Reprinted from Goodreads:
With the publication of Timothy Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn duology (Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future) and Aaron Allston’s final book of the X-Wing Series, Starfighters of Adumar, the era of Bantam publishing had come to close and a new era began with Del Rey. For many fans, this change was looked upon with anticipation and hope. Bantam, who published the smash hit, Heir to the Empire, the book that began what is now known as Star Wars Expanded Universe, had a habit of publishing books with hastily wrapped up plots, disappearing characters, overdependence on Superpower of the Week plots, overuse of the Empire as an enemy, and a lack of cohesion and flow in the books (since you never knew if an author would go back and write a book between Book A and Book B).
But Del Rey heard the fans’ cry and promised to remedy this with Star Wars’ first, epic series: The New Jedi Order. This series was to be written in order (publication date would imitate in-universe date) and to showcase a brand new era set well after the events of the Bantam era. New villains had been created, new conflicts were developed, and new characters were promised to come into play. And thus began one of Star Wars’ most prolific series, and one of the most controversial.
Writing a review for the entire series is a daunting task. There are a grand total of 19 full length novels written by 12 authors and this doesn’t include the e-books and short stories that have been published (no, I am not reviewing them). A single novel is hard enough to review, but to review 19 and maintain a format that isn’t the size of Denning’s Star by Star? Yikes! So some rules for this all-expansive New Jedi Order review need to be set down. What I am looking at and reviewing is “big picture”, overarching characters, continuity, theme, flow, overall impression of the series, etc. I don’t want to focus too much on specific bad books, though I will let you know which ones I felt were best and which ones I would recommend skipping.
Summary (Spoilers abound like mad):
Vector Prime: The Yuuzhan Vong invade from beyond Belkadan. Mara Jade has a life-threatening illness. Chewbacca dies
Onslaught: Leia tries to drum up support from the New Republic, while the rest of the cast work on miscellaneous missions.
Ruin: Leia attempts to bring in the Imperial Remnant, Luke and Mara try to keep the Order together, more miscellaneous Jedi missions. Elegos A’kla dies.
Hero’s Trial: Han Solo starts to come to terms with his grief. Vergere and Elan try to sabotage the Jedi by acting as deserters. Mara’s illness is put in remission. Vergere, the Ryn, and the Yuuzhan Vong priest sect make a first appearance.
Jedi Eclipse: The Yuuzhan Vong ally with the Hutts, Leia goes to the Hapans for help, the Solo boys reactivate Centerpoint, but Thracken Sal-Solo fires it, destroying half the Hapan fleet. This is Viqi Shesh’s first appearance.
Balance Point: Han and Leia reunite; Jacen gets a vision about the galaxy being precariously balanced; the Yuuzhan Vong set out a bounty on the Jedi; Mara is pregnant.
Conquest: The Yuuzhan Vong attack Yavin 4 and the Academy; Anakin returns to rescue them, but Tahiri is captured and shaped into a Yuuzhan Vong. Corran returns from self-exile. Tahiri reappears; Nen Yim is first introduced. Ikrit dies.
Rebirth: Luke and Mara flee Coruscant; Kyp tricks Jaina in helping him attack a Yuuzhan Vong world ship; Han, Leia, and Jacen try to find a sanctuary for the Jedi children; Anakin, Tahiri and Corran hunt down an attack on Yag’Dul. Mara’s disease is finally cured, she gives birth to Ben. Shimrra is mentioned.
Star by Star: The Yuuzhan Vong shape the voxyn, Jedi Killers. Anakin leads some Young Jedi on a mission to Myrkyr to kill the Queen and dies. Jacen is captured; Raynar disappears. Coruscant is evacuated, and Viqi Shesh attempts to steal Ben.
Dark Journey: Jaina turns to the Dark Side briefly and takes up identity as Yun-Harla, the Yuuzhan Vong Trickster Goddess. Ta’a Chume tries to get Jaina to marry Isolder and steal the throne away from Teneniel Djo.
Rebel Dream: The New Republic takes Borleias. Jaina experiments more with being the Trickster Goddess. Luke and Mara head to Coruscant. Tam is spying on the New Republic.
Rebel Stand: Luke and Mara encounter Dark Jedi, Irek Ismaren. Viqi Shesh tries to escape Yuuzhan Vong captivity.
