Imagine you’re an eight-year-old girl. You’re hiding for your life in a small underground bunker, alone in the dark. You’ve just seen your father captured. You bore silent witness as your mother was shot and killed at point blank range right before your eyes in a bid to free him. Your home was torched by black armored stormtroopers who went so far as to rip apart the homemade toys your mother made for you in an effort to locate your father’s research. All of this, at the behest of “an old family friend.” Your parents had prepared for this day. They had run you through contingency drills for all manner of scenarios revolving around this one idea, pretending it was a game. You knew better, but you played along. In none of those scenarios were you to be left alone. In none of those scenarios was anyone supposed to die. This is how you learn that there is no such thing as “safe.”
These are the thoughts Jyn Erso has in her head shortly after she is found by Saw Gerrera, hiding in the bunker she was supposed to share with her parents. As she makes the connection that Saw is the unspeakable contingency in the event that all things went wrong, Jyn finds herself growing up way too fast in slum conditions, now part of a world of desperate freedom fighters, surrounded by a galaxy gone power mad. Worse still, these freedom fighters believe Jyn’s father is league with the Empire that destroyed her life. His research, whatever it is, will open the galaxy to something far more devastating. Merely to survive, Jyn must learn to fight as they do, and she must bury her identity, trusting only the man her parents put their trust in to protect her. But even this has a price, for Saw Gerrera is a man so zealous in his fight against the Empire that even other rebel cells label him a terrorist, a man who believes the evidence of his own eyes that Galen Erso has chosen to betray the galaxy and abandon his daughter. Fast forward six years. What does this lifestyle do to a young person?
I love prequels. It’s part and parcel of my enthusiasm for history, an enthusiasm that was born in the Galaxy Far, Far Away long before it translated to other universes or the real world, long before the internet twisted the word into a term to be reviled by those who will not see. Prequels are the story-rich areas that allow the story and characters you already know to resonate with even more vitality. More than that, they are stories unto themselves, tales built on stories that led to that moment, and so on, backwards into infinitum. For me, Star Wars has offered two prequel eras that I’ve been chomping at the bit to learn more about since the original film hit theaters: the Clone Wars and the Dark Times, two points of story that Obi-Wan Kenobi touched upon only briefly, but that hinted at so much more. 40 years later, the veil of secrecy has been pulled back, and we learn more about those eras. The more we learn, the more there is to tell. This is something the best stories have in common with real history. The more you dig, the more you find new characters, new depths, new meanings.
Rogue One was a prequel. In the marketing lead-in, we got Catalyst, a prequel to that story that dealt with the years before the opening scene in Rogue One where Jyn Erso was orphaned. And now we have Rebel Rising, which fills in the lost story of Jyn Erso, before she became the Star Wars equivalent to Joan of Arc: the bright spark that came literally out of nowhere to rally the troops, pull off the unthinkable, and open the way for ultimate victory. With Rebel Rising, Rogue One has now become a trilogy of prequels. I smile to myself when I think of the indignant howls of protest from the vocal minority who somehow think this is a bad thing simply because it’s a prequel. The vocal minority fear prequels. Fear is the path to the Dark Side… *evil cackle here*
I’ve had this audiobook on pre-order since the moment it was announced. When it comes to the Wars, I’m not exactly all-in due to the sheer amount of content, but I’ve developed an understanding of what will work for me and why. Love the story drives me the rest of the way, as it does so many across the world. I watched Expanded Universe 1.0 rise and fade out. I watched EU 2.0 rise and get summarily swept away in the Lucasfilm buyout. By and large, I cherry pick anything after Return of the Jedi, judging slowly but carefully, and I am typically all-in when it comes to anything set during the Clone Wars or the Dark Times. There are exceptions to everything, of course, on all sides of things. There are certain authors who have… failed me. I will never read another word they write. Likewise, there are other authors whom I will follow to the end of the galaxy and across the multiverse to pretty much anything else they write, such is their proven storytelling ability and understanding of character and milieu. Most Star Wars authors fall somewhere in the middle, and I’m still more than happy to have their contributions to my favorite galaxy. That said, I’ve not heard of Beth Revis before this. Little wonder there. My practice in the not-so-ancient art of Google Fu tells me she writes YA sci-fi, and not to put too a fine point on it, but I’m not exactly her target audience. Until now. The things the Star Wars community recognizes is talent and hard work. Sometimes they bring with them a greater understanding of what makes Star Wars work, and sometimes it brings only a volley of well-meaning but ultimately misplaced fan fiction level crap. How does one know for certain if you don’t give these people a chance? Revis has been writing only a handful of years now, and she’s already made a name for herself, producing a catalog of work that should rightfully shame some of the best sellers in terms of sheer quantity. Again, I’ve not read her work, so the quality is unknown to me. Whatever the case, Revis has garnered the notice of Lucasfilm’s Story Group. I’m more than willing to give her a shot to impress me with a well-told Star Wars story. Jyn Erso’s backstory of her years with Saw Gerrera? Yes, please! This is, after all, what the Expanded Universe is for, to dig deeper, regardless of how long anyone wants to cling to the delusion of canon status? They’ve shot that notion in the foot on multiple counts now. Both feet. Win some, lose some. Bolt on some random droid feet and keep on moving, because a good story is still a good story, regardless of how well it fits into canon. As to the YA point… Jyn is a character who will understandably attract a YA audience, just as she has attracted pretty much all other audiences receptive to her story, and the voice of a YA author isn’t necessarily a bad thing when getting at the heart of a character trying to grow up in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. If you search your feelings, you’ll know it to be true that Star Wars at its best is for the young as well as for the young at heart. Like prequels, these ideas have destructive preconceptions for the closed-minded that must be set aside in order to give a story — and its author — the proper due. All that remains is to answer the billion dollar question: can Beth Revis write Star Wars? Or to put it more accurately, did she deliver on the promise that is Star Wars, as I understand and appreciate it? Does she add to what I already love in some meaningful way? Sounds like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? It’s Star Wars. Go big or go home.
