Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: (NJO) Agents of Chaos I: Hero's Trial by James Luceno


* Warning! Star Wars EU spoilers! *

I first attempted to read the New Jedi Order series in high school ... and it didn't go well. The reason, I've found out, is that the audiobook of the first novel, Vector Prime, is catastrophically abridged. Earlier this year, I got back into Star Wars, so I decided to try NJO again. I had better results -- Vector Prime is readable, but not great. It serves as a setup for the rest of the series. The Dark Tide duology was much better, though it seemed to contain a little too much "monster-of-the-week" type adventures for the characters. So I went into Hero's Trial -- the first book in James Luceno's Agents of Chaos duology -- cautiously optimistic that the upward trend would continue.

Hero's Trial gives us the first real glimpse of the NJO Han Solo, dealing with the aftermath of Chewbacca's death. In the Dark Tide books, he's almost unbearably emo; it's understandable, but not necessarily ideal for a story. It's good to see Han back in his element here. He's upset and slightly more low-key in certain areas, but it works for the kind of characterization that Luceno uses here. Han is still too standoffish with his family for my tastes. I kind of wish that Luceno went in a different direction than the cliche middle-age crisis (though Han fiddling with having an affair would be interesting!), but there are only a few moments in the book where I found myself rolling my eyes.

The big picture seems to be fairly inconsequential until the very end. A Yuzhang Vong priestess, Elan, and her familiar, Vergere, decide to act as defectors to trick the Jedi into a meeting, where Elan can slaughter the lot of them. This defection eventually attracts some unsavory characters, who, of course, have connections to Han (what unsavory SW character doesnt?). This defection leads the Galactic Alliance and Han Solo to (separately) track the defectors and fend off Vong. There's a pretty big conflict at the end, with about four or five separate groups fighting for different things. It's exciting, but starts to strain credulity when the Vong begin fighting against their own fake defectors being returned to them.

One of the best new additions that Hero's Trial introduces is Droma, a male Ryn (new species, looks a bit like an older, but not ancient, Dark Elf) . Droma, in Chewbacca's absence, is the perfect foil for Han. He's smart, slightly sarcastic (but not annoyingly so), and mystical if not superstitious. He doesn't put up with Han's crap, which is exactly what he needs at this point in the story. Of course, Leia would probably be even better in this position -- but so far, NJO has been pretty unwilling to have her do anything of consequence.

Overall, Hero's Trial is a good read -- not great, but not bad either. I'm still waiting for that killer book: one that connects on every level, and makes me say wow. But for now, it's entertaining and continues the SW story. I'll give it a 3/5.


Monday, September 15, 2008

The Certainty of Chance

Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time. That was the lesson of the day. Evolution was a theory — so was gravity. Technically, nothing about physics was certain. Mrs. Miller told the class that, theoretically, it was possible that one of the students could shove a pencil through a desk. Nora spent the rest of the period testing that hypothesis.


Nora's English teacher was sick, so she got a free period. Nora “freed” herself from the school and headed home. The day wasn't over, and "expect the unexpected" wasn't confined to physics. She learned that when she got home and found her brother and his girlfriend having sex on the couch. They sprinted to his room before Nora could say anything, and the girl left soon afterward.


The incident made dinner even more awkward than normal. Her mom was absent, as usual. Thursday was surgery day, which meant all the doctors and nurses in the center had to stay until the anesthesia had worn off in the last patient. Her dad started eating as soon as he got home, without changing out of his suit. They had the rest of the lasagna from the night before. The cottage cheese standing in for ricotta always tasted like dry lumps of dirt after a trip through the microwave.


“How was school?” Her dad asked.


“Fine,” Nora replied. “I got an A on my first calc homework.”


“Good.” He turned to Mark, her brother. “What about you? Did you find a job?”


Mark shook his head. “No, not yet.”


“Why not? Did you just sit on your ass all day like always?”


Mark looked at Nora, but she kept my mouth shut. “No. I talked to John. They might have an opening for a painter. Part-time at first, but...”


