Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Read: 9 July, 2018

I’ve read a few of the Star Wars books now, and I haven’t been overly impressed. For the most part, the books are fine, but I wouldn’t read them if they weren’t Star Wars.

This one, however… this is the Star Wars book I’ve been waiting for.

Both main characters – Thane and Ciena – start off believing in the Empire. They willingly enter the academy, even working hard to get there. They fight on the Empire’s side. Throughout, their reasons are believable. Even when Thane becomes disillusioned, Ciena stays on, making excuses for the bad side of the Empire, and overemphasising the good. Even when the evil of the Empire becomes more visible and personal, Ciena’s reaction is so recognisably human.

It’s so timely (perhaps it’s always timely) to see how good people can serve evil power structures, and how interlaced their reasons can be.

I enjoyed seeing the major events of episodes 4-6 again through new eyes. Finally, we get a frank discussion of the Death Star, and the moral calculus that went into destroying such a powerful weapon at the cost of so very many lives.

I would have enjoyed Lost Stars without it being set in the Star Wars universe. As it is, that only makes it better.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) by Claudia Gray

Read: 26 May, 2018

This is a prequel to A New Hope, giving us a glimpse of Leia’s journey into the resistance.

I had a little trouble getting into this book, though I don’t think it’s necessarily the book’s fault. The tone was so very much like the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’d just finished reading Mirror Dance, that I found it very disappointing. But if I judged all science fiction/space operas on the Bujold scale, I’d just be condemning myself to a life of disappointment.

As it was, the book is fine. Absolutely fine. Doubly fine for YA. Once I was able to get over the fact that this wasn’t written by Bujold, I found myself enjoying it a lot more.

I liked the bracketing of the story – the whole plot happens in between the ceremony where Leia announces the challenges she will undertake to prove herself as heir to the throne, and the ceremony where her challenges have been completed. Integrating Leia’s coming of age into her actual coming of age ceremony was a nice little touch. It worked for me.

Leia in A New Hope was kickass. She was the regal princess, she was the composed diplomat who could stand up to Tarkin, and she was the fighter who could hold her own with a blaster and didn’t hesitate to jump into a garbage compacter. She was everything (#LifeGoals). This book did a pretty good job of getting her to that point. We see her working hard to become that badass, and her motivations always struck true to the character I got to know in the movies.

Holdo was a tantalising character in The Last Jedi. The movie made it clear that she was close with Leia, and that the two women trusted each other, yet we got so little else about her. So it was neat to see so much more of her here. I also found that her attitude toward danger and fighting for justice added some weight to her actions in the movie. I’m looking forward to it coming to Netflix so I can watch it again, this time knowing so much more about her character.

Reading this as a prequel added a great deal of subtext. There was a certain fatalism to reading the descriptions of Alderaan, knowing that the planet – and everyone on it – will soon be gone. In particular, I found it difficult to read about Leia’s relationship with Kier. I know he isn’t in the movies, so I was just waiting for him to either betray her or die (or both). And, of course, the eventual destruction of Alderaan added so much to weight to Leia’s disagreement with Kier about protecting the planet (and to Leia’s choice to sacrifice the planet in A New Hope).

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I weren’t already invested in the characters. I’m glad for the insights, such as they were, into Leia and Holdo, as well as the Star Wars universe as a whole, though I would have liked a little more substance.

Star Wars The Last Jedi: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Read: 18 February, 2018

After watching The Last Jedi, I wanted to know more about Rose Tico. She’s an intriguing character who doesn’t get much exploration in the movie, but just enough to hint at a lot more depth.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much exploration here, either. The story is about Rose and her sister, Paige, trying to help a local rebellion on the planet Aterra Bravo. Set before the outbreak of war with the First Order, Rose and Paige have to operate in secrecy while the rebellion gathers evidence against the First Order.

So far so good. Except that the narrative is fairly superficial, and we don’t get a whole lot of character exposition or development. There’s a bit there about Rose’s relationship with Paige, and what development there is is about her learning to function independently of her sister (giving the last few chapters quite a bit of pathos, considering what happens in the first few minutes of The Last Jedi).

