A major point of entry into Star Wars‘ new The High Republic series of books and comics, A Test of Courage by Justina Ireland is a decent middle grade adventure. At best, it reminds me of the deep emotions that drove the characters in the 2000s Jedi Apprentice series about Obi-Wan Kenobi’s childhood. At worst, it proves that The High Republic aimed a little too high with its marketing.
Set 200 years before The Phantom Menace, the novel stars an ensemble cast of new Star Wars characters. Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, tinkerer and senator’s daughter Avon Starros, Jedi apprentice Imri Cantaros, and ambassador’s son Honesty Weft are passengers on a luxury starship headed for the Starlight Beacon. If the trip goes well, it could ease negotiations between the Republic and the Dalnan ambassadors, who hail from a planet which has been reluctant to join the spreading galactic government. But the kids never finish the journey. Instead, they find themselves stranded and under attack by a faction of pirates known as the Nihil, the main antagonists of The High Republic series.
The Nihil and the Starlight Beacon provide conflict without all-out war. One of the things that’s supposed to set The High Republic apart from other Star Wars stories is a Jedi Order that isn’t made up of generals, that hesitates to use violence, and that has a healthier relationship with its own duty to the Republic than it did under Palpatine’s hidden influence. Instead, it’s an event known as the Great Disaster that threatens to shake the status quo of the galaxy and the lives of the series’ Jedi characters.
All three High Republic books provided to reviewers mention or directly involve the Great Disaster, the name given to the destruction of the Legacy Run, a large starship that burst apart in hyperspace, flinging parts throughout the galaxy at devastating speed. Its wreckage has turned hyperspace lanes (already not mapped as well in this era as they are in the time of Han Solo’s risky piloting) into minefields. It’s a disaster that seems to completely change the galaxy overnight.
The result is a series that feels like it’s trying to do a few too many things from the jump. A Test of Courage introduces the balanced philosophy of the High Republic Jedi and the nature of the Republic foremost. Maybe these elements aren’t well-established enough in this book, or maybe they just aren’t actually as different from the ones in the Prequel Trilogy as I had hoped. These Jedi are a bit more open to finding balance in the Force and in using the dark side, unless one’s emotion threatens to hurt another person. The Republic is a force for good filled with mostly well-meaning people, except according to those who disagree, like the Dalnans. Sith don’t exist, but dark side users like the Nightsisters do. Jedi can sense emotions with the Force, except when pirates sneak under their noses and they can’t. Everything is just defined a little bit too loosely for me to really understand how this era works.
Another key problem is that there are so many characters in this book that I don’t feel like I really have time to get to know all of them. They do all have strong personalities, though. Vernestra is skilled and sometimes accidentally arrogant. After becoming a knight at the young age of 15, she’s now forced to be a mentor but ends up butting heads with some of the other kids.
The main relationship, between Vernestra and Imri, left me with extremely mixed feelings. We’re clearly supposed to root for Vernestra, but her methods aren’t very good. She tries to comfort Imri, whose mentor just died, by promising she’ll find him another teacher, as if his mentor were so easily replaceable. She can’t really connect to Imri, whose grief and feelings of inadequacy push him toward the dark side. Their relationship reminds me of Anakin and Obi-Wan in both good and bad ways. The contrast makes them memorable and provides conflict that stems directly from their personalities.
But without the years of context Anakin and Obi-Wan had before their epic falling-out in Revenge of the Sith, and the suggestion that the Jedi of the High Republic are by nature more noble than the ones under Palpatine’s influence, the reasons Imri fails are extremely jarring. Vern isn’t a very good teacher, but the narrative never blames her for Imri’s unresolved grief. “Perhaps the people who had actually suffered got to make the decisions sometimes,” Imri thinks, and it’s framed not as fairness but as a step toward the dark side. Any statement the book tried to make about the morality of the Force felt very muddled to me after that. At best, this series might be an exercise in how difficult it can be to talk about the complexities of heroic, well-intentioned people. Vern and Imri aren’t that different from Anakin and Obi-Wan, after all.
In the end, my favorite character wasn’t a Jedi at all. Avon is an example of one of Justina Ireland’s greatest strengths: child characters who both sound like real children and have extraordinary abilities and fun attitudes. Avon “had been obsessed with theoretical disaster for years,” which, I don’t know about you, but this seems extremely true to the kid experience. Avon felt like a complete person in a way not all of the characters did.
At times, I can almost hear the John Williams music. The fantasy of being a Jedi is certainly intact in this book, and the era frees Jedi characters up to have a variety of jobs, weapons, and abilities. But at times, the series feels like a lot of darts thrown at a board, with few bullseyes. The fact that Vern and Imri’s relationship is one of the more memorable in the first three High Republic books is truly a backhanded compliment. Despite the good character work and sense of wonder and adventure in A Test of Courage, it ends up feeling generic like the rest of The High Republic novels.
A Test of Courage is out on Jan. 5.