“Great, part time. Fuck. I swear to God, if you don't find a real job in a month, we're going to start charging you rent. I'm sick and tired of you freeloading.”


“Wonderful,” said Mark, trying his best to appear unfazed.


“Look at your sister. She works hard in school, she knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. She's going to be a CEO while you're still living with your God damn parents.”


Mark didn't speak, so Nora chimed in. “I made an appointment with a counselor for tomorrow. We're going to go over college stuff, I guess. I think it's pointless, but the school requires it.” Nora's father seemed to accept that, and went back to eating his dinner.


Nora volunteered to do the dishes, in hopes that her brother would mellow out a little. No such luck.


“A perfect student, a hard worker. Really working Dad today, aren't you.”


“Shut up. If you want to wash these, you're more than welcome.”


“No thanks. I'll let it slide since you're keeping our little secret.”


She smiled as politely as she could. “No problem. Speaking of which, I'll need a ride to Sarah's tomorrow afternoon. And probably again this week. It's not like you have anything better to do.” Other than your slut girlfriend, she thought to myself.


“Fine,” he said. “But if I see this on your Livejournal, you're fucking dead.”


“Don't worry. I'll change the names to protect the innocent. Namely me.”


He sneered and stomped off.


“I'll say hi to your girlfriend at school tomorrow!” she yelled after him. She found it both perverted and hilarious that her long graduated brother continued to lust after high school girls.




* * *




Nora's eyes cracked open after she heard Mrs. Miller utter the absolute worst words a teacher could say: “Partner assignments.” There was nothing worse than being pitted with a stranger in the first few weeks of school. She listened as the teacher ticked off pairs of names. Sarah shrugged at her when “Sarah Jones, Nate Wilson.” More and more of her known friends fell off the list, before Nora's partner was finally announced. “Nora Nelson, Rachel Baker.” Rachel Baker. Nora looked behind her with a stare of half-apathy, half-horror. It was her. Murphy's Law.


Rachel rolled her eyes as their gazes met, and Nora turned ahead to look at Mrs. Miller.


All right, everyone, please meet up with your group member and start talking out your first project. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have.”


Nora leaped to the teacher's desk before she finished the sentence. “Mrs. Miller, I don't think I can work Rachel. We have some... personal issues.”


Mrs. Miller raised an eyebrow. “What kind of issues, Ms. Nelson?”


She and my brother are ...” Nora paused slightly, but caught herself. “Dating. I don't really feel comfortable working with her.”


Ms. Nelson, you are a senior. You'll be graduating this year. You'll need to learn to be professional and work with people you don't like if you want to succeed in college next year. If you two have problems, come and talk to me again, but I want you two to give it a shot. I think that's fair.”


Nora, defeated, sulked back to the empty seat next to Rachel and plopped down.


Couldn't get yourself reassigned?” Rachel flipped her springy, dyed-blonde hair behind her ear.


Let's just finish this and be done with it. You don't like me, I don't like you, but let's do this and get a good grade out of it.”


The sides of Rachel's mouth lifted up into a grin. “Who said I don't like you? We've never even met.”


Nora stared at her partner, lips parted, not sure how to reply. Being stuck with an airhead blonde in physics class when she needed an A was bad enough. But getting stuck with her brother's high school love bunny was almost more than she could handle.


Look, I'm dating your brother, big deal.”


More than dating.” Nora hid her surprise at Rachel's cavalier identification of the elephant in the room. Nora was not the most comfortable person in the world when it came to sex, and she certainly didn't feel like discussing it now, with Rachel.


Fine, whatever. We're not breaking the law. If you want it to be this way, that's fine with me.”


Nora did want it this way. The less contact she had with this girl, the better.




* * *




University of Wyoming. Good job, Nora.” Mara, the senior guidance counselor, poured over the folder containing Nora's ACT score, personal statement, resume, and acceptance letter. “Very impressive. I can see you've worked hard these past few years.”