There’s certainly enough plot to fill a full length novel, but the author opts for repetition of the superficial, rather than depth. So over and over again, we hear about how Aterra Bravo reminds Rose of her homeworld, and over and over we hear about the difficulty of navigating the heavy bombers through the Aterran asteroid field. It’s so repetitive that even my six year old was getting annoyed! This book does not trust its readers at all.

Which is such a shame, because Rose is an interesting character, and because the plot is interesting on its own.

This isn’t a terrible book, but it is a disappointing one. The author seems to have confused writing for a younger audience with writing for a lazy, uninterested, and unengaged audience. She sacrificed depth for the assumption that her audience wouldn’t remember details from one chapter to the next.

Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Phasma by Kelly Thompson, illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Read: 4 January, 2018

I don’t have a great track record with tie-in comics. I didn’t much like the Mass Effect one I read, and I really didn’t like the last Star Wars one. But this one was on sale for almost the exact amount I needed to get free shipping on an order, so I went for it…

And I actually liked it!

Like with most graphic novels, I was a little disappointed by how fast everything flew by. I wanted a little more time with the characters, more inner dialogue to help me get to know them better, but I think that’s just because novels are my home medium.

And yet, with the space Thompson had, she did a fantastic job of giving me a better sense of Phasma as a character. Phasma, who has been notoriously short-changed in the movies, deserves her own story, and this is a good start. Even better, there are scattered hints of more that have me excited to read the Phasma novel by Delilah Dawson and find out more.*

*Although the artistic choices in what appear to be a flashback have me a bit confused. The figures we see are all dark haired. And while we never see Phasma herself without her mask, the actor Gwendoline Christie is fair haired.

The story itself was a good one, and I loved that Phasma was amoral, rather than evil. She’s here to survive, and survive she will – no matter what. There was nuance there that we don’t often get to see in “dark protagonists” of any gender, but especially women.

Star Wars: Shattered Empire by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Marco Checchetto, Angel Unzueta, and Emilio Laiso

Read: 27 October, 2016

Taking place in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, this graphic novel features Shara Bey, mother of Force Awaken‘s Poe Dameron, as she meets a number of the Star Wars universe’s big names.

I really can’t say that I loved Shattered Empire. The dialogue writing was passable, but not great. The artwork was fine, albeit a little showy, and lacked character. The plot writing was unfocused.

The artwork felt a little too polished, and it bordered on the uncanny valley with the characters from the movies – trying too hard to make them recognisable. In some portions, it actually looked like the scenes were made with 3D models and then sketched over. There’s a certain stiffness, an inorganic Barbie doll-ness, to that art style that kept popping up. I also found that the action sequences lacked clarity, so that I had to skip ahead to figure out what I was supposed to be seeing.

For the plot, each section of the book has Bey going off on a different adventure, each time with a different original cast member from the movies. The adventures themselves are interesting enough, but nothing ties them together, they don’t build toward anything.

My last complaint – and this is with the Star Wars universe more broadly – is with the focus on parentage. I would have enjoyed Shara Bey just fine as a character without her being the parent of another character. I could have enjoyed Poe Dameron just fine as a character without finding out that his parents were important people who got to meet Luke and Leia.

The parentage theme works with Anakin and Luke because that’s the story, “the sins of the father” and so forth. But there’s no reason to take it any further than that. We don’t need to find out that Anakin is actually the one who built C3PO, or that fan favourite Boba Fett’s father was actually the genetic pattern used for the clone army, or whatever is going on with Rey. These characters are all lovely and important on their own, without the need for intricate breeding certifications.

What I loved about this book, and about the expanding universe in general, is how diverse they make the universe feel. And by retconning women and POCs back into the events of the original trilogy, they let me feel, for the first time, like characters who look like me can really matter in this epic story. I’ve always loved Star Wars, but the new canon is the first time I’ve ever felt loved back by the franchise.

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LEGO Star Wars: Phonics Box Set

Now that my child is just on the cusp of reading on his own, I’m struggling to find him enough ability-appropriate materials (he seems to be growing into quite the avid reader, not sure where he gets that from…).

