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Two Camelots: On The High Republic’s Lofty Aspirations

In Star Wars, it feels like democracies are always corrupt and republics always fall. It’s been a perverse message in a franchise about light and dark, freedom and oppression. From the Expanded Universe to the prequel trilogy to the sequel trilogy, we see that senators and politicians are untrustworthy and democratic systems are unequipped to survive. Always our plucky heroes defeat the big bad enemy through force and firepower. It felt absurd by the late EU, where the message seemed to be that only soldiers got it done: rely not on elected governments, but on the military. One of the reasons why democratic republics seem doomed to fail in Star Wars is that we’ve never really seen them in their heyday, only in their rough early days or their corrupt final days.

We’ve known since the original A New Hope novelization that there was an “Old Republic of legend” which “throve and grew” “under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights”. In the film, Obi-Wan Kenobi called the Jedi the “guardians of peace and justice”. The 1997 Technical Journal of the Imperial Forces struck an even more idyllic note, calling the Old Republic “a community that had always served its citizenry well and faithfully”, where the “common rule by the Senate served the people wisely and well” and where “planets […] could turn to their neighbors for help” when facing natural disasters or uprisings. But whenever stories took us to the distant past, whether in the EU’s Tales of the Jedi¸ Knights of the Old Republic, or the still-ongoing The Old Republic, the government we saw was never as the legends described. Until now.

The intent of The High Republic initiative is to showcase a “hopeful, optimistic time, when the Jedi are good and noble”, according to Lucasfilm Creative Director Michael Siglain. In the launch stream for the project, Light of the Jedi author Charles Soule described the idea of two Camelots: the Arthurian Round Table of heroic knights of peace and justice, and the Kennedyesque political Camelot of Chancellor Lina Soh’s Galactic Republic. The two Camelots are the perfect pillars to describe the Arthurian Old Republic we’ve heard about since 1977, so it’s no surprise that these are among the main creative focuses of The High Republic.

I want to take a look at the two books that launched The High Republic initiative this week: Soule’s Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s A Test of Courage to see how they frame the two Camelots defining the era. Do we finally get a functional galactic democracy? Does the Republic of legend feel convincing, with serious challenges, flaws, and blind spots it rises to overcome? Are the heroic Jedi as aspirational and inspirational as they are meant to be? Do they still fit with what we know of the Jedi? And finally – since The High Republic era takes place just a few centuries preceding the prequel era — what seeds might be planted for the end of this era of idealism? My short answer is – yes, I think that Soule and Ireland pull off a convincing launch into an era of aspirational idealism that’s a breath of fresh air in Star Wars while still laying the seeds of interesting challenges that I hope the series ends up wrestling with.

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The Unexpected Optimism of The High Republic

Announced some time ago, I have to admit to a certain amount of skepticism about The High Republic. With the last few years seeing some quite spectacularly awful real-world politics, a sequel trilogy of films that decided its best move was killing off Luke, Han and Leia, plus – and how could this one be forgotten? – a global pandemic, I was lukewarm about its claims to being a more optimistic Star Wars story. At the same time I had some reason to be wary of the writer kicking it off, which Charles Soule would I be getting? The one that did some smart work on the first Lando comic miniseries or the one who takes the corporate gigs like killing off Wolverine? Finally, there is the cynicism born of numerous brighter, happier superhero relaunches that end quickly with some character getting eviscerated.

It’s therefore a rather delightful surprise that Light of the Jedi defies all of this to do something entirely different, very, very unexpected but not at all unwelcome.

One question that comes up with regard to stories is if the heroes have all the advantages how can there be any real conflict or challenge? How can the villains get any victories or even represent a genuine threat? The first answer to this question comes in the face of the disaster that opens this story, and from the very start it defies expectations in a positive way. When reading it, some of what you expect does happen; you may well foresee that a particular new character is not going to be around long and, while you might be right, you may also end up caring about them far more than you thought you would. At the same time, Soule does not play the darkness card here – it’s a disaster sure, many, many people die, but the plot does not overly dwell on it. Instead we see what The High Republic is about in its response to this disaster.

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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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Poe Dameron: Free Fall and Star Wars’ Evolving Relationship With Criminality

The final third of this piece contains spoilers for Poe Dameron: Free Fall. If you’d like to avoid them, stop when you see Babu Frik.

Governing an entire galaxy isn’t easy. As initially conceived, government in Star Wars was despotic and militaristic and led by people with magical powers—and even then, with no civil liberties or red tape to hold the Empire back, small pockets of rebellion were still able to slip through their fingers over and over, to say nothing of run-of-the-mill criminals like Han Solo.

As conceived, though, that was a good thing. The Empire was bad, so breaking its rules was justified, or at least a lesser concern to the good guys than what the Empire itself was up to. Even in the prequel era, the Old Republic is already riddled with corruption, and morality is often in conflict with the law our heroes are still desperately clinging to.

The sequels, then, were our first opportunity to experience a fundamentally righteous, if imperfect, galactic government—for about seventy minutes, anyway. Then it explodes.

But there’s a generation or so prior to that where even Luke Skywalker at his most cynical concedes that the galaxy was in balance, and a whole crop of younger characters managed to grow up with little to no awareness of how hard-fought that balance had been. For now, at least, that peacetime generation is unique in the canon, and crafting good, old-fashioned Star Wars adventures with them isn’t quite as easy as it used to be.

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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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