Nora nodded, gluing the best fake modest smile onto her face. “Thanks. I've just made college my goal for the past four years, I'm excited to finally get there.”


Mara (who preferred to be called by her first name, she had told Nora) nodded silently, turning over the pages in the folder. “Where else did you apply?”


Nora stared. “What do you mean?”


What other schools have you applied to?”


Well, none. UW is offering me a scholarship, and it's close to home.”


The counselor closed the folder and handed it back to Nora. She removed her reading glasses and placed them on the desk. “What are you planning in majoring in?”


I'm not quite sure,” replied Nora. “I like math and science – maybe biology. But I like literature too, so I've thought about English.”


You seem very smart and well-rounded, Nora. I'd like to know what you'd think about applying to a few more schools.”


Nora felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She had been expecting a quick chat, a pat on the back and an ego boost; she hadn't been prepared for any conflict.


“Well, I mean, I don't know. My family doesn't have a lot money, I'm kind of relying on that scholarship. And UW is a good school, and it's close to home. I mean, some people are going to Colorado and stuff, but I don't really see a reason to move out there.”


“Of course, Wyoming is a great school. But Nora, you're one of the smartest students we have, you're at the top of your class, you have clubs, NHS, volunteer work, AP credit ... I'd really like to see you apply to some upper tier colleges. Yale, Vanderbilt. You can worry about money later. If you need money for applications, there are fee deferment programs I can help you with.”


Nora sat speechless. From the day she entered high school, she had planned to go to college with her friends, an hour away from home. Her mind and actions had always been focused on that singular goal. She felt blindsided – offended, even – that this woman had the gall to smash that, to imply that her plans weren't good enough. Mara slid some paperwork out of a file cabinet and handed it to Nora. Nora took them without saying a word and placed them into her folder.


“There are some applications and information packets in there. I think it would be healthy if you looked over them and picked one to apply to. Even if you get accepted, there is no pressure to have to go. But having options is always beneficial.”


Nora let out her best emo sigh. “Is this required?”


“No, Nora, this is not required. But I am sure a student like you knows how important it is to strive for something more than the required, and shoot for the exceptional.”


The motivational-phrase-of-the-day did very little to encourage Nora.




* * *




Rachel took the mechanical pencil out of her mouth long enough to send a question down to Nora. “What did you get for d equals five?”


Nora clicked the button on the stopwatch as her the ball hit the floor and marked down the time. “1.24. And 1.58 for d equals ten. Here, let me do the calculations for g, and you can write them down.”


“I've got them. Hold on a second, and I can finish.”


“Great,” Nora said, failing to hide the sarcasm from her voice. She stared at Rachel's sheet of paper as the girl worked through equations, stopping ever now and then to punch a few numbers into her bulky graphing calculator.


“Hurry up,” Nora said. “I've got some other homework to work on. I was hoping we could finish this early.”


“Just do it then,” said Rachel.. “I can handle this.”


Nora sighed, but continued to watch Rachel work. She didn't feel comfortable moving on to something else until this was done. She peered over at Rachel's equation and noticed a mistake.


“X should be positive there, the way you set that up.”


Rachel looked up to where Nora had pointed, and nodded. “You're right. Thanks.”


“Are you sure you don't want me to do it?”


“That's it,” said Rachel, slamming her pencil on to the black lab table. “What is your problem? I've been nothing but cooperative, and you've been treating me like a idiot for the past month.”


“Calm down,” whispered Nora, hoping to fend off the few other students who had turned to look at them. “I told you before, I just want to get through this class. We don't owe each other anything else.”


“You owe me some fucking respect!”


That did it. Mrs. Miller appeared at the side of the desk. “You ladies need to leave the room and work this out. I won't have you disrupting my class. I was hoping you two could manage to be professional. I'm disappointed. We will talk about this after class.”


Nora, humiliated, sulked into the hallway and sat against the wall. Sitting in the hallway against the wall like ... like a goddamn delinquent junior high student. Rachel leaned on the opposite wall and slid down into a sitting position.


