The Rising Storm’s Republic Fair: Concept Versus Execution

Wave two of the High Republic series revolves around the centerpiece of the Republic Fair, modeled on the 18th-to-20th century concept of the World’s Fair. In real life, these fairs were huge expositions designed to showcase the wonders of science, technology, and the globe in an era where most of the population could only see the rest of the world through illustrations in books. Star Wars often uses the design vocabulary of real-world history and times gone past, and the world’s fair concept fits right into the idea of the Republic of yesteryear, full of innovation and optimism.

The opening wave of The High Republic showed us that despite appearances, all isn’t right with the galaxy. The second wave of novels shows us that the galaxy’s troubles are just beginning – the Republic and Jedi may blaze with light and life, but trouble is on the horizon. Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm may just as easily have been named Before the Storm, had that name not already been taken by an existing Star Wars Legends novel.

The Rising Storm is all about the Republic Fair. Personally, I think the Republic Fair is a great concept – both in-universe and out-of-universe. In-universe, Chancellor Lina Soh has a pretty wonderful idea to unify the galaxy and showcase the benefits of the shared galactic government through a showcase of shared science and culture – but was this really the right time? Out-of-universe, putting the real-world idea of a global exposition into Star Wars was an inspired idea – but is the idea used to its full potential?

I think the answer is “mostly”, but there are some avenues I wish the story had explored to make the High Republic setting seem more interesting. The in-universe shortcomings of the fair – that it might not be the best time – are actually great for the story! But there are some ideas that aren’t raised in-universe, which makes me a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the Republic Fair is a marvelous idea and I enjoyed The Rising Storm for the most part! My excitement is just tempered slightly by roads not trodden that would have made better use of the High Republic – and I won’t beat around the bush, it has a lot to do with the fact that the real-life World’s Fairs were also in the shadow of a gilded age of industry and colonialism and we see little sign of that in The Rising Storm. Maybe that’s not the story they set out to tell – but it’s an unfortunate omission.

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Victory’s Price: Deromanticizing the War Hero

The intro is spoiler-free, but there will be MAJOR SPOILERS after the cut.

When Alphabet Squadron was first announced, we expected it to be like the old X-Wing series from the Expanded Universe. We quickly learned that while Alexander Freed was inspired by those novels, his story would not follow the familiar pilot story arc that we had come to expect. The third and final novel in the trilogy, Victory’s Price, completes the arc of the trilogy and shows that Alexander Freed is not afraid to deromanticize the type of military sci-fi that has been part of the Star Wars DNA since the very beginning.

Though Star Wars is largely space fantasy, World War II-inspired flight sequences and especially the books and comics have drawn on swashbuckling military sci-fi themes too. Pilots are heroic rule-breakers and soldiers are valorous and noble. Even the bad guys are heroic and noble, but they’re just too darn loyal to evil politicians and wizards who misuse their talents. Freed engages with these ideas and does something different, but not just because his story subverts our expectations for the sake of surprise. No, instead, his books – especially Victory’s Price – expose traditional war story ideals to critique, delivering a more nuanced vision of war.

There are still heroes and villains, but war is brutal and traumatic. As the title makes clear: victory in war has a price, and the price is borne not just by those who didn’t make it, but by those who did. Freed isn’t the first Star Wars author to focus on the human element of warfare: the late Aaron Allston (it still hurts to write that) was exceptional at showing how characters cope with the traumas of war and deal with the personal costs of a lifetime of fighting, albeit interlaced with his trademark humor and kind storytelling. But Victory’s Price really eschews the triumphalism of space adventure, or exposes it as hollow. Many of us read the Wilfred Owen poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in school, contrasting the “noble” language of Horace’s pro-war ode with the empty horror of the first World War – Victory’s Price reminded me strongly of that poem.

As for the Empire? The honorable soldiers, long suffering under a regime unworthy of them, no longer exist. Victory’s Price is an incredibly timely novel about what it means to sell your soul in service to evil, what brings people to do these things, and what society should do about it afterwards. Alexander Freed writes about Imperials with nuance but without getting stuck in the rut of grey moral relativism. This novel doesn’t spoon-feed or preach to the reader, but instead asks them to think and engage with deep questions. There aren’t any easy answers, but the reader who engages with Victory’s Price will find that it shines with moral clarity even underneath the blood and muck of war.

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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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