The Lost Day: Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

*1970*

            The colors of the soccer field were shot. Sideways rain had petrified above the hobo gloves and soccer jerseys littering the field. The smooched ball was far away from a juvenile Edgar. Edgar squeezed his lips and crossed his arms. Valdís traversed past the woman with the glistening sleeves, across the dead grass, to the empty-handed boy. Keres stayed put.

“Where is our new book?” she asked.

Edgar plopped his small body onto the veering white-paint line. “I’m not telling you. Stop making me feel this way first.”

“I’m not making you feel anything,” she uttered. “You’re fortunate in comparison. How many math tests have you passed with me? Would you rather cry in front of your friends?”

“I don’t care!” raised Edgar, hyperventilating. “I don’t need school! I’m going to draw for the rest of my life. Every time I want to draw, I get the scary rumbling inside, and you come and take my Scitific Weekly!”

“It’s Scientific Weekly. But what I’ve been trying to tell you-“ She extended her hand out to kneel on the ground. “What I’ve been trying to tell you is that that doesn’t matter. When you die, I get to bring you to another world. Think of it like-“

“No! When I die, I go to Heaven and get to meet Jesus!” he spat out.

“You don’t. You should know this by now.”

“Yes I do!”

“Have you not figured this out!” She snatched his turquoise jersey as she stood. “Do you still believe your liar of a mother, still think I’m part of an imagination that can die! One touch of my skin brings death. I killed your Jesus. He approached death calmly for someone on a cross, but there have been far braver men with far worse deaths. I know them all. I am Death, and I am The Truth.”

She threw him to the wet ground, and he curled up to a heaving mass. As Keres approached, Death pulled in the rope tight, bringing up the dog on its back legs. Edgar emitted retching sounds, spat on the ground in between each groan. Now sweat began to mix with the rain on him.

Neither of them had a watch, but Death could count down the dwindling number of places she was at. A limp teen in a room full of razors and an old man covering his ears dissolved, with their worlds, under her touch; time started to stop even for her.

“Edgar, I-“

Edgar rolled away from her, shivering his clutched body.

“Edgar, you have panic attack disorder. I assumed so since I did your first test, but I read more about it to confirm. Your stress summons me and stops your world; only calming down will let you return.”

She knelt down beside him, filling her mouth with the marble voice she learned from the psychologist.

“I can help you with this. But you’ll have to listen to me seriously, so you can travel between the layers after your death and bring news to me. Are we clear on this?”

Edgar, still facing away, shook his head.

“I hope you enjoy my realm, then.”

*1972*

Valdís gave Edgar his first ritual at a Jr. High dance, where haphazard handprints on preteen dresses created dark pockets in the gym. “As soon as you are able, gather the names of all the elderly in your town. You will recite them every morning.”

“What?” Edgar’s wet pits enveloped the scratched armrests while he sank in his chair, next a table of bowled juice and tasteless pretzels. “That sucks!”

“It will seem repetitive,” she explained as Keres created loops with his rope on the reflective, open floor. The two talked in their own cove by the bleachers, away from the frozen dance. “But it is essential that you continue this until you’re ready.”

Edgar pulled up the loops on his streamlined pants, tapped his throat in two beats. “I’m sorry I said ‘sucks.’ I guess you’ve been nice to me.”

“How does that make you-“

“Hey, why couldn’t the lifeguard save the hippie?”

After Valdís responded with only an arched, faint eyebrow, he mumbled, “My dad says I should use humor if I think I may be nervous. Sorry if I’m not so good at jokes.”

“…go on.”

“Well,” Edgar spoke to his murky shoes, kicking at the encyclopedia of music under his seat, “It’s because he was too- far out, man.”

“Right. So your father doesn’t believe that you have panic attacks, then.”

Edgar’s seat wobbled as he slunk nearly through it, his wide eyes checking the dark corners of the room. A cross hung above the gated clock. “It sucks. Not him, just this.” With his polo shirt stretched by his uncoiling arms, he yawned and glanced up at the hard rubber skin of the teacher of layers.

*1973*

“I forgot to tell them how long I’d be gone today,” Edgar whined as Keres sniffed the levitated cloth over the gurney. Arrested in that pushed hallway were countless white coats against a yellow-striped, portrait-laden wall. Valdís look out to the fuzzy black outside the high window. At another death, she waited as the little-bearded man with a concaving head writhed to crawl without legs from under an upturned car.