“Nice job,” Nora said.


“Are you kidding me? You can't manage to be civil for an hour a day, and this is what happened.”


Nora's heart pounded, anger surging through her veins and sending her to her feet. “You're screwing my brother. How the hell am I supposed to act. I walked in on you screwing my brother! That's not something that you just forget.”


“So what?” Rachel replied. “I'm dating your brother. Get over it. Sometimes people have sex. We were idiots, and did it in the living room. You don't need to throw a giant fit over it.”


Cat noises and hisses came from across the hall. A student, with a backwards baseball cap, baggy pants and visible underwear, had wandered by and seen them fighting. He guffawed and kept walking. The distraction allowed Nora to hold back a reply, so she sat back down and turned her head.


“You know, I work just as hard as you. You're not the only one with senioritis.”


Nora puffed air through her nose. “Whatever. I'm getting through this, and then I'm done.”


Rachel sat mute for a few moments, and then continued. “Your brother told me you got a scholarship from UW, right? That's pretty cool.”


Nora said nothing.


“Your brother is pretty jealous of you, you know. He dicked around in school, but I can tell he's envious. I think he figures you would of gone to some amazing school. Harvard, or something.”


“Why are you talking to me?” Nora muttered.


“I don't know. Nevermind.”


The fifteen minutes waiting for the bell to ring were the longest fifteen minutes of Nora's life. That wonderful sound couldn't come soon enough. She closed her eyes for an eternity, then opened them to look at her watch. Still five minutes to go. Rachel had been completely successful in making her feel like shit, a feeling far worse than the humiliation she had felt in the classroom. Nora held the top rank in her class. She had been elected as the president of Astronomy Club and treasurer of Key Club. She had taken more AP tests than any other senior in her class. She could do this.


“Sorry.” Nora felt the words escape from her mouth, but didn't remember forming them. It was like a band-aid that had been ripped off. Unfortunately, Nora had made far more than one cut. “I'm sorry. It's just ... it's my brother. It was just sort of a shock, you know.”


Rachel turned and looked her in the eye. Nora had a hard time maintaining the apology, and looked down at the floor. “I should have been able to get past that, but ... I don't know. I guess I don't like to mix school and home.”


“Why?”


Nora hadn't been expecting the question. She had been expecting Rachel to act equally standoffish to her, but the girl had defied her again. “I ... don't know. I like school, I like working, you know. Home life is sort of just ... there.”


“I know what you mean. I've been working my ass off studying for the SATs. I'm going to try to get a higher score. I really want to get into a good school, get out of this state. It drives you crazy. Know what I mean?”


Nora didn't, really. But she nodded and smiled. “Where are you thinking about.”


“Well, UW, CU, of course. That would be great. I really want to get in Stanford, but I think I'll need better test scores to be really competitive there.”


Stanford? Really, I wouldn't have ... uh, that's cool.”


“You wouldn't have expected it?”


“Sorry,” came Nora's sheepish reply.


The bell rang and the horde of students piled out of the doorway. Sarah waved at Nora as she passed, and Nora waved back, her face bunched up into a worried smile. Mrs. Miller walked out as soon as the room had emptied.


“I wish you girls would have come to talk to me before it came to this. I wish you could have worked things out, but I know it doesn't always happen that way. I'm going to allow you girls to work alone for this project, and we will rotate partners afterward.”


Rachel rose, seemingly content to leave it at that, but Nora spoke up. “It's okay, Mrs. Miller. It's my fault. I've been having some family problems, and I took it out on Rachel. I think we worked it out. I'm sorry.”


Mrs. Miller raised her eyebrow in her signature interested-but-skeptical face. “Are you two going to be able to work together, then?”


Nora nodded. “If that's okay with Rachel.”


It was.




