Lost Stars

Lost StarsLost Stars by Claudia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lost Stars is a lovely Star Wars novel. It’s obviously marketed as a young adult novel, with its flashy hardback cover design, stout layout, and large-font print, and that makes sense: it’s focused on the relationship between a young man and a young woman, starting when they are children. I admittedly have a bias against YA literature. But I enjoyed the book all the same; it was a good Star Wars novel not in spite of its centralized romantic focus, but because of it.

Over the course of the novel, we see Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree bond over a love of flight, attend the Royal Academy for Imperial officer training on Coruscant, and eventually split apart as a result of the Galactic Civil War. Thane, disillusioned and cynical and anti-authoritarian, refuses to serve the Empire after seeing more and more of its atrocities; he eventually finds purpose by joining the Rebel Alliance, at first fighting against the Empire but later fighting for the values of the movement to restore the Republic. Ciena’s deep-seated loyalty and near-sacred emphasis on honor (traits carefully developed early on as distinctly part of her valley kindred culture) mean that she is unwilling to betray the Empire by leaving it even as she becomes increasingly disenchanted with it. But while they find themselves on opposing sides, and sometimes quite out of touch with what each other actually thinks, they still remain in love despite themselves.

Claudia Gray really sells the relationship. She obviously has a great ability to clearly convey how one feels. And this book revolves around emotions–not just love or loneliness, but anger and fear and passion and fanaticism, loss and sorrow, frustration, excitement, joy, and deep depression. All of the main cast of characters–largely consisting of people Ciena and Thane initially met in the Imperial Academy, but later bolstered by Thane’s friends from his free merchant days and his squad mates in the Rebellion–are portrayed as whole characters, and even though the plot remains narrowly focused on Ciena and Thane, we get glimpses of the others’ motivations and desires. (It’s pretty perfect that there’s a manga adaptation, given the relationship focus in a sci-fi setting in general and more specifically the military academy subplot for like a third of the book.)

Interestingly, we also get to hear a lot of rationalizations for why characters do what they do, why they make and break certain promises, why they believe in certain things. For Ciena and Thane, we see how their life experiences shape their thoughts and decisions. But for many other characters, there are intense political discussions to explain loyalty or disloyalty to the Empire. Ciena and her friends are able to accept the Death Star and its destruction of Alderaan using language reminiscent of those who defend the use of atomic bombs by the United States at the end of World War II. And even the second Death Star makes more sense here–while Ciena finally loses all faith in the Empire, her friends see it as necessary to finally break the fighting spirit of the Rebels. I think there’s an echo of the continued development and storage of ever-more-powerful nuclear weapons in the real world. There are even arguments about resisting the Empire versus attempting to change it from within, conversations that feel all-too-real. The Empire remains very evil, and those who stay with it are gradually corrupted by it, regardless of their intentions; what might that say about our nation’s own failures and about those who remain blindly patriotic to it?

In short, in addition to wonderfully developed relationships, this novel also delivers on some of the most explicitly political commentary in the new canon. While the Empire is evil and the Rebellion is good, there are a lot of gray area discussions and a lot of rationalizations for bad actions in good causes or good actions in bad causes. While the political commentary may be explicit, it’s explicitly about a fantasy universe, and the conventions of the Star Wars universe make it difficult to draw one-to-one comparisons to our sociopolitical reality. But it’s a book that rewards close attention, careful consideration, and interpretation.

It’s not just political commentary that rewards careful attention, though. Gray deploys foreshadowing in the early chapters that pays off rather well in the climactic conclusion. There are recurrent phrases or descriptions that reinforce theme. And there are many little nods to the larger Star Wars continuity.

Because of this, a minor flaw in the book bothered me just a little bit more. From time to time, small elements of continuity or terminology seemed to break down. (For one example, on page 334 we are told that Ciena remains aboard her Star Destroyer rather than going down to Cloud City, but on the following page, she’s suddenly moving through the city on a mission without any explanatory transition.) It’s possible that later printings or editions fix at least some of this, and it’s never a big deal, but it just distracts.

One other thing bothered me a little bit. Lost Stars reframes many events from the Original Trilogy and ties them into fallout from the Clone Wars as well as the events that would eventually lead to the Sequel Trilogy; this is often fun and rewarding. But it also gets a little too coincidental. There are just too many big moments from the films that these characters witness. They’re always on a particular deployment or taking part in the right service to be virtually everywhere: the destruction of Alderaan, the Dantooine base investigation and aftermath of the Death Star’s destruction, Hoth, Cloud City (where Ciena disables the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive), Palpatine’s arrival on the second Death Star, the battle of Endor, and so on, including tie-ins to the new trilogy by way of the battle of Jakku. (And Ciena is part of the ploy that reveals to the Rebels that Palpatine will be heading to the second Death Star, while Thane is a fighter pilot spy who uncovers that intel.) Then there are all the character cameos, including Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Admiral Piett, Admiral Ozzel, Princess Leia, Dak Ralter, Wedge Antilles, General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, Mon Mothma, General Madine, and Lando (plus references to characters like Luke and Han). The sheer enormity of direct references to the films gets a little bit old–but ties into the coincidental intersections that Ciena believes are due to the Force’s influence (thankfully, no major character has Force powers). If you can swallow all the crossovers, then you’ll enjoy the book even more than I did.

I should emphasize that I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s beautiful and artful. It’s a favorite–though I already have so many favorites in the new Star Wars canon. There is room for a sequel based on the ending, and I hope that that sequel manifests. I’d encourage you to give it a try; even if it doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, you might be surprised.

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Maybe not the galaxy’s greatest

I’ve never really been active in any fan community. At best, I’ve been on the periphery. Suits me fine. But I am an observer, and from the periphery I’ve been observing the Star Wars fandom, especially through Twitter, more and more. The people I follow are people I like, with interesting things to say; they generally have warm, positive attitudes, which is impressive for an impersonal venue like Twitter. My little bubble blinded me to a lot of the gross, hateful elements of fandom, however.

My bubble’s been burst a little bit. I’ve watched from the periphery as fanboys flailed about in rage, insulted by the very idea that someone would publicly announce, in the context of an off-hand tweet, that they thought Boba Fett was boring. I have no role in that conversation, and I’m not going to involve myself there. It doesn’t affect me at all. But it did remind me of the toxicity and rigid adherence to nostalgia that fan communities so often become consumed by.

Again, I have nothing to say about that larger discussion. It has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my place. But it did make me reflect on my own engagement with Star Wars. While I try to critically engage any property, no matter how much I love it, at some point views do calcify. With something like Star Wars, where I’ve had exposure since a young age, it can be surprising to realize that my views have crystallized, sometimes in ways that would never have occurred to me.

I thought about Boba Fett in particular. I don’t love Fett, but I have (typically) thought he was a cool character. I started thinking about Fett and some of the other small, supporting characters I loved in The Empire Strikes Back, thinking about why I liked them, and trying to reexamine them from different angles.

Background characters from the film that I’ve been especially fond of are Admiral Piett, the bounty hunters, and General Veers. While I still like the characters, and I think they serve their roles well, I realized they may be less a collection of the galaxy’s most badass and more a collection of the galaxy’s…most simply bad. (Note that I’m evaluating the characters here based on the new canon, so things like Boba’s death-defying crawl from the Sarlacc are simply irrelevant to these versions of the characters).

databank_admiralpiett_01_169_18014135.jpegPiett’s an easy example of how my uncritical childhood fandom obscured flaws. I saw him as a survivor, someone who could course-correct and avoid the pompous ego of Admiral Ozzel. He seemed to have a healthy respect for Vader. And the fact that he made it to Return of the Jedi indicated (to child-me) that he was capable.

