From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back is a fun anthology of Star Wars tales. Like its predecessor, it offers a variety of stories rather than simply evoking the dark second act of the original movie trilogy in particular. Here are slapstick comedies and lamentations, space battles and alien conclaves. Although some of the stories lack structure or feel unfinished, there are enough good ones here to please just about any Star Wars fan.
One sure crowd-pleaser is “Rendezvous Point,” a Rogue Squadron tale by Jason Fry. This is a fun jaunt back into the spirit of the old X-Wing books, down to the pilot slang, jokes, Z-95 Headhunters, and “uglies.” The dialogue is funny, sincere, heartfelt, and expresses exactly what it means to. It also provides a sweet look at the leaders of the Rebellion, whose disappearance after the Battle of Hoth in the movie provides the stakes. As Luke and Leia follow the journey on-screen, Wedge and his new squadron try to buy time in the hopes the twins will re-join the Rebel fleet. “There’s nothing in the galaxy that could keep Leia Organa from her duty, or Luke Skywalker from his friends.”
Fry’s story also acknowledges the characters’ worries and how hard the mix of open warfare and tense waiting has been on them. “It’s been what, three days? Wedge had to think about that for a moment — time had become a smear of anxiety and waiting for news that didn’t come.” I often found myself thinking about this line in the days leading up to the U.S. election.
Another stand-out was “There Is Always Another” by Mackenzi Lee. On the surface, this story explains why Obi-Wan Kenobi never told Luke that Vader was his father, especially as Luke was about to leave Dagobah against both of his Jedi Masters’ wishes. In part it’s a darkly humorous story about Obi-Wan’s long-suffering patience with Skywalker dramatics, but it’s also a story where Obi-Wan is forced to confront how much he loved Anakin, and the fact that Anakin intended to kill him. Luke is “the dumb, beautiful son of my dumb, beautiful friend who could never be talked out of anything he set his mind to.” A raw wound lurks underneath the laughter, and the tragedy of Obi-Wan and Anakin continues to be one of the greatest stories in the Star Wars saga.
On the darker side is the unflinching “The Final Order” by Seth Dickinson, which sometimes evokes Vietnam War fever dream The Things They Carried in its brutal, political look at an Imperial officer’s death. Later in the timeline of both the movie and the book, Martha Wells explores Ugnaught life with an authoritative voice. The second half of the book is overall stronger than the first; see also “The Man Who Built Cloud City” by Alexander Freed, which goes deep into the perspective of a Bespin vagrant. Like the best stories in the collection, it goes from grim to humorous without missing a beat. For all I’ve praised the second half of the collection, the very first story, “Eyes of the Empire” by Kiersten White is also a competent and optimistic tale of an Imperial intelligence worker switching sides.
Another standout is Catherynne Valente’s tale of the exogorth, the “space slug” that swallows the Millennium Falcon in the movie. Valente gives her all to this stylized epic that stretches far beyond the limits of the movies. Instead of feeling like a twee talking animal story or a human voice that happens to inhabit an alien body, the perspective is truly skewed and weird. And wonderfully softly so. The exogorth’s society prizes individuals who can nurture entire ecosystems in their cavernous guts. The story’s main character, Sy-O is mocked for merely containing mynocks. Sy-O’s melancholy and aspirations are deeply sad and beautiful. Valente took her commission to write about the space slug with deep seriousness and poetry, like a trapeze artist: skilled and theatrical. And the brief suggestion of Ben Solo growing up inside the belly of an exogorth, Han and Leia still alive and cared for but trapped forever in the space-faring monster, is exactly the kind of Star Wars spin-off weirdness I love.
Speaking of the Sequel Trilogy, the Palpatine story weirdly dodges around any implications from The Rise of Skywalker. The story itself is a cool glimpse of an alternate universe.
Unfortunately, most of the other “talking animal” stories are a bust. Admittedly, they have some leeway because of Star Wars‘ always flexible attitude toward sapience. What is the difference between a monster and a person? But the stories based around the wampa and the tauntaun never convincingly get inside the head of their subjects. When they do, the result is schmaltzy, goopier even than the most dramatic swell of music in a nature documentary.
Like in the first book, some stories are tonally adrift, without a voice or a clear direction. Especially in the Hoth sequence, several in a row felt more like descriptions of a single scene than complete story arcs, leaning far too heavily on exposition.
The one thing you shouldn’t expect from this collection is for it to match the tone of The Empire Strikes Back at all times. The movie’s tragedy-tinged adventure and relatively deep character relationships are considered the best in the saga for a reason, and some of these stories simply left me wanting to see more of Luke, Han, and Leia. It may not live up to the movie, but it certainly is an effective advertisement for it.
With a range of styles and characters, there’s a lot here to talk about. The From A Certain Point of View series, tied around the 40th anniversary of each movie, continues to be a fun event and a way to see Star Wars takes from some of today’s top authors. If you liked the A New Hope installment, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck from the second book.
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