Review – Hope and Darkness Collide in From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back changed Star Wars and after the curtain fell in 1980, a new layer of mysticism floated over the burgeoning saga. It’s easy for fans of a certain age (I’m one of them) to forget this was only the second film in the saga. The first to shake chronology and don the “Episode V” moniker, The Empire Strikes Back did the earliest heavy lifting of the mythology George Lucas and other writers would craft in the forty-years following. It’s a fitting tribute that many of those writers have returned to pay homage to this Star Wars watershed moment in Del Rey’s From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back.
When George Lucas set out to make Star Wars 2, he’d gained the trust of the public and Hollywood. The sandbox of Star Wars was rich with enthusiasm from the success of A New Hope but George had bigger plans for stories beyond laser swords and deadly battle stations. The Empire Strikes Back carries a tone much different from it’s predecessor, painting the galaxy far, far away as a wondrous and dangerous place. The Empire Strikes Back is a continued story of hope in the face of the darkest, deadliest adversaries. Whether it’s the AT-AT behemoths or the dark visage of Sith Lords, corporeal and imaginary, our heroes run the gauntlet. The story begins with crushing defeat and ends with no clear resolution, just the beautiful and terrible questions posed by those in the slipstream of it’s story.
From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back allows fans to give those asking pause and also points out the questions (and some answers) many of us may have overlooked. It’s a beautiful, collective meditation on a beloved story conducted by forty different authors – many of whom have already contributed their own stories to the Star Wars mythology. This book follows the chronology of it’s source material, beginning on the ice planet Hoth and ending on a star cruiser, gazing out as the Millennium Falcon roars into the infinity in search of her lost captain.
The first stories in this collection delve into everything Hoth. An exploration of the tundra through the eyes of an eager Imperial officer grateful to see it through her probe-droid avatar begins our journey around Hoth in Kiersten White’s “Eyes of the Empire”. There are so many dueling perceptions of Hoth but all of them come to similar conclusions the planet is much more than a frozen rock floating in space. “Hunger” by Mark Oshiro, which felt like an homage to Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, tells the story of the wampa trying to find his family after being separated from them after the Rebels displaced them, while at the same time finding food to stay alive for hope. Not only do we learn the Rebels displaced a wampa clan from their home to build Echo Base, we learn more about the work going into finding a suitable location for the Rebel sanctuary in “A Naturalist on Hoth” by Hank Green.
These stories, told from the wondrous eyes of those who glimpsed Hoth for the first time or the creatures who endured it’s unforgiving climate, rank among my favorite in the collection. I never needed to know the thoughts of Han’s tauntaun just before she rode to her death until I read Delilah S. Dawson’s “She Will Keep Them Warm”. Not everyone finds beauty in the endless cold.
The inhabitants of Echo Base have their own stories to tell. Whether it’s Toryn Farr questioning her belief in the Rebellion in “Ion Control” by Emily Skrutskie or Chase Wilsor finding courage and a kiss of his own in “A Good Kiss” by C.B. Lee, there is a lot going on behind the shield doors once they close. None of the Rebels have any illusion about the dire circumstances their cause finds itself in. Even before the Empire attacks, the inevitable dread they feel, knowing it’s only a matter of time before they must face their enemy, is an undercurrent in each character. In Amy Ratcliffe’s “Heroes of the Rebellion”, journalist Corwi Selgrothe finds the heroes often hidden in the shadows of legends like Luke and Leia, doing what they can amidst the fear and cold to keep the Rebellion alive for one more day. Dak Ralter reckons with the shadows of his brutal life inside an Imperial prison while preparing to be the gunner Luke and the Rebellion need in “Against All Odds” by R.F. Kuang.
