501st - Karen Traviss "That's how tyranny succeeds. When folks think it won't affect them. Until it eventually does."
This book was selected in my Star Wars book of the month club! Plus, a good friend of mine gave me the book, which meant I absolutely had to read it!
The Clone Wars has ended, and the Republic is now the Empire. Darman and Niner are stuck in Vader's 501st, Vader's Fist. Darman struggles with the events of the last book, and both long to be home on Kyrimorout with Kal Skirata, Atin, Fi, and the other rag-tags that have assembled there as a haven.
Please note, spoilers from Order 66 (Star Wars: Republic Commando) may follow.

I Liked:
To keep myself streamlined, I will split this up into three categories: writing, characters and plot.
Writing.
1.Karen Traviss' novels don't beat around the bush. They deal with big, universal themes, which this time are bigotry/prejudice, complacency, and fear.
a)Prejudice permeates most of the Mandalorian characters (and the Jedi, of course). Skirata can't accept Kina Ha for being a Kaminoan and Uthan for being a scientist trying to kill his clones. The Kaminoan clones ridicule the Spaarti clones for being inferior. The rising bias against the Jedi in the Empire, the rivalry between Mandalore and the rest of the galaxy...all are potraits of prejudice and intolerance. Ny, one of the least intolerant of the group, puts it this way to the Null clones when they ridicule the Spaarti clones (page 198): "How can you dismiss them all like that when you're the first to say you're more than your genes?" We also see, in her eyes, how ironic it is for Skirata to hate the Jedi, when he happens to adopt many of the practices he criticizes in them (see page 301 for a good quote).
b)Complacency is what keeps the people from revolting. Under the Empire, the galaxy has grown to not care about her galactic brothers and sisters...those on Kashyyyk, Gibad, Camaas...and many others. The quote for the review, said by Uthan on page 139, says this perfectly.
c)Fear: a quote by Jusik best relays this (page 290): "Fear kept beings in line. Fear...made you mistrust and suspect everyone...and divided people didn't form up into groups to rebel."
2.Once her novel starts to roll along (particularly with the Niner and Darman scenes), you thirst for more. How are Niner and Darman going to survive in the 501st? Will anyone find out about the chip Niner has? What about the new Spaarti clone in their squad? How will the Corellian trained Ennen cope with the death of his squadmate? It was hard to put down the book in these sections.
3.Traviss again provides other Expanded Universe references, such as Jax Pavan and the Whiplash movement and Callista and the Altis' sect.
Plot:
1.The story of Niner and Darman in the 501st, Vader's Fist, is definitely the highlight of the book. You get inside Vader's Fist, to see the differences between the Imperial and Republic management, the inclusion of the Spaarti clones, the distrust, and the underlying fear. Plus, they get to do a whole lot more missions, a whole lot more Jedi hunting, which means more of what made Hard Contact so amazing and what has been lacking from most of the Republic Commando books and less sitting around and bad-mouthing the Jedi.
2.Darman's personal battle of the death of Etain is particularly poignant. I feel Traviss did a good job conveying his detached self and his grieving self and I adored how Niner looked out for him.
3.This novel is set in the Imperial era, which is so undiscovered and unexplored. It's nice to see the forays out into it.
4.The fear and suspicion, mentioned in passing in the Jedi Twilight (Star Wars: Coruscant Nights I), is actually at work in Coruscant in this novel. In 501st, clone commandos can feel the growing fear, see how the Empire is coaxing people to tell on their neighbors (all I can think of is the movie, Brazil!), and basically keeping one eye open.
Characters:
1.My favorite characters now include Walon Vau, Niner (who gets a point of view!! YAY!), Ny (sometimes), Commander Roly Melusar, and Maze. I've mentioned why I've liked Walon Vau before (quintessential Mando, cold, hard, calculating) and Maze too (follows orders, perfect ARC), but I will detail on the others.
2.Niner is a particularly fascinating clone. He didn't want to desert like all the others. He felt it was his duty to stay in, to fight the good fight. Only when his other brothers were going to leave, leaving him alone, did he change his mind. Through his reasonable, cautious eyes, we see the growing hatred and distrust of Jedi, his care for his brother, Darman, and how he is growing to want a life outside, yet still fearing it.
3.Nyreen is one of the few female characters Traviss has written that I actually like. Although there are still parts of her that I am not fond of (like how quickly she wants to become Mando and such), I like how she was married before, around Kal's age, independent, not so vehemently against the Jedi, and just overall being different and unique ("a voice of reason"). Through her eyes and her eyes alone, we get a balance from the Mando-heavy prejudice from the book and see how much Jedi Kal is like, how what he does really isn't much different from them.
4.Lastly, my brand-new all-time favorite is Commander Roly Melusar. Man, I can't say enough how much I like him! Here we finally get an Imperial not out for power, prestige, money, whatever, but out there to get rid of Force-users and dissenters for a reason...because he believes in the ideals of the Empire.

