Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule
Over the past five years, Star Wars books and comics have rarely strayed far from the timeline of the main films, specialising in origin stories and narratives that run parallel with, or spin off from, the Skywalker saga. Authors have been allowed to fill in whatever gaps remained in a slightly controlled, timid fashion, and were only occasionally allowed to introduce a major new character like Doctor Aphra.
All of that changes now, as the publishing arm of Lucasfilm has dreamed up whole new era of galactic history, hundreds of years before even The Phantom Menace – The High Republic, under which umbrella a whole stack of books will be come out over the next few years. It’s a prosperous, peaceful period, when the benevolent Chancellor Lina Soh expands her utopian vision to new planets and systems, and a legion of valiant Jedi Knights maintain order at the frontiers. Crucially, The High Republic is also a blank slate – a huge sandbox for Star Wars authors to play in, with only a handful of known characters even remotely connected to it.
Ushering in The High Republic and its limitless possibilities is Light of the Jedi, by Charles Soule. Soule is a fixture in recent Star Wars comics (his Lando being among the best) but less established as novelist.
Light of the Jedi kicks off with a grisly hyperspace disaster, described from many different perspectives as it unfolds and snuffs out billions of lives. The rest of the book follows terrified Republic officials and concerned Jedi Knights as they scramble to understand how such a thing could have happened, while another group of Jedi attend to a seemingly unrelated kidnapping on the mineral-rich planet of Elphrona. Unbeknownst to any of them, in an unreachable corner of space-time, a gang of opportunistic marauders called the Nihil are plotting how to use the ongoing crisis to their advantage.
The problems with Light of the Jedi are typified by the first third, with its staccato chapters offering glimpses of the lightspeed cataclysm – fragments of a big picture. It’s a great idea, which ought to allow the reader to quickly grasp the state of the galaxy, and get to know several of the main characters.
Instead, Soule is repeatedly bogged down in pedantic, overly technical descriptions of vessels and locations, while his characters are left as mere sketches with no spark. Unfortunately, that habit persists throughout the novel. Soule puts inordinate energy put into explaining what surfaces are made of – ‘durasteel’ and ‘transparisteel’ occur far too often – but rarely develops much sense of place. He sabotages what should be a gripping action scene, told from the perspective of a farmer terrified for her family’s lives, with this clunker to describe a hurrying steelee (a horse-like creature): ‘their duralloy hooves locking into the ground with the organomagnetic field that allowed them to climb even the steepest of Elphrona’s mountains’. This laboured science fiction prose doesn’t really feel like Star Wars, and it doesn’t feel sensitively voiced.
Also disappointing are the Nihil, the horde of hyperspace-abusing raiders that will become a thorn in the side of the Jedi. Reading about their biker gang appearance, with their armoured leathers and spooky steampunk masks, we sense that they’ve probably seen Mad Max: Fury Road. That they are ‘unified by a desire to take and kill and eat‘ rings alarms bells that they may be an overly simplistic foil for the Jedi. When we later find them guzzling a drug called ‘smash’ and listening to nasty, industrial music called ‘wreckpunk’, it’s hard to see them as much more than Saturday morning cartoon villains. After The Last Jedi has shown us more morally complicated characters, the Nihil, at first blush, seem like a missed opportunity. But their mysterious, scheming navigator Marchion Ro turns out to be much more intriguing that his fellow criminals, and could yet evolve into a compelling enemy as these books continue.
Soule has a lot to juggle throughout, and that accounts for how uneven Light of the Jedi feels. From a diffuse cast who are often hard to keep track of, certain characters and relationships do come into their own in the back half of the novel. For me, Porter Engle, a semi-retired Jedi Master and talented cook (he specialises in a ‘Nine-Egg Stew’) was a favourite, and the partnership between Avar Kriss and Elzar Mann neatly sets up some later conflict between duty and romance.
While I’ve been very excited to dig into a whole new seam of Star Wars fiction, Light of the Jedi fell short of expectations, and seemed sadly compromised by having to raise the curtain on a whole range of publishing – a double-edged sword that Charles Soule could perhaps have handled with more care. Now that that’s out of the way, I’m still keen to see what other stories can be told in this new setting and will probably pick up Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm later this year.