Hard as it may be to believe in these Star Wars saturated times, there was a period following Return of the Jedi in which the hallowed franchise faded from the pop culture consciousness. The trilogy had ended and nostalgia had yet to set in. In 1991, three new novels appeared, Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, which covered the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han, while peppering in some new folks for added flavor. Music to my teenage kid ears, and I loved those books. The three novels were a massive success and ushered in an age of what became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They were quickly followed by Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy, a not quite as successful continuation of Zahn's story. Anderson wrote many other Star Wars novels (notably the Young Jedi Knights series), but I was never particularly inspired to explore more because I didn't particularly care for the Jedi Academy books. They were fine, I guess, but lacked the thrilling pop of Zahn's initial entries, and while there were some memorable bits, it lacked the satisfaction I got out of initially rejoining my childhood heroes. I always wondered if that was a function of Anderson's writing, or whether it was because he was saddled with pre-existing conditions and unrealistic expectations... So Kevin J. Anderson is a hugely prolific author that has toiled away for years on licensed works for Star Wars, The X-Files, and Dune, though he occasionally puts forth some original novels as well. It is one of those novels that got nominated for the Hugo Awards this year.
From all outward appearances The Dark Between the Stars is a straightforward Space Opera, complete with requisite fancy starships and big explosions. The first of a planned trilogy (though set in a universe the author previously created), it delivers pretty much exactly what you'd expect: Space Opera comfort food, and little else. This is not meant to be belittling, as I tend to enjoy such exercises when done well (the aforementioned Zahn has long been my crutch for these purposes) and what we have here certainly fits the bill, if not perfectly.
It's filled with typical Space Opera tropes. A cast of thousands, quick chapters cutting back and forth between various plot elements, lots of spaceships, aliens, and explosions, an existential threat, and so on. I gather much of the worldbuilding has occurred in a previous series, but Anderson does a fine job establishing the key players. There's several Roamer clans who are basically industrious space gyspies, and we get a close look at several clans. There's a Confederation of several human factions (including Roamers), lead by a monarchy (we follow their family pretty closely). There's a bizarre mad scientist named Zoe Alakis who researches diseases and develops cures that she does not share with anyone for unknown reasons. There's the Ildirans, an older race of polymorphic aliens that is allied with the humans (not without tension, naturally) and whose history seems to drive much of the story. The Klikiss were an insectoid race that was apparently defeated in the previous series, though there remains a small cache of Klikiss robots that play a role here. The near extinct Verdani that are a telepathic network of trees that humans can use to communicate (among other things). So basically, a lot of plot threads here, and much in the way of history and worldbuilding.
During a joint exploration mission, a Human and Ildiran expedition uncovers hidden Klikiss robots and, more ominously, a dark nebula that appears to envelop and dissipate everything it touches. The Ildirans think this dark between the stars (ding ding!) are the Shana Rei, an ancient, legendary race that seem to personify entropy (the notion of order and thought appear to anger them and even cause them pain). The Shana Rei and Klikiss robots ally to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy. Ildirans and Humans struggle to find weapons with which to fight the chaotic force that seems to be popping up throughout the galaxy and destroying outposts, etc...
As a villain and existential threat, the Shana Rei are interesting at first, though I do believe that Anderson perhaps gives us too much of a glimpse into their world. For creatures that personify entropy and chaos, they seem to spend a fair amount of time talking to the Klikiss robots or creating ships to attack other sentient life (i.e. things that rely on order and sentience in itself). They also don't seem to be successful enough in this book to be truly terrifying. They may have been more effective had we known less about them or their motivations. Similarly, many of the distinct plotlines seem rather tangential to the story. Some do start to converge towards the end of the book, but much is left open ended, leaving this feeling a bit incomplete. As the first in a series, that's not too unexpected, but it also makes this difficult to judge this for the awards.
The biggest problem with this novel is that it reminds much of similar exercises that were just executed better. In particular, I kept thinking of Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Duo, a pair of books I certainly had problems with (notably with their excessive length), but which were far better at creating a truly alien threat and delivering on the terror such a thing represents. Indeed, I think I'd call this book Hamilton-lite. It's not as long (which is good!) and the plot is slightly tighter (not saying much given Hamilton's bloat, but fine!), but the ideas and storytelling aren't quite as big or bold either (that's bad!).
When I was in college, I spent one of my two free electives on a film class. One of the subjects we covered was the Auteur theory, basically the idea that a film's director is the primary author of a movie and that it's their distinct creative vision that we're seeing on screen. For some reason, we watched Thelma & Louise, and my teacher dismissed director Ridley Scott as a mere "craftsman" rather than a true Auteur. But what about Alien, we all ask. She responds by mentioning the other creative talent involved, and mentions that just because Scott is a craftsman doesn't mean he can't produce a brilliant work, just that its brilliance can't be traced back mostly to him. Given that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, that's probably a much better way of viewing things anyway. It was an interesting discussion, but I don't want to belabor the point. The idea of a distinction between a true Auteur and a craftsman is what keeps coming to mind when I think of Kevin J. Anderson. I mean, books aren't collaborative in the way movies are, but the distinction between a craftsman and, let's say, a master, is what I'm falling back on here. He's a fine author, his prose gets the job done, and the books I've read by him are enjoyable. I still find them a little too diffuse, a little too derivative. So Anderson is a fine craftsman, and honestly, I could see myself revisiting this universe because I had a decent enough time with it. But he's not a master, and while this represents good old-fashioned SF comfort food, I'm not sure it's well executed enough to be worth the stretch.
The question now becomes where to rank this on my ballot. It's certainly a fun adventure, even if it's not really doing anything new or particularly notable. On the other hand, while something like The Goblin Emperor set its sights high, I don't think it delivered on its potential and was a bit of a slog to get through. I feel similarly to Ancillary Sword, a novel that might be fine on its own, but represents a baffling way to continue a series that started off in a fascinating way. I don't think The Dark Between the Stars is better written that either of those novels, but I did enjoy it more than them and could see myself revisiting the series at some point. At this point, I'm at a loss as to where to place this novel on my ballot. I'm pretty certain that The Three Body Problem will end up at the top, but after that, who knows? I'll just have to see how I feel when the time comes to finalize the ballot, I guess. Up next: Jim Butcher's Skin Game... the 15th in a series of novels where I've only read 3. I obviously don't have time to catch up, but maybe the novel will be standalone enough that I can get through it... In the meantime, those novelettes and novellas won't read themselves.