I suppose it was inevitable that even Star Wars would get caught up in the zombie fad that held most of Western media captive for more than a decade. The result is two books, one which we’ll get to down the line a ways, and this one: Red Harvest by Joe Schrieber.
Welcome to Legends of the Hydian Way, the chronicle of my attempt to read through and review all the novels that make up mainline Legends canon in chronological order. May the Force be with me.
Red Harvest has to be one of the stranger Legends books I’ve read. It’s set during the Jedi/Sith cold war that serves as the backdrop for The Old Republic video game, but unlike most of these chronologically early Legends novels it’s not really a tie-in to anything. In fact I’d go so far as to say this book barely fits within the Star Wars universe at all. The trappings are there: Jedi, Sith, the Force, etc; but all just slightly off. The best way I can describe this is that it is supposed to be a zombie story set within Star Wars, but ends up being Star Wars inside of a zombie story You’ll see what I mean as we dig in.
The first thing that struck me as our novel opens on the frozen Sith Academy world of Odacer-Faustin is something that I’m entirely willing to admit may be subjective and unique to me. Almost every single character name in this book is weird. And I know that this is Star Wars, everyone has a weird name. But even for Star Wars, this is just… Well, here’s a selection of the barrage of names listed on the dramatis personae at the front of the book:
Wim Nickter, Hestizo Trace, Jura Ostrogoth, Maggs, Hartwig, Mnah Ra’at, and Pergus Frode
This list leaves out a Zabrak called Scorpique who is in yhe book but not the dramatis personae and I intentionally left out Darth Scabrous because that’s a title, not a name. But it just seems like a weird jumble of juxtaposed naming conventions. I don’t know, maybe this is just me, but it felt off and distracting in a way names don’t usually feel in a Star Wars book.
Anyway, Red Harvest tells the story of a Sith Academy whose master, Darth Scabrous, is attempting to unlock the secret of eternal life. Clearly he forgot to ask Emperor Vitiate since instead he’s trying to do it with an elixr that creates zombies combined with a ritual he thinks will give him the zombie immortality without the loss of mental acuity and individuality.
In order to do this, he needs a macguffin flower called a Murakami orchid. This flower currently resides in the care of Jedi botanist Hestizo Trace, mercifully referred to as Zo for most of the book. The orchid itself is odd, because it can talk. It talks through the Force, but where most of the time Jedi/plant “conversations” are depicted more as the Jedi getting impressions of feelings or needs from the plant, this is a straight up talking flower. A sulky, talking flower.
Hestizo and the orchid are kidnapped by a Whiphid bounty Hunter called Tulkh and brought to Scabrous, who doesn’t pay Tulkh and instead takes the orchid and sics a zombified student called Wim Nickter on them. The orchid completes the zombie elixr and makes Nickter into an extremely strong, fast, infectious kind of zombie who bites Scabrous and then is thrown out a window into the academy below.
Predictably, the zombie disease spreads quickly through the unprepared Sith students and we have a full blown incident on our hands before we know it. It’s very unclear how the zombie disease actually works and whether it’s supernatural or not. Early in the novel, a student named Scorpique decapitates one of the zombies only for its body to pick up its head and chuck it at him to bite and infect him. Later, however, decapitation seems to work just fine killing them. In addition, frequent references are made to The Sickness, an entity that seems to be sentient and taking over the minds of those bitten. The prose speaks as though it is intelligent and malevolent, guiding the zombies like a part hive mind part puppet master. What it actually is, and if it’s related to the Force or not, is not explained, which leads to a lot of confusion regarding the zombies’ goals and capabilities.
Most of the story involves various Sith, Zo, Tulkh, and others trying to escape and most of the characters are devoured or turned by the zombies over the course of the novel. We even get some disgusting, spitting, zombie tauntauns later on. Ultimately Hestizo confronts Scabrous, who is trying to hold the infection at bay long enough to sacrifice Zo and complete his ritual, and kills him when he finally succumbs to The Sickness. She, Tulkh, an HK droid, and a pilot named Frode escape in Tulkh’s ship, although Tulkh himself ends up blown out an airlock when some infected tauntaun spit (ew) drips into his eye and turns him.
