My Personal Canon for the Star Wars Expanded Universe

With the coming of Star Wars Episode VII, many longtime fans were shocked to learn that the Expanded Universe of books, TV shows, video games, comics, and other media would no longer be viewed as canon. Naturally, there are some parts we’d rather keep and some we’d rather forget.

I’m probably one of the few who’s been okay with this development from the start. I mean, I’ve never needed something to be “canon” in order for me to enjoy it. One of my old complaints about the EU was that Lucasfilm and other producers were forever trying to retcon everything in a single cohesive universe, which often made for some glaring plot holes, especially when they were trying to fix previous plot holes. Allowing for more than one continuity allows for true imagination to flourish in what’s supposed to be a pretty fun and adventurous setting.

With that in mind, here are my 10 favorite works and elements from the previous Star Wars canon (now dubbed “Legends“) that I consider part of my own personal Star Wars saga.

1. The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: You get to see a good continuation of the Star Wars saga. It’s got the brilliance of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the complex character of Mara Jade, a look into the world of smugglers, and Leia’s own quest with the Noghri Death Commandos. A Star Wars series that’s both smart and loads of fun.

2. Hand of Thrawn Duology by Timothy Zahn

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: These books highlight both the issues of trying to bring a decades-long galactic war to a close and the struggle of the New Republic to stay in control while hundreds of cultures are retriggering their old feuds. Zahn also brings us a nice glimpse of the Chiss and Grand Admiral Thrawn’s legacy.

3. Shatterpoint by Matthew Stover

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Our hero is Mace Windu if Samuel L. Jackson played him more like Jules from Pulp Fiction (but with less swearing). Take one shining Jedi Master and throw him into the deadliest jungles and guerrilla warfare, all while trying to keep himself from straying to the darkness of war itself.

4. The X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron get to really shine in these novels, taking the fight to the Empire in new and creative ways. I also love Aaron Allston’s contribution of Wraith Squadron, a band of washouts turned into elite commandos who never got nearly enough screentime in the old EU.

5. Dark Forces and Jedi Outcast video games

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Instead of an idealistic farmboy, we get to see the Star Wars universe through the eyes of a cynical and sarcastic mercenary (and later on, a cynical and sarcastic Jedi Knight). Add to that some clever new Imperial superweapons and soldier classes, along with Kyle Katarn’s struggle to avoid the urge for revenge and his own grab for ultimate power.

6. Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: While the Tales of the Jedi comics were very melodramatic (and even a bit corny), the drama of two fallen Jedi is the real heart of the story. Exar Kun and Ulic Qel-Droma seem like the prototypes for the corruption that led to Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, right down to Ulic’s loss and his very poignant tale of redemption after Kun’s defeat.

7. The Jensaarai

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: It’s refreshing to get Force-using traditions outside of the Jedi-Sith paradigm. The Jensaarai are a mix of both sides, wearing awesome suits of armor and wielding lightsabers in the name of protecting their home star system. They blend aggressive fighting style with concern for the innocent, becoming a little-known band of samurai space warriors that would’ve worked well alongside Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order.

8. The Aing-Tii

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Much like the Jensaarai, the Aing-Tii are monks from another mysterious sect with their own unique take on the Force. However, they’re deliberately alien, keeping to the Kathol Rift and using fantastic technologies as part of their enigmatic agenda. The only thing outsiders know for certain is their hatred of slavery, making slave traders a common target and putting them on the right side of justice.

9. The Charon and Otherspace

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Essentially, the whole concept of the Charon is what the Yuuzhan Vong from the New Jedi Order novels could’ve been. Hailing from the parallel universe called “Otherspace,” these massive sentient arachnids use organic technology to travel across the galaxy, following a twisted creed to eradicate all forms of life. They provided a genuinely alien culture, with the potential for further development.

10. The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley

What It’s Got and Why I Love It: Brian Daley’s trilogy shows us the partnership of Han Solo and Chewbacca at their prime, long before they joined the Rebellion. They get into all kinds of adventures, from staging a prison break to hunting for an ancient treasure, all while trying to avoid local law enforcement and rivals like the gunslinger Gallandro. There’s no need for cameos from the Jedi Knights or the Rebellion here—just some old-fashioned, Western-style shootouts between rogues.

If you’ve got your own ideas for what makes your own Star Wars canon, let me know in the comments below and may the Force be with you, always.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reformed Villains

For the longest time, I found that there was a kind of story that always interested me: the story where a villain teams up with the hero in order to stop a larger threat. Usually, in these stories, we see the hero’s integrity and raw strength matched with the villain’s ruthlessness and cunning. While it often makes for great drama, I often wonder about the possibilities left open by their partnership. For me, those stories are a window to possible redemption tales, where you can see how Dr. Von Doominator could be genuinely heroic (or at least more effective) if given the chance.

