On the darker side is the unflinching “The Final Order” by Seth Dickinson, which sometimes evokes Vietnam War fever dream The Things They Carried in its brutal, political look at an Imperial officer’s death. Later in the timeline of both the movie and the book, Martha Wells explores Ugnaught life with an authoritative voice. The second half of the book is overall stronger than the first; see also “The Man Who Built Cloud City” by Alexander Freed, which goes deep into the perspective of a Bespin vagrant. Like the best stories in the collection, it goes from grim to humorous without missing a beat. For all I’ve praised the second half of the collection, the very first story, “Eyes of the Empire” by Kiersten White is also a competent and optimistic tale of an Imperial intelligence worker switching sides.
Another standout is Catherynne Valente’s tale of the exogorth, the “space slug” that swallows the Millennium Falcon in the movie. Valente gives her all to this stylized epic that stretches far beyond the limits of the movies. Instead of feeling like a twee talking animal story or a human voice that happens to inhabit an alien body, the perspective is truly skewed and weird. And wonderfully softly so. The exogorth’s society prizes individuals who can nurture entire ecosystems in their cavernous guts. The story’s main character, Sy-O is mocked for merely containing mynocks. Sy-O’s melancholy and aspirations are deeply sad and beautiful. Valente took her commission to write about the space slug with deep seriousness and poetry, like a trapeze artist: skilled and theatrical. And the brief suggestion of Ben Solo growing up inside the belly of an exogorth, Han and Leia still alive and cared for but trapped forever in the space-faring monster, is exactly the kind of Star Wars spin-off weirdness I love.
Speaking of the Sequel Trilogy, the Palpatine story weirdly dodges around any implications from The Rise of Skywalker. The story itself is a cool glimpse of an alternate universe.
Unfortunately, most of the other “talking animal” stories are a bust. Admittedly, they have some leeway because of Star Wars‘ always flexible attitude toward sapience. What is the difference between a monster and a person? But the stories based around the wampa and the tauntaun never convincingly get inside the head of their subjects. When they do, the result is schmaltzy, goopier even than the most dramatic swell of music in a nature documentary.
Like in the first book, some stories are tonally adrift, without a voice or a clear direction. Especially in the Hoth sequence, several in a row felt more like descriptions of a single scene than complete story arcs, leaning far too heavily on exposition.