It’s actually a fairly simple story padded out with lots of repeats of “someone is eaten/turned by zombies” sprinkled throughout. But here’s where we get into a number of issues that make this book feel totally out of place in Star Wars. The first is the tone of the novel.
Tonally, Red Harvest is jarringly different from other Star Wars books. It’s graphic, gross, and dark in ways Star Wars has always avoided. I’m not particularly squeamish, but it’s disturbing in the way that the Happy Tree Friends is creepy, with the juxtaposition of things that are not normally graphic with sudden and excessive goriness. Early in the book Scabrous presents a bounty hunter who failed him with the boiled head of his partner (with an apple in his mouth, no less) and demands that he eat it or die (fortunately we’re spared him actually trying to comply). Phrases like “pigtails of intestines,” “ripped open throat spilling across the snow like a losing hand of pazaak,” or “big bloody tears of gratitude” really do not fit in a Star Wars book. It glories in the gory details the way a zombie book would but a Star Wars book definitely would not. Also in Red Harvest, lightsaber wounds bleed immidiately and profusely.
Secondly, the way characters, particularly the Sith students, talk is off. It took me most of the book to figure out what was bothering me, and then it hit me. The Sith in Star Wars usually talk in a very formal, haughty way, even the trainees. They think they are better than you and it shows. In this book, Sith talk and act like American teenagers. The sort you might see in, say, a schlock zombie film. They’re crude, use a lot of made up slang words, and most perplexing of all, make internet jokes. Example:
“‘What are you two doing down here?’ Hartwig asked. He frowned at Ra’at. ‘Dag, man, what happened to your arm?’
‘Training accident,’ Ra’at said evenly.
Hartwig smirked. ‘Fail.'”
It’s just weird is all I’m saying. Sith talking like 16 year-old Americans is not normal and it takes me out of believing I’m reading a Star Wars book. I suspect it’s intentional, trying to make characters more like the bratty teenagers common in slasher films, but it doesn’t help it from feeling totally removed from the setting in which it’s supposed to be taking place.
Lastly, The Sickness’s relationship to the Force is vague and creates a continuity snarl if it is supposed to mesh with other books. The Force, as normally depicted, is present in all life, everywhere (with a notable exception we’ll see later on) and the author appears to be trying to position The Sickness as almost an anti-Force. A Force for dead things, if you will. Infected characters who attempt to open their minds to the Force instead let The Sickness in and are consumed mentally. At one point Zo even worries that The Sickness is imitating The Force and making her Force senses unreliable. This is troubling and confusing. Is it really able to prevent the Force from reacting to a Jedi’s attempts to access it? How? If it’s just a disease that’s one thing, but the book implies that The Sickness is using the orchid’s power to access the Force. If so, why would it need to imitate the Force? Is the Sickness the Orchid? I have so many questions but this book is content merely to leave The Sickness as an-ill defined malevolent power with poorly explained goals.
Ultimately, although technically a part of Legends I don’t really think Red Harvest was ever really intended to be more than a fun one-off for fans of zombie fiction. But dang it, it’s on the official timeline of Legends canon (found on the inside cover of most Legends books) so I’m going to review it as one. It fails to fit into the setting it claims to be a part of, with tonal shifts and character portrayals veering wildly off-course. As a zombie story, it’s pretty good. I might even call it a great twist on the normal forumla with the addition of the Force elements. But as a Star Wars story it’s confusing and fits like a square zombie eyeball in a round socket. And yeah, I know. That’s a terrible metaphor.
Next time we’re back to The Old Republic tie-ins as we start the third of four of them. Honestly at this point I’m not sure whether to be glad I’m done with the zombie book or scared I’m going back to the series that gave us Revan.