Better Heroes, or Simpler Problems? – Taking Stock of The High Republic So Far

While this site has a content tag named “Reviews” and articles are regularly added to it, I try not to publish actual book reviews here. There’s value in being able to present our immediate reactions to a new work—often but not always the same week it’s released, when interest is at its peak—and if you’re among the people who might specifically seek out those reactions, well, who am I to disappoint you?

But what I try to do here, rather than just jump at every sudden noise, is to always keep the big picture in mind. There are plenty of fans out there whose judgment is at least as good as ours and will gladly tell you whether a new book is good or not, so if we’re going to build an entire piece around one particular story the ideal is to discuss what it says about the franchise as a whole, or its real-life context, or where it falls in the history of stories like it, or the previous work of that author, or something beyond just “is it good?”

This goes extra for stories by authors who have already proven themselves to more or less know what they’re doing, which is where The High Republic comes in. Before we knew anything else about it, we knew it was being shaped and guided by Charles Soule, Claudia Gray, Justina Ireland, Daniel José Older, and Cavan Scott, and for me at least, that came with a certain degree of trust. So I’m not going to be reviewing any of the High Republic books that were released over the last couple months—Light of the Jedi by Soule, A Test of Courage by Ireland, and Into the Dark by Gray—because for my money those author credits speak for themselves. What I’d like to talk about here is, how well does this first wave of stories set itself apart from existing “Old Republic” content, and how might things develop from here?

To that end I’m going to revisit some of the creators’ own words over the last year and see how things are shaping up not on the books’ own terms (they’re good, if you were still wondering) but on how they stack up to those early promises and mission statements.

We Must Begin by Believing it is Possible – The Jedi

“We’ve put a lot of time and effort into making our Jedi feel like real, rounded individuals.”

Charles Soule, Author, Light of the Jedi

With quality not being a major concern, one metric by which I intend to judge the stories of the High Republic era is a simple question: is anything stopping this from happening shortly before The Phantom Menace? In other words, does it feel like a truly new era, or just the prequels sans Palpatine? At first glance, the biggest difference for the Republic is its borders being smaller—but considering that the neglect and exploitation of outlying systems is a major factor in this government’s eventual downfall that distinction is not as immediately significant as it could be; the Core is stable and prosperous, while the Rim is unruly and under-served. The underlying reasons may be different, but the vibe is much the same.

On a superficial level, at least, the Jedi are much more obviously different. While the Republic is relegated to a smaller portion of the galaxy the Jedi Order is actually much more decentralized; the big fancy temple on Coruscant is still there, but many of our new Jedi characters are based elsewhere in the galaxy, and the inauguration of one such outpost, even more so than the Hyperspace Disaster, is the event that launches the entire era. Starlight Beacon may be a joint project with the Republic but as far as these stories are concerned the Jedi are the popular face of it, and the ones most visibly putting its goals into action.

The most obvious difference of all is one that I had some reservations about at first—the promotional art and Light of the Jedi‘s cover are filled with Jedi wearing gilded white robes, and hoisting ornate lightsabers as if to say “look how many of your tax dollars I spent on this!” These design choices were meant to suggest the Knights of the Round Table, an idealized (read: mythological) force of noble warrior heroes, but to me they looked more like crusaders—a warrior force with somewhat less noble connotations.

While I’ll never love that cover art, I have to admit that once I got to know several of the characters I was much more at ease with those robes. For one thing, they turn out to be ceremonial rather than standard-issue, much like the robes Luke Skywalker wore when we first saw him in The Force Awakens. For another, as Charles Soule promised, the Jedi themselves feel more real, approachable, and, er, human [1]As an apology for that expression I will note that I’d like to see a more diverse assortment of alien races in the future—characters like Ikrit and Thon from Legends that carry forward … Continue reading than the prequel Jedi almost ever did. Insofar as the baseline Jedi aesthetic is in fact more opulent in this era it actually provides an interesting contrast with the prequel Jedi, whose plain, scratchy-looking moisture-farmer robes seem like an overcompensation to hide how goddamned arrogant they’d become. If the ongoing story ends up covering a sufficient amount of time it will be interesting to see if this design evolution is explored more directly rather than simply implied.

On an individual level several characters feel like direct subversions of the strictures of the prequel Jedi: Avar Kriss is the new marshal of Starlight Beacon and to all appearances the best of what the Jedi can be, yet her relationship with Elzar Mann borders on romantic in a way that both seem to take seriously without being abjectly appalled by. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but at the very least I don’t foresee any secret weddings in their future. Likewise, Imri Cantaros and Cohmac Vitus struggle with loss and anger and the pull of the dark side, yet both are able to accept help and guidance from others, their doubts ultimately strengthening their ties to the Order rather than pushing them away. Zeen Mrala from The High Republic Adventures is a girl around Anakin’s age in TPM with no Force training at all—she was raised to fear the Force, in fact—who nevertheless appears poised to become a Padawan. More subtly, Vernestra Rwoh’s knighthood at the age of fifteen (more than a decade earlier than your BFF Obi-Wan) could just be a statement of how awesome she is, or it could be suggesting a much larger point about the environment younglings are being brought up in during this time period and how much more effective it is at producing balanced, mature Jedi.

All in all, the impression created is of an Order with no less personal baggage than any other, but where Knights and Padawans feel more free to explore that baggage openly, even to take risks, secure in the knowledge that their community will have their backs.

