Books Star Wars

Book Review: Star Wars: Light of the Jedi

Way back in 1997, when I saw the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope, I probably hadn’t seen the film in more than a decade. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time since I was a kid was a thrill.

But I remember being especially struck by the scene in which Grand Moff Tarkin mentions the Emperor’s dissolution of the Senate. “The last remnants of the Old Republic,” he reports to the Imperial generals on the Death Star, “have been swept away.” A brief moment, but it was enough to make me think, I’d forgotten just how political Star Wars is!

By definition, a movie about an armed rebellion against a tyrannical government is political. Politics is baked into Star Wars’ DNA. As Chris Taylor explains in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, the Empire “was inspired by the US military in Vietnam; the Ewoks by the Viet Cong; the Emperor by President Nixon.” But all the snazzy spaceships, gee-whiz technology, and Jedi mysticism made the politics of the Galaxy Far, Far Away easy to overlook—at least until the Prequel Trilogy foregrounded them.

Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule—the debut novel in Lucasfilm’s new multiplatform project, Star Wars: The High Republic—is a fast-paced and fun space opera, full of all the planet-hopping heroics and explosive action you expect the Star Wars brand to deliver.

But it also reminded me, as seeing the Special Edition 23 years ago did, just how political Star Wars can be.

“Miracles Were For The Jedi”

Set two centuries before the Prequel Trilogy (recently rechristened the “Fall of the Jedi” era), Light of the Jedi takes place in a rapidly expanding Republic enjoying a peaceful and prosperous golden age under Chancellor Lina Soh. The book follows several Jedi as they strive to defend the Republic from a new threat: the Nihil, a violent band of marauders whose unique shortcuts through hyperspace allow them to strike at will and with impunity.

The novel makes good on The High Republic’s promise to show a Jedi order at the zenith of its power. “Miracles were for the Jedi,” one Republic military officer reflects early in the book. And the Force-wielders in its pages do perform several impressive feats. Soule deftly and vividly describes all the action, heightening its impact by allowing us direct access to characters’ minds and hearts in ways action set pieces on film can’t.

Yet most of the Jedi didn’t stand out to me as immediately compelling characters. The overall effect is too much like seeing the Jedi Council for the first time in The Phantom Menace: Plenty of striking and “cool” characters on display, not enough time or space spent developing them.

I did like Bell Zettifar, a human padawan to whom anyone who’s ever struggled to please a mentor while mastering a new skill will relate. And I’d eagerly spend more time with Porter Engle, an Ikkrukkian Jedi Master and veteran of the Great Sith War centuries before. He’s settled into a quieter, supporting role in the Order, but the danger posed by the Nihil reawakens his warrior ferocity.

I don’t doubt The High Republic’s creative team spent a lot of time and energy crafting the other Jedi characters, but most of that work must be in support of books and comic books yet to come. Sustaining a more limited focus on only a few of the project’s many cast members might have made Light of the Jedi more satisfying as a standalone read.

Are We All The Republic?

Sometimes, Light of the Jedi feels more like Star Trek than Star Wars. One long subplot, for instance, details the construction and activation of a colossal computational array powered by connected droids—a technological feat that might make for a solid episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I was hard pressed to feel the “suspense” over whether the droids’ processors would overheat that the novel clearly wanted me to feel.

Also, one of the book’s most intriguing revelations, the ramifications of which could reach all the way to the Sequel Trilogy (now the “Rise of the First Order” era), bears more than a passing resemblance to a central element of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

But all in all, Light of the Jedi succeeds in feeling appropriately “Star Wars-y”—including in its political currents.

By no means is the book a heavy political novel. But even as it gives us our first glimpse (in Disney canon) of the High Republic, it overtly invites and challenges readers to question that Republic’s nature.

Chancellor Soh’s mantra is, “We are all the Republic.” And in the book’s first third, we hear character after character echo the slogan, reverently and without irony. Everyone—citizens, military officers, Jedi Knights—accepts it as settled truth, endorsing Soh’s vision of the Republic as “an enlighted union in which anything [is] possible.”

But as the book continues and we move into the Outer Rim among the Nihil, we realize not everyone sees the Republic in this light, or desires the diverse but united society it tells itself it is. By the book’s end, the Nihil’s leader is “spitting out” the Chancellor’s mantra and mocking it: “We are all the Republic. Whether we like it or not.”

Where Chancellor Soh sees “a galaxy where we use our strengths to shore up each other’s weaknesses, where we understand and celebrate our differences and hold them up as valuable,” the Nihil see an invading society “with all its rules and laws and particular brand of freedom that isn’t free at all.”

It requires no great insight to see the conflicting worldviews in the High Republic at play in the American republic today. Reading about the Nihil’s vicious assault on the High Republic in the same week an angry mob assaulted the Capitol to try and bring down our American republic—at the urging of our republic’s highest leader, no less—at times felt surprisingly disturbing.

Soule doesn’t present the Nihil and the Republic, or their worldviews, as equivalent. The Nihil are the villains of the piece.

But it’s not hard to see in the High Republic the first signs of the flaws that will ultimately lead to its fall in the days of Palpatine. And it’s impossible to keep from asking how the American republic, whose flaws are currently so fully on display, can mend them and bring itself back from the brink of a similar, real-world fall today.

Light of the Jedi doesn’t offer any guidance. That’s not its job, after all. It’s job is to entertain, and it does.

But it also doesn’t let you forget just how political Star Wars can be.

What did you think about Light of the Jedi? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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