William Shakespeare’s The Clone Army Attacketh: an Overly Enthusiastic Review

I picked up William Shakespeare’s the Clone Army Attacketh by Ian Doescher in Barnes and Noble the other day. It was an impulse buy, I was mainly there to escape the ungodly heat of my non-air conditioned apartment. But I peeked inside and saw one of Padme’s soliloquies and was instantly hooked (more on that later).

 

WHY THE PREQUELS:

Now some of you might be asking: There are six of these books, one for each of the original trilogy and prequel movies. So why pick Episode II as a starting point? Well, I have a confession to make. I am an un-cool fangirl. I love the prequels. I grew up with the original trilogy, but it was very much a thing which belonged to my parents. My mother loves to tell the story of the first time she saw Episode IV when she was 17, and has nursed a crush on Mark Hamill for close to forty years. My dad, on the other hand, is basically Han Solo (irony lol) except with drag racing instead of smuggling.

On top of this, I think I was exactly the right age for every one of the movies when it came out. I was 12 when Episode I came out, my mom took me to the same theater where she saw Episode IV for the first time (told you she was a big fan). I was just learning how to sew and developing an obsession with costumes, so Padme was absolutely my idol. I had a poster of her various costumes from Episode I on my bedroom door for close to a decade.

By the time Episode II came out, I was 16 and had been in a serious relationship for two years with the boy who would grow up to be my husband. Needless to say, the whole love at first sight at an improbably young age thing didn’t seem terribly hard to believe for me. I was young enough that Padme’s objections to the relationship seemed weak in the face of passion, and Anakin’s whininess seemed justifiable (I was 16, okay?). The forbidden love story was the most romantic thing I had ever heard of, and I quite possibly fell harder for Anakin than Padme did. Even the wedding didn’t seem unusual, big surprise, three years later I got married at 19 too.

Episode III was rough for me. I was only 18, but I’d aged a lot in the two years since I’d last traveled to a galaxy far, far away. My now fiance had been in the Navy for a year, was stationed on the other side of the planet, and could be deployed to a war zone at any time. Watching the scene where Anakin comes home made me cry, it was like watching the last time my man had come home on leave. Even my mom (of course she went with me to every one) turned to me in surprise and recognition. I whispered back that maybe George Lucas was spying on me. I don’t really like to think about the end of Episode III. Needless to say I bawled.

Even now, with the new episodes coming out, it’s not the same. The character I most relate to in Episode VII is Kylo Ren: we’re the same age and I know how much it can suck sometimes having Han Solo as a dad. Fortunately I didn’t grow up amidst political intrigue, so we had time to work out our differences without the use of a lightsaber. I was thrilled with Episode VII, especially since it’s obviously much better material than the prequels. But it supplanted a lot of my favorite EU characters, and honestly… it just doesn’t make me feel that same rush.

When you’re a teenager, your brain is myelinating. This means it’s stripping off all the coating on your neurons and replacing it, so for about a decade you’re super sensitive to your own neurochemistry. The end result is you’ll never feel anything as intensely as you did as a teenager, at least until your middle-age myelination (which is usually the cause of a mid-life crisis). You get especially attached to things you like during this time: people, books, movies, and music leave an indelible mark upon the structure of your mind.

I’m guessing some of that neurochemistry is to blame, because honestly, I’m not blind. I know the prequels suck. The dialog is terrible and the plot holes are massive and oh, god, Jar Jar Binks. But I can’t help it. There’s something about the love story that tugs at my heart, and I’m always a sucker for a visual feast, regardless of plot quality (Jupiter Ascending, anyone?).

So I picked Episode II, and I’m kind of glad. Because there’s so much room for improvement, and my god did Ian Doescher rise to the challenge.

THIS BOOK IS GENIUS

Despite what I had glimpsed when I skimmed the book, I still mostly expected the Clone Army Attacketh to be just a gag book. I expected poorly used archaic modern English, bad scansion, and probably painful rhyming schemes.

I was wrong.

The very first thing I look for whenever someone tries to write something as if it were Shakespeare is the scansion. Shakespeare’s plays are written in iambic pentameter (look it up, I don’t need another tangent lol) and if they can’t manage that, then I’m not really impressed. Not that it’s easy, it can be a real pain in the butt to get English to fit into a regular rhythm without resorting to short words, but still. It’s kind of my threshold.

Doescher not only writes in iambic pentameter, he almost does it better than Shakespeare. He rarely uses the female ending (a kind of cheat where you can add one unstressed syllable to the end of the line if you really have to). He uses period-accurate contractions like e’en for even and syllabic emphasis like determin├ęd (pronounced de-ter-mi-ned instead of de-ter-mend) to make the rhythm work. And he does all this while staying remarkably close to the movie script. I nearly died when I discovered that “I truly, deeply love thee, Anakin” needed no modification.

