(Titan Books ISBN 9781845767563)
(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, January 2009)
There are always two Sith; there are only ever two Sith. So when Darth (‘Anakin Skywalker’) Vader starts to train an apprentice, keeping this action concealed from Darth (‘Emperor Palpatine’) Sidious, it implies that either Vader has failed to grasp the most basic tenet of Sith arithmetic, or that something underhand is afoot.
Sean Williams is a frighteningly prolific Australian spec-fic author, whose works cover the range from deep fantasy to classic SF to horror, with excursions into the domain of young-adult fiction and pop-culture tie-ins. He’s written fiction in the Dr Who universe, and has previously collaborated with Shane Dix on a trilogy of Star Wars novels (the ‘New Jedi Order’ series). The Force Unleashed, his first solo Star Wars novel, is set during the twenty or so years between the storylines of the ‘third’ (i.e., last) and ‘fourth’ (i.e., first and original) Star Wars movies. (And just by-the-by, I’ll declare myself as a ‘Han shot first’ purist with regard to the original movie…)
Vader gives his apprentice a series of tasks. Not surprisingly, these tasks involve the annihilation of Jedi remnants, and there’s a vague sense of illicit thrill that comes with identifying with young ‘Starkiller’, the apprentice. There’s a very definite sense, in fact, that The Force Unleashed is positioning itself as a counterpoint to the tone of the whole movie sequence, which all (including ‘Revenge of the Sith’) carry an aspiration that good will triumph. In contrast, within the novel, the action is viewed largely through dark-side eyes, and it’s done sufficiently skilfully that this is not overly noticeable for large stretches of the narrative.
That said, The Force Unleashed comes with a certain degree of baggage. First, there’s the overwhelming backstory of the entire Star Wars universe, although by setting the action so close to the pivotal yet previously-vacant centre of the overall SW storyline (and by focussing closely on the characters of Starkiller and Juno, his pilot), Force manages to avoid most of the pitfalls implied by seeking to add another small component to a widely-disseminated and culturally prominent overall entity. Most of the pitfalls, but not all. For Force is also a novelisation of a video game, with a requirement to adhere sufficiently closely to the confines of the game that narrative complexity is sometimes a casualty. Williams does a good job – the book was sufficiently compelling that I read it over one weekend, and he injects about as much humanity and emotional complexity as I suspect is possible into the characters he’s given to work with – but there are definitely patches of the action which feel very much constrained by how things work in the game. Young Starkiller throws the Force around a bit too much for my liking, including one scene in which he singlehandedly takes on both the force of gravity and the might of an Imperial star destroyer. Further, his assailants are all notoriously bad shots. (Which begs the question: these Stormtroopers are all clones, right? Of the one guy? You’d think they’d at least have chosen a decent marksman as their template … but I digress.) And there are places in which I felt there was too much description of setting, made necessary by the requirement to duplicate complicated action sequences contained within the game. But I could be mistaken here. I haven’t played The Force Unleashed at all; I’ve only read it.
Don’t get me wrong, The Force Unleashed is fun. And although the story focuses on Starkiller and his good-versus-dark-side struggle, there’s enough attention paid to fixtures such as Vader and the Emperor, and enough (but not too many) cameos involving those on the good side, that Star Wars aficionados are unlikely to feel disappointed, or disoriented. And, yes, it has that line, the one that usually seems to fall to Han Solo to deliver, the one that starts with ‘I have a bad …’
(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2009)