I have waited for this one with as much or perhaps more expectation than I did for The Force Awakens.
As a lifelong Darth Vader fanboy who wanted to know more about the height of Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars and the road that ultimately led to his fall, I was one of the many fans who was surprised to learn that Skywalker had a padawan. I was even more surprised to learn that in an extremely short time Ahsoka Tano would quickly become tied with Darth Vader as my favorite Star Wars character. When The Clone Wars ended in the wake of the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm, I suspected that it would be a very long wait before I got to see anything more from Ahsoka. And then she turned out to be an integral part of season two of Star Wars: Rebels, culminating in the lightsaber showdown between her and her former master. My two favorites, head to head, with an ambiguous ending that sort of left her in limbo.
Between seasons, we learned much from showrunner Dave Filoni, including stories involving Ahsoka’s adventures in the wake of her leaving the Jedi Temple, through Order 66, and beyond. These were stories of her freeing the planet Mandalore from the control of Maul alongside Captain Rex and a special detachment of the 501st loaned to her by Skywalker for that mission. We learned of her facing off against Maul as the newly-anointed Darth Vader assaulted the Jedi Temple. These were stories of how she would reach out into the Force to try to find Anakin in the wake of Order 66, only to find nothing, and how she would try to cope in the Imperial-controlled galaxy until she would eventually emerge within the ranks of the Rebellion as the mysterious “Fulcrum.”
I was led to believe that these ideas and so much more would find their way into this novel. What’s interesting to me is the way this was marketed. Most Star Wars novels are a big to-do with an audiobook release. This was marketed as a young readers novel, with no audiobook release planned. Fan response begged for an audio release, and they begged for Ahsoka herself, Ashley Eckstein, to narrate. Fans got their wish on both counts. And so did I. Ashley’s involvement makes this right.
Let me tell you up front, whoever billed this as a young readers novel… no. This is a Star Wars novel and all that implies, so it’s for all ages. More than that, it’s most definitely a story of the Dark Times. Lives are at stake, and not everyone makes it to the end of the book. Just sayin’.
This book had to tread into territory previously explored by John Jackson Miller, one of my favorite writers. The first time was in the book that became the last of the old Expanded Universe 2.0 (now “Legends”) line, Kenobi. The second was in the official relaunch of the novel line (EU 3.0 as I call it) with A New Dawn, which explored Order 66 and the idea of a former Jedi padawan on the run as a prequel to the Rebels animated series. In each case, both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Kanan Jarrus had to separate themselves from their natural tendencies to be who they are, to stop being Jedi, to blend in as much as possible despite a natural instinct to help people. The thing is that with Obi-Wan, this is where we first met him in A New Hope, so to see the transition was somewhat natural and expected for readers. With Kanan, that was his first appearance. We didn’t know anything about him. For Ahsoka, a new generation of young fans have grown up with her, and we all watched her grow up. We speculated for years as to when her number would finally be up, seeing as how she wasn’t in Revenge of the Sith. And while we’ve seen that both Obi-Wan and Kanan ultimately followed the rules and then learned the new rules, we have to remember that Ahsoka’s master was Anakin Skywalker. The first things she learned were when and how to break the rules, how to do so with style, and to leave fiery explosions behind. In some ways, part of her training included how to learn from and improve upon Anakin’s example in ways even he might not expect. The fan support for this character has been tremendous, and with this book — the first novel to feature Ahsoka as the central character in a time few of us expected her to live through in the first place — there’s a lot of expectations riding on this. On some levels, it’s not unlike what was expected for The Phantom Menace or The Force Awakens.
I’m going to nitpick a couple of specifics before I cover the larger story arc. It’s easier in my mind to just get that out of the way.
The prologue of this book hinted at the greatness of everything Filoni told us, setting up the epic fight between Ahsoka and Maul. And that’s all there was of it, just a prologue. It was a 5 star beginning, and then we move a year later in the turn of a page. Here’s the thing. I can’t accurately judge a book by what the author leaves out; I can only judge by what’s in the story. And since that prologue is in the story, and since I know what Filoni was going to do with it on The Clone Wars, that’s a big honkin’ tease with a big gaping hole that needs to be filled. That Johnston didn’t fill it just hurts. I was awestruck, and then I was cheated immediately, which set the tone for the entire novel. It literally had me at “hello,” and then slammed a door in my face. I get why it was there, because it’s explained later on how Ahsoka and Rex faked their deaths to go to ground. Presentation is everything in Star Wars, and that made me want to see the whole story of that encounter, not the fast forwarded high point. Seriously, you had Filoni and Lucasfilm working with you! Use the resources and give us the whole story! Perhaps that’s just the sound of my inner fanboy screaming in futility, but after the hints of this encounter being dropped on Rebels and then to get Filoni’s artwork and discussion… to simply breeze past it, dealing with none of the setup nor the fallout seems unconscionable after all that back there.
