Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Before the Awakening Review

I've never fully understood the notion of spring cleaning. Don't misunderstand, I get the need to clear out junk and filth but why wait until the weather turns beautiful? That's when you should be outdoors enjoying a stiff drink. For my money there's no better time to clean house than January. Usually it's dreadfully cold and it's always dark so why not spend the days catching up on all the shit that's almost certainly piled up over the hetic holiday months? That's how I look at it anyway, and not just for physical cleaning. I also take as much possible time during January to work through piled up entertainment which is why you're getting a second Star Wars book review this month.

Today's subject is the final entry from the Journey to the Force Awakens line of novels. More importantly this is thus far the only book to focus on the new trilogy heroes Rey, Finn, and Poe. Each one of them get's their own prequel tale here all written by Greg Rucka who previously gave us the entertaining if lightweight Smuggler's Run.

Due to the nature of this book being three separate stories I feel it's only best to cover them one at a time.


The book kicks off with Finn, though he's never called that within the story for reasons obvious to anyone who's seen the film already. Which if you haven't, what's the freakin' hold up? Anyway this is all about his time training to be a first order stormtrooper with his squad and under the strict supervision of Captain Phasma.
At first I had a hard time identifying with Finn as he's portrayed here. Some of that is my own perception while some is due to his presentation within the film itself. There he was a very nervous, hyperactive character who's greatest strength was his loyalty to friends. Phasma's attitude towards him combined with dialogue about him previously performing janitorial work lead me to believe that he was something of a runt when compared to his fellow troopers. Here we find him to actually be a shining cadet. Top tier in leadership skills, weapon proficiency, etc. That twitchy energy from the film is nowhere to be found as he's more focused and stoic here. The only thing that gets him in trouble is the aforementioned loyalty to his squad mates. As events progress he also finds himself to have more of a conscious than his fellow cadets, which is where worry and doubt start to seep in.
Those later scenes where he worries about his future in a military he doesn't agree with is where the guy I saw on screen starts to emerge. I like that guy and wanted to spend more time with him, which is probably why this story did so little for me. The full Finn barely makes an appearance in his own story, instead we're stuck with his stiff storm trooper persona. On the upside we get more of Captain Phasma within these pages than the entirety of The Force Awakens, so chalk that up to a small victory.


Rey's tale is a bit deeper though also a bit slower. Think of it as an extended example of her day to day existence on Jakku. By day she salvages whatever she can from dangerous wrecks which is then turned in for meager offerings of food. By night she entertains herself with a restored flight simulator and doing whatever she can to keep her mind off the past.
Eventually she comes across the find of a lifetime, a mostly intact ship revealed after a nasty sandstorm. Soon she sets about restoring it to optimal condition to ensure the absolute best payday which means hording more salvage, living with less food, and protecting her find. The situation grows more complicated when a brother and sister pair offer to help her finish the restoration for a portion of the profits.
More so than Finn's story, Rey's portion feels more accurate to the character as we know her from the film while expanding our understanding of her head space. Her life is not only one of hardship but also one that discourages trust and letting your guard down. On top of her strange family history these details help to flesh out her flighty, untrusting nature. I also appreciated learning how she'd gotten to be such a good pilot despite years of grounded living.
So yes, a step up from the first tale tough still a bit sluggish and not exactly revelatory.


Easily the biggest reason to pick up this book is the portion about Poe Dameron. No doubt the least developed of the new heroes as far as the movie was concerned, this story offers insight into who he is and what he's all about. Even a few tidbits about his upbringing on Yavin IV.
Initially, Poe is the leader of his own squad of pilots for the new republic. On what should have been a routine patrol, he loses one of his squad mates in a skirmish against the First Order. It seems as if those enemies are planing something bigger but the new republic consider them to be a minor threat, more like a pack of crazed hillbillies than anything else.
Seeking to make his squad mates death count for something, Poe searches for answers about the first order's true motives. This action leads him to the resistance, a hidden group within the republic that fights against the order. From then on, the tale is largely about his first few missions for the resistance and his relationship with general Lea.
An unexpected perk was the portrayal of an older Lea. She recruits Poe and serves as a mentor, finding good grounds the young man, possibly as a slave for the fractured relationship with her own son. Greg Rucka really knows how to capture the older Carrie Fisher on the page. All of her interactions, even the way he writes her expressions and body language, it all rings eerily true to life. The portrayal ranks alongside James Luceno's handling of Tarkin in that you can see and hear the actor without any issue while reading along.
While this final story is a little less focused than the two preceding it, there's an undeniable level of charm to the whole thing. Not to mention that this is so far one of the most important stories as far as wold building within the new expanded universe. I learned so much about the state of the universe before The Force Awakens, while also getting to know Poe as a character, something lacking within the film.

Raking this collection of stories is a little tough. The Finn section left me somewhat cold and disinterested. Rey's story picked the quality up a little while providing a few insights into her personality and skills. Poe's on the other hand was a blast, that could have easily been expanded into a full sized novel. The steady growth in quality combined with the strength of that final tale help to lift this one up a little higher than even some more consistent entries in the series. Let's check out the boards.

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
3. Ashoka by E. K. Johnston
4. Tarkin by James Luceno
5. Moving Target by Cecil Castelluci and Jason Fry
6. Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
7. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
8. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
9. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
10. The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

And that's all for now, kiddies. I've gotta hunker down and finish a new Dread Central article, and prep for my first dentist appointment in years. Should have another post up for you all before the week is out. Until then, the topic of discussion is how do you like too spend the dark early months of the year? Do you delve into projects like me? Or are you an old fashioned sleep until it's warm again type of person? Inquiring minds want to know.

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