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Can the Ascendancy Trilogy Live Up to the Hype? Perhaps.

Mild Chaos Rising spoilers below regarding character personalities and development.

I had very high hopes for the Ascendancy trilogy of books about the Chiss – I thought they would be a way to tell a story in a new setting about an alien species that fans had been curious about for over two decades. I may have been overly optimistic in a way; despite the new setting, Chaos Rising tends to retread ground already covered in the new canon (as well as in Tim Zahn’s Expanded Universe offerings). If you’re curious what ground I think has been retread, my review of Zahn’s previous Star Wars novel covers it.

The novel is primarily about an obscure merit adoptive who causes no end of trouble for returning character Admiral Ar’alani. New POV characters Thalias and Che’ri are standouts because they’re Chiss characters who are in their own way trying to navigate the traditions and mores of the Chiss people. While Star Wars readers are used to the idea of a military officer rubbing an entrenched bureaucracy the wrong way (as in the Empire), the Chiss Ascendancy has its own quibbles and mores beyond the military matters that these three POV characters can really highlight.

Chaos Rising is our first in-depth look at the Chiss in the new canon, and they’ve got complicated family politics that will be familiar to any fan of dynastic intrigue. That’s coupled with their mindset of isolationism and sense of superiority to other species of the “Chaos” (their term for the parts of the Unknown Regions outside their territory). There’s also a touch of what one reviewer called “gender essentialism” in Chiss culture that’s fairly uncomfortable to read. It’s no wonder that the Chiss are known for associating with Sith and Imperials at different points of the Star Wars timeline. That said, at least some of these (the superiority) strike me as intentional flaws in Chiss culture and I look forward to how the trilogy might engage with those ideas.

Today, I want to talk mostly about Ar’alani, Thalias, and Che’ri – who they are, and how they relate to the aspects of Chiss culture highlighted in the book. This book sets up some fairly interesting ideas with these characters but fails to engage with them — but I think the rest of the trilogy could do better.

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War Did Not Make Them Great: Conflict’s Toll on the Characters of Shadow Fall

The introduction of this piece is spoiler-free. If you don’t want details of Shadow Fall a warning will let you know when to stop.

Anyone who’s read an Alexander Freed Star Wars novel has some idea of how Shadow Fall is going to go. We expect a gritty, realistic look at war with some hefty emotional pain for the characters (and the readers!). Underscoring that expectation, Del Rey promoted this second book in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy with the phrase “victory has a price”. It certainly does.

War changes people. Though the Empire falls relatively quickly in comparison to the Expanded Universe’s version of the story, we know from stories like Shattered Empire, Battlefront II, and the Aftermath trilogy that a lot of traumatic things can happen in the year of warfare after Return of the Jedi.

Shadow Fall continues the action from the first book in the trilogy, beginning in medias res with a campaign to take a single Deep Core star system from the remnants of the Empire in order to bait Alphabet Squadron’s nemesis, Shadow Wing. The bulk of the action takes place on the urban world of Troithe, something like Coruscant’s forgotten sibling. The conflict is narrow and intense, and allows us to focus on our core cast of characters who were introduced in the past novel: the members of Alphabet Squadron, and their antagonists in Shadow Wing.

The fighting in this book isn’t pretty. What our characters go through – and have to do in order to win – is not pretty. Victory has a price, and this applies to the heroes as much as the villains. If they want to win, they’ll have to do things that they’d scarcely imagined doing in the earlier days of the war. Don’t expect a fun pilot romp interspersed with tragedy the way an Aaron Allston X-Wing novel might make us laugh and cry. There is precious little laughter in this book – which isn’t to say that it’s all darkness and tragedy. But it is definitely intense, and our characters go through hell – and it’s partly a hell of their own making.

That’s the real strength of this book. It’s not just a deromanticized version of Star Wars action and a look at the cost of war. It’s a story about how the traumas of war – both external/military and internal/personal – change people, and what they do when confronted with those traumas. Shadow Fall isn’t an easy read – I had to take my time with it – but it’s worth the investment of time and emotional/mental energy.

Article will contain spoilers after this pointIf you have not yet finished the novel and do not wish to be spoiled, come back to the rest of the article later!

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Queen’s Peril Adds Character to an Old Story

There’s a certain type of Star Wars film-adjacent novel that I like to call a “movie explainer.” Best exemplified by the Darth Plagueis novel of the Legends era, it’s a book that has its own story but also seems to some readers to “fix” or “explain” a film in a way not seen on screen. Sometimes people want Star Wars books to do this – we’ve all seen the tendency recently to want movie novelizations in particular to “fix” something people didn’t like in the movie.

There’s another kind of Star Wars film-adjacent novel: the backstory novel. These novels either introduce us to the new characters from the film or they provide more story for characters we’ve just met on screen. The novels around Rogue One are a great example of these – Del Rey’s Catalyst and Disney’s Rebel Rising and Guardians of the Whills were brilliantly well-received introductions and expansions to Rogue One.

