Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, by Ian Doescher
When I read Doescher’s first installment in this series, there is a distinct possibility I was too geeked-out to give it proper consideration. As I approached book two, however, I had a better idea of what to expect and most certainly a higher standard. Through that lens, I found The Empire Striketh Back a shade less effective than Verily, A New Hope, but still a thoroughly enjoyable continuation of Doescher’s reimagined trilogy.
There was something unexpected about Verily, A New Hope, like a wonderful experiment full of unforeseen results. For many people, myself included, The Empire Strikes Back is the finest Star Wars film, due in no small part to the excellent script written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Through a series of well-articulated conflicts, the characters gain both depth and verisimilitude in a rich, fantastic setting. This makes the film not only prime material for reworking, but also a greater challenge as well. In this story are some of the most beloved lines and characters in the entire franchise, and Doescher was clearly cognizant of this fact. How well he handled it throughout, however, is a matter of some debate. In the characters of Boba Fett, Lando, and Yoda in particular, I saw a mixed bag of interpretations as each one received a fresh coat of literary paint with varying degrees of success.
The bounty hunter Boba Fett is a fascinating character. His look and presence invoke menace and mystery, and there is little about him which suggests he would be a talker. That said, I was hoping to see a little more of him in this book. In the last book, Doescher used soliloquies and asides to flesh out some of the shallowness of, say, Grand Moff Tarkin. I thought it a stroke of brilliance. He does some of that here with Fett, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. The choice to have him speak in prose, rather than iambic pentameter, was an excellent one, and gave the bounty hunter a distinct voice of which I simply wanted more. The linguistic distinction, especially between Vader and Fett, adds a new layer to the bounty hunter’s role, making him seem lightyears away from the imperial hierarchy. The gritty tone in a line like “What then, for Boba Fett?” is wonderfully reminiscent of characters like Macbeth’s hired murderers.
Lando, by contrast, may have received too much attention. In the Afterword, Doescher says that Calrissian’s character “isn’t fleshed out very well. We never know what he was thinking when he was forced to betray his friend, or what made him decide to help Leia and Chewbacca in the end” (p.168). While I agree that we don’t get an explicit reason for Lando’s turnings, I don’t think that makes him difficult to understand. Moreover, for as much as I liked the additional dialogue (especially the soliloquy in IV.4, while Han’s being tortured), I don’t think it added a tremendous amount of depth that wasn’t already there.
And then there’s Yoda. Of all the characters in this story, I was most curious about how the author would handle the little green Jedi master. Although Yoda does use an inverted syntax most of the time, he does not speak Shakespeare’s English. Doescher had to do something there, but the path he chose was one I didn’t expect. Rather than simply repeat the movie lines or push Yoda even deeper into an archaic style, the author normalizes the Jedi’s language and lays the lines down in English 5-7-5 haikus. Doescher freely admits that “this isn’t scholarship; it’s fun” (p. 167), but I like the motivation behind connecting a line between Yoda’s “eastern sensibility” (p. 166) and Shakespeare’s handling of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No, Puck didn’t speak in haiku, but he is an example of Shakespeare using an alternate meter in order to set a character apart from those around him. The parallel is appropriate, given that both characters represent a supernatural other within their story.
Questions of characterization and authorial intent aside, The Empire Striketh Back is every bit as fun as its predecessor. Indeed, there were parts which had me laughing out loud, both as a fanboy and as a casual reader. I especially enjoyed the bit in IV.4 when two guards ponder over the fact that so much construction in the Empire seems to involve “At least one chasm that’s deep and long and dark” (IV.4.17) and that the building code “Doth further specify that the shall be / Abutting pathways where pedestrians / May walk.” (IV.4.19-21). If you’re a fan, you just laughed. And if not, well, he did use the word “abutting”.