Traitor: Jacen’s tenure in Yuuzhan Vong hands and his training with Vergere. Ganner Rhysode dies trying to rescue Jacen.
Destiny’s Way: The Galactic Alliance votes for a new president. Jacen returns. Deaths: Vergere.
Remnant: Luke, Mara, Saba Sebatyne, Jacen, and Danni head off for Zonoma Sekot and to get the Imperial Remnant into the Galactic Alliance; Han, Leia, Jaina, Jag, and Tahiri head off to reconnect with planets.
Refugee: Luke and team continue to search for Zonoma Sekot. Han, Leia, and company go to Bakura and deal with the Ssi-Ruuk Part Deux.
Reunion: Luke and his team find Zonoma Sekot. Han, Leia, and their team try to prevent the Yuuzhan Vong from taking a vital communications station.
The Final Prophecy: Tahiri, Corran, Nen Yim, Harrar, and the Prophet/Nom Anor team up to find Zonoma Sekot and to unearth its mysteries.
The Uniting Force: Shimrra orders the destruction of Zonoma Sekot; the Galactic Alliance unleashes Alpha Red.
One of the first things you will notice about NJO is the size of the cast. Of course, Han, Luke, Leia, and Mara appear. At this point, it wouldn’t be Star Wars post-Return of the Jedi without them. But many, many more crop up, and not just one shot-one book wonders, as we saw in the Bantam run. We have the children of Han and Leia, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin. We have old characters like Kyp Durron, Corran Horn, Tionne, Kam Solusar, Tenel Ka, and Lowbacca. We have new characters like Danni Quee, Viqi Shesh, and Ganner Rhysode. And, of course, we have tons of Yuuzhan Vong enemies, including the Domain Shai (Shedao), Tsavong Lah, Kali Lah, Czunglk Lah, Mezhan Kwad, Vua Rapuung, Nom Anor, Onimi, Shimrra, and Nen Yim.
The Protagonists/Heroes/Heroines (Sorta)
The Big Three Plus Mara (Han, Luke, and Leia) appear in almost every novel. While this did get annoying at points (how much more can we possibly read about these guys?), our major characters are given some real trials in these novels, and not just the “Oh, that dude that we’ve never seen before this novel died and he was my best friend, wah!!”.
Han and Leia
First, let’s talk about Han and Leia. You might have noticed I didn’t bring up Chewbacca in the first paragraph. For those of you that have read NJO or been thoroughly spoiled, you know that he dies right off the bat in Vector Prime. Many people don’t like this move, and that is their prerogative; as for me, I felt that it did exactly what the authors wanted: made the galaxy more dangerous and our heroes a little more vulnerable. Plus, it forces our heroes to have to react to REAL death. Han, understandably, deals with this badly, eventually leaving his family and returning to “the smuggler life” to come to grips with his emotions. Around Balance Point, Han and Leia run into each other on Duro and “kiss and make up”. From that point on, Han starts leaning on Leia like he would Chewie (not 100%, but the hints are there).
It’s a good thing, because Han and Leia lose their youngest son, Anakin, when he dies on Myrkr. Unlike Chewbacca’s death, however, I feel this wasn’t done particularly well and didn’t accomplish anything (other than eradicate the supposed “confusion” about having two Anakin’s in the Star Wars Universe *eye rolls*). Han and Leia seem to get over their son’s death much easier and more quickly than Chewbacca’s. Is it because they are so numbed to death that they haven’t digested Anakin’s death? (Seems weird, as most of the other people who have died are nameless Jedi.) Is it because of bad writing? (Dark Journey was the book that followed Anakin’s death and focused too much on the trivial Hapans.) Who knows?
When their son, Jacen, returns home in Destiny’s Way, it seems most of their trials are done and over, so they can go back to flying the Falcon and getting into scrapes. Han remains cocky and overconfident; Leia is smarmy and still not considered a Jedi, even though she has been appointed a Jedi by her brother at least twice in the past (what is up with this, seriously? Authors, go back to your notes!). Even at the end, it seems that really this whole war has barely changed them. Han’s darkness from losing his best friend and son are gone; Leia seems rather composed considering she lost her youngest boy and her husband left her.
