Crucible is a hard book for me to rate. I'm not the biggest fan of Troy Denning's Star Wars books. There's a lot to this book that I didn't like. However, there is a great payoff at the end so I definitely recommend reading it. I will try to keep this review spoiler-free, but with the recognition that I can't properly explain exactly what I liked about the book without at least mentioning the ending.
At first glance, it's not very interesting. A pair of businessmen, the Columi brothers Marvid and Craitheus Qreph, have an evil plan to take over the galaxy. And unfortunately the actual plot itself never becomes very interesting. Crucible is really about the journey Han, Luke, and Leia take (especially Han). We see a few other characters, including Ben Skywalker, Tahiri, and Vestara Khai, but they're really ancillary.
I've been critical of tropes in Star Wars writing for a while and Denning is one of the leading culprits. My Trope Rader went on high alert right on page one, when Crucible opens with a scene in a bar and we learn it reminds Han of that bar in Mos Eisley. The first half is filled with more tropes, including a high-stakes Sabacc game in order to obtain information about the villain, a big bar fight that descends into chaos, etc.
I was pleased that the second half of the book steers away from the common tropes and actually has some original and even interesting elements. We do see another Sabacc game, but unlike any other ever played. Denning also introduces some hard-sci-fi concepts into the book, although he doesn't develop these as much as I would have liked. Finally, the ending is just literally and figuratively out of this world. While I don't think Crucible ever manages to become a great book, I appreciate Denning's willingness to attempt to push the boundaries.
THE BIG THREE
Crucible has been promoted as a final outing for the Big Three (Han, Luke, and Leia). I think it actually works in this regard. I wouldn't be too sad if this were the last book starring Han, Luke, and Leia.
One thing I really appreciated is that Denning actually shows Han, Luke, and Leia aging. We know the characters are in their sixties or even seventies, but up until now we've never actually seen any sign that they're any older than twenty. I personally hated the approach of previous Star Wars books, that "sixty is the new forty." It made the characters stale. If the characters' age were frozen, so too was their character development. We never had to see them struggle with age.
Denning seems to have abandoned this approach. At first I thought Denning was hitting readers over the head a bit too much with the theme of aging, emphasizing the characters' age, wrinkles, etc. However, once it becomes clear that Crucible is at its heart a story about heroes getting old and finding their emotional core, I decided that the emphasis on aging made sense.
Denning is still careful to show that Han, Luke, and Leia are heroes and can still fight, but he also shows that they're old and aren't the same characters they were even 10-20 years ago. Han, Luke, and Leia in this book feel pain, both physical and emotional. They get injured and sometimes they heal, sometimes they don't. The injuries have consequences. If anything, there were a few moments where I thought Denning should have explored the emotional impact a bit more. There are a few events midway through the book that I thought probably should have had larger repercussions on the characters. Fortunately, as I discuss below, Denning really hits this theme out of the part with the ending.
As readers of my reviews know, I think having a good villain in a Star Wars novel is at least as important as having an original plot. Unfortunately, this is where Crucible falls flat. The villains are two businessmen, Marvid and Craitheus Qreph. The brothers are Columi, an alien species that resembles the aliens from many alien abduction stories, with huge heads and tiny bodies. I don't mind that the aliens look absolutely ridiculous and that the Columi anatomy is probably biologically impossible. What does bother me is that I can't respect them as villains.
Denning wants us to view the Qreph brothers as hyperintelligent. Denning has the characters mention that the Columi are known for their intelligence and that the Qrephs always seem like they're several steps ahead. However, we never actually see the Qrephs acting intelligent. They seem very easily tricked and manipulated. They don't even win any major victories n the book. Having spies and Mandalorian goons doesn't make a villain intelligent or special.
Compare this to Thrawn, the model for the hyperintelligent Star Wars villain. In Timothy Zahn's books, we see Thrawn using logic and intuition to deduce the New Republic's strategy. We see him using his brain. Not every villain has to be intelligent. However, the Columi resembled the bumbling Nemoidians in The Phantom Menace far more than they did Thrawn. That's not an insult as I thought the Nemoidians worked well in that movie. Unfortunately, by trying to tell rather than show us that the Columi were intelligent, Denning only emphasized how pathetic the villains really were.
As I said above, Crucible is about the journey of Han, Luke, and Leia. The other characters fade into the background. Sadly, Denning doesn't seem to take as much care writing them. We see them either behave out of character or become one-dimensional caricatures of their former selves. For example, in the beginning of the book, Lando is in a tense negotiation with the Qrephs, who have already threatened him. Lando then lets slip the name of his son, "Chance," but the Qrephs apparently did not understand the reference. Lando then proceeds to tell them that "Chance" is the name of his son. So, Lando, a professional gambler, intentionally gives his enemy leverage and puts his family in danger! Tahiri Veila meanwhile seems to serve merely as Ben's copilot. We see nothing about her that makes her Tahiri (and there's not a single reference to her walking barefoot). Vestara Khai, one of the few good things to come out of the Fate of the Jedi series, is just, well, there. Finally, Jaina Solo fans will be disappointed, as she plays almost no role in the book. In short, Han, Luke, and Leia become more interesting in this book, but it seems like all of the other characters were simply thrown in to support their journey and not as real characters in their own rights.
If I had only read the first three-quarters of Crucible, I probably would have given it 2.5 stars out of 5. Denning isn't known for his ability to conclude stories so I didn't have much hope for the final quarter. However, Denning really does a great job bringing the emotional journey of Han, Luke, and Leia to a conclusion. I'll try not to reveal spoilers but will try to give readers a taste of why they should suffer through the first parts of the book and actually finish it.
One of Denning's strengths as a writer is his ability to explore the nature of the Force and see the "mystical energy field that binds all living things" in a whole new way. The finale of Crucible took this to a whole new level. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that in Crucible we see some of the repercussions from the confrontation with Abeloth from the Fate of the Jedi series and the Clone Wars Mortis Trilogy (so be sure to rewatch those!). I appreciate that Denning does all this without diminishing the mystical nature and wonder of the Force (unlike, say, midi-chlorians). Denning emphasizes this effect by adopting a more abstract writing style, depicting scenes in an almost impressionist style. It's a neat effect and definitely new for Star Wars.
I was also happy with the journey the characters took, particularly Han. While I criticized Denning for not focusing enough on emotional development during the first parts of the book, the ending partly makes up for it. In particular, Denning brings a sort of tenderness to some of the characters that I didn't expect. Obviously with the upcoming Sequel Trilogy movies this won't be the last we see of Han, Luke, and Leia, but Crucible does do a better job than I thought it would of providing closure.
There were parts of Crucible that I hated and parts that I loved. The book probably benefitted from my low expectations. I can't say I love the book. Parts of it really were disappointing. It seems like Denning had many ideas he wanted to explore in the book but didn't know how to make it all work. There are a lot of unfinished plot themes and things that seem like they should have had a greater impact on the story or characters, but didn't. However, as I said above, it is worth reading this book because it does lead to an interesting conclusion, albeit this probably isn't the way most fans would want the story of the Big Three to end.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars.