My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Star Wars: Kenobi is on its face a Star Wars Western. This genre is acknowledged from the very beginning–quite literally, seeing as how it’s addressed by author John Jackson Miller in the Acknowledgments, where he says that it emerged from a challenge by his comics editor to write “Star Wars as a western,” which developed into a prose novel. But it’s also evident in a simple plot synopsis: the widowed Annileen Calwell runs a one-stop-shop trade post with her kids in the rural deserts of Tatooine, tending to moisture farmers; the mysterious Ben Kenobi sets up house on the borders of the wastelands and finds his path frequently crossed with that of Annie’s, often under dangerous circumstances; as Annileen grows to trust Ben, Ben also inadvertently stumbles onto a dangerous conspiracy that involves the local Tusken Raider tribes and criminal thugs from the big city of Mos Eisley, and must decide whether he can allow himself to become further involved or if he can simply leave the Calwell family to a potentially dark fate.
I was a little skeptical of how this would work out. After all, Star Wars has some degree of western embedded in its core; was a literal expression of that metaphorical framework necessary, or would it just be overkill? Turns out that this works quite well, and Miller adopts some of the slower pace that might be expected from a western, with plenty of time spent traveling over the blasted desert wastes or talking at the trading post bar. The literalization of the western imagery results in plucky pioneers, weary farmhands, a posse of vigilantes, feuding tribal people, violent gangsters, and of course the mysterious lone hero who wanders into the middle of it all. Most of this works rather well, and the tropes feel comfortingly familiar but fresh given the setting. The slower pace–compared to the high-stakes, explosive action of the films–also gives ample time to characterize Kenobi, who nonetheless remains intriguing and perhaps unknowable (he’s the hero, but is only a secondary protagonist, and while he is a viewpoint character, he is not the main one).
I have mixed feeling about the Tusken Raiders, though. The roaming raiders of the original film are an odd echo of old-school racist caricatures of Native Americans combined with other stereotypes about Arabs, compressed into a generic sort of Desert Tribal Savage. They play such a small role in that film, though, that it’s mostly in light of Lucas’s more obviously racist elements of the prequel movies that they seem more apparently odious (or in other words, what could be innocent seems a little more difficult to ignore in the context of a trend toward the use of stereotypes by George Lucas). And since Kenobi is a late-cycle part of the old Expanded Universe, John Jackson Miller had a certain amount of baggage that came with the use of Tusken Raiders; they’d been characterized at that point in three movies and several books, comics, and video games, after all. And Tusken Raiders are definitely part of the package with Tatooine. I think Miller did the best he could with them. He created a truly complex and interesting antagonist/antihero and viewpoint character in the Tusken warleader A’Yark. He presented through A’Yark a culture forced to make harsh changes in the face of potential extinction. And he showed the settlers to be almost as bad as the Tuskens, in the end, too quick to resort to violence, and often treacherous. Plus, the settlers’ hatred of the Tuskens is ultimately framed as fear of an unfamiliar culture, part of a cycle of retaliatory violence, and rooted in space racism. Nonetheless, the Tuskens are a culture defined by blood lust, violence, and domination over others, so the final effect is still that of the Noble Savage at best. Yes, they’re not a real human culture–they’re not, as far as I know, even human (though they do forcibly adopt humans into their tribes)–but the parallels to cultural stereotyping of aboriginal cultures are uncomfortable.
Still, Kenobi is a very interesting sort of Star Wars book. It is one of the last books of the old Expanded Universe, and it feels like it. In addition to the strengths inherent in its relatively quiet story, its often contemplative pacing, and its focus on character development, it also manages to draw connections to various events throughout the Legends timeline. It’s an interesting reminder of just how busy and important a world Tatooine had become to galactic events by the end of that continuity. Yet rather than feeling burdened by all the other linked events, it presents them with a fresh, new perspective. So in a way, it feels a little like it does for Legends what The Hand of Thrawn duology did for the Bantam Spectra line of books: reinterpretation, reconnection, and conclusion.
I think it would be fun to see elements of this novel adapted into any new Obi-Wan-focused film. While I thought the book was a good read, however, I think its appeal is probably limited to those who are particularly in love with this former Jedi Knight. For many others, it might be a bit of a plunge into the deep end.
P.S. I typically take pictures of the copies of the books I read; these are the pictures that I use at the tops of the reviews on this site. You can tell which ones my cat especially loved, can’t you?