20 June 2012

Book Review | Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover

What makes Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith such an enthralling read isn’t so much the story, but the manner in which it’s told. Make no mistake, whether it’s on the silver screen or on the printed page, Revenge of the Sith is amongst the most alluring Star Wars stories ever told, but those purchasing this book are almost certainly going to have seen the movie, and as such their interest is going to be in what new insights it offers, and whether it can move its reader in the same way that the movie does its viewers. Stover therefore seeks to exploit the power of his medium to the full, on occasion even stripping away any semblance of literary artifice and beginning passages with clear sentences such as “This is how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker right now…”, before exploring those feelings with consummate finesse. This approach brings the tragic theme of the story into sharp focus as, point by point, we witness Anakin’s mind frantically weighing his passions against his duties and the pressures being placed upon him, and then making the only decisions that his personality will allow him to; decisions that will cost him his soul, and ultimately shroud the whole galaxy in darkness.

This framework also allows Stover to lift the veil on various supporting players, whose motives and feelings were masked on screen by what some would argue was a two dimensional façade. Count Dooku, for instance, is a case in point – unless you’ve bothered to read novels such as the preceding Labyrinth of Evil (which explores how much Dooku knows about the double life of his master, Darth Sidious) he can appear ridiculously naïve; even weak-minded. The Revenge of the Sith novelisation, however, expounds upon not only Dooku’s level of knowledge about his master’s double dealings, but his misguidedly upright motives too. He isn’t going into his duel with Anakin and Obi-Wan arrogantly expecting to defeat them both as one would infer from the film - he is going into it intent on forging the young Skywalker into the weapon that his master needs to end the destructive Clone Wars and bring order to galaxy. He just wasn’t banking on getting his head and hands chopped off in the process.

Sidious also benefits from the book’s deeper insight. Stover crafts entirely new scenes for the Sith Lord that peer into the meticulous preparations necessary to execute his plan for galactic domination - in one exquisite passage he bates Anakin’s hunger with the temptation of power and riches, while in another he prepares to frame three approaching Jedi for treason only moments before beheading the first of them. Best of all though, Stover is able to convey the sheer power of Sidious, both corporeal and cerebral - as he battles Mace Windu, ostensibly overpowered, the reader is never left in any doubt as to who’s in control of the situation; as he executes “Order 66”, the final move in his decades-spanning stratagem, it’s made plain to the reader that, in of themselves, the Clone Wars are the real revenge of the Sith.

And like all the greatest novelisations, Stover’s widens its story’s canvas considerably, incorporating a number of plot threads that either found their way onto the cutting room floor, or weren’t even shot to begin with. The Loyalist Committee’s campaign to stop the war, which unconsciously marks the dawn of the Rebel Alliance, accounts for an ample amount of the book’s narrative, and the author also sees fit to restore George Lucas’s controversial ‘jealousy’ plot thread, the excision of which from the movie led to a couple of nonsensical moments - most notably Anakin’s vehemently barked “You were with him!” allegation just before he attacks Obi-Wan on Mustafar. Similarly, Anakin’s apparently disproportionate reaction to the Jedi refusing to grant him the rank of master is given new context here, as Stover makes it clear that there is far more behind Anakin’s impulsive rage than just being on the receiving end of yet another Jedi Council slight.

Certain decisions, however, are sure to inflame readers. The battle of Kashyyyk is barely referenced in the novel, and so the mighty Chewbacca is nowhere to be found within the book’s pages. At first I wondered if this was because that particular set piece was so heavily reliant on the sort of explosive action that fills up a cinema screen, but that can’t be the case as Stover actually lengthens other battles - particularly that over Coruscant - going into immense detail about their minutiae, occasionally at the expense of pace. Moreover, certain shifts of emphasis feel at odds with Stover’s characterisation – as Darth Vader slaughters the Separatists on Mustafar, he is far from being the tear-stained schizophrenic shown on screen and fleshed out in the novel; instead, he makes wise-cracks about his good looks as he carves up his victims, and consciously “assembles his Anakin face” when greeting his wife. To quote the man himself, “There is no conflict.” Qymaen jai Sheelal (General Grievous), meanwhile, bears little semblance to his cinematic character, appearing more concerned with the removal of people’s brains than military strategy. Even his trademark cough isn’t commented upon, which may seem trivial on the face of it, but not when you consider that Grievous is meant to be a shadow of Anakin’s future; a terrifying, wheezing vision of man mangled with machine.