I suppose it’s my Catholic nature that gets me interested in the concept of a reformed villain. If we let our sins and mistakes define us, how much more powerful will our atonement and salvation be? But I think there’s more to it than that.

For one thing, I often find the default protagonists and heroes of many stories to be, well… boring. Their victories are usually inevitable, so why bother giving them flaws or dreams or any kind of a personality? Villains, on the other hand, often get a more complex treatment (if any). They get to have vaulting ambitions, tragic backstories, and moral quandaries right before making the terrible decisions that lead them into conflict with our heroes. They get to have a meaningful past, even if they won’t have a future by the time the story comes to an end.

I suppose, in the end, that’s why I prefer a reformed villain over a default hero. Quite simply, when a former villain sets out to do good, it has more meaning, both for them and for the overall story.

Usually, a villain moves the story along by their immoral choices and actions, requiring heroes to react before it’s too late. So when a villain makes a moral choice at the right time, it can change the whole game. It’s why Darth Vader turning against his master in Return of the Jedi is the crux of the Empire’s downfall. It’s why the embittered Jaime Lannister asking Brienne to seek out and protect Sansa Stark in A Storm of Swords has more of an impact than getting the same task from the noble Lady Catelyn. That spark of hope from an unexpected source can really grab the audience’s attention and make us truly appreciate the act.

I’d also add that, unlike the wish fulfillment and easy writing that a typical hero can bring, seeing a villain struggle with their decisions and face the trial of redemption is more reflective of our everyday lives. We may not be tyrants or mercenaries or cruel stepparents, but we’ve all done things we regretted or hurt people unintentionally, even for our own gain. We can sympathize more with a flawed person trying to do the right thing than we can with an inherently noble person who never has to wrestle with right or wrong. That’s not to say those characters aren’t good ones (who doesn’t want a little fantasy now and then?). But when it comes to what feels more human, it’s easy to see why a reformed villain carries so much weight.

And that’s not to say that reformation is ever easy. It shouldn’t be. It’s a long and painful road. Darth Vader might atone by sacrificing his life and overthrowing the Emperor, but he’ll still leave behind a fearsome reputation and the scars he’s left on both his children. Jaime Lannister may aspire to do better with his life, but he still has to contend with the pain he caused to his brother Tyrion, the war he helped start, and his lifelong reputation as “The Kingslayer.”

It’s in our nature as a species to both make terrible mistakes and to strive for better. We’re noble, flawed, ignorant, wise, brave, cowardly, kind, and cruel—all at the same time, depending on what stage we’re at in our lives. Heroes and villains are no different, and that focus on internal change and seeking to do good can make for a more powerful story than a bland tale of Good vs. Evil and Good Triumphs Forever and Ever, Amen.

So, if you’ve got any reformed villains you’d like to discuss or debate, feel free to do so in the comments below. I’d love to hear what kind of redemption tales you like (or don’t like) the most.

Fading Magic Meets Murder Mystery: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Copyright © 2014 by Leah Cypess

Copyright © 2014 by Leah Cypess

Despite my professed love for science fiction, I can’t argue with the fact that fantasy is still appealing even if the majority of those genre novels, films, shows, and games seem to be set in the same medieval context. As the likes of Umberto Eco and Kyle Kallgren have discussed, that medieval world provides a useful lens for looking at our own modern-day issues. It was on that line of thought—and with some help from a Big Idea post by John Scalzi—that I decided to pick up and read Death Sworn by Leah Cypess.

The story follows a young sorceress named Illeni, who arrives in the hidden camp of assassins with a mission to tutor them in the ways of magic. Both her people, the Renegai, and the assassins are dedicated to overthrowing the Empire that has kept the land brutally oppressed. However, Illeni faces a terrible dilemma: she is the third magic tutor, with both her predecessors killed under mysterious circumstances, making her stay with the assassins a precarious one. Furthermore, she has to teach magic despite slowly losing her own power, always conscious of the fatal end she’ll probably face once the truth comes out.

Illeni interested me because she was a female protagonist, but rather than cast her as yet another idealistic magic-user ready to save the day, she’s an embittered young woman whose connection to magic is fading and stuck in a cavern full of deadly assassins. That means she has to rely on her wits and more than a little bravado to survive, which makes her victories all the more satisfying.

