This review contains minor spoilers for Claudia Gray’s novel Master & Apprentice
Since the Star Wars “canon” was reset in April 2014, I’ve had a wish list of stories I wanted to see told, all filling gaps in the prequel era. While the first few years following the “reboot” focused mainly on the original trilogy, I held out hope that we would eventually see a novel about Padmé set between Episodes I and II; an origin story for Dooku’s turn to the dark side; and the great missing piece from The Clone Wars, the Siege of Mandalore. Someone must have been listening.
What I wanted more than anything, though, was a novel about my favorite character, Qui-Gon Jinn. And after her incredible short story “Master and Apprentice” in 2017’s From A Certain Point Of View, I knew I wanted Claudia Gray to write it. From the heartbreaking Lost Stars to her work with Leia in Bloodline and Princess of Alderaan, Gray has been one of the shining stars of the new novels. So maybe I was pre-programmed to like this. I can honestly say, though, that Master & Apprentice is everything I wanted it to be, and more: a look inside the mind and beliefs of Qui-Gon Jinn, an unexplored take on his relationship with Obi-Wan, and something of a love letter to fans of The Phantom Menace.
Your Focus Determines Your Reality
In many ways Master & Apprentice feels like the perfect tie-in book for The Phantom Menace, a novel we could easily imagine being released in 1999, making it the ideal release for the 20th anniversary of Episode I. Its set-up is vaguely familiar: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are sent to resolve a dispute involving trade routes, powerful corporations, and the signing of a treaty by a young Queen. Minor themes hinted at in TPM are here explored in more depth: the Republic’s apathy towards slavery, the Jedi complicity in that apathy, and the consequences of a child joining the Jedi Order when they are “too old,” and have already formed attachments to their home and family.
Gray doesn’t merely tread the same ground, though. The novel tells its own story, creating a unique planetary culture in Pijal, and a cast of new characters every bit as engaging and well-drawn as those familiar to us. One of the great challenges with Star Wars novels is that the franchise is so fundamentally visual: it is a rare novelist who can describe the exact look of a spaceship in a clear, easily-visualized way, while a single panel of a comic book often does a better, clearer and more exciting job of picturing a space battle than several pages of prose. In all of her novels, Gray has shown that she understands this, and plays to the strengths of the medium: world-building, political intrigue, and getting inside the heads of her characters.
Revisiting some of the themes of TPM allows Gray to take a closer look at the state of the Republic and the Jedi in the years before the Clone Wars, and gives us an insight into how Qui-Gon must feel about those things in TPM. At the start of Master & Apprentice, Qui-Gon is, to his own surprise, offered a place on the Jedi Council, and throughout the novel he ruminates on where he feels the Council has gone wrong: its inflexible adherence to its Code, its acting as a galactic police force for corrupt politicians, its inaction over slavery, and its basing itself high above the city of Coruscant, detached from the galaxy and the living Force. All this adds more fuel to the question: had Qui-Gon survived TPM, might he have saved the Jedi Order from itself?
Pass On What You Have Learned
The central theme of the novel is the relationship of master and apprentice: the responsibility, and the challenge, of teaching. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are here presented at a rocky moment in their relationship: the bohemian Master and the by-the-book Padawan, struggling to communicate and find a common understanding about the Force and about themselves. There is something moving about the way Gray has each of them blame not the other, but themselves, for the problems in their relationship, and the story follows their attempts to reconcile their differences.
We flash back, too, to Qui-Gon’s relationship with his own inscrutable Master, Dooku. We get the first hints of the reasons for Dooku’s turn, and Gray skillfully makes him a dark reflection of Qui-Gon himself – not merely in his unconventional nature, but also his fascination with ancient knowledge and prophecy – ideas sure to be picked up in Cavan Scott’s forthcoming audio drama Dooku: Jedi Lost. Dooku’s motivations have always been something of an enigma, and although his appearances here are only fleeting, this is the first time I have truly had a sense of what makes him tick.
Gray also introduces a new character, Rael Averross, an extravagantly maverick former apprentice of Dooku who himself is dealing with his own guilt about failing his Padawan. A direct line could be drawn between the disillusioned Averross and the Luke Skywalker we see in The Last Jedi, and there are some fascinating conversations between Averross and Qui-Gon about the need to stand for the light regardless of the state of cosmic balance, and the fact that turning from the dark side is not something you do once – “It’s the work of a lifetime.” Had he not shut himself off from the Force, Luke could have learned much on Ahch-to from Qui-Gon’s perspective, and this novel should be the final nail in the coffin of the belief that Qui-Gon is somehow a “grey Jedi.”
Not at the Expense of the Moment
The book also explores, with a light touch, some of the myths surrounding Jedi “celibacy,” coming closer to Lucas’s original statements about the idea than to the fandom assumptions of the last 17 years. Yet it also deals seriously with the themes of attachment and compassion, and the difference between them; the danger of becoming so attached to someone that you let those emotions cloud your judgement. Gray writes the Jedi not as unfeeling automatons, but as human beings dealing with the same emotions we all do, trying to find a way of mastering them to serve a greater purpose. The temptation to use their great power in a way which may seem like the right thing to do, but which could have terrible consequences, is ever-present.
Claudia Gray clearly studied TPM, and the prequel era as a whole, forensically. Qui-Gon has been my favorite character for many years, but Gray still told me new things about him. One of Qui-Gon’s great contradictions in TPM is that he espouses the importance of the living Force, of staying in the moment and not dwelling on the future; yet he also sets great store by the ancient prophecy of the Chosen One, and his belief that he is acting as the Force’s instrument in fulfilling that prophecy. Gray does a masterful job of bridging those two ideas, as Qui-Gon struggles with the same issues, aware of the dangers of seeing a vision of the future: dangers familiar to anyone who has followed the adventures of Anakin, Luke and Rey over the years. Qui-Gon’s belief in following the will of the Force above all, even if it means using a flexible interpretation of his mandate or the Jedi Code itself, is central to his character here.
There’s a strong mystery at the heart of this novel, palace intrigue with a twist that I admit I didn’t see coming. Gray’s real strength, though, is with her characters, and I’m not sure any other author in the new canon has such a strong sense of Star Wars, its characters, or the Force, as she does. Gray, along with Cavan Scott, Charles Soule, Daniel José Older and Justina Ireland, is now part of Project Luminous, a new publishing project which we know almost nothing about, save the tantalizing Jedi emblem in the reveal. If it is anything to do with the Jedi, or the Force, then based on Master & Apprentice, it couldn’t be in safer hands.