As the Battle of Hoth begins, the stories of Rebellion heroes and Imperial psychosis converge. From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back tells a dark tale of the psychology of fear deployed from the top down to shred any disloyalty in its ranks. Stories like “Rogue Two” by Gary Whitta, about pilot Zev Senesca recalling the hope he feels as he combs the snow in search of Luke and Han, are contrasted by nightmarish and tragic tales of regret and loyalty so blinding it blocks out the light of humanity. “Kendal” by Charles Yu, tells the story of Admiral Ozzel and the life he can barely remember because he’s become so complicit in the womp rat race of the Imperial hierarchy, only to have it fill his mind as he’s choked to death by Darth Vader. “The Final Order” by Seth Dickinson tells of an officer who realizes all the terrible ideals the Empire preaches will build nothing, only a morally devoid grip of terror on the galaxy.
And there are stories like “The Truest Duty” by Christie Golden, giving us a look inside General Veers’ mind so hyper focused on pleasing Vader he’s adapted his own psychology to run parallel to his imagined impressions of the Sith Lord. Veers is a delusional madman walking around calmly in an Imperial uniform, ready to plow through whatever might stand in the way of Darth Vader’s intentions. The newly minted Admiral Piett lets us into his mind and his Chess-like tactics to win the long game of rising to the top of the Empire in “For the Last Time” by Beth Revis. These officers have embraced the Imperial mantra and the grip Palpatine continues to tighten on the galaxy. Some officers are ambivalent, like the namesake of “Amara Kel’s Rules for TIE Pilot Survival (Probably)” by Django Wexler, in a very entertaining crash course on what it’s like to be a TIE Pilot (don’t ever eject seems to be the golden rule).
The stories of Rebellion heroes and aspiring Imperial tyrants illustrate two very different perceptions of a shared truth: the galaxy is changing and both sides are terrified of who will emerge victorious. While those in the Rebellion look for hope and a new day for all who suffer under tyranny, the Imperial officers fight a war of their own amongst the ranks of tyranny. The Rebellion is looking to restore empathy, justice, and common good to a galaxy in which those things have passed into legend. Those in the Empire can’t see past one day of it’s operating, only steering giant monoliths of a soulless autocracy to shred any good left in the galaxy. The battle for both sides never looked more bleak than in these stories.
The collection of stories slowly shifts from the physical war into the spiritual one which Luke Skywalker has found himself in. “The First Lesson” by Jim Zub introduces us to Yoda, as he feels Luke’s imminent arrival. The Jedi Master has long watched both Skywalker twins and really hoped Leia would be the one finding her way to him. Yoda sees so much of Anakin in Luke, noticing the absence of Padmé’s grace and patience for the long, slow battles he will need the next generation of Jedi to fight. Yoda is a being in a sort of purgatory between peace and the regrets of his own hubris, but accepts the nature of being present in the Force. We learn Obi-Wan has communed extensively with Yoda through the Force in “There Is Always Another” by Mackenzi Lee, and while sharing Yoda’s concerns, believes Luke is capable. Both Jedi Masters dwell on their failures of not blindly following Jedi dogma into war and repressing the natural humanity within those who served the Force. These stories were among my favorite in the collection.
With powerful stories of light there come powerful stories of darkness. In “Vergence” by Tracy Deonn, we learn the Cave of Evil is itself a vergence in the Force, which has drawn Force-users to it across time and space. Like all good villains, the cave does not think of itself as evil, only a test for those who may be worthy to withstand the nightmares it conjures from the psyche of those who dare enter. It’s a very interesting story, especially when the cave realizes it may have been a force for good in showing Luke his potential for darkness.
And I’ll never watch this contact between Vader and Palpatine the same way again after reading “Disturbance” by Mike Chen. Palpatine dives deep into the Force when he feels Luke’s power growing. At this point, he’s unaware Luke is the son of Anakin and Padmé, and the vision he finds straight from the conflicted mind of his apprentice reveals the endgame Vader has in mind. Not just a vision of overthrowing his master but the galaxy Vader and Luke will make, and his last connection to Padmé. Though From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back isn’t focused on canonical connections, this lines up with the extensive look into Vader’s journey fans have been treated to via the three Marvel comic series. Up until this story, we haven’t been sure how privy Palpatine was to Vader’s plot, but this tells us he knew everything up until his first death in Return of the Jedi.
