I recently managed to put into words a phenomenon in fantasy or science fiction fandoms that has bothered me for a long time, and I call it The Cantina Theory. It goes like this: early on in the life of a fictional universe, everything is new. Just like the Cantina scene in A New Hope, all these interesting creatures and aliens are just there. Anything goes. Later, subsequent entries in the series cement and define what was previously established. That’s a Rodian. This is an Aqualish. Etc. From that point forward it’s very rare to see many new creatures being introduced, because these original “cantina dwellers” have become signifiers to consumers that what they are watching or reading is a Star Wars story. We like the familiar, it makes sense.
Today’s story, however, spends a relatively short amount of time up front making sure we feel comfortably Star Wars before setting off to an adventure in completely unknown territory. We’ve gotten too comfortable at the bar, so Alan Dean Foster’s here to throw us out of the Cantina.
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.
Today we dive into The Approaching Storm by Alan Dean Foster. Foster, as it turns out, has the distinction of writing the first novel in Legends canon, as he ghostwrote the novelization of A New Hope (which was actually released before the film itself!) We’ll get to that one a bit further down the line but for now we turn to the insignificant backwater world of Ansion, upon who’s choices the gate of the galaxy rests.
Our story begins with a group of Separatist conspirators led by Commerce Guild President Shu Mai discussing a plan to convince Ansion to secede from the Republic. Due to a web of treaties and pacts, this will also result in many other worlds leaving the Republic and creating the opportunity the Separatists need to call for mass secession. To bring about their designs, the conspirators have leveraged ancient tensions between the city-dwelling Ansionians (called the Unity) and the nomadic tribes of the grasslands (called Alwari) to convince both that the Republic is backing the other and ensure all of Ansion resents the government.
Opposing these schemes stand Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Luminara Unduli, and Bariss Offee – sent by the Jedi Council as ambassadors to convince Ansion to vote to remain within the Republic. So as not to overplay their hand, the conspirators hire local crime lord Soergg the Hutt to foil the Jedi however he can.
Soergg begins his assaults before the two pairs of Jedi even rendezvous. He sends four dozen assassins to attack Luminara and Barriss (which just seems excessive even for a Hutt), but the timely arrival of Obi-Wan and Anakin turns the tide as the thugs’ morale flags and they retreat. The Jedi succeed in meeting with the leaders of the Unity city-dwellers and despite upending several urns of water over the head of one particular delegate present, manage to convince them to vote to remain in the Republic if the Jedi can convince the Alwari to make a deal with the Unity regarding disputed grasslands.
Even as the Jedi Begin work arranging travel plans to the Alwari, Soergg tries his next plot. He hires a pair of mentally handicapped Alwari outcasts to kidnap Bariss and demand the Jedi’s withdrawal as random. Soergg reasons that the damaged minds of his chosen hirelings will make detecting their intent in the Force more difficult for the Jedi. To his credit this is actually somewhat clever, though incredibly cruel and unconscionable. His plan succeeds, and Bariss is stuffed in a sack (literally) and carried away to a safehouse.
At the safehouse, Bariss realizes her captors are in significant pain and distress due to their conditions and selflessly offers to try to heal them with the Force, promising that she will remain their captive regardless. This display of compassion made me smile as I feel sometimes authors forget Jedi are loathe to resort to violence as the first solution to problems. I also love the contrast: Soergg sees the pair (called Bulgan and Kyakhta) as disposable tools useful only because of their brokenness, but Bariss cares nothing for their animosity towards her and simply sees two beings in need of help.
As it turns out, both kidnappers suffered similar head trauma and brain damage which Bariss is able to heal with the Force. The two are amazed, both at their miraculous healing but also at the depths to which they sank in their diminished mental state. The two immediately apologize to Bariss and pledge to help the Jedi as a way of atoning for their misdeed.
Accompanied by the Alwari outcasts, the Jedi leave the city mounted on local transport animals and set off to find the Borokii overclan, whose word carries enough weight to sway the remaining Alwari to do what the Jedi ask if they can be convinced. Along the way, the Jedi encounter an array of strange wildlife native to Ansion. From birds who fly in migrating flocks their entire lives with their mouths open eating anything that happens to get in the way to tumbleweeds loaded with neurotoxin that behave as above ground jellyfish in the powerful grassland winds, the care taken to worldbuild Ansion is evident on each page.
