Review: Crucible by Troy Denning

Crucible by Troy Denning is a bookend of sorts. It’s not the dramatic conclusion to the Expanded Universe that many fans hypothesized, but it is sort of an end-point for Luke, Han and Leia. As such, expectations for this book are high, and that’s only natural for a book of such importance for the Big Three. Because of the importance of this book, my review is going to run a bit longer than it normally would. As an additional note, we’re also going to roundtable discuss this book on the podcast this week, so we’ll be able to hash out some additional thoughts that Bria and I couldn’t quite fit into our written reviews.

There’s a lot of things I wanted to touch on here so without further ado, to the review. Be warned, spoilers loom below the cut.

“Normal” heroes need not apply

One of the more frustrating aspects of this book was how often Denning seemed to condescend towards non-Jedi characters. There were several instances where both Luke and Ben outright state to Lando that he can’t help because he doesn’t have The Force and Jedi combat training. Because of that, Lando needs to hang behind so he doesn’t get hurt and won’t get in the way of the Real Heroes.

It’s sort of been a hallmark of Denning’s writing style dating back at least as far as Dark Nest. If you’re not a Jedi or you don’t at least have some sort of connectivity to the Force, you need to step aside and let the mysterious robed wonders handle the job. I struggle so much whenever I read one of these lines in a Denning book because it’s at such odds with the source material. Can you imagine Luke Skywalker saying this to, say, Wedge Antilles? Someone Luke served with during the Civil War, someone who regularly displayed the ability to get the job done without having access to the Force?

Of course not. Which makes saying it to Lando all the more baffling.

These lines and, by extension, this book have one very dire adverse side effect on the Galaxy Far, Far, Away. It actively makes the universe smaller and more insular. Denning’s perspective appears to be that the characters that are worthy of page time are characters that have a connection to the Force. Anyone else is just ancillary filler to get from Point A to Point B.

Part of the beauty of the Star Wars mythos is that, while the Jedi are neat, there are all sorts of other heroes that can rise to the occasion despite not having access to the Force. There’s evidence of this in just about every era. Look at the soldiers and rebels from The Clone Wars. Look at every pilot from the Original Trilogy. Look at the X-Wing novels. To say that they would be no help and would get in the way when trouble arises just because they can’t draw upon the Force is an unfortunate misunderstanding of one of the key elements of this franchise.

Anyone can be a hero and get the job done. Not just the Jedi.

Problematic treatment of female characters

There was no reason for Savara Raine–I mean, Vestara Khai–to be in this book. Although considering the character derailment she had in FotJ: Apocalypse, I shouldn’t have been overly surprised by what Denning did to her here. It’s bad enough that on the surface she’s presented as a dull, cardboard cutout evildoer. What’s worse is the realization that she really exists in this book to be lusted after in detail by a creepy old alien. In Crucible, Vestara comes off as being a conduit for male fantasies rather than a useful part of the plot.

I have similar complaints on how Mirta Gev was used. She didn’t come off as a capable Mandalorian from the Fett bloodline. Instead, she seemed to be there only to be a sex object in a slinky black dress for a huge number of pages. Worse, neither of these characters were shown to be particularly good at their jobs. So what are they here for beyond being creeped on by other characters?

Then there’s the throwaway line in which one of the Qrephs oogled over Leia in a sexy form-fitting flightsuit. It’s getting to the point where it feels like borderline (or maybe even outright) objectification from Denning. We saw incredibly casual mentions of her attractiveness that bordered on creepy in Star by Star, Swarm War, Invincible, and now Crucible. 

I don’t want people to think I’m a prude that believes sexuality has no place in Star Wars (go read Han’s description of Leia in Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor for how to do this right), but there comes a point where we cross a line from describing her beauty to just being creepy. This was another instance of the latter. We get it. Leia’s attractive. Leave it at that and stop venturing into this weird fetishization territory and justifying it by having it happen through the eyes of an antagonist.

Overall, the use of female characters in this book leaves a lot to be desired and is one of the more disheartening aspects of the novel. The impression I got was that if you were a notable female character in this book, you were there mostly to be lusted after by other characters and to be dressed up in sexy outfits for the male reading audience’s benefit.

The Force as a crutch, hindrance

There was a part of me that began to actively resent the Force while I was reading through this book. As mentioned earlier, it was used as an excuse to sideline Lando and anyone else that might not have the privilege of being a Jedi. That was fairly disheartening. In Crucible, the Force simply is the be-all and end-all to the characters, plot, and universe. You’re nothing without it and you’re everything with it.

Unfortunately, when you lean on the mystical powers of the Force as much as Denning does in Crucible, it creates some big storytelling obstacles.

