Monday, March 7, 2016

Star Wars Book Club: Lost Stars

As far as rare comforts are concerned few provide me with as much of a tickle as an article completed far in advance. See, I'm trying to keep these Star Wars book reviews at a rate of about one a month. That was until late February provided what I like to call “reading weather.” The kind of disgusting cold slop that serves as a permission slip to relax and take in all the entertainment you can get. I'd say I used the time wisely and plowed through one of the better received entries in the new cannon, Claudia Gray's young adult romance, “Lost Stars.”

You can imagine I was a little apprehensive to approach a book that can be easily summed up as Romeo and Juliet: The Star Wars Version. Yes we're dealing with one of those classic lovers from different worlds tales. First as childhood friends of different social classes, and later as lovers on opposite sides of a war. It's a common narrative, one that can quickly go nosedive if handled poorly. Thankfully, the author surprised by providing a gripping yarn about the two most co-dependent mopes from a galaxy far far away.

Our story begins eight years after the prequel trilogy. The empire is firmly in control of the galaxy and is in the process of spreading their doctrine and oversight to every planet within reach. A rocky world called Jalucan is inducted into the Empire one day in a ceremony attended by two young children. One is Thane Kyrell, youngest son of an abusive, emotionally cold family from the ruling class. The other is Ciena Ree, a nature loving, honor bound, low class country girl. The two kids are brought together by a chance meeting with Grand Moff Tarkin and their shared love of flying.

Over the years, the children forge an unbreakable friendship as they push each other into joining the Imperial Academy. Once they join up is when things start to sour for these kids. I wont spoil too much in this regard but their childhood years are really fascinating as we see what the Imperial era is like for regular kids who are taught an inaccurate version of history where the Jedi have been redacted to the level of being fairy tales. In these kids eyes, the Empire serves as the structure that will whip the galaxy into shape.

As the years pass each of them continues their careers and befriend others with some tragedy along the way. Let's just say we finally know someone nice who died on that Deathstar. Eventually one of them grows too disillusioned to carry on and abandons their responsibility, eventually finding their way to joining the Rebel Alliance.

Knowing about the eventual part where one character joins the alliance initially worried me since a weaker writer would go the easy route and have country girl join the rebels in poor cliched fashion. Well color me surprised when the opposite proved to be true. The abused rich kid joins the good guys while his lady love totally drinks the Kool-aid! Taking that twist with an otherwise cliched set-up is what makes this story unique. Despite being an enormous sad-sack, Thane eventually finds a life among the rebels while Ciena digs a deeper grave everyday so that when she finally realizes her folly, it feels too late to turn back.

Reading the trials and tribulations of these two lovers proves to be some mostly fine reading so long as you can accept their bizarre mixture of co-dependency and constant disagreement. Thane has a fairly successful character arc as a lovesick puppy who eventually finds some measure of peace. Ciena on the other hand continues to baffle with her depths of self-denial and stubborn foolishness. There's plenty of details to help us understand her choices and of course we have the advantage of greater knowledge but there are still moments when this girl just comes off as an absolute asshole.

Part of the strength of this book is that you don't really need to know much about Star Wars to dive in and enjoy. However; for those of us with a longtime fascination for the franchise there are plenty of references and cameos to tickle our fancy. Consider that our two leads are essentially the same age as Luke & Leia, and there story stretches from when they're children to a year after Return of the Jedi. That timeline allows for alternate takes on major events plus small appearances by favorites like Darth Vader, Princes Leia, Mon Mothma, and the aforementioned Tarkin. You even get to learn a few neat details like who picked up Darth Vader after the first Deathstar was destroyed, and how that Star Destroyer ended up on Jakku.

Sadly there are a few elements that come across as forced or simply out of touch with the franchise. For instance, being a young adult novel means there are instances of dialogue that come sacross as far too dramatic or or simply out of place. I never thought I'd read an SW novel with multiple utterances of “badass” yet here they are, and each one takes you out of the proceedings for a moment.
A couple other issues present themselves within the story itself. First off is that a few sections seemed rushed. Seeing as these are usually the sections that coincide with major moments from the movies I think the idea was to avoid messing with established events. None of that is as big an issue as the ending which comes across as indecisive and a little unfocused. The last section about the battle of Jakku is certainly climactic but the final chapter feels like it's holding back. Weirdest of all is that the final scene is completely removed from the main couple, focusing instead on a villains vow of revenge. Since we have no guarantee of ever seeing these characters again, it would feel better to get something more concrete and dramatic.

Even with some misgivings as to the overall execution I still had a damn good time with this book. It's so unlike any other Star Wars story I've encountered that it feels incredibly fresh while having enough recognizable elements to potentially lure in new fans. I'm gonna start keeping a leaderboard for this feature from now on and this title has jumped right to the top.

1. Lost Stars bu Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn By John Jackson Miller

3. Tarkin by James Luceno

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