* * *




It was late when Nora got home. Mrs. Miller had another class after theirs, and had required them to come in after school to finish their experiment. Nora had talked to Rachel for a little while after they had finished. Nora ended up inviting her to her house – she told Rachel that her father was worried about this unknown girl dating Mark. It would be awkward, at first, that Rachel was in high school – but Nora felt confident that she would be able to make a good impression. And she figured she owed the girl enough to help her to that end. At the very least, Rachel would be a good influence on Mark, and Nora's father was sure to see that.


Nora ate some of the leftover pasta her family had saved for her. She told her parents she stayed late to finish a project, but she didn't reveal the whole story. She supposed that the rest of it should be left untold, and it wasn't like she was lying – not exactly.


After her shower, Nora felt completely ready to collapse into bed. The day had been emotionally draining, if not physically so. But before she could pass out onto her mattress, the corner of her eye caught a small manila smear. That folder. That damned stupid folder. She hadn't even looked at it since her meeting with Mara, but there it sat, as it sat every night. Today, though, it seemed particularly ornery. Taunting her. She couldn't help herself. Nora grabbed the folder and dropped to the floor.


Mara had included a large amount of information in the folder. Princeton, Yale, Brown... standard Ivy League fare. They didn't appeal to her. Too snooty, it seemed like. Nora though about giving up, admiting defeat to the yellow bastard of a folder, but the last pamphlet and application stopped her. Stanford. Not Ivy League ... but not state. California – a far cry from the windy Wyoming plains. It seemed poetic. How could she not go for it? She opened the application, and saw the standard requests for information. Name, GPA, test scores. And then the essay. She grabbed a pencil before even looking at it, determined to do this before she lost her nerve.


Nora looked at the question. Write a short (500-1000) word essay about a specific obstacle you overcame to achieve academic success. She stared at the ceiling in thought. These questions were always pointless, and Nora had never been sure exactly what the readers would be looking for. But in a divine moment of realization, it came to her. She put her pencil to the paper, and began to write: “Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Miracle

I had seen other purported miracles before, but it was hard to deny the resemblance in this one. The image stretched nearly to the top of the back wall of the cathedral, and contained all the requisite icons. The Blessed Virgin, The Child, and the halos encircling each of their heads. My first thought was that a group of students, late in the night, had painted her as a practical joke, but the visage was far too big, and painting such an enormous figure in a single night without alerting any of the nuns inside would have constituted a miracle in itself. Furthermore, there was no paint or dye of any kind on the wall. The colors seemed to have been imbued on the stone itself, and no amount of scrubbing removed or faded the holy image.

Lucia, a novice, was helpful. She was young, no more than sixteen years old, and possessed a subtle beauty in her face. She beamed when we were introduced, and emitted a joyousness at odds with the calm, cautious demeanor of the older sisters. The elder women in the convent did not strike me as fearful or apprehensive when I first met them, but in the face of Lucia's exuberance, I found myself reevaluating that position.

Lucia led me to one of the main prayer rooms in the cathedral. Light spilled in from the large entryway, but there were no windows in the room. Candles lined the walls, and adorned the pews, leading to a central podium beneath a painting of The Savior. On the podium sat a small, purple box, adorned with a single golden crucifix on the front. The top of the box sat open, hanging behind the large container on golden hinges. It was empty.
"Here it is," she said, announcing the object as if it was self-explanatory.

I picked up the box and examined it. The inside was coated with velvet, and the empty container seemed heavier than I would have expected.

"Try to close the box, Father."

I did as the girl suggested. To my surprise, the lid refused to move.

"The hinges must be stuck," I offered.

"I do not believe so, Father. I believe this box to be a miracle from God. We received this box two days ago, in the morning, at the entrance to our cathedral. I found it when I arrived to start my morning duties. It was closed when it arrived her, so I opened it. There was nothing inside, Father."

"That sounds like a donation, not a miracle, Sister Lucia."

"Yes, and that is what we thought. Sister Carilla, my mentor, agreed, as did the rest of the sisters. But when we attempted to close the box, we found it as you see it -- stuck. And then, yesterday morning, the Holy Madonna appeared on our great cathedral. Father, I believe God has blessed us, for some reason that I cannot guess."