“Do your parents know why you’re here?”

“I… told them I hope to be a doctor someday,” said Edgar, clutching a scratched-up, coverless book to his thigh. “They’re not ready for the truth yet. Did you say why I’m supposed to read here again?”

“No.”

*1974*

Edgar walked on a plastered rooftop towards Valdís. A balled newspaper, hanging in the moonlit air, gave Edgar a support to grab and a time to breathe. In front of the hazed, ridged buildings of the horizon, Valdís kept the balls of her feet on the roof’s edge. A high whine emitted from below.

“Curious,” Valdís mentioned, descending to her knees and pinging the rope until Edgar’s hyperventilations distracted her. “You have followed the rituals for several visits now,” she began. “Tell me what you think of them.”

Edgar’s left foot swiveled on the gloomed gravel. “They’re all right. Can we work on stopping my panic attacks now? I’m a long way from home.”

“Don’t be polite.” She turned the phrase into a request midway, conjuring in her mind the psychologist with the marble voice. “Tell me how the rituals make you feel.”

After shaking the next moments away, enveloping the newspaper with both of his hands, Edgar muttered, “It’s- it feels pointless. I’d be able to have more fun without it.”

“Exactly.” Valdís’ first step to Edgar wobbled too, before her bare feet tiptoed closer to him. “Reading in an emergency room, memorizing the elderly, spitting off of rooftops: all rituals made in vain. Just like your drawings, just as your life was, as was mine. Now, like myself, you can begin to open up to the layered world, and perhaps become the first to travel between layers.”

Edgar bit his bottom lip listening, and smiled past his shivering when he spoke. “I can have a geezer list bonfire, if I ever find the darn things.”

*1976*

In the driver’s seat, Edgar clenched the wheel and hollered. It was no scream of rage at the now stopped trucks or a cry to the highway darkness, but a yell of release. Valdís squirmed in her sudden seat, with Keres pacing in the back on top of dollar store wrappers.

“You need to calm down,” Valdís stated.

“Lost!” Edgar’s eyes had grown to cabbages, and he continued shrieking as he rocked himself between the wheel and the fuzzy seat. “Should be home! Streets changed! Wrong exit!”

As he screamed, Valdís tilted her head down to the pedals. “People rarely die while the car’s still moving. What would happen if you started driving?”

Now Edgar’s yell did hit the tone of rage, and he yanked up the lock to open his door. He tumbled out to the road of potholes and grit below. His mentor exited on the other side before approaching him.

“Edgar, you’ve gone through worse in this car. We still need to talk.”

But the teen had curled up, convulsing his body and puffing his cheeks, orange-stained fists scrapping against the ground. He whimpered as she watched, standing both here and in an eroded beachfront where she sent a child with covered ears to the next layer.

“Edgar- tell me a joke.”

When he didn’t respond, she crouched over him. “Well, I met someone you may enjoy. I found a buzzed-hair man in a crater after the last visit, right in a wide vase of water. He was sucked out of his plane, he told me.” After an itching pause, she continued in the man’s soft, rhythmic accent. “Well, the plane was a-going’ down and I had no way out so I figure ‘what the hell’ and found a pool and did the most beautiful cannonball.”

Edgar gave a hoarse laugh between heaving breaths, separated his arms from his rocking legs as Valdís stepped back. “You should do that- everyone. Give them last laugh.”

“I give them the secret of the layers, the answer of the afterlife. They must take me seriously.”

“Why do I have to go here?” Edgar asked after a silence in the white headlights. “I can’t tell anyone else how I feel, and all these rituals eat up my time.”

“You-“

“And I’m not good at those. Or maps. Or anything, just drawing, because they really like what I draw from here. And they still ask what I really plan to do with my life.”

Keres had wrestled down the window crank with his paws, and now plunged out of the car to approach the teen. Edgar received the dog’s ears with open eyes.

“Thank you,” he said to the short woman.

“It’s Keres’ doing. But you’re welcome. You can be rather polite for someone in your position.”

The teen shrugged, muttered, “Yeah, they say that.”

