My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was nervous going into this book. It was the first novel published in the new unified Star Wars canon established by Disney. And it seemed a weird property to start with, a novel aimed at adults about the backstories of two protagonists from a family-friendly cartoon series.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I never really should have doubted; John Jackson Miller has always delivered consistently entertaining comics and books about this galaxy far, far away. But this is probably my favorite Star Wars story by Miller yet (I never read Kenobi, though, and that got a lot of hype). Even without Miller at the helm, I should have realized that a book about kids’ show heroes could still be interesting, and I should have learned by now that Dave Filoni’s productions are emotionally involved affairs with complex characters and often surprisingly mature and sobering themes, regardless of the target demographic or medium used.
I was late to The Clone Wars, and I’m late to Rebels, but I think A New Dawn finally gave me the push I needed. Kanan and Hera were truly interesting in their own right, and their archetypal cynic/idealist contrast very quickly gives way to something far more complicated in their personalities and their relationship. And they are just obviously Good People without being obnoxiously straightforward white knights, so it’s easy to root for them and care about them. There are so many characters I came to like that I knew would not reappear in other media. The stakes were raised because of this, since there was no guarantee that supporting characters would make it out alive, and Miller was certainly not afraid to insert tragic death into the story. Some of that death was quite horrific and really drove home the villainy of efficiency expert and industrial titan Count Vidian, who propels the central conflict in the plot when he arrives on mining world Gorse to improve output of a molecule valuable to the imperial war machine.
While Vidian was sneeringly sinister, there is actually a great deal of moral nuance here, especially for a Star Wars book. Skelly is a Clone Wars veteran clearly suffering from PTSD who misguidedly believes that the Empire actually cares about safety, whose crazy theories about the potential destruction of the crystal-filled moon of Cynda aren’t as far-fetched as they seem, and who becomes a terrorist once he becomes truly disillusioned with the Empire, though still roped into Hera’s cause to serve his own role; he’s also a sweet guy who’s loyal to those he perceives as friends. Zaluna is a middle-aged Sullustan spymaster who works for a data-collection firm that once sold data to advertisers and now sells out potential dissidents to the Empire; she has a fascinating change of heart over the novel, triggered by her attempt to fulfill the last wish of a good friend. And substitute Star Destroyer Captain Rae Sloane is my new favorite Imperial, someone who is clear-eyed in her loyalty to the Empire, someone who can be viewed sympathetically and maybe even as a hero even while she is quite willing to do bad things for the Empire. Sloane is so fascinating because she clearly sees the Empire as a net positive, she’s ambitious, and she’s loyal to the Emperor and what he represents; she is also able to do what it takes to protect that empire and to obey her superiors even when those actions are potentially atrocious. She is neither cruel nor softhearted. She does not seem like someone who might secretly flip sides to be a “good guy” down the line. She is a villain you can kind of secretly root for, especially when she is contrasted against Vidian.
I was also kind of surprised to see a Star Wars book that was so thematically rich and so willing to deal with the real-world realities of the Empire. The world was plausible, and we get to see the tools of Imperial authority from the highest levels of the fleet authority to the lowest levels of shantytown surveillance. Since Vidian is an efficiency expert, we get a lot of intriguing details about the logistics and infrastructure of the Empire. And the role of surveillance and of blind obedience to order and authority within the book provides for easy engagement of very contemporary issues, relevant to today’s society, about security versus civil liberties and the slippery slope to authoritarianism.
A New Dawn is a good standalone Star Wars novel, but it also brings about the rise of the new dawn of Star Wars continuity in a very reassuring manner. Whether read as a one-off, or to launch into Rebels, or to learn more about the characters of the show after viewing, I think this book is a rewarding experience for any Star Wars fan.
Also, on a personal note and independent of the quality of the book itself, it’s really cool to see this novel clearly represent the more diverse Star Wars galaxy cultivated by Disney and Kathleen Kennedy. Yes, there are cool aliens and droids, but there’s also a wide range (and combination) of human races and genders.
I only observed two prominent weaknesses in the book, and I imagine opinions will vary as to how much these elements are actually flaws. First, while Mr. Miller is excellent with characters, action, and ideas, the writing itself can at times be a bit bland or generic, which sometimes made it difficult to create an adequate mental image during scenes with a lot of action or movement. I suppose that is to say that setting could at times have been improved. Second, A New Dawn repeats the ugly Star Wars trope of using deformity and disability as a sign of moral flaws. Count Vidian is a shell of a man, both literally and physically, and while his grotesqueries appear to be quite deliberate on his part, they still reinforce the old trope. Also, good-guy Skelly is not enough of a counterbalance given that he is a bomb-crazy terrorist and probably not the most palatable image of mental illness. I could see counterpoints to my criticisms, and I’m not sure everyone would read the elements I see as problematic in the same light, but I do want to explain where I saw room for potential improvement. But really, the book as a whole is great fun, and I would not encourage anyone to pass it by just for the problems I mention here.
It took me a while to start reading the books of the new canon, but I’m glad that I now have.