Luke and Mara
Luke and Mara have their own set of troubles: Mara’s strange illness and her pregnancy. Mara is inflicted with a spore before Vector Prime and is afflicted with it in one form or another until Rebirth. While Mara’s illness does somewhat force her out of the picture at times and onto the sidelines, I felt her reaction to the illness was inconsistent. In some novels, it was barely a nuisance and only slightly held her back and other times, it brought her to the brink of death. I thought the addition of Vergere’s Tears would permanently remove the problem, but then in Rebirth, we suddenly learn that the tears react adversely with Mara’s pregnancy (what? When did this happen?) and she goes from being okay to being on death’s doorstop in the blink of an eye. Good thing for Luke being proficient in Force ex Machina to get rid of Mara’s disease once and for all. Really, all Luke and Mara need to do to heal her is hold hands and use the Force. After 8 books, you would think the authors could come up with a better solution than sloppy reliance on the Force.
Even with these two trials, Luke and Mara’s relationship is never as rocky as Han and Leia’s. They never fight, they never challenge each other, they always kiss and make up…and they always feel like Ken and Barbie in their fake perfection.
Individually, Luke struggles with the Jedi’s place in the galaxy and the war. In the beginning, he constantly assails Kyp Durron and other proactive Jedi against their aggressive stance, fearing that this will lead to the Dark Side. But after Vergere speaks to him in Destiny’s Way, Luke learns the difference between the Dark Side and aggressive fighting and approves of Jedi action in the war. However, this happens late in the series, and the very next book (Remnant), Luke chides a young Jedi for wanting to press the advantage against the Yuuzhan Vong.
Oddly enough, the one person who might have been able to say something to smack some sense into Luke about his insanely stupid pacifistic position that is killing billions is Mara, who keeps her mouth unusually closed the entire time. Mara, for the most part, is a lawn ornament in Luke's life, a vague intimation of the woman she was in the Thrawn Trilogy personification. Mostly, she backs up Luke, looks tough, and is drug along on missions. Occasionally, she gets her own moments to shine (such as in Balance Point when she goes undercover), but these are very rare, and most of them seem clichéd and sloppy. Even her behavior to her son seems inconsistent: one minute, she’s an overprotective mommy; the next, she is willing to drop the kid off on random people to go on a mission with hubby.
Speaking of the supposedly beloved son, Ben disappears at one point. The boy is born in Rebirth, is almost captured in Star by Star, but apparently disappears after that. It’s sad, that an older couple like Mara and Luke, would be so cavalier with their only son, especially knowing what happened to Han and Leia’s kids and even what Viqi Shesh attempted to do to their son.
Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin
Up and rising stars, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin round out the major cast. These are the “new Jedi” of the title. Of the three of them, Jaina is probably the most boring. At the ripe old age of 16, she abandons her master, Mara, (this is never brought up again) and joins Rogue Squadron (after her mother bullies Wedge to let her join, in a brilliant display of nepotism). While she gets an interesting stint as Yun Harla, the Yuuzhan Vong Trickster Goddess, and plays with the Dark Side VERY briefly, this is the extent of her character development. About the only other “development” is the beginning of an on-off relationship with Jag Fel, thus continuing the sexist cliché that women will never figure out what they want and drag men along forever. (Seriously, authors, get over it. We have.) Jacen has a far more interesting character arc. He starts out the series ambivalent about the Force and a strong pacifist, even preventing Anakin from using Centerpoint and, in a way, causing the death of half the Hapan fleet (and this alone makes me want to smash him into a wall). But in Traitor, Jacen under Vergere’s tutelage learns a new insight into the Force and begins to leave behind his “What should I do” phase. Abruptly, in the Force Heretic trilogy, Jacen returns to his ambivalent ways, constantly questioning himself and his place and igniting an out-of-the-blue romance with Danni Quee. He gets an amazing moment of insight in The Unifying Force, tying in Balance Point beautifully and bringing our level of understanding of the Force to a new level. Anakin started out boring like Jaina, but in Conquest, he really became his own character, and a decent one at that. But unfortunately, we will never know where he goes from there, because he died in Star by Star.