“No, I will be too.” Valdís smiled, stood above him. “You’re learning about what’s below us. If you study well, a return voyage is within the realm of possibility. If Homer brought back the lightning of Olympus itself, he would not outlast your fame on this second layer. An artist of a new world order: this is my gift. You are worth it.”

Edgar caught his yawn, apologized, stretched. “And that loser thought he made a big crater.” He stood up, yawned again, and shuffled his way back to his maroon car.

To be continued in Part 3.

The Lost Day: Part 1

*1979*

In the middle of a circle road, alone, stood Valdís, also known as Death. She was a short woman with puffed lips and skin like plastic. She stepped past the starved trees of the college campus and balanced herself as she approached blocky buildings. A long rope trailed from a pocket of her skin. She held this rope. There was no wind, no smell, no taste in the air.

A black dog snuck past a stationary door, trotting towards her. She gave it a quick, small smile, then gazed at the orange clouds shaped like daggers above. On the bench to her right floated a pink polo shirt, broken sunglasses, blue cap, brown khakis, and an open backpack, all worn in place without a body to keep them there. The thatchy rope from her hip pocket coiled up as the dog returned and looked at her with small eyes.

“Thank you, Keres,” Valdís declared. The grass prickled her bare feet as she walked along the dog’s path, towards the dog’s findings. In passing the building, she let her hands glide across the glass window, gazing at the pageant of hung shirts and pants inside. There was only one human on this plane, nowhere in sight now.

They walked into the forest. Even without Keres scampering ahead, Valdís could hear heavy, disjointed breathing below the black soil. After receiving a pat, the dog sat by a wrinkled tree, its head still high. Valdís rubbed her temples. She opened her eyes, slouched her back, then knelt to remove the clump of roots by her feet.

Inside the ditch under the tree, curled up fetal, was a lumpy teen with tear-stained cheeks and eyes of perfect circles. He loosened the clench on his arms and looked up at Valdís’ lack of chin.

She balanced her hand on the dark pit’s edge. “Edgar, I should apologize.”

*1960*

Her dog did not bark and grimace when they appeared in the fake kitchen. Aside from the checkered table, cornered bookshelves, and floating papers, the cramped white room was bare. An invisible body with a skirt held out her glistening shirtsleeves towards the table. On top of it was a wailing baby, purple and writhing. It shifted away from the glistening arms, arms held above a glass platform below the table’s edge. There were many recently deceased persons Valdís now dealt with on different planes- a soldier with no eyes, a woman suffocating under a landslide of brown earth. Only at this noise did she wince and sigh. She nodded at the child, and moved towards the bookshelf before stopping and tugging at the leash. Her dog’s drooping tongue and brightened eyes jolted her.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of killing too,” she demanded, flicking the rope tied around his neck. “Go at him. I know it’s what you want.”

He sat down, his nose turned as if the child was as appetizing as concrete. In her millenniums of life, her companion had never lost his hunger until now. She looked at the baby, then the dog, before walking over to the leaflets held by a floating labcoat.

Page 2

question still remains: is an infant’s ability to perceive lethal falls learned, or natural?

To begin, your child will be placed on a table with a ‘visual cliff.’ The eastern edge will have a heavy glass board that will protect the child while not betraying the experiment’s nature. You, the mother, will attempt to encourage him to crawl to you, even thought the prospect may seem deadly from the infant’s perspective. Our supervisors will give you more detailed instructions during the trial.

Thank you for your selfless cooperation and generosity. Your time here will add to the world’s understanding of human development. Please sign a time slot below with the name of your child.

January 5th, 1960

1:00 – Jonny Jack Nil

1:15 – Edgar Beckenbaur

She looked up at the clock: 1:19. Her dog had his paws up on the table and began licking Edgar’s softening face. She turned to the human, eyebrows pushed. Once the child let out a loose laugh, everything vanished.

*1961*

At their second meeting, the baby had stained moss goo on his bib. He swat without rhythm at a hard spoon floating by the high chair, screeching at the kitchen’s steel counters and armada of cupboards. Valdís only glanced at the cabinet’s crusted cookbooks before frowning at her black follower’s wagging tail.