So far, we’ve mostly been going through the BOB books, supplemented with a few emergent readers from the library. I found a LEGO Star Wars chapter books at the toy store, and I got really excited! My kid loves LEGO and he loves Star Wars, so what could be better? The book was a little too overwhelming for him right now, but I don’t think it will be long, so I bought it and then took to Amazon to see if any more were published (spoilers: there are quite a few!).

While searching, I came across this Phonics box set and immediately purchased it.

The text is actually a mix of early phonics and more complex words, so it’s ideal for parents reading along with their children. The books make this extra easy by bolding the words for the child to read. As with most phonics books, each book overs a different vowel sound.

The stories themselves are a little silly. They aren’t exactly high literature, but they are definitely a relief after a few weeks of BOB books (don’t get me wrong, I love the BOB books, but there’s only so much I want to hear about the things Mat has been sitting on).

The artwork isn’t great. It’s colourful, but it looks a little rushed – proportions are often off, for example. But it is colourful and it is easy to tell who the characters are and, frankly, my kid didn’t notice anything amiss.

The set includes two workbooks. The materials in the workbooks are fine, but they are so small! They lack guidelines, and the spaces provided for kids to write in their answers are far too small. Emergent readers tend to be very young, and they lack fine motor skills. The format of the workbooks would be more appropriate for a grade 2-3 child, while the content is more suited for K-grade 1. Rather than frustrate my kid, we decided to just go through the workbooks verbally.

Overall, I think the box set is well worth it’s price. It could have been done a little better, but it’s a lot of fun and I appreciate more materials in my child’s fandoms being available. My kid already loves reading, but giving him characters that he’s already invested in just makes the experience even better.

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Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Read: 21 May, 2016

In the period after the Death Star’s destruction, Rebel pilot Norra returns to Akiva to find her son. Of course, things go awry – specifically, remnants of the Empire’s leadership happen to have gathered on the planet to decide the fate of the galaxy now that it’s emperor is dead.

Right off the bat, the writing style is very sub-par. It took me a long time to get into the story enough to (mostly) ignore, but then it would just jab at me with awkward or inefficient phrasing. Things like: “The TIE wibbles and wobbles through the air, careening drunkenly across the Myrrann rooftops – it zigzags herkily-jerkily out of sight.”

Yeah.

The characters themselves were fine. They were pretty stock and didn’t exactly have emotional range, but I figured that was something that didn’t evolve in the Star Wars universe until after the events of the original trilogy anyway (with a few very rare sparks here and there).

For the most part, the characters have Backstory and Function, and then are otherwise left to just fulfill the needs of the plot. Which isn’t a terrible thing if the plot can carry it and – for me – it did. Not that it was spectacular or anything, but stuff happened, there were fights, there was action, there were explosions… I wasn’t exactly expecting a Star Wars version of McEwan’s Atonement.

One thing I really liked – and loved in the recent movie as well – is that the galaxy feels much more full than it did with Lucas at the helm. With the original trilogy, all characters (with the very welcome exception of Mon Mothma) are male unless the role demands otherwise. This left men as the default, and women as the sex slaves, maternal figures, or the love interest. Lucas seemed to try to fix this in the prequels, but fell quite short of success.

With the recent franchise, women have been much better distributed. They pop up in the background, they lead Stormtroopers, they’re around. It’s been so refreshing to finally, after thirty years of being a fan, to see the galaxy have room for someone like me.

Aftermath does the same, but takes it one step further – it writes women back into the original trilogy. Norra, our main character, was a pilot in that final battle – a pilot who was never onscreen but, now, has a story and a place. And I am willing to overlook quite a bit for making me – finally – feel welcome in a franchise that I’ve adored my entire life.

Unfortunately, the writing style is pretty terrible. With all the money and resources at their disposal, I sincerely wish that Disney had selected a better writer to handle this book. In most other ways, they seem to take the franchise seriously, and to want us to take it seriously as well. They seem to want to mainstream Star Wars fandom on a level that it hasn’t been before. But I think that the first step needs to be to give these books to authors who will be able to tell the stories with the care they deserve.

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