In what’s becoming a regular feature on this site, we’re publishing yet another rave review of a Jason Fry novel. It’s not our fault – Jason has a tendency to release high-quality novels at an impressive pace, so blame him for the lack of variety. Although that’s pretty unfair, because the best thing about Jason’s novels is that each of them are good for different reasons and allow us to focus on different aspects of the Star Wars universe. His original books have plenty to discuss, while his two Servants of the Empire books highlight the very compelling awakening of political consciousness and the dynamics of teamwork and personal perspective. Rebel in the Ranks developed the plot threads of Edge of the Galaxy, but Imperial Justice is where the early investments in character and setting really pay off. The events of the book are more meaningful because of what we know about Zare, Merei, and the other characters that populate Lothal.
This book was released at the perfect time, as we were looking to write a series of articles on the theme of morality among heroes and villains in the new canon (how the Imperials and Rebels have been portrayed in the new canon and how they should be portrayed, what worked and what hasn’t). In 2013, we wrote a series of pieces on Politics and the Expanded Universe showing where the now-Legends EU had succeeded and where it had failed in convincingly portraying the good guy and bad guy factions in Star Wars. A similar piece about how the sexism of the Galactic Empire never made in-universe sense also reflected on the nature of villainy in Star Wars, and how an effective villain was not merely a series of evil checkboxes but reflected something that the heroes would actively fight against and challenge.
Imperial Justice showcases villainy, but in a more compelling and active way. Instead of providing a menace or a threat that the heroes must react to, the influence of the Empire is pervasive throughout the course of the novel. To be certain, the Empire takes a hard tack from the benign neglect / colonialist exploitation of the first novel towards police state tactics in Imperial Justice. It’s not the suppression of liberty or the paranoid, informant-centric mindset that best highlights Imperial evil though: it’s what the influence of the Empire’s darkness does to the heroes that really shows the danger of fascism. Evil is not just tyrannical, and it is not merely seductive. Evil corrupts peoples and societies, including those who are out to fight evil. It’s not a coincidence that our long-standing favorite novel of the new canon, A New Dawn, both established the pre-ANH era and set the thematic tone for the rising corruption of evil and the heroism that is spawned in response to it. Jason Fry takes up that thread and runs with it. In showing this thoughtful and nuanced take on evil, his Imperial Justice justifiably claim to be the most thematically impressive – and best overall – novel of the new canon to date.
The word fascism is pretty overused these days. Politicians of just about every stripe are often called “fascist,” as is just about any group or ideology ever. The word has basically lost all meaning. We can’t claim any originality in this point, George Orwell beat us to the punch by decades when he said that “you will find that there is almost no set of people — certainly no political party or organized body of any kind — which has not been denounced as Fascist.” He went on to describe how in a casual sense, the word fascist was applied to just about anyone from farmers to dogs, and Kipling to Gandhi (!) and the only real universal definition of the term is that a fascist is most definitely a bully.
Though the word appears rather rarely in Star Wars (and certainly not in any of the novels that are currently out, this one included), the Empire is definitely fascist by design and inception. The problem is that Star Wars has tended to be increasingly clumsy about how it portrays fascism. As we’ve written before, comparisons and analogies to contemporary politics are not very useful in portraying the Empire and come across more as “I find [this real life ideology] to be like the evil Empire” and less like a proper characterization of the story’s villains. Similarly, cartoonish caricatures or adoption of an unjustifiable and awful policy such as sexism doesn’t do much unless there are consequences to the villain’s evil changes that the heroes have to struggle with. Sometimes it’s done well though, such as when John Jackson Miller based his portrayal of the Empire’s rise on his experiences with Soviet Russia (note: not fascists) – there, the Soviet example was used to help flesh out and make real the Empire’s evil rather than to make a point about the Soviet Union. But we’ll leave it at that for now, because we’re going to explore the evil of the Empire in the new canon in a future article.
What’s special about the fascism shown in Imperial Justice? Well, for starters: it is actually fascism. Imperial characters such as Captain Roddance make it very clear that their emphasis on law and order is more than mere authoritarianism, but that they see freedom and individuality as a direct threat to the health of society. This view of society as an organic whole – sometimes called corporatism (which should not be construed as being in favor of big business) – is a characteristic of fascism rather than a unique marker. Like all things political, corporatism exists on a spectrum with communitarianism and collectivism: it’s basically the view that the community or society is more important than the individual, but taken to the extreme. Instead of saying that society is important because it actually helps individuals, the idea becomes that society is important as its own end. Authority is important as its own end. Dissent and free opinions of any sort, no matter how harmless, become a threat to that society. Fascism is totalitarian, every aspect of people’s lives are controlled and regulated in service to the state.
