I’m going to attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible. I might not be fully successful, but I’m going to make the attempt. Also, this is going to be a bit long. Apologies in advance. I have a lot to say.
When I first saw the promotional art for this book and learned through those visuals that the identity of Darth Vader would be weaponized for use against Leia, I was… incredulous might be the best word to describe it. The new canon, or Expanded Universe 3.0 as I call it, has been largely hit or miss in the extremes. When things hit, they hit big. When they miss, they fall flat on their faces and dig new trenches. I feared up front that this book would be one of the latter. I only picked it up because I knew that regardless of how things unfolded, the backstory offered would help to make some sense out of the quagmire that is The Force Awakens. There were too many questions left unanswered specifically because Disney feared another trilogy like the prequels wherein we got answers, but too many people bitched about the delivery. I’m on record as being a staunch defender of the prequels because I took the time to understand them from the point of view of the creator.
I’m still trying to do that with The Force Awakens. Some questions will be answered going forward, but too many questions can only be answered in the past, and it will be the expanded media where those stories are to be told. There are two eras I will gravitate towards: the Clone Wars era and the Dark Times era. After Chuck Wendig’s abysmal tie-in Aftermath, I was prepared to write off the new era completely. If they couldn’t tell it to me in the film, I would have no reason to really care. After all, as good as some of the new canon material is, the bombs are so incredibly bad and the contradictions so blatant that I feel like another reboot will happen sooner or later. Could take another 25 years, but it’ll happen. My thoughts are simply that I want a good story, quality character development, and maybe some answers.
And then comes Claudia Gray and this novel. I’ve heard good things about her previous entry Lost Stars, but I’m not in this for secondary and tertiary characters. I’m too old to give a damn about that anymore. But everyone raved. Then they say this book is about Leia and the years leading into The Force Awakens. I need answers, and so help me, I love Leia, but she usually gets the short end of the stick when it comes to tie-in material. She’s a difficult character to write for, or so it would seem. After that teaser poster art, I wanted to believe, but just didn’t.
The thing is… Claudia Gray has pulled it off. This is a most important book in the Star Wars saga.
20 years after Return of the Jedi, 10 years before The Force Awakens, the story opens up with the senate of the New Republic being a deadlocked, ineffectual political entity. Half of the senate are populists, believing individual systems should have the ability to rule their own in a confederation type setup, preventing a central authority from ever again achieving power such as the Empire once had. The centrists believe that while the Emperor himself was corrupt, central authority is still needed to effectively govern. As Leia is burned out and is looking to retire from political life, a vote is held to dissolve the role of Chancellor and open up the title of First Senator. The populists believe that the only way to keep the First Senator office from becoming a new emperor is to install one of their own so as to have a direct influence on how the New Republic’s constitution is to be re-drafted. Leia is given the populist nomination, and despite her misgivings accepts the nomination for all the right reasons.
In the meantime, delegates from Ryloth inform the senate that a new underworld cartel has arisen behind everyone’s backs, causing extreme chaos and concern, and growing by leaps and bounds. At present, they are easily bigger and more powerful than the Hutts at the height of their power, and they are amassing military power. Leia jumps at the chance to investigate, hoping to do something useful with her senatorial power at long last.
The story that follows is a slow and methodical build, full of political intrigue, real world historical insight, and some of the best character development ever written for Princess Leia Organa. This is her book, she owns it, and if I might say so, it’s 35 years overdue. She is written perfectly here. The reader is given new insight into Leia’s mindset as she is forced to confront the big moments of her life story, and there are some perspective shifts that I’ve never considered before that aren’t spelled out in this book, but happened due to the timing of certain things in the text. For example, when she’s choking the life out of Jabba the Hutt… is she calling on the Dark Side of the Force to do it? It seems harsh to ask, but when you think of how thick a Hutt’s neck is and how Vader was seduced to evil by the promise of saving his loved ones, questions get raised.
Speaking of perception shifts, the populace within the Galaxy Far, Far Away is also offering up some new perspectives. We see how the accepted “facts” of the films are twisted, misread, questioned, and otherwise dismissed by the average citizens. It’s done so effortlessly that as the reader, I was forced to acknowledge that this sort of thing is why Luke Skywalker can be a myth to an outworlder by the time of The Force Awakens. It explains why Rey and Finn can know Han Solo’s reputation from two completely different angles of approach, one as the smuggler, one as the war hero.
This one opened for me some new considerations on the man who would become Kylo Ren. At this time, he would be in a crucial point in his development, old enough to understand what was unfolding. The book doesn’t offer anything from his perspective. He’s only mentioned. But to know what’s happening here… it really makes me wonder about his quest to finish what Vader started. So many new ideas popping around in here as I consider how an angry teenager might react to what happened in the wake of this story.
Most satisfying of all, however, is Leia herself. She’s been the rock of the Star Wars saga. She entered political service at 14. She was tortured. She watched her world die, and she still took the time to comfort Luke for Old Ben’s death. She led a ragtag group of freedom fighters against the greatest military might the galaxy has ever known, against impossible odds, and against impossible conditions, learning the most horrific possible truth about herself as the price for ultimate victory. And just when she thought she had won peace, the galaxy fell apart in the power vacuum. She continued her political service for 20 more years, rarely seeing her husband, and hiding this most terrible secret from the galaxy so that she could tell her son “when the time is right.”
In the hands of a lesser writer, this whole book would have been one colossal mess. As it stands, it’s a testament to some of the strongest character writing ever printed in the Star Wars lexicon.
With this book, we see every side of Leia imaginable, including one we’ve never seen, which is also long overdue. Both Leia and the audience get a complete emotional unleashing and catharsis. It is spectacular. It is righteous. It’s so well done that I get a bit teary eyed just thinking about it. And once it’s over, Leia does what she always does: she gets back in the game and does what needs to be done. I truly love and admire this character, and this book is an extension of all the reasons why.
As The Clone Wars told stories that went a long way towards helping to better understand the prequel era and the saga as a whole, this book goes a long way towards helping to understand the road to The Force Awakens and ties it all together with the prequel and original trilogy eras. It feels like a single, cohesive story again now, even if there is still a line for me between “Lucas era” and “Disney era.” I hope it’s not the last such book like this. More than that, I’m looking forward to more from Claudia Gray, provided she continues to write for characters that matter to me. She’s entered into that golden circle of “favorite Star Wars writers” for me now. She gets it. She gets it in a way many just don’t seem to. Credit where it’s due, most of the characters in this are secondary, and all of them are written with an expert hand. But without Leia, I wouldn’t care so much about any of them, even if that’s a bit unfair. She’s what makes them all work the way they do in my mind, and they in turn make Leia work as well as she does. After the flaming turd that was Wendig’s Aftermath and the onslaught of filler titles that led up to the release of the movie, this book is exactly what I needed to restore some faith in the new era.
It’s also what I needed to help break me out of my recent funk. Two birds, one stone… clearly the will of the Force.