Wednesday, September 17, 2014

STAR WARS: A New Dawn book review

“Aren’t you afraid?” Zaluna asked.
“Anyone would be. But the Jedi had a saying about fear. It leads, ultimately, to suffering.” Hera paused. “Someone has to break the chain.”
“People can’t talk about the Jedi anymore.”
“Maybe they should.”

OK, let's talk about the Jedi.

STAR WARS: A New Dawn is the first book published by the Lucasfilm Story Group, the new group formed to oversee the future of Star Wars storytelling across all media. Why is this important to a Star Wars fan? Because for the first time EVER, all Star Wars stories are on equal footing, existing as part of a cohesive plan to tell one grand, unified story in a galaxy far, far away.

Some background on my Star Wars literary history. I gobbled up the Expanded Universe books during my teen years. As soon as I found out there were Star Wars novels that continued the story, I read each and every one. The Courtship of Princess Leia. Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command. The clone Emperor’s Dark Empire, the Jedi Academy trilogy, the training of Han and Leia’s children. I even got to meet Mark Hamill once upon a time and he signed my copy of The Crystal Star. But I grew older, and after the stories told in the prequel films failed to live up to the stories unfolding in my imagination, I grew disinterested. I stopped reading Star Wars. The galaxy that once lit up my mind started to dim, and eventually, I turned out the lights.

Then something amazing happened — an event as unlikely as the Rebel Alliance taking out the first Death Star. Lucasfilm sold to Disney. A sequel trilogy in production. John Williams returning. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO. JJ Abrams directing an incredibly intriguing cast of new actors. A return to practical effects and a script penned by Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The decision made to nullify the stories of the Expanded Universe in order to give JJ and Kasdan free reign to tell the best story.

I fired up my John Williams’ soundtracks. The stars began to brighten. I could see Hoth, Endor. Tatooine, Kessel. The Millennium Falcon. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

When I heard that A New Dawn would be the first book in the new Star Wars canon, I resolved to read it. And page by page, I became more and more excited — not just by the unspooling of an entertaining story that felt like classic Star Wars, but by the dawning realization that Lucasfilm and Disney have a HUGE vision for where Star Wars is going to go. They’re planning to bring the fun back to Star Wars, and they are almost definitely attempting to revive the meaning of Star Wars in a way audiences haven’t experienced since the original movies. They feel confident, like the Force is with them. After finishing this book, I agree. The Force is on its way back. A New Dawn represents the first step into a new and exciting future filled with possibility.

So what’s the story? Here’s the prologue:

For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights brought peace and order to the Galactic Republic, aided by their connection to the mystical energy field known as the Force. But they were betrayed — and the whole galaxy has paid the price. It is the Age of the Empire.

Now Emperor Palpatine, once chancellor of the Republic and secretly a Sith follower of the dark side of the Force, has brought his own peace and order to the galaxy. Peace, through brutal repression — and order, through increasing control of his subjects’ lives.

But even as the Emperor tightens his iron grip, others have begun to question his means and motives. And still others, whose lives were destroyed by Palpatine’s machinations, lay scattered about the galaxy like unexploded bombs, waiting to go off...

A New Dawn is a direct prequel to Star Wars: Rebels, the new animated TV show (premieres October 3!) that explores the founding of the Rebellion against the Empire. It takes place between Episode III and IV, during THE DARK TIMES. And it truly is cool to return to that time period, just before A NEW HOPE, where the Ralph McQuarrie inspired aesthetic of TIE fighters, Star Destroyers and stormtroopers dominates the setting. Where Jedi and lightsabers aren’t everywhere you look — they’re being hunted, on the run, in hiding. Where the ignition of a lightsaber blade isn’t a first move, it’s a last resort. Because nobody’s allowed to talk about the Jedi…

The two main characters are going to be our leads in Star Wars: Rebels, and they are legitimately complex and entertaining. Kanan Jarrus is a ‘cowboy Jedi’ — think Luke Skywalker and Han Solo rolled into one. He’s a womanizer, a drunk, a vagabond. But he’s got intriguing depth. He’s a former Padawan who survived Order 66 but turned his back on the Force and the Jedi. He’s so wounded by the extermination of his people that he almost blames the Force for the Jedi’s destruction. Hera is the other lead, and she’s an ace Twi’lek pilot with a mysterious past. She travels to the mining planet of Gorse (where the action happens in the book) to meet an informant and learn more about Count Vidian, a member of the Emperor’s inner circle who’s arrived to increase the system’s yield of an essential ore needed to power Star Destroyers in the Empire’s rapidly growing fleet. Hera’s determined to gather intelligence and contacts so that one day, when the people are ready to stand up to the Empire, the Rebellion might have a chance.

A New Dawn is about how Hera and Kanan meet, and how she begins to make him feel something again. It’s about why the Rebellion starts, what the Rebels stand for, and why that’s important to not just the Star Wars saga, but to everybody who experiences the story of Star Wars moving forward. The Empire consumes. The Empire expands. It flexes its military power and stomps on individual lives. For the first time, Star Wars feels like its commenting on our world today, from the nature of what an Empire is, to how its nobility profits from never-ending war, to the difficult choices supporting characters must make in order to make a difference. Zaluna, quoted in the opening to this post, is a fascinating character, a Sullustan surveillance agent who has an Edward Snowden-esque change of heart once she realizes what the Empire can do with the data she’s spent her whole adult life collecting. Her justifications for spying on ordinary citizens mirror real world politics in a way I never thought I’d see in a Star Wars book. Equally as intriguing is Skelly, a disturbed veteran of the Clone Wars who’s full of paranoid theories about the Empire and just wants somebody to listen to him.

I think A New Dawn really is the perfect gateway novel for new readers interested in where Star Wars is going, and old readers who left Star Wars behind. The writing isn’t what I’d call beautiful, but the storytelling is well paced and the characters are strong. It drops you back into a narrative that lets you re-experience the core elements of a good Star Wars story. And it gives you a ton of confidence in the Lucasfilm Story Group’s abilities.

Lastly, regarding EPISODE VII clues -- they’re almost certainly there. The author does a great job laying out the behind the scenes machinations of the Empire, what the Emperor’s plans for it might have been (interesting that his ultimate goals never became clear, even in the OT), and the politics occurring offscreen. I can’t help but think these sections are building foundation for why the Rebellion is so important to the overall conflict of the saga, and why the Empire did not necessarily fall after RETURN OF THE JEDI.

Look, I was clearly an easy sell here. Star Wars was like a religion to me, my younger brother, and my Dad. It provided my family with endless hours of enjoyment, meaningful memories and exciting experiences. There’s 5 or so more novels coming between now and EPISODE VII, and a season or two of Rebels. I am fully on board. For me, Star Wars is back, it’s in better shape than it’s been since the 80s, and I believe it could truly end up being better than it’s ever been before.

I think for awhile there I became like Kanan, turning my back on the Force as I grew older. I forgot about the Jedi. I forgot why they meant something. Now, I’m starting to remember. I’m starting to feel the Force again. 

I think I’m not the only one.