Out of any of the authors contributing towards the new canon of Star Wars books, it is with Claudia Gray that readers can feel safe. You know that in picking up one of her books that she will deliver a clean crisp story, that it will have a clear plot structure, and that the characterization will be superb. All these qualities are present in her two other books to date, Lost Stars and Bloodline. Like Lost Stars this book is categorized as “Young Adult” but I personally pay little heed to such classifications. To me books are defined only by the quality of writing between the pages.
The qualities notable in her previous works for Star Wars are on display here. There is something inherently luxurious about Claudia Gray’s writing. She has however been dealt a pretty difficult hand with this one. The book is released as part of the Journey to The Last Jedi sequence of novels. The setting of the book is in the period before A New Hope. The remit therefore is to foreshadow the events of The Last Jedi to some extent. This book partially fulfills that role, but if you ignore the lead-in to The Last Jedi marketing pitch then you will get more out of it.
Let’s look at that angle first though. If you enjoyed the sight of Admiral Holdo slamming the Raddus into the side of the Supremacy while bursting into hyperspace as much as I did during The Last Jedi then you’ll be eager to get some background on the Holdo character. We get a little bit here but nothing that really gets under the skin of the character. It is interesting to read about Leia of Alderaan’s first meetings and nascent friendship with Amilyn Holdo of Gatalenta as part of the Imperial Senate’s Apprentice Legislature program. We get a little bit of magic between the two as Holdo shows herself as more than the Luna Lovegood type she appears on first glance in the book’s closing chapters. It was also pretty fun imagining a younger Laura Dern and Carrie Fisher enacting the adventures in this book.
Elsewhere the book is notable for three points. Firstly the book is excellent at drawing out the dynamics at play in the emerging Rebel movement. Bail Organa and Breha Organa both draw out a range of arguments on approach to rebellion with Bail advocating a more peaceful democratic approach, but with Breha starting to accept the logical need for violence. Indeed at one point Breha is more accepting, while not condoning, the actions taken by Saw Gerrera’s Partisan’s in order to combat an increasingly totalitarian Empire. This book, as was the case with Greg Rucka’s Guardians of the Whills, draws out all all the required subtlety when looking at the spectrum of political dissent from peaceful non-violent protest to civil disturbance and violence. The portrayal of factions within the overarching rebel movement is a core strength of Gray’s work here, and one of the key points of interest in, the new Star Wars canon.
The second point of note is in the appearance of Quarsh Panaka as an Imperial Moff. Just like the spectrum within the rebellion is played to good effect, the new canon has also introduced shades of gray into the characters that make up the Imperial forces. There is an interesting note in this book when Organa notes that it is just as important to try and work with (relatively) functional and bureaucratic Imperial officials as opposed to those who are actively endorsing the Empire’s tactics. That said awful things are done under Panaka’s watch in this book, and nothing can take away from the unedifying sight of one of Amidala’s key members of staff from the Prequel era serving under Palpatine. It is a truly shocking cameo.
Finally, Tarkin. What a deliciously evil depiction of Tarkin in this book. Gray just inherently gets the character. I loved the detail brought to bear on Tarkin’s background in James Luceno’s marvellous Tarkin book. Gray picks up Luceno’s ball and runs with it. Here we have him watching suspiciously for signs of dissension from Alderaan and subjecting Leia to scrutiny under the microscope at several points while she is in Coruscant. Likewise a scene in which Tarkin arrives unexpectedly in Alderaan during a gathering of erstwhile rebels masquerading as a formal event is wonderful as he casts his suspicious eye over the guests.
All in all, this is a good book, but the period in which it is set, plus the circumstances within which the events take place, mean that limits are placed on Gray. I think that on balance Lost Stars and Bloodline are better books. This book gets a bit bogged down at times in the detail of the Apprentice Legislature Program, which was relatively dull aside from when it leads to Leia straying into the activities of the emerging Rebellion (we also see Crait at one point). That said, there is still plenty to enjoy and a lesser work by Gray is still a very good book by anyone else’s standards. Little easter eggs such as the Millennium Falcon and Krennic are also fun for the eagle eyed. On balance this book gives a good return on the investment of your time and money despite being a little slow in parts.