Her relationship with her guide Sorin holds a lot of promise, always balanced on the fine line between suspicion and trust (if not outright love). With Sorin comes the thrill of danger, whether by his hand or by her enemies, who know how to cover their tracks. I also enjoyed the development of the intrigue within the assassins’ lair, which starts off as a murder mystery and soon grows into an elaborate political intrigue. With complex characters like Sorin around, Ileni’s story offers a mix of romance, drama, intrigue, and action for all to enjoy.

Speaking of Sorin, I feel like there was a missed opportunity to explore more of the Empire from his perspective. He hinted at wanting to be more than a professional killer, even if his loyalty to the Order’s leader is absolute. What hints we got about life in the Empire came from the assassins themselves, along with the odd mole or enemy assault. I know the story was meant to keep us locked in the underground lair, but I did want just a bit more out of this tyrannical regime before the story came to a close.

As for the fantasy element in this story, I like how the use of magic isn’t thrown around without a care like it would in other stories. It’s common to find fantasy stories where wizards use their spellcraft for everything from cleaning their robes to summoning a deus ex machina to save the day (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter). Here, because Illeni’s magic is fading, her plight is much more severe. She’s a sorceress trying to stay alive in a den full of assassins, where her life is already forfeit and she’s trying to see how much she can do or learn before her inevitable death. Not only does it make her every use of magic more meaningful, but it also highlights the overall struggle to adapt to the assassins’ world. Illeni has to think more like one of her own pupils, using cunning, stealth, and well-timed attacks in the service of a higher cause (namely, justice for everyone).

In the end, Death Sworn is a pretty decent fantasy novel, conserving its magic for opportune moments. It has the benefit of satisfying its audience with plenty of romance, cool action scenes, and engaging drama that sweeps through every layer of these mysterious caverns where only the deadliest may dwell.

Death Sworn is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and Powell’s Books.

Bibliography: Cypess, Leah. Death Sworn. HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2014.

Take a Trip on a Talking Bike: Kino’s Journey

When I’m looking up a new anime series to watch, I usually get most of my interest sparked from reading TV Tropes pages, from what my friends will recommend to me, and from titles I’ve simply heard a lot about and decide to finally watch. So this recommendation of a 13-episode show by none other than Doug Walker, a.k.a. That Guy With The Glasses himself, took me completely by surprise. But I figured it’d be worth a look. So here I am, reviewing Kino’s Journey.

The format is pretty much what the title suggests. A young woman named Kino rides around a scenic world on her sentient motorcycle Hermes. She visits a new country in each episode, learning about their history, getting to know the people there, and often delving into some tragedy about the recent past. Kino handles these encounters with a calm attitude, a quick draw of her revolver, and a rule to never stay anywhere for more than three days.


Copyright © 2003 by ADV Films

While at first glance, Kino is rather stoic about her travels, she takes a detached view deliberately. It makes more sense when you consider how bizarre some of the cultures she encounters are. Not to mention her own tragic past, where her people’s emphasis on being happy and unquestioning led to some very hideous results.

The setting is quite idyllic, like something out of a Miyazaki film. You have rolling green hills and majestic blue rivers contrasted with towns and technology that mix modern-day robotics with a 1920s atmosphere. It’s noteworthy that no one really bats an eye at Hermes being a talking motorcycle and it’s pretty funny to see Kino wheeling him into buildings like it’s no big deal. These kind of touches add a pleasant vibe and give the fictional world its own distinctive spirit.

Fans of English dubbed anime will also get a kick out of the voice acting for this show. Kelli Cousins makes Kino’s deadpan performance believable, making it not too dry or boring. Her style is balanced out by Cynthia Martinez doing the voice of Hermes, who comes off a bit more naive and skeptical about the countries they visit, with a very distinct edge to the voice that sounds mechanical (just like a motorcycle should).

The other cast members all provide their own voices, delivering dialogue that isn’t too stilted and making the exposition believable. And honestly, some of the best parts of the show are when no one’s talking, but the action and scenery are allowed to speak for themselves. The only downside to the English dub that I watched was that there weren’t any subtitles to translate the kanji text cards that often popped up. I feel like I’m missing the full experience because those kanji didn’t get translated, even if the episode titles did.

From a storytelling perspective, the episode that felt the weakest to me was, surprisingly, the one called “Land of Books.” Its discussion of authors and critics, and the blurred lines between fantasy and reality, was intriguing, but the more the episode went on, the more it felt heavy-handed. It’s not bad to break the fourth wall like that, but I felt it the episode was more navel-gazing than an actual experience for Kino and Hermes.