But perhaps more impressive than his use of iambic pentameter is when he chose to discard it, always for great effect:

  • Yoda speaks in flawless haikus, a form that doesn’t take to English well at all, and is doubly difficult when trying to preserve the Jedi Master’s inverted syntax.
  • Jango & Boba Fett speak in prose with no rhythm applied to it. This gives Jango a weird feeling, like there’s something off about him and he doesn’t quite fit in, that honestly conveys his unsettling presence in the movie well.
  • The Geonosian monsters speak in iambic tetrameter and rhymed couplets. They make references to the Witches of Macbeth, who also speak in tetrameter couplets (although they’re trochaic, but that’s splitting hairs).
  • Jar Jar Binks, when acting the fool, misses the last emphasized beat of every line. This sounds really wrong and is extremely annoying and therefore suits him perfectly.

On the subject of Jar Jar, Doescher has shown his genius once more. He’s chosen to portray the Gungan as a Clever Fool, instead of a Natural Fool. This means that Jar Jar has lots of asides and a couple soliloquies that are very intelligent and insightful. Like many of Shakespeare’s clever fools, he explains to the audience why he chooses to appear unintelligent to the other characters, and his reasoning is believable. But he’s not a perfect person, he still falls for Palpatine’s machinations. I’m not saying it completely fixes Jar Jar, but it certainly makes him a more interesting and complex character.

Beyond the scansion, Doescher provides us with a treasure trove of literary devices. One particularly brilliant scene is when Obi-wan goes to Kamino and meets Taun We and Lama Su. The Kaminoans speak their lines in Palindrome, which is to say, they give their lines, and then after Lama Su explains the clone army, they begin to deliver the same lines in reverse order. Obi-wan’s responses and the punctuation change, but still. It’s absolutely mind blowing, because it works.

Another thing that blew my mind was when I noticed, partway through Act IV, that Padme and Anakin were speaking to each other in rhyming quatrains. As I mentioned before, rhyming is a lot more of a challenge to an author than most people think. I’ve seen so much amateur poetry that uses this rhyming scheme poorly, forcing awkward phrasing and bad similes to make it work, that I’m actually pretty averse to quatrains at all. So it says a lot that I had to actually go back two whole acts to find where it started: the moment when they first kissed on Naboo. This is more than just a nod to Romeo and Juliet, it has the effect of making the couple seem connected and in synch with each other, and in the scenes where it stops happening we miss it and want it back, and feel it as tension. This is a subtle masterpiece of poetry: using the form to create an emotional response in the reader, and honestly I can’t even. I think this was the point when I started worshiping Ian Doescher.

The really wonderful thing about this retelling is that it takes the time to expand. Most of the main characters have lengthy soliloquies, which give the audience insight into their motivations and character development. This is particularly beneficial to the relationship between Anakin and Padme, as this peek into their thought processes makes the whole thing work. Padme is constantly surprised and delighted by Anakin, finds his unorthodox and somewhat naive perspective refreshing, and is bemusedly impressed to find the young boy she knew transforming into a man. Anakin is clearly infatuated and obsessed – it’s revealed that he has long held on to the memory of Padme as a beacon of hope during dark times. But throughout the book he comes to see Padme as she really is, not the image he had held of her, and he’s even more impressed than before.

By no means does Doescher attempt to improve upon Anakin’s character, which I thoroughly appreciate. He is still an arrogant teenager with his priorities completely out of whack and a serious attitude problem. But that makes him a realistic, believable person. Other characters have their flaws, too – Obi-wan is overly critical of everyone, himself included. Padme is idealistic to a fault, she’s never willing to see how bad things really are. In short, they’re people, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I love them so much.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Clone Army Attacketh is that in addition to it’s astounding technical mastery, it’s still enjoyable to read and yes, funny. Turns out it is a gag book after all, it just happens to be an incredibly good one. There are, of course, many references to Shakespeare’s plays and the Star Wars movies, but also a good helping of external references. C-3P0 quotes the Wizard of Oz, Obi-wan spouts wisdom from the Gambler, Padme makes a surprising call to Apocalypse Now, and Mace Windu, of course, makes all the Pulp Fiction references you can imagine, as well as working the phrase “die hard, with a vengeance” into his dialogue.

In true Shakespearean tradition, there are more puns than you can shake a stick at, and lots of fun extended metaphors. There are even dirty jokes–imagine, sex actually mentioned in Star Wars!–so subtle and clever that I’m sure Shaky Bill is applauding somewhere in the afterlife. Particularly fun is the beginning of Act IV, scene iii, which consists of two unnamed Jedi pondering the improbability of some distant future society telling tales of These Dark Days.

In short, this little gag book is quite possibly the most enjoyable read I’ve had in a long time. I’m pretty sure I annoyed my husband to no end, squawking with delight each time I found some new clever trick to admire. But seriously, if you have any appreciation for Shakespearian literature, you owe it to yourself to read some of Ian Doescher’s work. If you’re not a fan of the prequels, get one of the books based on the original trilogy. I know I can’t wait to read them too!

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