The Rest of the New Jedi Order
As for the rest of the cast, their appearances and character vary widely according to the author. Danni Quee starts out as an astronomer on Belkadan and somehow is able to switch vocations seamlessly to Yuuzhan Vong xenobiologist. She was one of the most annoying characters I found in this book. She was, as is all too frequently seen in Star Wars, too young, she was somehow Force sensitive, she became the love interest of Jacen, and she was a know-it-all. Corran Horn appears early on, disappears in self-exile, returns to pair up with Anakin and Tahiri and then disappears once again, only to reappear again in time to team up with Tahiri and transport the Yuuzhan Vong to Zonoma Sekot (talk about whiplash!). Kyp Durron is pretty constant as the anti-Luke (which seems to be his only real stance in these books), but then for some reason, this squadron leader volunteers to be a mere pilot in Jaina’s Twin Suns squadron and to become Jaina’s master (wait…what about Mara?). And then, in The Unifying Force, Kyp has left and is, once again, leader of his own squadron. Viqi Shesh appears in Luceno’s Hero’s Trial as an up-and-rising dirty politician and that pretty much is the extent of her character development (politicians are always corrupt, after all, unless the Big Three say otherwise). There are other characters, such as Wedge, Tycho, Talon, Roa, Droma, and more, but if I were to talk about all of them, it would be a novel itself.
Surprisingly for a book about the “New Jedi Order”, it’s not until Denning’s Star by Star that we actually see any amount of new Jedi or any Jedi from the Young Jedi Knights and Junior Jedi Knights series, other than the one-shot Jedi in Hero’s Trial that tried to find the Death Star or some other superweapon plans *eye rolls* and had to be stopped by Luke and Mara, because you can’t have offensive fighting in these novels! With little consistency for background characters and uneven or nonexistent development, you get the impression that, at the end of the day, no matter what you name your series, the Big Three (Han, Luke, and Leia) will always be the most important characters.
But our Yuuzhan Vong casts suffers even worse. The only Yuuzhan Vong character that spans the entire series is Nom Anor. Pretty much every other Yuuzhan Vong “enemy” was a brand-new character developed by the author of that particular book/duology—at least until Hero’s Trial, when Tsavong Lah makes his appearance. Domain Shai apparently were decimated in Ruin, Harrar disappeared after Hero’s Trial (he does return afterwards, but it takes awhile), and we don’t even see the Leader of the Yuuzhan Vong, Shimrra, until Destiny’s Way. It’s hard to feel that these guys are capable of winning if the villain of the book dies by the last page—a complaint many had about the Bantam run.
Most of the Yuuzhan Vong characters don’t extend beyond the two-dimensional “enemy” confines. About the only Yuuzhan Vong characters with growth are Vua Rapuung, Nen Yim, and Harrar. The rest are merely “evil”, intent on blindly following their religion/power trip ideals and brutally destroying everything in their paths, not too dissimilarly to what was done with the Empire. This type of characterization quickly is overdone and boring, only good for setting up characters that we won’t miss when they are killed by our heroes. This aspect was particularly disappointing, as I thought, when the New Jedi Order was pitched, we would finally have a multi-faceted view of an enemy.
And now we broach probably the most difficult part of this review: the story. The story of NJO is epic and sprawling. We start out in Vector Prime at a small corner of the galaxy, and by Star by Star, the Yuuzhan Vong have conquered Coruscant. I see two basic journeys present in the NJO series: the war with the Yuuzhan Vong and the definition of the Force.
I have mixed feelings about the actual Yuuzhan Vong war. On one hand, the Yuuzhan Vong are fierce conquerors, quickly eating up planets and systems from the inefficient New Republic. On the other hand, where are the battles that the Yuuzhan Vong win? Most of the books of the NJO end with the New Republic (led by the Big Three Plus Mara) soundly defeating the Yuuzhan Vong. Exceptions include Ruin (the destruction of Ithor), Jedi Eclipse (the destruction of the Hapan fleet), and Star by Star (the capture of Coruscant). How can the galaxy be in such a dire state, and yet the heroes are always winning the battles we see? Where are the battles where the heroes fail? Are we so desperate for our heroes’ invincibility we cannot allow them to lose?
Why would a government, when faced with multiple attacks of an unknown, outside source, go out of its way to ignore it and not immediately begin mobilizing an attack force? The New Republic had multiple incidents where the Yuuzhan Vong attacked; were the affected systems not New Republic member systems (not clear from the map imprinted in each NJO boo)? Is this supposed to hearken back to Hitler’s encroachment in the late 1930’s? Why doesn’t anyone in the government believe Leia when she tries to prove that the Yuuzhan Vong are invading? Why does it take the Empire so long to join the fight? Did the fight affect the Corporate Sector? What about the Hutts? What happens to them?