Dating back to Dark Nest, Denning’s use of the Force with characters is somewhat akin to a video game. Specifically, a video game in which you’ve gotten into the debug screen and turned on God mode. The Jedi characters under his watch are so overpowered and invincible that Denning has to go out of his way to cripple them to even the odds. Yes, actually cripple them.

There’s a lot of reasons that Crucible is tough to read, but one of the biggest reasons is that it borders in torture porn at times. Luke, Han, and Leia are maimed, tortured, and bloodied in this book. Then they heal up and are maimed, tortured, and bloodied again. We’re talking busted ribs, mangled bodies, multiple and deep lacerations and burns, and lost eyes. Yes, lost eyes. As near as I can figure, Denning has to resort to this because he either can’t or is unwilling to temper how powerfully he writes the Force.

Because the Force as Denning writes it allows Luke and Leia to essentially type IDDQD* before every battle sequence, Denning has to even the odds by crippling them. Repeatedly. In jarring and sometimes disgusting fashion. That leads to entirely too many scenes that will cause too many readers to get squeamish over.

*Google it

I do get that this is tie-in fiction for a film franchise that has a running tally on lightsaber-induced-limb-dismemberment, but Crucible goes to that well entirely too often and with entirely too much detail. And don’t take this as me tsk-tsking violence in media, either. The level of bloody horror in this book felt more like Game of Thrones rather than Star Wars.

But of course, if you’re going to write the Force as being all-powerful and unbeatable like it’s presented in Crucible, I guess you really don’t have much of a choice other than to repeatedly cripple the characters in horrific fashion to ensure they’re not too unrealistic.

The (lack of) buildup

This is a book that couldn’t seem to decide what it wants to be. For a chapter or two, it appeared to be setting itself up as at least an okay adventure tale. Then it descended into a Michael Bay-esque action romp. Then the last twenty or so pages happened and it tried to become 2001 but succeeded only at being bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. It was the sort of strange twist readers have come to expect from a Denning novel. They can’t just be adventures, they always have to be bigger, stranger, and more mystical.

Unfortunately, this is a twist that doesn’t really seem to serve the story that well. You could have had the Big Three solve the case and save the day and decide that over the course of this final adventure, enough was enough.Their bones had taken enough abuse and it was time to turn the task of being the Big Damn Heroes over to a new generation

But instead, it took an inexplicable act of the Force in a strange, inexplicable setting that may be Mortis (but probably isn’t) to convince Luke that it was time to hang ‘em up.

For all of his years and experience, Luke Skywalker just doesn’t seem to be that wise of a character under Denning’s command. You would hope that over the course of time and as Luke’s Jedi Order grows in strength, he would have been able to reach the conclusion himself that it was time to step away and let others carry the torch. Instead, it took some strange Force-induced possession for him to realize it.

There was no character introspection throughout this book leading up to the decision to retire. No buildup and gradual realization that Luke, Han, and Leia’s best years were behind them and maybe it was time to step aside. Instead of a book that could have featured a great and perhaps final bit of character development, the retirement comes out of left field thanks to some amnesia-style weirdness in maybe-but-probably-not-Mortis.

It’s disappointing that there was precious little in the way of character moments where Han, Luke, and Leia may have been thinking about exiting stage left. Throughout the entire book, they just go along, business as usual, showing no signs of slowing down. So why retire? Why pull that out of thin air instead of building up to it? Because the Force, I guess. That seems to be the rationale for just about everything in this book.

The Big Three retiring could have been such a profound moment. Instead, it feels like just a tacked on thought at the end of the book. Nothing was building up to it. The whole thing just feels flat, anticlimactic, and hollow. Once again, it’s because Denning can’t get away from using the Force as an excuse to write stories that are too grand and too large in scope for their own good. A book like this needed restraint to succeed, and there simply wasn’t any to be found.

Being sold one thing, getting another

When Crucible was announced and pitched to fans at San Diego Comic Con last year, the heavy implication was that this was going to be a standalone, Big Three adventure. Sure, I was skeptical about the pitch, but I can’t deny that the prospect of a book that actually let Luke, Han, and Leia do something together was enticing. One grand, final Big Three adventure!

If only we had actually gotten that book instead of this one.

Luke, Han, and Leia don’t actually spend that much time together on-page. There are scattered moments near the start and end, but for the bulk of the book, Han is split off from the rest of the group so he can spend some quality time in a torture rig the Qrephs put together for him. So much for the Big Three getting back together for one last hurrah.