I’m proud to say that Revis not only made me (mostly) forget about her YA background during the course of this story, she told a bona fide Star Wars story, and all that implies. Fans of Rogue One, if you’d like more character development than what we saw on screen, seek out this book. You will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. This isn’t one of the truly big stories in the galaxy, but it is the kind of story that begs to be told. More than just a character sketch, this book addresses what life — or what passes for it — is like for those who live outside the system and rise up against the Empire.
“The resistance needs a martyr.”
This is one of those heavily-loaded quotations from Saw Gerrera that really define his character and his story. It also has ripples into both his and Jyn’s future, as we see in Rogue One. Saw’s backstory and character, first crafted in The Clone Wars and continued on Rebels, is further developed here to accent the differences between himself and the idealistic Jyn as well as the differences between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. He watched his sister die in the Clone Wars. His truth is that fear is the tool of the Empire, and if enough idealistic martyrs — like his sister, like the Jedi — are sacrificed to the cause, the galaxy will finally stand up and take notice. At that point, fear becomes his weapon to use against the Empire. To him, this is the only way to overthrow the Empire, by using its own means against it, to sacrifice civilians in the name of peace. As other rebels point out, this is not peace. But Gerrera isn’t really fighting for peace. He’s still fighting the Clone Wars, seeing it all as the same struggle that took his sister and shaped his world. He’s a man without hope, and thus a man with nothing left to lose. To his mind, one fighter with a sharp stick and nothing left to lose can win the day if belief is there. I would argue that if he still believes on any level, then he still has something left to lose, but that’s beside the point. This is the core of Saw’s character, the counterpoint to Jyn Erso that makes her work as she does. Growing up in this environment and under his tutelage, Jyn must develop the skills, both mental and physical, that will enable her to survive and to prove herself to those who would see her only as a little girl.
All of this is established in the first few chapters of this audiobook, the foundation upon which the rest of the tale is told. The larger story of Jyn’s time with Saw — and of her time after he abandons her — is intercut with a parallel story involving her incarceration at the hellish Imperial labor camp on Wobani, where she will be eventually liberated by Cassian Andor and K-2SO in Rogue One.
I mentioned that I was mostly invited to forget about Revis’ YA credentials. The middle section of this novel, after Jyn and Saw have parted ways, deals with her attempt at civilian life and the obligatory teen romance. A dash of romance, when done well, is far from out of place in Star Wars. But teen romance… I’m in my 40s, young love (or anything approaching it) is always a bit awkward, and… yeah, not my thing if written by any pen lesser than Shakespeare’s. So be it. It doesn’t really bog down the story. That’s another hallmark of Star Wars when its done right: things move, and there’s little time to dwell on what may or may not work. The contrast of everything Jyn’s been through with her attempt at a normal life is still an interesting conflict, transient though it may be, is necessary for a complete character portrait. She did maintain a level of idealism after all that back there. Fighting against the Empire is one thing. Knowing what to fight for, that’s something else. It takes a little normalcy to offset the extremism of Saw Gerrera. And it means more when those civilians are threatened by the Empire. Imagine walking out your front door and seeing an Imperial walker bearing down on your home. Her misadventures on her own that will eventually lead her to that prison camp adds a new dimension to her character in the book’s third act. There’s the point to consider that in Rogue One, Jyn is apathetic to both the Empire and the Rebellion when the film begins. That’s addressed in this section. It reminds the reader how easy it is to slip into the routine of an oppressive lifestyle. It’s also a reminder that there are more than two factions in the galaxy.
There are Easter eggs dotted throughout, such as a reference to the Ante (from the Darth Vader comic series), blue milk, and the ever-ubiquitous caf that I’m convinced fuels the Expanded Universe. But there was one reference that really stood out for me:
“I joined the Rebellion because I have seen the fulcrum upon which the fate of the galaxy is balanced, and the Empire weighed heavily on one side, and only the Rebels really stood against it. I figured I could help restore that balance… I have seen the Fulcrum.”
I suppose it would have made no sense to the story for a cameo, all things considered, but it’s hard not to smile about it.
Ultimately, I heartily enjoyed this book. As I say, it’s Star Wars and all that implies. More than that, it’s quality world and character building in the best of the Expanded Universe tradition. It opens up Rogue One a little more and hits on all the character beats. Welcome to Star Wars, Beth Revis. I’m more than willing to keep my eyes open for her next entry in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Maybe that next entry will be a book on Cassian Andor? You know that guy’s got stories. Just saying.