Why is it okay for Leia to try to get people to fight against the Yuuzhan Vong, but Luke and his Jedi can’t fight? Why are the Jedi so against fighting back? Luke had no problem with “aggressive negotiations” back in the movies, where he killed millions on the Death Star; why does he chide Kyp Durron so much for trying to fight back against the invaders? Hasn’t he fought his share of baddies in the earlier Bantam novels? If there was a huge change, what was it? I know what the in-universe explanation is—that Luke feared the Dark Side, Kyp Durron is a mass murderer, etc.—but I call foul. The series is called “Star Wars” not “Star Sit Around and Do Nothing”.
As for the discussion of the Force, I find myself in the same state as Jacen throughout much of the NJO: ambivalent. Jacen’s journey in the Force is great in Traitor and I love the Vergere/Luke question-answer sessions in Destiny’s Way, but why did it take so long for Jacen to make up his mind? Why did he dither so? Why does he continue to dither? How does this affect the other Jedi? How do they feel about it? How do they treat him for being a pacifistic pansy? Where are the uprisings against this “heretical” view of the Force? What about Jaina, what are her thoughts? How can the Yuuzhan Vong be outside the Force?
As I finish the last book of the NJO series, I am overwhelmed with a sense of loss, a sense of sadness I haven’t felt since the last time I finished this series…or the last time I finished Return of the Jedi (and with the last Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, I am sure many HP fans can empathize with my sentiments). The NJO isn’t for the weak of heart; it is 19 books, some of which are among the largest in the Star Wars saga (Star by Star, anyone?). In the many, many pages of NJO, we face devastation, triumph in the face of evil, racism, teamwork, and hope. Right off the bat, we are socked with the death of a character we know and love, and the death toll only mounts. The New Republic, led by Leia, Han, and Luke, aren’t able to wipe away the Yuuzhan Vong like they could with the Superpower of the Week. Our understanding of the Force changed; our understanding of who the villains and who the heroes are changed. And even at the very end, the characters (and most definitely the readers) probably have a lot in common with Frodo Baggins in Return of the King: how can you go back to a peaceful galaxy with all the trauma you’ve experienced in the recent past? In a sense, NJO changed everything we had grown comfortable and, yes, complacent with in the Bantam era.
People have complained up one way and down the next about how they hate NJO. How they felt it was too dark, too many people died, and too realistic. “We read Star Wars for entertainment, not to be depressed,” was their cry. We are all entitled to our opinions, but I have to wonder how they would feel when the Bantam formula eventually wore down on them as it did on me. How long would it take before the naysayers of the NJO would eventually grow tired with Bantam’s perpetually evil Empire, invulnerable heroes, and single, disconnected entries and would clamor for something a little grittier, a little more realistic, and a little more different? Even with the flaws—the uneven flow, the unseen Yuuzhan Vong wins, the character setbacks, the plot holes, and the shallow characters—I found the series to be insightful, to be interesting, and to be different.
Ending the NJO is like “leaving on a jetplane”: you really don’t know “when you’ll be back again”, but you know that you are going to miss the crazy relatives that you have spent the last few days, weeks, months, years with like mad. And, ultimately, that is how I feel at the end: I am waving goodbye to friends and family before I board the plane away to the Maker knows where.
Obviously, if you are a completist, read all 19 books:
Vector Prime > Onslaught > Ruin > Hero's Trial > Jedi Eclipse > Balance Point > Conquest > Rebirth > Star by Star > Dark Journey > Rebel Dream > Rebel Stand > Traitor > Destiny's Way > Remnant > Refugee > Reunion > The Final Prophecy > The Unifying Force
If you only want to read the best of the NJO (and still get the basic story) read:
Vector Prime > Conquest > Star by Star > Rebel Dream > Rebel Stand > Traitor > Destiny's Way > The Final Prophecy > The Unifying Force
If you want to get an idea of what the story is to move on to Legacy:
Vector Prime > Conquest > Star by Star > Traitor > Destiny's Way > The Final Prophecy > The Unifying Force
If you want to read the books that originally came out in hardcover and were meant to carry the story:
Vector Prime > Balance Point > Star by Star > Destiny's Way > The Unifying Force
[As you can see, Vector Prime is critical to the entire series, though I wouldn't call it the "best" of the NJO]
My Top 5 NJO Books:
3. The Final Prophecy
4. The Unifying Force
5. Onslaught/The Unifying Force