It’s also problematic that this book really isn’t actually an accessible standalone. It once again falls into Denning’s usual style of tying itself heavily into previous works and favored plot points. Once again, we’ve got Mortis front-and-center. If you haven’t read Fate of the Jedi and you haven’t seen The Clone Wars, it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to pick this up and understand large chunks of what’s going on. There’s even a critical tie-in to a choose-your-own adventure story Denning penned two decades ago that was so critical to the plot (see below), I thought I had missed a few books of grave importance over the years.

This book simply isn’t accessible to readers that aren’t intimately familiar with the last seven years of Star Wars publishing. It’s barely accessible to Expanded Universe fans who have been keeping up with the EU. It’s one thing if it were some EU-specific characters last hurrah, but given that this is the Big Three, this book needed to be much more approachable than it was. It needed to divorce itself from the minutiae of the last seven years of publishing and focus first and foremost on telling an engaging story. Denning failed to do that, and Crucible suffered heavily as a consequence. Many readers are going to pick this book up and will be forced to have an open browser tab on Wookieepedia.

Assorted Thoughts

I’ve got a smattering of other notes I’d taken while I was reading through this, so let’s just hit them up in bullet point format.

  • Crucible is an unfortunate continuation of Denning’s darker, grimmer Luke Skywalker. Early on in the book, he seriously contemplates tossing a young student out of the Jedi Order for having too quick a temper. He’s only stopped by Corran Horn pointing out that kicking the student out isn’t exactly the most compassionate thing Luke could do. Luke begrudgingly agrees. This whole sequence seems like it’s at such odds with the Luke Skywalker of the films that firmly believed Darth Frakking Vader could be redeemed.

  • I was very confused about the Qrephs. Apparently they’re the offspring of a Columi character that appeared in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book Denning penned for West End Games in 1990. It’s certainly an odd choice to use them, but where things really went sideways is that they were presented as if the readers were already aware of their (and their late mother’s) backstory. I thought I had missed a book or five along the line to have completely missed who the devil these characters were and why they were so important. Instead, it was because I hadn’t read Scoundrel’s Luck. I suspect a number of other readers haven’t either and are going to be just as baffled as I was.

  • If you like action in heavy doses without breaks, you’ll like this book. If that’s not your thing, you may find yourself skimming decent sized chunks of it. For my reading palate, I felt that a number of the action sequences did run a few pages too long and could have been condensed to improve flow and pacing throughout.

  • Ben shows up, which is neat. He’s working with Tahiri, which is… odd and incredibly problematic. Especially given their interactions during Legacy of the Force when Tahiri outright molested an underage Ben. There’s no reason for Tahiri to be in this book. Denning could have taken the opportunity to create a new character who was around Ben’s age, but for some reason he decided that Ben and Tahiri working together was a grand idea. Unfortunately if you read LotF, it just comes across as vaguely creepy at best.

  • I’m certain there’s other instances of non-Force sensitive characters (or in this case, biots) being imbued with the Force and becoming Force sensitive, but that doesn’t excuse it happening in this book. It’s a somewhat uninspired idea that, once again, plays into Denning’s seeming dismissal of any character that doesn’t wield the Force.

  • The final two chapters feature some Force strangeness that might just put Waru to shame as far as being inexplicably bizarre. Luke “dies,” has some sort of weird Force-vision in which he goes through key moments of his life, then realizes somewhere in there that it’s time to retire. As I mentioned earlier, the justification for just about everything in this book is “Because the Force” and this was no exception.

  • Speaking of Luke’s “death,” as he’s having an out of body experience and flashing through his life’s iconic moments, his dearly beloved and deceased wife doesn’t cross his thoughts once.

The Wrap

Crucible isn’t a book completely devoid of merits There are generally fun and amusing scenes scattered throughout. It is, however, a book that falls well short of expectations. I can’t in good conscience say that this is a satisfying bookend for Luke, Han, and Leia. It leaves so much to be desired in its execution. When you boil it down, it’s only a Big Three book on the surface. It’s not an acceptable or respectful ending for them.

It’s merely a coda for Denning’s other works dating back to the Dark Nest Trilogy.

A final adventure for the Big Three could have been filled with wonderful character introspection and growth. Events and reflection leading to the ultimate realization that it’s time to step aside. Instead, this book was much more event-driven than it was character-driven. Throughout it simply felt like an exercise on getting from one action sequence to the next with precious little reflection in between and a sudden and seemingly tacked on declaration of retirement at the end.