I Didn't Like:
You knew this was coming, didn't you?
1.Mandos good, Jedi bad. Highly toned down from the Republic Commando books with the balancing view off Ny (too bad she remains mostly silent on the matter to the Mandos), but still prevalent none-the-less. I could go on and on about this point, but I don't really think I need to say more. The Jedi are most certainly not perfect, but neither are the Mandalorians.
2.Good Mando wife. It sickens me to see all the women of these commando books be stripped of anything of their own, their own culture, desires, loves, hopes, and dreams and adopt without question or hesitation the Mando way. Besany was a tax auditor...and she goes to being good Mando housewife in less than 18.2 seconds. Laseema, same thing. Jilka follows the same path as Besany and Laseema by falling for yet another of our clone boys, Corr, in a gag-worthy romance. Uthan is slipping and falling for Mij Gilamar, and Nyreen appears to doing the same with Kal. Why can't Traviss create strong women who don't feel the need to drop their own personality for one their husbands can take better? Other than Parja, none of the married women have jobs outside the home (Uthan not being Mando nor married to Mij), and the one woman who didn't follow the Mando way (Kal's wife) is treated with scorn and disdain for wanting her husband to be home (I was a military kid, I could go on about this topic for a while, but I'll spare you). It's an unfair way to paint women, that they are only good if they are A) married to Mandos, B) a good, stay-at-home "Mando wife", and/or C) accept their husband's Mando ways without a qualm or thought about their own heritage and traditions.
3.Repetition. Yet again, Traviss has a few things she must make sure she says at least a dozen times in her novel. How the Nulls were saved by Skirata (as if the last three books didn't repeat that enough). How much Scout reminds Kal of Etain, how Kal hates Kaminoans and Jedi and Uthan, how Atin and Laseema can't have biological kids (which shouldn't really matter in an adoptive society like Mandalore), how hypocritical the Jedi were, how bad artuesii are, how so-and-so can't believe how "easy and quickly" she (most often she) is accepting the Mando culture, how so-and-so was surprised that she (again, most often she) wouldn't be shocked or upset if he (aka insert your Mando here) killed someone, etc., etc., etc. While I understand that new readers may be unfamiliar with the characters and history, the constant repetitions won't help them "catch up". This is not a book for the uninitiated. I figure you cut out half the extraneous repetitions, you lose about 150 pages.
4.Least Favorite characters.
a)Besany, who is mostly shoved into the background (Yay!). However, there is one scene where she appears, just recently wakened and yet is said to look "glamorous". You ever see a woman just wake up? Her hair is everywhere!
b)Skirata, whom I really have never liked since he appeared in Triple Zero (Star Wars: Republic Commando, Book 2). I know he loves his boys (I've heard it a billion times in between the pages), but he is overly emotional, always bawling or pouting or yelling or something-ing.
c)The Nulls. All perfect Gary Stus, who can do no wrong. Plus, there are 6 interchangeable men. Maybe if it were only Ordo, I could stand them, but having six indistinguishable, perfect men is too much for me to handle.
5.Other quibbles:
a)Darman's sudden change to want to return home felt out of left field.
b)Kad acts way off-kilter for a toddler, even a Force sensitive one.
c)Jusik having no attachment to his master? Maybe I got spoiled with the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan relationship from the Jedi Apprentice series.
d)Did you hear Palpatine is a Sith? Apparently everyone in this galaxy knows.
e)Too much time spent on Kyrimorout, aka "Walton's Mountain". In fact, in the beginning, I wanted to call the book "The Skiratas" after "The Waltons" because of all the time they spent at home doing homey things. Isn't this a Star Wars novel?
f)No Dramatis Personae. I've always had trouble figuring out who was what and this time it was even harder than usual.

Dialogue/Sexual Situations/Violence:
Expect to confront the Mando curse word "fierfek". Other than that, not much.
Little to none. Other than perhaps Kad being the child of a liaison between Etain and Darman and that Altis' clan take lovers, not much is made in this regard.
People die in the novel, one by suicide (not to spoil too much, hopefully) and one when attacked by a Jedi. Niner and Darman see a lot of battle in this one.

Overall:
One hundred pages into it, I was going to throw in the towel. I just couldn't take the "At Home on Kyrimorout" any longer. This was a commando novel, where were the commandos doing something besides raising Star Wars chickens? Thankfully, the Niner and Darman story saved it and the Kyrimorout sections actually started to go somewhere besides to the barnyard.
Lots of good stuff happens in this book. We get an inside view of the Empire, see Jusik wonder about his Jedi heritage, see the prejudices of the characters through a mostly unbiased eye (Nyreen), and learn more of why the Empire lasted so long (fear and complacency). Plus, there are some good Jedi chases and fights.
But a lot of "filler" happens too. People talk endlessly about topics we've heard inside and out. More anti-Jedi bias. More silly Kyrimorout "happy family" scenes. And a LOT of characters (fortunately, most background).
Imperial Commando: 501st is a good novel, but I would not recommend reading it unless you have read the last four Republic Commando novels. I tried to start without reading Order 66, and it was confusing. And while it has its bumps, if you don't mind a highly Mando bias (I did), you should enjoy. I give it 4 stars (with a revised rating 3.5 star rating to Order 66).