However, such things are more than made up for by the author’s deft weaving of Revenge of the Sith into the expanded Star Wars universe’s lore, blending it seamlessly with the novels that bookend it and even linking it to his own novel, Shatterpoint, in the most edifying of ways as he exposes the shatterpoint of the dark side itself. And for those who dismiss the events of novelisations as being of no consequence, I’d refer them to the author’s October 2006 post in the Jedi Council Forums: “What's in that book is there because Mr Lucas wanted it to be there. What's not in that book is not there because Mr Lucas wanted it gone.” Its dialogue may be different and its emphasis askew, but this book is a part of the fabric of the Star Wars universe, and in my view probably the apotheosis of it.

I can see why Stover was chosen over others to novelise the Star Wars saga’s final, connecting chapter. His prose remains incredibly descriptive despite bordering on the poetic, allowing him to convey the high-octane action of the Revenge of the Sith movie without demeaning the tragedy that sits at its heart. By turns lyrical and gross, this contentious author’s novelisation paints its larger-than-life characters as mythical heroes, documenting their deeds with matchless reverence and poise, and laying their souls bare for all to dissect. Stover’s tale is not one of a man simply seduced by the dark side of the Force, but one of a man with a “dead-star dragon” buried deep in his psyche; a man tormented by love and fear of losing that love; a man that would beget a monster. Lord Vader, rise…

07 June 2012

Book Review | The Hardcore Diaries by Mick Foley

It’s been a decade or so since I tackled Mick Foley’s sequel to the enchantingly irrepressible Have a Nice Day, Foley is Good (and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling), and I haven’t seen any WWE programming since WrestleMania XX eight years ago. However, I enjoyed Foley’s first two memoirs so much that I felt obligated to tackle his third, even if it meant that I would be reading about angles, matches and even a couple of young wrestlers that I knew absolutely nothing about.

As I began to breeze through the opening pages of The Hardcore Diaries, I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake in purchasing it. Unlike Foley’s previous autobiographies, this one is tightly focused on just one storyline, the hardcore legend guiding us through the evolution of one particular angle from his first flash of inspiration all the way up to its payoff several months later at the ECW One Night Stand pay-per-view. Yet despite never having seen the match that the book builds up to, before long I couldn’t tear my attention away from Foley’s zealous and brutally honest musings.

Not having been written with the benefit of hindsight, The Hardcore Diaries offers its readers ‘live’ access to Foley’s thoughts throughout the development of his ‘Edge and Foley versus Terry Funk and Tommy Dreamer’ ECW angle. At times he’s convinced that his idea is going to attain “wrestling immortality” for all those involved, yet at others he’s wishing that he’d never limped out of retirement to debase his legacy as the input of others has left his vision for One Night Stand so diluted and embarrassingly anodyne.

This book offers extraordinary insight into the inner workings of WWE, delving into the scripting process (and the politics that go hand in hand with it) in as much depth as some of the most illuminating wrestling exposés, but with a much more personable feel that Foley’s writing – and it is Foley’s writing, not some ghost’s (as is evidenced by a handful of editorially-overlooked typos) – can’t help but engender. The trade-off is that many of the diary entries lack the structure and direction of Have a Nice Day and Foley is Good, Foley’s thoughts often going off on as many tangents as an Al Snow promo.

As the diary entries themselves couldn’t sustain the book’s word count on their own, they are complemented by a superlative selection of Foley’s blogs written in the time between the publication of Foley is Good and The Hardcore Diaries. These are tactically strewn throughout the book, offering the reader a little reprieve from Foley’s frustrations about his ECW angle (and more often than not, those derailing it; Mr McMahon amongst them) and allowing the one-eared Long Islander to broach a number of ostensibly unrelated topics, such as his (then only mooted) dalliance with TNA; his ventures into the world of fiction; the good friends that he’s gained through his charity work; and, most memorably, his harrowing trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter unwittingly proves to be one of the book’s highlights (or, indeed, lowlights), as Foley describes his unwillingness to adopt a desperate young child who’s been horrifically injured in an (entirely avoidable) domestic accident. It’s in moments like these that Foley sets himself apart from his peers – there is no pretence; no self-aggrandising agenda. He knows deep down that the right thing to do would be to adopt this child, take him back to States and use his good standing to try to help him salvage something of a life, but instead he just says “I can’t” – knowing full well that he really means “I won’t”. Why? Because for all of his hellacious feats; all of his championship reigns; and all of his uncanny abilities to win cheap pops through anthropomorphosised socks and location-based flattery, Mick Foley is only human - and that’s what makes his sincere scribblings such a pleasure to read.

And so it seems that, even if you haven’t kept up with WWE programming for a very long time, Foley is still good – and the real world is still faker than wrestling; heart-breakingly so, in fact. We may now live in a world overpopulated by superstar autobiographies, most of which contain so little of note it’s astounding that they’ve managed to fill up a whole book, but Mick Foley has now managed to fill up three hefty hardback tomes - and I get the feeling that we’ve still barely scratched the surface with him.