But really, Piett is a bumbling idiot. He gets promoted to Admiral by Vader not because of quality but because he happens to be the highest-ranking officer aboard the ship after Ozzel is killed. While it may be unfair to blame Piett for the many escaped rebel ships in the aftermath of the Hoth invasion, since he was left with what could be salvaged of Ozzel’s failed plan, he led a very ineffective search for the Millennium Falcon. And while it was Captain Needa’s crew that was fooled by Han’s quick flying, Piett did not uncover the deception. Nor did his fleet find Han–the bounty hunters he dismissed as scum did that job. And he fails to properly carry out Vader’s orders on Bespin: his troops fail to secure the prisoners, his technicians fail to droid-proof their sabotage of the Falcon, and his crew fails to seize the freighter before it makes its jump to hyperspace. Piett surely escapes death at Vader’s hands for the mounting failures only because the Dark Lord is distracted by his encounter with his son.

Then in Jedi, Piett dies, the whole of the Executor along with him, because he only recognizes the weakness to forward defenses in a reactionary fashion. He is emblematic of every other Imperial officer who fails to adequately assess the ability of the rebels until it is far too late.

He’s a decent military officer in the sense that he can comply with orders, he doesn’t seem to get a big ego (at first), and he manages to stay on Darth Vader’s good side. But he’s not a great officer, nor a clever tactician, nor even a challenging foe.

bountyhuntersAs with Piett, so with the bounty hunters. A couple of droids and a bunch of low-lifes in mismatched armor and bandages, the group does manage to at least look cool. But none of them do anything. I always viewed Boba Fett as a badass for two reasons: (1) the “no disintegrations” line, and (2) his capture of Solo. Not that his Return of the Jedi death by way of jetpack malfunction did much to help his image. But even the two reasons I’ve cited can be easily weakened. As many have pointed out, Darth Vader could be warning Fett, not because of lethal efficiency, but because the bounty hunter has a history of messy screw-ups and virtually-impossible-to-identify bounties. As for the second reason, and I’m surprised that I never realized this (or heard the theory circulated, not that I looked), but the only reason that Fett realized Solo’s trick and could find him amid the emptying garbage of the Star Destroyer is that Obi-Wan had pulled a similar disappearing trick on the back side of an asteroid during Boba’s formative years. Given that Obi-Wan’s escape soon after resulted in a sequence of events that left Boba’s father dead, the boy probably would have remembered it. Boba was not necessarily a skilled tracker; his prey just so happened to use the one trick that any prequel viewer would know he is very explicitly aware of.

The Clone Wars also establish Boba and his fellow bounty hunters as a lot of losers, for the most part. In “Death Trap,” Boba repeatedly fails at a covert mission to assassinate Mace Windu. Bossk, Boba, and their companions also screw up another attempt to take down Mace Windu in “R2 Come Home.” Bossk and Boba end up captured in the following episode. Bossk and Dengar fail to escort moving cargo in “Bounty,” and that same episode sees Boba outdone by Asajj Ventress. In short, they’re definitely not top-notch hunters like Cad Bane.

With a relative dearth of writing about the Empire bounty hunters in the new canon, we have not fully seen their stories developed. What there is remains mixed. For example, Boba is shown to be a brutal hunter when tracking down Luke in the Star Wars comics, although he fails to capture the boy in the ensuing confrontation.

On further reflection, I kind of like the idea that the bounty hunters are not aboard the Executor because they are the best, but instead simply because they could get there the fastest. Perhaps they’re just a bunch of desperate Outer Rim lowlifes who could hop into orbit around Hoth to get the mission almost immediately after the end of the battle because they were already in a nearby backwater sector.

databank_generalveers_01_169_ed056bbf.jpeg

So that leaves General Veers for reexamination. What are his flaws?

Um, none. He’s an awesome bad guy. He successfully leads a massive Imperial land victory even after the Imperial Navy screw-up on approach. He obeys orders and keeps a cool head. He delivers. He’s great.