Frode stood clutching the bulkhead behind him, pupils dilating, trying to make out even the vaguest of shapes, but without success. It was if whatever was out there destroyed the lights and ripped out the power, burying the vast space around him in utter blackness.
But he could hear them.
Holding his breath, he could hear the sounds of many bodies rustling together, the faint moist sound of their shoulders and arms and torsos packed together in the dark. They weren’t breathing, but they were making hollow rasping noises that could have been some obscene attempt at speech.
Then, all around him, the lightsabers started coming on.
They activated individually and in some clusters, red humming spikes of light, dozens of them shooting upward, filling the air with a low oscillating hum that shook Frode’s molars in the back of his mouth. His eyes began to adjust, and at length he began to make out the blades shining off the starved dead faces of the students that held them upright, their blank expressions, the bleak and rapacious eyes that gaped back at him. Drool gleamed their lips. Dried red gore encrusted their teeth and lips.
“No,” Frode thought. “Oh no.”
PLACE YOUR BETS!
Joe Schreiber brings the undead back to a galaxy far, far away in Red Harvest, the 2010 prequel to his horror meets Star Wars book Death Troopers, which pitted the Empire against hordes of ravenous zombies. This time, the undead face off against the Sith Masters and pupils of a Sith academy on the snowy, unforgiving world of Odacer-Faustin, and the results are as gore-splattered and horrifying as you would expect.
The book takes place during the Old Republic, and follows Hestizo Trace, a young Jedi relegated to the Agricultural Corps on the greenhouse planet of Marfa. Hestizo, or Zo, possesses the rare Force ability to communicate with plants, and she’s put in charge of monitoring and caring for a Murkami orchid, a Force-sensitive plant that speaks telepathically to Zo and must be physically close to her to manifest its abilities.
Unfortunately for Zo, the cruel and aptly named Sith Lord Darth Scabrous seeks the orchid to use in a serum for eternal life. He orders a Whipid bounty hunter named Tulkh (who’s easily the novel’s coolest character) to bring the orchid and its handler to Odacer-Faustin, pitting Zo against an academy full of self-serving, wicked, and power-hungry Sith acolytes–but things are about to get much worse.
Darth Scabrous’ serum is no mere life-extender but rather kills whoever it touches and brings them back as rage-fueled, eternally flesh-starved zombies. Soon enough, an infection breaks out at the academy, turning hundreds of Sith students and their masters into hordes of the undead. As the surviving students and masters fight the zombies (and each other), Zo forms a reluctant alliance with Tulkh, who realizes just how f*cked he is for accepting the assignment from Scabrous in the first place.
Meanwhile, Zo’s brother Rojo senses his sister’s peril and sets off on a journey to rescue her, but he finds more than he was prepared for after arriving at the academy and nearly becoming lunch for a flesh-starved Sith student. Speaking of the Sith students, there’s a large cast of mostly interchangeable dark side acolytes who serve one purpose–to add to this book’s insanely high kill count. There are a few notable Sith students who stand out from their peers, including Mnah Ra’at, who’s constantly over-compensating for his lack of height, the doomed Wim Nickster, who becomes the first zombie after getting abducted and experimented on by Scabrous, and Kindra, a sly but authoritative student determined to outlive all of her peers and be the last Sith standing.
Let the Bodies Hit the Floor
Overall, I enjoyed Red Harvest. The Sith vs. zombies narrative is incredibly compelling and exciting. Joe Schreiber’s skill of horrifying readers fits nicely within the Star Wars universe, especially when it involves some of the franchise’s most iconic villains. As a fan who favors the explorations of the Sith philosophy and the Dark Side perspective over those of the Jedi, I was immediately hooked from the first page. The very nature of the Sith promises an absolute blood bath, something the novel revels in unashamedly. I looked forward to the instances where Sith students formed alliances out of necessity, only to betray their peers as soon as an opportunity presented itself. It added an extra element of tension within the book because these characters are unpredictable and not to be trusted–not by other characters and certainly not by readers.
Unfortunately, several of these characters are bland, including Zo’s brother Rojo, who disappears almost entirely from the second act before returning for the novel’s conclusion. It was extremely jarring to be introduced to several characters who seemed important, only for them to vanish almost entirely from the book until the plot called for their return. It made bonding with the characters difficult, and as a result, made their deaths feel meaningless. Death Troopers explored a surprisingly poignant relationship between the Longo brothers, Kale and Trig. Their brotherly relationship made me invested in their survival, eager to see them emerge viciously against the nightmarish horror around them, and deeply saddened because I knew the chances of both brothers escaping from the zombies were slim.
I didn’t feel that level of attachment to Rojo or his mission to save his sister because he wasn’t around enough or developed strongly to be invested in his story. There are a few other characters throughout Red Harvest who disappear for long periods, and because the book moves at such a break-neck pace, it makes it hard to keep track of who the survivors are. Out of the two heroines from Schreiber’s zombies meets Star Wars books, I thought Dr. Zahara Cody from Death Troopers was more interesting. The book took time to develop her character outside of the events of the current plot, and it helped foster a bond between the reader and Dr. Cody.
Hestizo Trace felt like she could have been interesting, but Red Harvest never presents anything about the character that makes her stand out from the rest of the ensemble. She could talk to plants and she briefly has the power to slow down time and escape from the zombies pursuing her, but the ability never reappears, which was odd. The full conversations between Zo and the orchid were often distracting and slightly contradictory. The novel establishes the need for Zo to be physically near the orchid for its powers to work; that’s why Scabrous had her kidnapped in the first place. But later in the novel, the orchid communicates through the Force with Zo when they’re miles apart. It even helps her defeat a group of zombies by using the Force to make plants grow from inside the undead creatures, ripping them apart, saving Zo and her bounty hunter captor turned ally. I know a certain suspension of disbelief is required with anything related to Star Wars, but Red Harvest features too many plot contrivances, and they were pretty noticeable.
With that said, Red Harvest makes for some excellent Halloween reading. The book features an edge-of-your-seat atmosphere similar to science fiction works like Alien and Frankenstein. The Sith are worthy adversaries for hordes of zombies, although I can’t help but wonder why none of the Sith used the Force to hold the zombies in place while their peers used lightsabers to hack the zombies to pieces. I guess the book would’ve been over before it truly began.
If you’re looking for a gore-filled Star Wars adventure that thrusts the bad guys to the forefront, I highly recommend Red Harvest. I prefer Death Troopers from the two books, but I won’t deny the sheer excitement I felt when the hundreds of Sith students turned zombies activated their red lightsabers towards Red Harvest‘s conclusion.
Final Thoughts and Musings
Red Harvest features three talking plants. Two of them are the Murkama orchids, and one is a Neti, a mythical sentient species that bears a striking resemblance to trees and hails from the forest world of Ossus. The Neti lives and works in the library on the Sith academy, collecting scrolls and volumes of books for thousands of years.
Rojo was ripped out of a Taken sequel. At one point in the book, he says, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m in possession of a very special set of skills. If you bring my sister back right now, unharmed, then I’ll let you go. But if you don’t, I promise you, I will track you down. I will find you. And I will make you pay” (55).
One of my favorite things about Red Harvest is how it’s set in a Sith academy on a snowy planet. There’s something so comforting in a zombie story set in the snow. More snow-themed horror please.
Have you read Red Harvest? Let me know in the comments and check out my website for all things horror and pop culture. Stay nerdy!