Into the Dark by Claudia Gray, the first young adult entry in The High Republic series of Star Wars novels and comics, is inventive and adventurous. Ancient aliens, a space station haunted in more ways than one, and space pirates make it a grab bag of what the new era has to offer, all of it explored by well-meaning but burdened Jedi. The main character is the least compelling of the gang, and some twists are signposted as bright as a lightsaber. Despite that, Into the Dark, which is set 200 years before The Phantom Menace, is a good introduction to the High Republic era, and a fun but not particularly deep Jedi fantasy.
When a group of Jedi and smugglers are stranded on a space station, they find something strange: ancient idols and plant life that shouldn’t be able to grow so well in space inhabit the alien structure. Jedi apprentice Reath Silas, in particular, doesn’t feel ready for this mission; he’d much rather be reading about someone else’s adventures. But when the Jedi’s choice to disturb the idols releases ancient and murderous alien captives, the station becomes a problem only Reath can solve.
Unlike Light of the Jedi, the first adult entry in the series, Into the Dark does very much have a main character. Whether or not you like Reath will probably affect whether you enjoy this book. I found him a strange point of view character. He doesn’t tell us anything particularly new about the Jedi or this era, and he doesn’t have a personal connection to the space station. He’s most interesting when he’s grieving, and the plot does deal a lot with his discovery that adventures also involve a lot of death, but that it’s worth it to be brave and forge on anyway.
But nearly everyone else has a more personal and specific emotional through-line. My favorite characters were the older Jedi, Cohmac and Orla, whose doubts on an earlier mission lead to disaster and make interesting cracks in their friendship. Cohmac and Orla have the most characterization out of the bunch, with Cohmac interested in folklore and Orla trying to figure out whether she should become a Jedi Wayseeker, authorized by the Jedi Council but working independently. Both seem unstable enough to be amusingly unpredictable and also to genuinely care about each other.
On the other hand, Reath is more predictable, and feels disconnected from his peers. His perspective lacks humor, and instead is at its best when he sinks into the kind of angst that might play well with certain readers. In particular, Reath and his friend Dez have good chemistry, but only when they’re in mortal danger. Until then, I kept waiting for one of them to reveal a hidden talent that would make me want to root for them a little more. Not accomplished enough to be cool nor inept enough to be a sympathetic underdog, Reath fails by falling right in the middle.
The smugglers have strong relationships, too: young pilot Affie and her stoner mentor Leox (yes, you read that correctly) clearly care for each other. During the adventure, Affie discovers her foster mom’s smuggling enterprise uses shady indentured servitude, and has to choose whether to secure her own spot in the business or tear it all down to expose the injustice. Affie, Leox, and their navigator Geode are all so funny and energetic. Geode never speaks, never moves on screen, and ends up being one of the funniest characters in the book. Meanwhile, even though Leox’s speech is elaborate, he at least sounds like he could be doing that on purpose.
The Jedi dialogue is stiff, and I’d be more likely to believe this was an intentional choice to reflect their cloistered upbringing if the prose itself and the Nihil’s dialogue didn’t sometimes slip into the same choppiness. This book also contains the line “Your sorcery cannot save you!” which I adore, actually. I just wish it was more intentionally over-the-top.
The space station setting creates a locked-door mystery with traps and secrets piled on top of one another. I really enjoyed the several reveals toward the end that showed things were about to get more complicated than expected. However, the “surprise” introduction of the Nihil, the punk pirates who seem to serve as the series’ main antagonists, was easy to spot from a mile away.
Into the Dark also has the same problem all of The High Republic books do so far. Needing to create a connected universe of characters, settings, and events from the start, the beginning is a flurry of new character names and ideas without any time to sink into them. At worst, The High Republic feels like it was designed by committee rather than individual voices, erring on the side of bland rather than weird. The tone flip-flops between antics that could suit an episode of Scooby-Doo and heavy angst. But at other times, it’s charming and funny. You can almost see this book becoming more sure of itself as it goes on, the ending touching on coherent character arcs in a way that should have been more present from the very beginning.
Sometimes, reading The High Republic has felt like watching authors develop their characters in real time. I can’t wait to see how the dice will roll for these people, how I’ll gradually become more interested in their relationships as experiences flesh them out. But for now, the character work already on the page isn’t strong enough to fully fill the Jedi in to the point that they feel like people. Affie and Leox do, but it’s easier for them: they have home worlds, and unique experiences.
In a book all about Jedi, Into the Dark doesn’t quite seem to know how to differentiate the space monks. And in a series like Star Wars, where the original appeal came in part from natural-sounding dialogue and natural-looking cinematography in an outlandish setting, the fact that The High Republic seems keen to swap those traits isn’t an encouraging start.
Into the Dark is out on Feb. 2.