Queen’s Peril, by E.K. Johnston, is definitely a movie-adjacent novel – but it’s neither a “movie explainer” nor a backstory novel. It runs partially concurrent to the events of The Phantom Menace and sheds new light on the film, but not out of a desire to “fix” the movie or to add lore for the sake of lore. If you’ve read Johnston’s first Padmé book, Queen’s Shadow, you know what to expect: it’s a novel about Padmé and her handmaidens and their relationship to each other as they navigate the strangeness of Naboo politics. Queen’s Peril adds context and backstory to The Phantom Menace and reinforces how we should’ve seen the film all along. How? By reminding us of one thing: Queen Amidala is the main hero of The Phantom Menace.

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What should we call Rey?

(Editor’s note: normally, rather than compete with the holidays this week would be dedicated to our biannual Second Look feature—and that will indeed begin tomorrow and run through Friday. But first, with The Rise of Skywalker being so fresh in everybody’s minds and reactions being, ah, also very fresh, I thought today would be a good opportunity for this short, lighthearted piece from Jay Shah, which let’s be honest, I couldn’t have stopped him from writing if I’d tried. – Mike)

Warning: heavy spoilers follow for The Rise of Skywalker.

So, there are many questions that The Rise of Skywalker raises, even as it purports to answer others. There will be many articles over the coming weeks asking or answering them, serious think-pieces and silly parodies. 

I plan to be serious in my silliness. 

We learn a few things about Rey in this movie. I want to discuss what they mean. Not specifically for her, or the saga, or the mythology. I’ll leave those discussions for someone else. I want to discuss what the appropriate form of address for her should be. 

But wait, you ask! Didn’t she say at the end of the film that her name was Rey Skywalker? She sure did. And she has a right to decide who she is and how she defines herself, regardless of what anybody else says — her bloodline, her family, the galaxy, etc. If she says she’s Rey Skywalker, then she is. 

But since I didn’t see her sign a legal change of name document, I’ve decided she’s still legally Rey Palpatine. This is an assumption on my part: we don’t know if her father was legitimate or if he or she was a product of a morganatic marriage.1 But this is a silly piece, so I don’t care. I’m operating under the assumption that her father is legitimate and so is she. The Emperor wanted her to succeed him, so that is enough to establish legitimacy for me, regardless of anything else. Princeps legibus solutus est,2 after all. 

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  1. marriage between people of unequal social rank []
  2. “the prince is not bound by laws” []

Force Collector: Looking at the Galaxy with a Fresh Eye

This review is almost completely spoiler-free, I mention some minor details about who the main characters are but don’t get into the plot events.

I’d been curious about Force Collector ever since it was announced. They told us that it was a middle-grade novel about a kid gathering artifacts to learn more about the Force and the Jedi specifically. Generally, Jedi stories aren’t my favorite: but stories about artifacts and the general mythical environment around Jedi and the Force? I love those. The teaser info we got from author Kevin Shinick at New York Comic-Con sealed the deal: he told us it was a story about someone trying to uncover the events of the Star Wars films who had never heard of or seen anything to do with those events. The main character, Karr, gets strange visions when he touches artifacts that have “experienced” a lot of history or momentous events (historians would envy him that ability!) and begins to uncover bits and pieces of Star Wars history through experiencing vignettes from the books, comics, and movies.

Force Collector isn’t a “clip show” kind of story, and thank goodness for that. It reminds me of the initial pitch for Lost Stars, where Claudia Gray said she was initially told to write a story that introduced the YA audience to the original Star Wars films in a new way – and she created such a compelling story with her original characters that she went well beyond that original idea and created something special. The visions we see in Force Collector are interstitial visions, showing scenes before and after key Star Wars events to show them in a different context, but it’s the framing story that’s the real star for me. I liked Karr as a character, as well as his droid RZ-7 and his friend Maize. Karr’s whole deal is what got me interested in the book in the first place, and the two kids trying to figure out who they are and what they want in life is what kept me reading. It’s a story about regular people in Star Wars, and I love that stuff.

That’s not to say that the visions and Force stuff aren’t interesting. They are, but maybe for a different reason. When Del Rey’s Resistance Reborn recently released, there was some discussion about whether the book was approachable for new readers of the Star Wars literary universe. Some people made some excellent explainers about what people needed to know before reading it (you can take Star Wars Explained as the premiere example of that) while others got lists of lore and facts from the book to add to other lists of lore and facts. And it got me thinking about how different readers grow and become familiar with the universe differently. Some people enjoy reference books with charts and diagrams, some people really appreciate explainer videos, and others better digest “facts” and lore through the form of a narrative story. That’s basically what the premise of Force Collector is: it’s a book accessible to readers completely new to Star Wars books, that presents them with information about the Star Wars galaxy in a narrative fashion. And I think maybe that’s why a successful framing story is so important for this: Karr and Maize are just as new to a lot of this Force and Jedi stuff as a brand new movies-only reader might be, and being able to identify with them as characters helps readers explore Star Wars lore all the easier.

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