There are two other scenes that have me a bit torn. One is a look-in on Obi-Wan on Tatooine, meditating, pretty much picking right up where Miller’s Kenobi novel leaves off. It does virtually zero for the story, except to acknowledge that, like Ahsoka, Kenobi is reaching out into the Force to try to find survivors and sensing nothing. The other is a flashback scene that slides into the pilot movie of The Clone Wars. On the plus side, it reminds us of what would happen moments after the scene ends, with Ahsoka’s first appearance. It’s a bit of nostalgia that brought back all the feels. But it stopped cold, and since it was from Anakin’s POV and not Ahsoka’s, it added nothing new. I’m guessing that wasn’t the point, but it was weird for pacing.
Now let’s talk about the good stuff.
Ahsoka’s journey since leaving the Jedi Temple hasn’t been an easy one, but after Order 66, she had to disavow everything about herself and her former way of life. What this book demonstrates quite eloquently is that every planet and every single encounter is an opportunity to potentially win allies or lose your life. The rules are inconsistent at best, as Ahsoka learns the hard way. Does she fight or flee? Does she stop to help where she can, or is her presence only making the situation worse? Can she make friends, or must she keep everyone at arm’s length? What can she do to help a family with a young Force sensitive? Anything at all?
Worst of all, with the Empire’s new rules in play, concentrated acts of kindness can be tracked by both allies and enemies. This is where things get interesting because this story tells us how Ahsoka got involved with Bail Organa and the fledgling Rebellion to become “Fulcrum,” and it gives us a look into the first of the Inquisitors.
In terms of pacing, the book is largely a slower build, especially after the prologue, but it does build in ways that matter. As this is Ahsoka’s spotlight, that spotlight is fixed on her character growth. This is where Johnston excels in my opinion. Everything in this felt natural to Ahsoka’s heart and intelligence.
When we get the Inquisitor towards the end, that’s when the pacing really begins to pick up, but it’s not much of a fight either. It’s over and done pretty quick, much as it was on Rebels, only this Ahsoka is 15 years younger and should have been more evenly matched. Or perhaps I’m wrong about this? I have this theory about some of her potential in the wake of the Mortis story arc from The Clone Wars, and this whole sequence actually hinted at it without saying anything directly. It’s more subtle points that smell like they came straight from Filoni. I really should write a blog entry about this at some point. But for now, suffice it to say without spoiling much that it’s a big deal in terms of ticking off the boxes of what we know and where Ahsoka needs to go before the events of Rebels. It’s pure fan service, and I didn’t mind it at all.
I did say earlier that not everyone makes it out alive. One of the things this novel does, much as in Kenobi, is that the readers come to learn about Ahsoka’s life and those around her at various points. Johnston did a good job of making them people worth investing in, even if we knew up front that Ahsoka would be parting from them at some point. Through them we get a sense of the real depths of depravity in the way the Empire operates in the Outer Rim. The Empire hires some weasels, as we know. How it plays out is a lot of fun in terms of storytelling, and it feeds right back into Ahsoka’s inner moral struggles and evolution.
Overall, this one was worth the wait, but I do think that the lack of follow-through on prologue’s setup makes the book feel incomplete, made worse by the fact that it is a short book, and the ending seems rushed. The story beats are there, the character beats are there, and it absolutely ticked those boxes. I heartily enjoyed what’s here. But I feel like it could have used a bit more here and there. Johnston’s got potential as a Star Wars writer if we can bust her out of her comfort zones. Character is well done; action, not quite there yet.
Ashley’s performance… what can you say? She is Ahsoka. She knows where the character has been and where she would go from here, so the evolution is showcased in the performance as much as it is in the writing. She did a respectable job with most of the other characters as well. Maybe the deeper voiced characters like Bail seemed a bit out of her range, but she gave it an honest go, and got the spirit of intent. What also stands out to me is the nuances she gives all of the characters. There are little nudges of emphasis and emotion that she makes you feel, which is the difference between many narrators and a voice actress of her calibre. Truth be told, I’d like her to narrate more of these down the road. If Ahsoka’s involved, she absolutely should be at the mic regardless. Where the book is teetering between 3 and 4 stars and full of promise, Ashley’s performance delivers on the promise and nails the landing, adding that extra punch.