After the momentous events of Star by Star, things take a bit of a breather in Dark Journey, by Elaine Cunningham. Star by Star was overloaded with characters and galaxy-spanning events, including some major changes for both the planet Coruscant (the capital planet of the Republic) and for the Solo children. This book takes a bit of a closer look at Jaina Solo. After what happened to her two brothers, she's in danger of moving to the Dark Side of the Force, and Cunningham does an effective job of giving us that story. Even better, it's not all wrapped up and Jaina will have a fight on her hands for probably the rest of the series, which makes the book even more effective.
Jaina Solo and the survivors of the mission to destroy the Force-sensitive creature the Yuuzhan Vong were using to help track and destroy the Jedi are trying to escape, but Jaina is bringing something more than the survivors back. Guilt over what happened to her brothers, as well as a desire for revenge, is causing her great problems as well as tension among the Jedi. Upon returning to Coruscant and discovering what happened there, she and her crew make for the Hapes Cluster, where the Jedi are unwelcome for what happened to a fleet of their ships in an earlier book. That is also where other refugees have arrived, including Han and Leia Solo. A tearful reunion occurs, but Leia is troubled by the feeling she has about Jaina. Will she go all the way to the other side, losing herself forever? Or will she have help from good friends as well as rivals to keep her on the good path? Whatever she decides, she will be changed forever, forging her own way, and the Vong had better not get in the way. The Vong are after Jaina for a sacrifice, thinking that she's special because she's a twin. The royal family in the Hapes Cluster has their own plans for her. Will she be able to walk the fine line between them all?
Cunningham really gets into Jaina's character, carving her up so we can see exactly what is making her tick. We see the shades of what she could possibly become, the anger that could consume her because of what happened to Anakin and what she feels happened to Jacen. She's always had an on-again off-again relationship with her mother, who she feels neglected her for the political realities of the Republic when she was growing up, and she's always been her father's girl. Now, not even Han knows how to deal with her, mainly because he has no insight into the Force and what she's going through. She must face her own demons, though she does have the help of Jag Fel (son of Baron Fel, who is attached to the remnants of the Empire and the alien Chiss) as well as rogue Jedi Kyp Durron. But even Durron seems out of his element with her, which makes it strange that she might become his apprentice. All of this makes the story a lot more personal than most of the past books have been, even those that were designed to examine one character (such as the Han Solo books by Luceno), and Cunningham does a great job with it.
Kyp and Jag are pretty good too, as almost rivals for Jaina's affection (though in much different ways). I really liked Lowbacca (one of Chewbacca's family members), mainly because it established a Han-Chewie dynamic between them. Both of them are working together on a project, and Lowbacca has ultimate loyalty to the young Jedi. He's not afraid to speak his mind, but he doesn't question her much. Unfortunately, this includes when she sacrifices some of his other family members for her plan, which didn't sit as well with me. He doesn't exactly shrug it off, but he's not as upset about it as I would have thought. Otherwise, though, Lowbacca is very nice (though I could have done without his nickname, "Lowie," but that's already been established and Cunningham couldn't do anything about it).
Unfortunately, some of the other characters aren't quite as well done, mainly because the book is so short. It's understandable when a book focuses on one major character that the other major characters get short shrift, but that shouldn't include the minor characters who are part of the main plot. Isolder, the Hapan prince who also figures in his mother's plans for the royal family, doesn't really come off the page as three-dimensional. He's more of a plot device then anything else. The main Vong characters, the priest Harrar and Khalee Lah, are decent but nothing more. Lah is annoyingly stereotypical as the Vong warrior to whom the Vong version of honour is everything. He gets increasingly irate at the successes Jaina is having at leading them around by their noses, making him even less interesting. At least his father always has plans within plans and isn't a one-note character.
Plot-wise, though, Dark Journey is a standout. My first thought was that the final battle was truncated too much, beginning with only about 10 pages left in the book, but then I realized that in this book, it's all about the characters. Cunningham gives enough ship combat to satisfy most people, but that's not the point of the book. We see the path Jaina is following and a possibility for where she will go. She also wisely leaves the rest of the series to continue her journey and see where she finally ends up. Dark Journey just sends her on her way, and it's all the better for it. It's not perfect, but it is extremely well-done.