And don’t worry…the chase to capture the Millennium Falcon is not overlooked. From the biography of an exogorth in “This is No Cave” by Catherynne M. Valente to Elthree’s communion with Threepio “Faith In An Old Friend” by Brittany M. Williams, the chase is just as relentless in this collection as it is in the film. Between the refuge sought in an asteroid field to their final destination in Cloud City, we also get a pretty decent collection of bounty hunter stories. As to be expected, Boba Fett is among the tales in Zoraida Córdova’s “Wait For It”, but the most illuminating one is an unexpected family reunion Boskk has while tracking Wookiee refugees in “Tooth and Claw” by Michael Kogge.
As we know, in The Empire Strikes Back, all roads lead to Cloud City. What’s interesting here is we know Darth Vader and his enforcers arrived before Leia and Han but we never really heard Lando’s side of it. In “But What Does He Eat?” by S.A. Chakraborty it’s hinted Lando had a plan all along. I always assumed he had some intention of getting Han back but figured it was impromptu. Lando did his best to present the illusion of subservience to Darth Vader but he’s trying to get the Sith Lord to lower his guard. Luckily for Lando, Luke Skywalker will drive the dark lord to distraction so he can get out of the city. “Bespin Escape” by Martha Wells also elaborates on the bondage ugnaughts faced throughout the galaxy and the opportunity Imperial chaos presented for two of them to escape. Another great story of a stormtrooper turning for good in Adam Christopher’s “The Witness”, after she witnesses the battle between Vader and Luke, as well as her own growing disdain for the Empire.
By the time we’ve departed Cloud City and rejoined the Rebel fleet, Lydia Kang’s “Right Hand Man” gives us a nearly perfect conclusion to the collection. It’s a long conversation between Luke and the medical droid fitting his artificial hand, 2-1B. Luke’s clearly traumatized from his duel with Vader and a revelation he is reconciling may be true. The droid sees Luke’s injury as an evolution and reassures him he didn’t lose a hand, he’s just changing as every other being in the galaxy does, organic or droid. It’s another wonderful bridge extended between the artificial and organic beings in a galaxy far, far away.
And once again, this collection ends where the whole story began, all the hope poured into one little droid who would change the galaxy. Tom Angleberger writes “The Whills Strike Back” and I’m very interested to hear what other fans think of that. Especially the crossover of another Star franchise.
There are plenty of other stories and characters who pop-up in this collection. Commodore Rae Sloane is not the least of whom, featured in John Jackson Miller’s “Lord Vader Will See You Now”, cementing her role in the future of the Empire and after the Battle of Endor. Jaxxon makes an appearance in Cavan Scott’s “Fake It Till You Make It”. And a very good story about Dengar and IG-88, who got close to the Han Solo bounty but not quick enough, in “No Time for Poetry” by Austin Walker. To convey the tone of the book, I chose a few of my favorites but I don’t doubt there is something for everyone in this collection.
From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back is massive. At 561-pages, it’s easily the thickest Star Wars book on my shelf. Some of the stories tread the line of being redundant but the distinct writing of each author makes each story feel fresh. I urge readers to take their time with this book. Due to deadlines I had to read through this a little faster than I would’ve liked. This is definitely a Star Wars book to be savored, especially since most readers will be very familiar with the content. And if you have a younger fan in your household who’s just discovered The Empire Strikes Back, each story would make excellent reading in a slower pace.
The spirit and love which went into The Empire Strikes Back feels renewed in these pages. Perhaps some of these authors were there in the theater, forty-years ago. Maybe others didn’t even know The Empire Strikes Back was a continuation of the stories they fell in love with while growing up on the prequels. However these authors came to Star Wars, the joy and affection all of us feel toward this film is something I’ve no doubt they share. From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back fortifies the magic of finding out the Force is in all of us and there is hope even in the greatest darkness.
Also, beginning today, a three-day virtual event presented by The University Bookstore (Seattle, Washington) and Del Rey. Many of the contributing authors will take part in the event, discussing their stories. On a personal note, I used to live a few blocks from this bookstore and it’s one of the best, especially their author events. Find more information here.
Special thanks to Del Rey for the advanced copy used for this review. From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back is available at your local bookstore and online retailers.