental facilities of characters such as Mara Jade, Gilad Pellaeon and Mitth’raw’nuruodo, however, this is just all the more glaring and deficient. Two positives in this regard, however: a Big Bad that Thrawn can’t just hand-wave away, and Thrawn’s master tactics actually involved something fairly conventional, rather than the above hand-waving. I say this as a positive for a believable novel, but one of the things that most allowed me to put up with what Outbound Flight called a plot was some of Thrawn’s sheer badassery.
Lets look at the other characters in this novel, the ones that had nothing to do with the title (the title was explicitly about Han Solo’s and Thrawn’s sub-plots, and implicitly about Mara Jade’s and Luke Skywalker’s): the Hand of Judgment. LaRone is recognizable as the clear leader, although he goes through no crisis of command like the trial Han is destined to complete, and the rest of his crew are just that: the rest of his crew. Sithspawn, I could tell turtles apart easier than these guys- at least the TMNT wore masks and had unique attitudes. There are some token efforts at establishing personalities, but for someone like me who’s bad at names describing characters which are never physically described, the novel was far lacking in follow up. Maybe it’s because of the fan response to the first novel, but this caught my attention far more than it did in the original. Maybe because in the original they at least disagreed illogically.
The thing about the Stormtroopers’ plot, though, is that it sort of dragged. The fight for much of the novel was to maintain a status quo that they established at the beginning of the Second Act, and it’s not until Act Three, when their arc from Allegiance reaches closure, that this status quo changes and they dump their MacGuffin. This is after a couple of other sub-plots resolve to recover a MacGuffin for the first MacGuffin.
Where does this novel shine, then? Well, a nemesis for Thrawn is established- a tactical and strategic expert who may be Thrawn’s match on a fair battlefield. The alien warlord Nuso Esva plays the role of Chess Master for the entire novel, generally several steps ahead of most players. Thankfully, the Rebels have a group of Glorious Bastards to deploy in the case of just such an emergency.
As for the characters that make this novel stand apart from any other story featuring Mara and Thrawn, there is a bit of nostalgic value in seeing Han, Luke, Leia and Chewbacca’s antics but, with a few exceptions, most of it isn’t as fulfilling as Allegiance was.
I could go into more details about this novel, but that pretty much describes it. The plight of the idealist Stormtrooper deserters? Okay, but not as fulfilling as their origin. The close calls between people who can’t meet for about eight years? Not bad, but much more corny than Allegiance was. The character list? Satisfying at a fannish level and littered with the occasional tidbit, but with far less purpose than Allegiance held.
It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that my verdict is this: Choices of One is an enjoyable novel, but there’s just not as much heart in it as its predecessor, Allegiance– or, in cases such as Mara Jade’s, there’s too much heart and not enough head. I recommend Choices to anybody that read Allegiance and either wanted more of the same or demanded resolution. It fits neatly with Hand of Thrawn, but in a sort of way that one who enjoys one will enjoy the references to the other, not enough to recommend based on links between duologies alone. This novel stands up- or falls down- based on your interest in continuing or duplicating the story of Allegiance.