She tiptoed over the checkered floor, but stood straight and tall when Edgar’s shrieks fell silent. His circular, watery eyes flared up as she leaned in. “Only the dead can enter this realm. I do not know how you could die twice, much less return. Perhaps the Higher Powers have something for you. For now, you will hear this phrase at each encounter, if we continue to meet: wherever you go, bring a scientific magazine with you.”

*1964*

            It took years until the implanting worked, and the child began to appear with a ratty and torn Scientific Weekly. The new challenge involved getting Edgar to pick up the most current issue. Valdís eventually moved on to memorizing the same one he clutched onto, reading around the dog-shaped doodles. But this had to wait if she covered her ears to the piercing child’s cries, for she could only stare at the golden chandeliers while her constant guest rubbed his own tears out.

She visited him each preschool morning, at the bottom of winding and endless steps in a flat, polished hallway. Outside the door, she could see a massive lawn and three cars. Whether he came buried in jackets or with a backpack tightly fastened, he wore the same brown polo and dark pants, and usually arrived crying, choking, or cold, sometimes retching. She would sit on a leather recliner, fingers relaxed, as Edgar’s wide eyes ran about. When the toddler finally went to scratch and pet the black dog, her fingers could pull the magazine from his.

“You are my Bobo and I like you,” Edgar said once the dog put on a dumb grin.

“His name’s Keres,” she snarled. “Are you ready to hear about the layered world yet?”

“Bobo, Bobo, Bobo, Bobo,” he sang.

*1967*

            Edgar’s shrieks seemed sharp enough to tear down the row of letters encircling his spacious classroom. Valdís barely had time to jump away as a runny-nosed, little-legged Edgar ran up to her, leading the charge with a pencil and a sheet of paper. The wailing child pushed Keres back.

“What is it now?” she snapped.

The boy smacked the paper and pencil on the desk of a hovering backwards cap and astronaut shirt, spun away, then shrieked, “You do this!” As he fell to the fake wood floor sobbing, Valdís leaned in and peered over the simple numbers scattered about the sheet.

“You really can’t do this,” she asked him.

The boy snatched his Scientific Weekly from under a desk, crumpled its center with one hand, and then threw it in front of her. He screamed so high that Keres whined. “Go away! You’re stupid! Everyone’s stupid!”

He jolted out of the room, tears and snot pooling on his chin. The plastic skin woman picked up the magazine, folded open the cover, then wedged herself in a backroom plastic chair.

She read each article three times before Keres bumped his nose against her glimmering pocket of endless rope. The child still hadn’t returned. The sun’s beams were painted through the buggy windows. She was no longer watching the silent reporter observe for a last time, or escalating her voice above the priest’s on Earth. Now, she was only here, and her skin retreated inward.

There was a knock on the door before it opened a little. “I’m very sorry. You’re not stupid,” muttered a quick and wobbling voice before it slammed the door shut.

She bolted up, nearly tripping over Keres to reach the wide door and open it. “Edgar, I can help you on the test.”

The boy stopped his rhythmic swatting at the glossy lockers. His breathing hummed down the carpeted, low hallway as he moved towards the small lady.

“But you have to answer some questions first.” She moved to one knee. “Edgar, look up at me when we’re talking.”

Edgar shook his head, fidgeted his hands on the pins of an overstuffed bulletin board. On the sticky walls of the school were rows of tattered motivational posters, each with a saying Valdís had heard several times before.

“What were you doing when you came here?”

“I was taking a test.”

“Were you getting upset?”

The child scrunched his shoulders away from her. She cleared her throat; one of the last claims for the layered world before she arrived here was a tiny psychologist with smooth cream hair and a sculpted face, with a voice like a marble fountain even after his death.

“That’s quite all right.” Her voice was the marble stream compared to the psychologist’s voice. “You can answer when you want. But next time, don’t carry a magazine with you. Look for these words: p-s-y-c-h-o-l-o-g-y, e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a.

To be continued in Part 2!

Thomas Pynchon’s private BLEEDING EDGE notes!

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Hey you! Did you read Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon? No? This post is not for you then. If you answered yes, I offer my condolences and direct you to this website like I’d direct someone hit in the head with a waffle iron towards the kitchen of an IHOP.Anyways! I’ve used my vast writing connections that my time-traveling future  self will give me to secure some of Pynchon’s private notes, written while Bleeding Edge was in development. Ever wanted to know what goes on inside an Author’s Head, but the last time you tried you ran screaming from the room? Here’s your chance: behold some excerpts from the first draft of Bleeding Edge!