Before meeting the Borokii, the Jedi encounter a smaller tribe, the Yiwa, who invite them to stay for a meal and ask them to provide entertainment afterwards to show they are beings with souls. It’s a strange custom but one that affords Foster the opportunity to showcase the personalities of each Jedi. Obi-Wan recites a story – keeping his audience hanging on every word. Bariss uses her lightsaber training to perform a dance with her blade. Anakin sings a sad song he remembers from his childhood, and Luminara uses the Force to manipulate grains of sand flung to reflect light like grains of stained glass. It’s a quiet scene, but it’s the one that sticks with me the most after reading as informative of who each character really is.
Again before the Jedi reach the Borokii, they are stopped by the Qulun, a merchant tribe who ply them with gifts but secretly wish to kidnap them all to claim a bounty placed by Soergg the Hutt. The Jedi escape narrowly and finally reach the lands of the Borokii.
Despite weeks of travel, the Jedi quickly overcome yet another of the Alwari tests (this time to take a ruff of wool from an albino animal in the center of the tribe’s flock) and finally get to present their case to the Clan. The Borokii agree to the terms, but only if the Jedi help them to deal with their rival clan, the Januul. Clearly intending the Jedi to lead them in battle, the Borokii march on the Jenuul in force. The Jedi, however, stand between the two armies and prevent any hostilities. Any who try to harm another find their weapons cut down by lightsabers. Furious, both clans attack the Jedi, who defend themselves without once harming an attacker. Amazed, the two tribes finally sit down and talk with the Jedi and agree to merge into one larger Clan and bury their hatchets.
The Jedi return to the city to inform the Unity of their success, but Soergg has one final trick to play. His agents have convinced the council the Jedi are not going to return and a vote is being taken on secession even as the Jedi arrive in the city. They race to the government hall past assassins and snipers and arrive just in time to sway the vote in favor of the the Republic. Soergg feigns innocence but knows he will face consequences from his Separatist masters as the Jedi depart, mission accomplished.
The Approaching Storm breaks with tradition for Star Wars books, largely abandoning the familiar locales, species, even technologies of the setting in favor of some truly remarkable worldbuilding of its own. Ansion comes alive in these pages and feels like an expansive, real place instead of a simple backdrop for adventure. Cultures are fleshed out, creatures introduced, and locales detailed with such care that I leave this story with a much clearer picture of Ansion than many of the planets that have appeared on film over the years!
Also by way of breaking tradition, this novel feels tonally much more like an old-school fantasy novel than a modern Star Wars book. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Alan Dean Foster has been writing fantasy novels since the 70s, as a lot of tropes present here (the bandit attack in the markets, the kidnap by sack wielding hirelings, the long mounted journey into the wilderness) are mainstays of retro fantasy books. This is not to say I dislike their presence here, but it’s definitely one more way The Approaching Storm stands apart from much of the rest of Legends.
It took me a while of reading to put my finger on, but I eventually realized that the biggest way The Approaching Storm feels out-of-step tonally is in its vocabulary. Nearly everyone in this books speaks I a very formal, highly educated way, even Bulghan and Khaykta. For example, when speaking of the task ahead, Obi-Wan reflects “It’s getting these innumerable, fractious, quarrelsome nomads who call themselves the Alwari to abide by the proposed terms that concerns me.” And later Anakin responds to a point Barriss makes my commenting that she “argue[s] plausibly.” It’s just strange, as if everyone signed up for intensive vocabulary improvement classes just before the book. I suspect it’s another hold over of Foster’s fantasy roots, since this sort of language is more common in such novels.
I can’t honestly say this was my favorite Legends book we’ve read, primarily because it just doesn’t really feel like a Star Wars book from a tone standpoint, but as a stand alone novel it’s quite a fascinating look at a highly detailed and thought out world. I’d read more about Ansion even without the Jedi involved. If you like retro fantasy, this one’s definitely for you.
Next week we’ve arrived at Attack of the Clones! Stay tuned to see if the romantic dialogue can be saved or if it’s just as painful in novel form!