Kino’s Journey may be one of the most beautiful and touching anime series I’ve ever watched. While it has some dark, awkward, and even mind-bending moments, it’s still a very optimistic series, playing to a view of life that’s full of adventure and choices. It’s a refreshing series that shows all the great things, both good and bad, that human beings and the world has to offer.

The English dub for Kino’s Journey is available through Anime Network and Hulu.

Bibliography: Kino’s Journey (anime). Directed by Ryutaro Nakamura. Based on the light novel by Keiichi Sigsawa. A.C.G.T (studio). ADV Films; ImaginAsian Entertainment. Original run: April 8, 2003 – July 8, 2003.

First Look: The Flash (2014)

Over the last few months, I’ve had friends tell me how awesome the CW has gotten with shows like Arrow. And despite all the hype, I never did get around to watching Arrow, even though I’ve been assured that its quality is top-rate from storytelling and acting to special effects.

So, I figured I had two options this year. I could either binge watch the last 2 seasons of Arrow and see if I became a fan overnight… or I could just watch the pilot to its spinoff, The Flash.

Guess which one I went with?

Though I’m not a diehard comic book fan, I do love stuff that comes out of comic book universes, which includes heroes like the Flash. Compared to Arrow, this new show is a lot less gritty, putting more of a positive spin on the origin story and journey of Barry Allen.

Haunted by the bizarre death of his mother, Barry works as a CSI tech in Star City. One stormy night, a particle accelerator experiment at STAR Labs goes wrong and Barry ends up struck by an unusual bolt of lightning. When he finds that the lightning gave him a supercharged metabolism and the ability to run faster than humanly possible, Barry has to reevaluate his whole life—as well as his past. With the help of STAR Labs, Barry takes a shot at being a hero, rescuing citizens from danger and putting a stop to another metahuman who was hit by the same freak storm. With a little encouragement from another superhero—the Arrow himself—Barry becomes The Flash and devotes himself to keeping his own city safe.

Grant Gustin does a fine job at Barry Allen. It’s easy to see him as a bit of Peter Parker knockoff (a geek who lost his parents at a young age and can’t get anwhere with girls), but it’s nice to see his skill as a forensic scientist in action. I’m guessing the showrunners have watched Sherlock because the first thing they have Barry do is drop to the ground of a crime scene and see virtual clues pop up everywhere. Still, Gustin’s performance does come off as earnest without being annoying.

The rest of the cast ranges from decent to fair. We’ve got the Cool Science Team who explain what happened to Barry and give him his costume, the Gruff But Lovable Police Officer (played by Law & Order veteran Jesse L. Martin), and the Love Interest (played by Candice Patton), whom I honestly didn’t care for one bit, but that’s not much of a gripe.

My other issue about the cast is the villain (played by Chad Rook). We get a lot from him except special effects, but in all honesty, that might be a good thing. It’s better that the pilot episode focuses more on our main character than on a villain’s origin story.

As far as the plot and pacing go, I felt that the first 10 to 15 minutes are a bit rushed. We get some clunky exposition delivered by Barry, his friend Iris, and others—not to mention blatant foreshadowing (see how often you can hear “fast” in the first 10 minutes). However, after the lightning strike, the episode definitely improves as we see Barry try to control his new powers and make sense of the world 9 months later. And while some might call it out of nowhere, I think the showrunners did a good job of establishing a connection between The Flash and Arrow, using a scene between Grant Gustin’s Flash and Stephen Arnell’s Green Arrow to demonstrate a quiet but effective moment of friendship.

I think the key selling point for this show are the special effects. Yes, there’s some good dialogue and decent acting, but the marvel that’s sure to keep audiences coming back are the shots of Barry Allen turning into a brilliant red streak that thwarts criminals and leaves a trail of mayhem in its wake. The show also deserves some credit for trying to come up with a plausible explanation for the Flash’s iconic red suit, reminding me of the way we got to see the Batsuit and other gadgets introduced in Batman Begins.

Even with some of the emotional drama and romance angles that we’ve come to expect from shows on the CW, I think The Flash is going to be a lot more fun as a superhero-based series. We don’t need to see a brooding vigilante leaping through a noir cityscape. Instead, we get a bright-eyed hero in a bright red costume running in to save the day—during the actual daytime, no less.

The Flash will soon be available for viewing on The CW.

Bibliography: The Flash (TV series). Developed by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Geoff Johns, David Nutter, and Sarah Schechter. Perf. Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Rick Cosnett, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, and Jesse L. Martin. Bonanza Productions, Berlanti Productions, Warner Bros. Television, and DC Entertainment. The CW (channel). Original broadcast date: October 7, 2014.