Bleeding Edge Private Notes

Star Wars Episode VII: Heir to the Empire

I put Star Wars posters in my apartment, placed Star Wars Battlefront in my PS2, and wrote three Star Wars reviews on this blog already, yet I didn’t spin circles like an Ewok on a speeder bike when Disney announced Episode VII. Much like how I feel about ‘Toy Story 3’ right now, the end of the original trilogy wrapped all matters up in a little box so nice that any attempts to take a jackhammer to the box sound ill-advised at best. Plus, for the longest time, fans like me had Episodes VII, VIII, and IX in the form of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. I enjoyed that cycle- Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command– so much that the announcement that this trilogy is now non-canon sent my inner nerd into a bloodthirsty rage that took several chocolate bars and a viewing of this article to quench. I loved the Thrawn trilogy. I still love it now, even in the midst of rereading and wound-picking it. Should J.J. Abrams just have made Heir to the Empire his Episode VII, or was it best to strike in a new direction even if that direction leads to thorns and a bear?

Pictured: Rejected from Episode VII for being TOO AWESOME.
Pictured: Rejected from Episode VII for being TOO AWESOME.

Most of my affection for this trilogy comes from Thrawn himself, that blue-skinned Grand Admiral who returns from his assignment in the Outer Rims to marshal what’s left of the Empire five years after ‘Return of the Jedi’. Thrawn as a character is easy to explain: he’s Sherlock Homes as a warlord. It just sounds cool, doesn’t it? In the first chapter of the book, Thrawn’s capital ship is attacked and outnumbered four to one. So Thrawn learns who’s in command of this enemy battalion, analyzes the commander’s species, and uses that alien race’s psychological blind spots to decimate the enemy forces. How’d he learn about aliens so thoroughly? In part by studying their artwork. I know, right? That’s actually what he was doing before he was attacked, browsing his own personal art gallery. It’s like if Roger Ebert conquered Germany by studying Uwe Boll films.

I still marvel at what a cool spin this is as a character and antagonist. But. Over the past year, I’ve read the majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I can now spot a poorer imitation even if he paints his skin blue. The audience has little choice but to trust Thrawn’s genius in the first chapter because he’s dealing with an unknown alien by utilizing war tactics that aren’t well described. Like Captain Pellaeon, the Watson in our equation, the audience can only shrug its shoulders and say, “I guess he’s pretty smart.” Arthur Conan Doyle, even when talking about customs and ideas unfamiliar to a 21st century reader, still walked through every blood-soaked step to show Holmes was a genius instead of a telepathic genius. And I don’t think Thrawn’s meant to be a telepath. Throughout the book, we’re treated to examples of Thrawn’s intelligence that aren’t as well explained as Holmes’ moments of brilliance. How does he know what Han, Luke, and Leia are planning, and how to thwart them? We get vague answers, logical while not satisfying to someone who knows the real Holmes or is reading these books for a third time like me. We’re in new places in the universe, yes, but all that Zahn needs to do is what he did for Thrawn: remix something familiar so that we can follow Thrawn’s train of thought. There’s a difference between a mysterious character (what Zahn wanted Thrawn to be) versus a character that’s just cheating (what could have happened to Thrawn).

Don’t think these nitpicks ruin Thrawn as a character; he’s still great enough that I want him to be the true villain in ‘The Force Awakens.’ He’s calm, diplomatic, constantly scheming, and learns from his mistakes without killing subordinates all the time. He only does it once, after a careful scan of the situation to find out who’s really at fault. Best of all, Thrawn gets in the audience’s good graces by receiving a tough test right away. The Grand Admiral picks up some ysalamiri, creatures that create a bubble of anti-Force, so he can talk to insane dark Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth without the lunatic force-pushing Thrawn’s red eyes into his throat. C’Baoth will help the Empire if Thrawn gives him Luke and Leia to mold into dark apprentices. But it’s a dangerous game, keeping Joruus sedate while the original trio keeps escaping traps and sensible thoughts keep eluding C’Baoth. Zahn established Thrawn’s character in a jiffy- he uses logic to manipulate and play off of others. Easy to grasp. Now Thrawn’s tested by a character who doesn’t operate under logic. We understand Thrawn, so we root for him as he pushes his abilities to the limit. Given this conflict, and how the first chapter of the book focuses on an Empire victory achieved by one of the coolest Star Wars characters ever, I imagine people reading this book without seeing the movies could mistake Thrawn for the protagonist.

