The quickie prelims: If you hate eco-terrorists with a passion, you'll probably be at best irritated and at worst pissed off if you go read City of Pearl and its sequels. Similarly, if it irritates you to have military personnel idolized solely because they're military professionals, you probably won't like any of her work.
And now you know why Lucas Licensing asked her to write Commando books.
Star Wars: Republic Commando - Hard Contact, Triple Zero
I'll start with the Star Wars books. Karen Traviss says she thinks her franchised work under the Star Wars title is better than her original work.
I agree wholeheartedly. Although I am myself a fan of hard sci-fi, her own work seems a little burdened. Under leash, lock, and key at Lucas Licensing, however, she shines. I am not the least bit surprised she's been gaining fans swiftly among the mainstream SW community; I think I enjoyed her Republic Commando books as much on the first reading as I did the Thrawn trilogy.
I am reminded of Zahn here, incidentally.
Timothy Zahn's career hit the limelight when he put out the Thrawn trilogy, but he's never been known for his other work, which usually sells and reviews fairly poorly. I've read and enjoyed some of his original titles, but he's always going to be known as "that guy who wrote the Thrawn trilogy," and the odds are not many of you have read anything else he's written.
Of course, the Thrawn trilogy doesn't fit nearly as well now that the prequels have been released. Spaarti cloning cylinders? Katana fleet? Dreadnaughts and Victory Star Destroyers? At best, we can go for creative retcons; at worst, we just can't fit it in with the canon anymore. I hate to say it, but the newer Star Wars novels set in the Clone Wars and inter-trilogy period are probably going to fit much better with the movies than the "modern" New Republic and post-New Republic era EU, which had diverged too far by the time the prequels came along and chopped all their tails off.
This is not the case with Traviss, who need fear no retcon. She does write a little worshipfully of the commandos, and there's a character who clearly "feels" like the author trying to write a version of who she'd like to be in the Star Wars universe, but aside from that, it's great reading. I finished both her Republic Commandos books before I could bring myself to go through Crossing the Line.
She knows how to write action, and she's managed to bring the faceless clones alive in ways I hadn't really expected. Forced within someone else's morality play, she does a wonderful job bringing up issues of conscience, dehumanization, and identity, all packed together with the trauma that is an active war. We feel for the clones. OK, sure, they're the chief bad guy's personal legion of doom, but they're human all the same. And what a crappy childhood they've had.
I won't spoil anything by telling you it's a great look into the notion of the Clone Wars - and when I think of what was notable in the details of ROTS, I can say Traviss and Lucas seem to be on the same page regarding the clones right now.
Ok, so let's talk about the material, OK?
And now... a word to the EU completists in the audience. If you truly believe that EU novels are canon unless contradicted, you're stuck with all of this (and if you don't, well, you can skip straight to the review of her original work):
While, of course, there are the obligitory references to how Republic ships can "burn" whole worlds from orbit, or slag facilities, which Saxtonites should be happy with, they should be particularly unhappy with the way she's further defined the conflict within Lucas Licensing's continuity. As recent events have confirmed, Karen has full support from the folks running things at Lucas' merchandising machine, and the picture she paints is antithetical to the traditional Saxtonite claims, so it's going to be reflected in all subsequent literature.
One year after Geonosis, the Republic army has roughly a million clones in the field. Traviss' interpretation of a "million more on the way" is clearly that it was Kamino's batch for that year. When you take into account how long the Clone Wars lasted, we see exactly where the famous three million figure comes from, and it fits quite well with AOTC.
They're fighting on hundreds of worlds at a time - sometimes just a squad, sometimes thousands. "But the Empire has fifty million systems," you may say. Well, that's not how many are being fought over.
Many of the worlds have practically nothing there, and there are partisans floating around. Traviss introduces a civilization of shapeshifters who've thrown in with the Republic, for example.
But the troops the Republic moves around? Clones. All the pilots? Clones. Which means the fleet is fairly limited. If there are only 500 clones permanently attached to every capital ship as fighter pilots, and half the clones are fighter pilots, that's 1,000 ships. Even at the end of the Clone Wars, practically all the pilots and ground troops are still clones.
And the Republic seems to have space superiority, even with something along the lines of 1,000 cruisers.
Those of you trying to figure out how the insanely high figures for droid troops available may now rest easy. The question isn't how many droid troopers you have - it's how you move them! The entire clone army can be mobilized in transports; the Droid army can only be mobilized in the numbers that you can get at them. Sure, if you can drop all those droids somewhere, you can overwhelm the whole place. Odds are they'll get shot down in space, most of them are sitting in space, and the absurd ICS figures for those will probably get retconned down to a reasonable "billions" in a few more publications.
Saxtonites will also be disappointed in transit times. An extra "day or so" transiting back from the battlefield is not a significant change, and the nearest Republic ship available to extract some stranded commandos has a 1 hour 40 minute ETA. It's not bad, mind you, but they're not in the middle of nowhere, and we're not talking about the sort of "across the galaxy in moments" speeds Saxtonites are always claiming. Just the regular, solid, "we'll get over to the next sector in a few days" sort of speed.
OK, a couple more technical points. In the Republic Commando books, blasters are clearly projectile weapons that shoot glowing bullets; the Republic has just now discovered PEP weapons, which are irritating even through Katarn armor. They also have some nifty explosives, but for the most part, it feels like a 21st century army that's gotten all the toys they want, with lots of neat combined functions and some extra miniaturization.
Katarn armor apparently rocks the house compared to regular clonetrooper armor. Lets them survive grenades, blaster bolts, etc - although in Hard Contact they're vulnerable to subsonic bullets from a rifle. Don't worry - by the end of Triple Zero, they've come out with a new version of Katarn armor that stops those dang soft-metal subsonic bullets. These guys are supposed to be walking tanks.
So I guess Traviss agrees with G2K that regular clonetrooper/stormtrooper armor isn't bulletproof, of course - regular trooper armor is quite a bit less substantial than Katarn Mk I.
City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, The World Before
In her original work, I found I could often predict the action a hundred pages ahead. Sometimes half a novel ahead - I knew well before finishing the second book exactly what the major plot twist of the third book would be, and I was already disappointed in her using such a transparent Genesis ploy. I suppose I had two problems: I'd read up on Traviss before reading her books, and I've probably read most of her influences. So I was surprised by nothing, and whenever she made a mistake, it showed.
What also showed is that she was writing straight out of experience. Well, OK, it's a good idea to do that for the first book - but after that one makes it on the market, start to branch out a little. I would've enjoyed the second and third books more if they'd showed more breadth of perspective.
We've got a reporter, we've got some military types, we have an environmental activist or two. There are some scientists, but they come off flat until one turns out to be a spook, and there's the obligatory character or two that feel like "this is what the author wants to be" characters. The aliens stay nicely alien about 90% of the time, and then they start acting out of character for a couple pages here and there.
OK, so here's the other thing that bugged me. Karen Traviss is billing herself as hard sci-fi, right? So she's visibly making use of the fact that you can't travel faster than light (although there seems to be a continuity gaffe or two on that account, she's mostly stuck to it). On the flip side, the bio and nano technology? Magic.
I had hoped for either a truly imaginative assumption to hook the plot on, or careful projection of the future; instead, in the first few pages, the hook becomes a magic drug that suppresses memories until you need them. The Suppressed Briefing strikes me as impossible to do with a simple injection - and it doesn't even serve much of a point in the long run.
I don't know... I just wasn't impressed. I really think Traviss is going to be the next Zahn - widely acclaimed within Star Wars, but little known for her own work.