After years of investigating miracles, I couldn't help but be skeptical. Lucia's story sounded not unlike others I had heard from small towns attempting to gain a boon by luring worshippers and tourists with a vague image of a saint. "Thank you for your words, Sister Lucia. You have helped greatly."

"Then you accept that this is message from God? It is truly a miracle?" Her eyes glowed brighter than the box's golden cross.

"I will stay here today, if your sisters have room for me. There are many rules and procedures for investigating holy occurrences, and it is impossible for me to tell what has happened here after only an hour's contemplation."

Lucia nodded, the fire from her face gone, for the time being.

My first day at the convent was informative. My second was worrying.

Lucia had woken with scratches running up and down her arms. The sisters gathered in a circle around Lucia. Some studied her wounds with the eye of a scholar. Others watched the girl herself for any giveaways about what had happened during the night. A few sobbed and wailed, fearing that the marks had been a punishment from God.
"Could it be stigmata, Father?"

The crowd of nuns parted to allow me to view the girl. "Stigmata wounds resemble the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, Lucia. Have you not learned this in your studies?"

"Of course, Father, I did not meant to imply that these are the wounds of our Savior. But I have heard of other wounds appearing, wounds that match those of saints." She presented her scoured arms to me. "Do you know of any wounds that this could resemble?"
I didn't, of course. Lucia's account of saintly wounds was purely fictional, as far as my knowledge went. But I humored the girl by examining her arms. I made special attention to view her fingernails. They held no blood, no skin. I pressed on one of Lucia's scratches, expecting the girl to cry out in pain. She did no such thing.
"They do not hurt, Father. It is a blessing, not a punishment. A mark of pride and humility."
"Father, Sister Ana Lucia will help you with any information you need. We will examine Novice Lucia and inform you of what we find."
They found nothing, other than the scratches. No blood in Lucia's room. No witnesses to anything strange during the night. No other wounds. My skepticism was being tested.

My second day was worrying. My third was horrifying.

Screams erupted now from outside the cathedral. At the wall where I had only two days before seen the Blessed Virgins, the sisters had fallen to the ground. Most of them were sobbing -- the ones who weren't had fainted. I turned my eyes to the wall, and let out my own cry. What had once been a beautiful homage to blessed Mary had been destroyed. Mary's son was no longer Jesus, but a twisted devil. The Virgin's eyes had been blotted and scratched in crimson, and started a trail of blood leading all the way down to the ground. Some of the nuns had dipped their fingers in the substance, and from the horrified looks on their faces, I could tell that it was not a trick.

We found Lucia kneeling in the prayer room, screaming of visions.Her hand grasped an ebony stiletto. Blood enveloped the blade, as well as her arm. When we entered, the girl turned to look it us. Deep, red pits resided where her eyes should have been. Dried gore lay in a stream down her face. She cried, but shed no tears.
"They will not stop, Father! They will not stop! I can see them! Please, make them stop!" She wailed, and thrust her finger out at the box. "Make it stop, Father! I beg you! Please, God, help me!"

The box was no longer empty. Lucia's excised eyes lay neatly upon the black velvet interior. I couldn't stop myself from edging my hands toward her eyes, from desperately wanting to place them back in her head. But the box would not allow it. As soon as my hand approached it, the lid snapped shut. I pried my fingernails under the lid, bending them back as I attempted in vain to reopen the box. It was too late. Lucia had fallen to the floor, and was now silent. Sister Ana Sofia, now weeping uncontrollably, shook her head as she cradled the poor girl in her arms.
The image on the wall was gone. I returned home and submitted my report. The miracle reported was a hoax perpetuated by a novice. The original eyewitness, Sister Ana Sofia, confirmed my account. I never visited the convent again. I did not tell anyone about Lucia's box, for fear that it would again, for any reason, be opened. The box stays where it is, buried. Undiscovered, undisturbed.