This is still a Leia-Han-Luke tale, for the record. The three are entangled with the politics of the New Republic, their run-ins with kidnappers and Imperials arguably a welcome escape from the murky, treacherous ocean that is governance. It’s an adventure story, but with heavy doses of political thriller added on like snow tires. Han struggles to unite the smugglers he left behind with the new government he helps run, Leia balances never-ending diplomacy missions with pregnancy and constant kidnapping attempts, and Luke’s just trying to find his role as the last sane Jedi alive. In comes a mysterious Grand Admiral to complicate matters, stealing mining equipment and engaging in bizarre hit-and-run attacks, working towards an unknown, nefarious end. There’s the old high-fun sense of adventure here mixed in with enough backstabbings, deals, power plays and politics to keep the series from becoming a retread of the originals. Where the prequels tried to mix swashbuckling with committees, this trilogy succeeds at doing so by letting politics inform the adventure, instead of each aspect taking turns to talk.

But Zahn doesn’t evolve the concept at hand beyond a mixing of tropes. Remember the anti-Force creatures I mentioned before, the ysalamiri? Our heroes end up on a planet full of them. Now isn’t this a great opportunity. We’ve seen a universe with the Force, and all-encompassing field that not even non-believers can escape from. How do the players of that universe operate without the Force? If the Force has a will, does a planet without the Force become more anarchic? Do the residents of said planet feel empty and dead inside? How does a society separated from the rest of the universe in a symbolic sense operate? I wish I knew. There are some tense adventures to be had here, especially for Luke, as the Jedi Knight must survive without the Force or his lightsaber here. Yet people double-deal, plot, and shoot here the same way they double-deal, plot, and shoot on other planets. Ysalamiri are a cool concept, but a concept not used to its full potential. This isn’t a deep or insightful book, so the trio doesn’t need to do much soul-searching. Perhaps just an aside mention that the absence of the Force almost caused Leia to fall for an obvious trap of some kind, perhaps a mug of hot chocolate on top of a bear trap.

Look out! He's going to hit you with Force Finger Lights!
Look out! He’s going to hit you with Force Finger Lights!

All joking aside- should this have been our Episode VII movie? As much as I love these books- and recommend them as a fun, light read for Star Wars fans- I think the saga may have outgrown them. Published in 1991, Heir to the Empire was such a big hit that it started a whole line of Expanded Universe novels, to the point where Michael Kaminski’s book ‘The Secret History of Star Wars’ credits Zahn’s trilogy as a factor convincing Lucas to make the prequels. Interest in Star Wars might have died out without these books. And Zahn’s work led to the saga evolving into something much different from what he created. The Holy Trilogy acted as a tribute to the action serials of the past, so this book trilogy followed suit. Then came the prequels. Taken as a whole nowadays, the Star Wars story is a mythic saga like the Ring cycle. Each trilogy had some old characters, but mostly new faces and archetypes. So now the door’s open for some new people in ‘The Force Awakens,’ instead of rehashing old inner conflicts (and as an aside, I hope those people in the trailer are just borrowing Stormtrooper gear and red lightsabers, cause we’ve tread that ground enough already). Writers need to understand the environment they’re writing in as much as the thing they’re writing about. Remember, the best part of the Thrawn trilogy is Thrawn himself, a new (if not necessarily original) character in a world created by a great (if not necessarily original) film. Wouldn’t you like to see characters like Space Othello or Space Christopher Columbus play around in such a rich universe? The Thrawn Trilogy is comfort food to me- fun, engrossing, maybe not satisfying as a full meal. So yes, Heir to the Empire is not a good fit for Episode VII, and it’s another thing you can blame on the goddamn prequels. And you can blame the goddamn prequels on ‘Heir to the Empire.’

NEXT REVIEW: The second book in the Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising! How well written is this series anyways?