A Difficult Job Being Done Well – The Republic

“Those who are allied to the ideals of the Republic can look at [the Starlight Beacon] as an example of balance, of working together. Those against the Republic can get riled by what they see as a statement of class and divisions. There’s a lot going on there.”

Pablo Hidalgo, Sr. Creative Exec, Franchise Story & Content

Another concern that nagged at me over the last year was that Star Wars is, ultimately, pulp-action-space-adventure-nonsense. It can be a delivery vehicle for some pretty interesting and even radical ideas, but only if they can be injected into a package that outwardly resembles a bunch of people shooting lasers at each other. My notion of an “ideal” Republic is one in which conflicts are competently and exhaustively mediated and there’s almost nothing to actually do battle about; it’s easy to assume that’s the case when there’s no actual storytelling in a given era, but if they insist on showing it to us? Shit’s gonna have to start exploding.

I don’t object to that in principle, but my concern was that The High Republic would turn out to be an era not of better heroes but of simpler problems. One in which the Republic and the Jedi would be operationally identical to the prequels but instead of sabotaging themselves and each other they would have villains to fight who were plainly evil and who could be hacked and zapped to death without provoking any discomfort or introspection afterward.

While the Hyperspace Disaster that opens Light of the Jedi is an excellent illustration of just what a functional and motivated Republic should look like, by the end of the book it turned out to represent one of my larger disappointments with the macro story so far: it’s not really an accident. I don’t want to complain too much at this stage because we have very little idea where Marchion Ro’s coming from or what drives him, but him orchestrating the disaster to achieve some mysterious end feels a little too Palpatinian, and even if Marchion himself is irredeemably evil (and I mean, he is) I’m holding out hope that his origins and motivations contain something in the neighborhood of a valid point—because as Hidalgo said, even a good-faith Republic that’s doing a better-than-average job is going to rub some people the wrong way, and those people are more interesting to me than a bunch of one-note thugs.

“Ideal” is not the same as “perfect”, and how the Republic responds to a threat like the Nihil is the metric by which I’m going to judge just how ideal it really is. A Republic which only has to confront Marchion himself and not the conditions that created him is one that the creators, in my opinion, will have let off the hook.

What Scares the Jedi? – The (True) Villains

The first details of The High Republic were revealed almost exactly a year ago in a short video, which ended with that question from Lucasfilm Publishing Creative Director Michael Siglain. That, he says, was their “eureka moment”, unlocking much of what followed.

If you’ve read the books and comics that have been released so far, do you know the answer to that question? I’m not sure that I do. We’ve seen several Jedi experience sudden, gut-wrenching spells of vague Force-provoked horror, as if the authors are nudging us in the ribs and saying “just you wait!”, but what exactly is this thing that’s so scary?

From what we know officially about the Nihil and their raison d’être, the answer could be something like “anarchy”. But it’s pretty clear that there have always been pirates and thieves in this galaxy (many of whom, perhaps weirdly, turn out to be stand-up folks), so one big-ass group of them, formidable though they may be, doesn’t strike me as much of a “eureka”.

Again, Marchion Ro’s true motivations remain something of a mystery, so we can only stick a pin in that. The same goes for the Drengir, who appear to be plenty powerful but otherwise come across in Into the Dark as surprisingly pedestrian villains—less like unknowable eldritch horrors and more like a standard group of alien antagonists who just happen to be plants this time. We do know that they’re profoundly tied to the dark side, which calls to mind the story in From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back from the Dagobah cave’s point of view—dark side plants, Orla Jareni confirms, are not unheard of in this galaxy, but ones that walk and talk and eat people are something else.

While the Drengir have history with the Sith and could end up serving as the magical counterpart to the Nihil’s more practical threat (the Joruus C’Baoth to the Nihil’s Thrawn, if you will) mastering your fear of the dark side is lesson number one for the Jedi; unless the Drengir we’ve met thus far turn out to be only the leading edge of something much, much more profound, they doesn’t feel like much of an answer, either.

So what’s left? I suppose it’s just too early to say, but I think there’s guidance to be found in the things that actually end up defeating the Jedi a couple centuries later: Corruption. Arrogance. Complacency. Chaos, not creeping in from outside, but growing from within. The Nihil and the Drengir may be significant challenges, but the best villains are the ones that represent truths about ourselves we’re not prepared to face. What, indeed, are the Jedi of this era so afraid of?

“What happens after this, master?”

“Anything could happen,” said Master Cohmac. “And that is the joy of it.”

– Claudia Gray, Into the Dark

References
1 As an apology for that expression I will note that I’d like to see a more diverse assortment of alien races in the future—characters like Ikrit and Thon from Legends that carry forward Yoda’s example of greatness not always coming in a garden-variety humanoid package.

One thought to “Better Heroes, or Simpler Problems? – Taking Stock of The High Republic So Far”

  1. “Ideal” is not the same as “perfect”, and how the Republic responds to a threat like the Nihil is the metric by which I’m going to judge just how ideal it really is. A Republic which only has to confront Marchion himself and not the conditions that created him is one that the creators, in my opinion, will have let off the hook.

    i wonder if you can’t say that the Prequels kind look at this – the consequences of unchecked colonialism and unchecked corporate greed. If the Republic truly dealt with the issues behind the Nihil, they wouldn’t have a Separatist crisis on their hands 200 years lter.

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