Star Wars: Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno

It’s perhaps become embarrassingly easy for LucasBooks that when a book about the inner workings of the Empire is needed, they call up James Luceno.  Most recently known for his contributions such as Darth Plagueis and Tarkin, Luceno has stepped up to the task.  It’s always good to have Luceno at the helm for one of these novels.  That he’s been charged with giving us the lead-in for Rogue One tells me two things.  First, LucasBooks wants to ensure they get the right man for the right job, and second, that they avoid the disappointing fiasco that led up to The Force Awakens.  So instead of 40 or so books that tell us a lot of nothing, we’re given one book that tells us absolutely everything we need to know… aside from all the things we need to know that were presented in The Clone Wars, Rebels, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

And that’s really the best way I know to begin this review, by saying up front that the mission statement for this book is accomplished.  But that’s not really enough.  Setting up a movie sounds so… tame.  Let’s go at this another way.  When I approached this novel, I expected a filler book, which in some ways I suppose you can say all of the Star Wars novels are.  But with Luceno on the job, I hoped for much more, and I got it.

The book opens in the early days of the Clone Wars.  It sets up energy research scientist Galen Erso, his pregnant wife Lyra, and once she’s born, their daughter Jyn.  Galen is a prodigy and a pacifist, opting for prison rather than serving the war machine for either the Republic or the Separatists.  And that’s precisely what happens.  The Separatists capture him and keep him long enough that Jyn is born behind prison walls.  It’s Erso’s old “friend” and opportunist Orson Krennic that arranges for the Ersos’ release, exchanging them to the Republic for the captured Geonosian archduke Poggle the Lesser.

From there, Krennic pushes the boundaries of his ambition and possibility to arrange the construction of the powerful superweapon that is to be the core of the dreaded Death Star.  We already know that the Death Star was in the works as the Clone Wars began, as Poggle gave the plans to Count Dooku, who then gave them to Darth Sidious.  We were led to believe, correctly, in unfinished episodes of The Clone Wars and in later episodes of Rebels that the Kaiburr crystals were the means to power the battlestation.  Essentially, the station is being constructed with no means yet of actually making the weapon work.   The way things are presented early on here, I was under the belief the way this was written that perhaps the later existence of Death Star II was explained here, that during the Clone Wars, each side had begun construction on their own battlestation.  As simple and elegant as that explanation may be, Luceno didn’t offer a through-line for that, so we’re still in the dark on that front.  Maybe it happened as I now think, or maybe the Empire really did crank out a second, larger one in a fraction of the time.  I like my theory better.  At any rate, the story takes us past the Clone Wars, past Revenge of the Sith, and into the Dark Times between trilogies, setting up the Rogue One film as needed.  That’s where Erso comes in, being the analog to our own Dr. Oppenheimer who is building the doomsday weapon, his research being the *ahem* catalyst to making the Death Star operational.  The difference is that Erso doesn’t know he’s doing it.

What Luceno offers here is a masterclass in Imperial bureaucracy and power play.  As a more working class stiff, Krennic is jealous of the position Tarkin holds in the Emperor’s attention, and Tarkin sees through Krennic as the opportunist he is.  Caught between the two, Erso is conned into continuing his long-time research into Kaiburr crystal technology for the purposes of efficient and inexpensive renewable energy for the whole of the galaxy.  While Erso’s leaps in technology are abundant, Krennic’s other research teams (who secretly piggyback on Erso’s research for purposes of developing the Death Star’s superlaser) are at a loss to even understand his work.  It has the unfortunate side effect of painting Erso as the typical absent-minded professor type, supporting once more the idea that there are none quite so dumb as a genius.

Thankfully, Lyra Erso is a good counterbalance for her husband.  Being a Force sensitive, nature lover, and all around space hippie, she’s sympathetic to the fate of the Jedi and suspicious of Krennic’s motivations.  So essentially it works like this: Krennic is trying to keep a leash on Galen Erso, Lyra is trying to break through Krennic’s facade and present proof of his real intentions, and Tarkin is trying to both whip the Death Star into quicker manifestation and undermine Krennic to take control of the project himself.  In the midst of this, we get to see Jyn do a little growing up, we get to know Saw Guerrera as he will be presented in the film, and we see a side of the galaxy that didn’t exist before the Clone Wars, the disgruntled and desperate smugglers that gave rise to the cynics like Han Solo.

On its own, the novel is a highly satisfying read.  Krennic is a welcome addition to the pantheon of overreaching antagonists.  The nature of Star Wars is that the bad guys are often too cool for words, and Krennic most definitely makes that impact for me.  To have him play off against Tarkin… that’s just quality fan service.  There’s a line in this where Tarkin suggests that maybe Krennic needs to be visited by Lord Vader, in a perfect setup to the awesomeness we’re sure to see on screen in a month.  With an understanding of both Tarkin’s and Krennic’s goals established here, that’s going to be a lot of fun to see things ratcheted up to the next level.

But because of the nature of this being a lead-in to the film, the ending is more or less what we expect on some level in that the story arcs presented here aren’t complete.  From where I’m sitting, the flashback sequences featuring young Jyn that we’ve seen in the trailer will pick up where this book leaves off.

I am going to dock a star for both being an incomplete setup and for teasing me with Vader without delivery.  That’s arbitrary, I know, but there are certain… expectations.  And I’d personally like to slap Lyra around a bit for allowing her husband to be strung along by Krennic for as long as she did.  These are all necessary conceits to serve the larger story in play, I get that, but it felt more like Luceno’s talents were being put on a leash.  I know what the man is capable of, and I wanted to see much more of it.  Even so, I’m grateful for what I got.  It’ll be incredible to go to the theaters with further understanding of what’s going on, why, and to whom.  That’s what a tie-in novel is for.

4 stars

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