It’s hyperbolic to say that Crucible is the lowest-ranked Expanded Universe novel I’ve ever read. I admit that I struggled with this review for weeks because I felt like I had to do better at finding more redeeming values in it, but ultimately I’m hard pressed to think of a more problematic, poorly thought out, and poorly executed book than this one. Still, while it’s not the worst EU book ever, it carries the dubious distinction of being the most disappointing to me. This is a novel that could have and (given the characters involved) should have been better than it was. At the very least, it needed to be more respectful to three of the cornerstone characters in the franchise. I don’t know where things went wrong. Perhaps it’s impossible to expect a satisfying end for the Big Three given the continuity baggage this far into the EU. Perhaps there’s simply no way at all to craft a satisfying retirement tale for them, leaving Denning to contend with an utterly impossible task. I just don’t know.

What I do know is that there were too many instances where Crucible was at odds with the source materials in the films. Too often characters like Luke were completely unrecognizable, having strayed so far from the idealistic and hopeful farmboy from Tatooine. Too often the philosophy and themes didn’t line up, such as Luke’s reluctant acceptance that just maybe he should show more compassion to a young student to the implication that you only matter if you’re a Jedi. Save for an epilogue that attempts to recreate the feel of the final scene in The Unifying Force, this book struggled to capture the tone and magic of the franchise. It veered so far from the source that the characters and themes are barely recognizable as Star Wars.

I realized as I was putting this review together and sorting through my thoughts that I’ve said all of this before. I said that Fate of the Jedi and Legacy of the Force felt at odds with the spirit of Star Wars. Here’s Crucible, and it’s the same issues manifesting again. This was a book that was going to have to hit it out of the park to be a fulfilling endpoint for Luke, Han, and Leia. More of the same just wasn’t going to cut it. I set this book down feeling like it was an underwhelming and uninspired end point for them. What should have been a more intimate character-driven story was just another novel that makes you think that perhaps the flagship storylines of the Expanded Universe aren’t really Star Wars anymore, they’ve gone off and become their own thing.

Crucible could have been something truly special, but instead it fell short of just about everything it set out to do. That’s perhaps the most disappointing and frustrating thing of all. If this is the best the Expanded Universe can muster for three of the most important characters in the entire franchise, then it’s time to bring on Episode VII and open up new storytelling opportunities.

I give Crucible 1.5/5 and recommend it only to Expanded Universe completionists.

Be sure to also read Bria’s review.

Note: Thank you to Random House and Net Galley for providing an advance copy to review.

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5 Responses to Review: Crucible by Troy Denning

  1. Rashad says:

    I believe Matthew Stover had once expressed interest in writing "The Final Adventure," and I weep for what could have been. Why Troy Denning has essentially been captaining the Legacy Era is beyond me. Why not Aaron Allston, or Stover, or John Jackson Miller, or for god's sake anybody who knows how to write Star Wars? Does Denning work for free, or something?
    If this is what the editors at Lucasfilm and Del Rey are letting through now, then yes, it's time for the Sequels to take over. I think it's been time since Legacy of the Force. Because Denning can't shoulder all the blame, he doesn't get the final say on what does and doesn't make it to publishing.

    On the bright side, this'll probably be the last post-RotJ EU book for a long while, and odds are once Episode VII rolls around, we can all forget it ever happened.

  2. Tommy Amundsen says:

    To much explaining and not enough character focus.Luke as always is way to weak as to what he should be. To many boring side characters with to much boring side talking, were is the fun of the big 3 beeing together on a advanture ? lando, tahiri, ben, bvestara is ok to have in but the rest of them is given to much time in long talking scenes.Also vestara is not very sith like, more like a bountyhunter.Vestara should focus on her on power to rule others not getting powers over others to rule.I always enjoy luke the most in the EU but he is never given justice,according to lucas he would be 200% more poweful then yoda and sidious, in EU is is only a jedi not the grand master.

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  4. Pingback: Love it? Hate it? Here are the Crucible reviews

  5. Aleja says:

    I just found this review. I was never going to read this book, but to know it's THIS bad? Not that I expected anything less from Troy ("I'm an RPG designer, dammit, not a novelist!") Denning. If it's not a scene that can't be played with a roll of the die, Denning can't write or even conceive of it. I'm not surprised Mara doesn't feature in Luke's "death." Denning would have to have a modicum of writer's empathy and a basic understanding of character arc is for him to conceive of it. And it's blatantly obvious that his idea of characterization is to torture and hobble characters in lieu of anything resembling actual development.

    Oh Disney, please oh please kill the EU in the new films. Please. Pretty pretty please with Space Mountain on top. I will always have the Timothy Zahn books, and Stackpole's & Allston's X-Wing series. They aren't going away. They are on my bookshelf, on my Kindle, in my memory. The EU ended at Survivor's Quest for me, anyway.

    But please, I beg you, o Mouse of Mickey, please stick a fork in the EU books and call them toast. And never let Troy Denning near this franchise ever again.

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