So that’s one key difference – the Empire is showing its most fascist views, rather than a merely colonialist or merely pro-business perspective sometimes seen in Star Wars. The Empire has those aspects as well, but the fascism of the Empire represents one of its scariest sides. Even in A New Dawn, the results-oriented Vidian was always contrasted with the dutiful Sloane. Here, the Imperial authority figures (with some exceptions) are the fearsome, dangerous ones. They’re the ones with the scary points of view, or control over a lot of stormtroopers who can ruin the lives of people with legitimate concerns about government policy. Yet as awful and scary as it all that is, the true threat of fascism isn’t what it imposes from on high – but what how it affects everyone else.
“Falling to the Dark Side” makes it sound so accidental
The thing about fascism is how it makes even fundamentally decent people complicit. The examples are legion: a character rats out his neighbors to avoid getting in trouble during Imperial sweeps, or a character (Zare’s father) encourages harsher Imperial action simply because he is so disconnected from the consequences of repression. But what’s even worse is when the good guys start getting corrupted.
Zare and Merei have taken a lot of risks to defy the Empire, and those risks have a way of snowballing. Each risky problem demands a riskier solution, but the kids don’t quite realize how in over their heads they are. To be certain, they’re afraid: the consequences of failure are ever vigilant. Zare wonders just how much the Imperial authority figures know about his little deal with Ezra (who he still thinks of as Dev Morgan), while Merei continues to play a mental dance with her very parents as they seek to uncover a security breach she’s responsible for. What they don’t realize is that the ever present threat of discovery, and the tightly closing fist of Imperial justice doesn’t just lead them to desperate actions, but actions that may compromise who and what they are. The darkness of the Empire doesn’t just change and corrupt the people who serve it, but also those it seeks.
This book highlights a darkness in the setting and in the characters that seems aptly timed with the second season of Rebels, where the story takes an ESB-style turn. Though Imperial Justice is very definitively set during the first season of the show, it’s probably not a coincidence that the story gets heavier and the stakes get higher. There are consequences for the events of the previous books, and those consequences are not pretty. Plot threads from the show are dealt with and given the weight they deserve, as it would be pretty unreasonable that nobody would ask questions about what happened during Rebel in the Ranks. There are consequences for what the characters have done and what they were willing to do — how long until the ends no longer justify the means?
That’s what makes this all work – the changes wrought in the characters and the dangerous circumstances that they find themselves in would not be so compelling had Jason not established the characters and the setting so well. We know that Zare is a team player, someone who looks out for other people, and cannot stand for injustice. We know that Merei is clever, carefree, and yet can analyze her way out of almost any situation. We know that Lothal is a world under Imperial rule, but that the Empire’s rule is almost absentmindedly paternal – harsh and firm, but a little forgetful and occasionally relaxed. It’s a safe environment for a couple of heroes to learn about themselves and to learn how to stand up to evil. Or at least – it was. After the events of the last book, and after the shenanigans of the Ghost crew, Lothal has changed. The audience can tell. Of even more concern, the audience can tell what this means for the characters. We know what Zare and Merei can do, and we have faith in their principles, ingenuity, and determination. What if those aren’t enough? Or what if they buckle under the pressure? What if they change? What if they are learning more about themselves, and they don’t like what they’ve become — or worse, they do?
The audience knows this is a big deal. And what happens in this story is precisely a big deal because the groundwork was laid, and then Jason pulled the rug out from under us. The story isn’t comfortable anymore. It’s dangerous – but it’s dangerous in a completely realistic way, and a way that we can sit back and see how it made perfect sense.
My new favorite
That’s why Imperial Justice is our new favorite novel in the new canon. It uses what was established before, establishes a compelling change in the scenario, and it – or should we say Jason – really messes with its readers because of what happens to the characters. We read each page with mounting dread, given how much we care about the characters (Zare is a person you’d want to be friends with, and Merei is awesome and just got on the cover!). There aren’t plot twists or anything so easy and exploitative. Everything that happens in this novel makes perfect sense, and one would probably see it coming. But it’s that cold reality that makes the novel so harrowing… and so good!
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