This Star Wars review contains spoilers.
It’s hard to separate The Rise of Skywalker novel from the movie. Author Rae Carson could not change Rey’s family history as a Palpatine, and could not re-write Poe Dameron and Finn’s dialogue. What she does instead is expand on opportune moments. General Leia Organa and Rose Tico, constrained to the Resistance base in the movie, both have larger roles in the book. Overall, the novel is serviceable, with some interesting choices in regards to what parts of the story to elaborate on and what to play close to the script. Fans looking to deep-dive into what was really “meant” for their movie favorite characters will surely find a lot to talk about here. As a novel, it’s merely functional.
To be clear, writing a functional novelization is hard work. Carson skillfully brings the threads of the movie together. From the beginning, it’s clear what Rey is trying to accomplish by talking to the spirits of the Jedi. She plants hints that Leia’s lightsaber is out there in the world somewhere, and that Leia still feels love toward Ben Solo separately from what her son has done as Kylo Ren. All of the threads of the movie are introduced quickly, making it more satisfying when they come together at the end.
One excellent addition is a monstrous creature living in a pond on Mustafar. Meanwhile, Carson’s exploration of the dark side and Kylo’s perspective is pleasantly angsty: the Force is “twisted” and “rotten” on Exegol, and Kylo is never satisfied. The reveal that Emperor Palpatine has been controlling Kylo’s former teacher Snoke all along makes him feel used, so it makes sense that more than ever he’s trying to gain his inheritance (anger, the dark side) no matter who he has to fight. Even Palpatine himself is a barrier to Kylo’s lofty but vague goals.
There are some really excellent lines here, and any inconsistency in the characterization comes from the script itself. Kylo killed Snoke in The Last Jedi, so it’s clear he’s not interested in bowing to anyone. The deference people have shown him as both Supreme Leader and the son of Princess Leia has given him an impatience for “sycophantic compliments.”
Rey’s characterization also adds some nice shading, such as the way she hides food under her bunk. Poe and Finn suffer more. Maybe this is as much the movie’s fault as the novel’s, but Poe feels mean and Finn naive. Their banter after they are both promoted to general was one of the funnier moments in the movie, playing on both actors’ charisma very well. The book doesn’t try to improve it, but that means it becomes a bare-bones scene, the dialogue much less effective without Oscar Isaac and John Boyega delivering it. There isn’t nearly as much introspection from the two of them, alone or together, as there could have been.
While the introspection overall is good, the places the novel applies it are strangely inconsistent. Kylo’s dialogue in the First Order meeting room is woefully under-explained. He thinks about one thing and says something totally different in a way that feels more like an attempt to rush through the scene than an examination of his conflicting mental state.
The writing lacks detail, even more so than most Star Wars books. It’s clear the author used information available in the movie’s Visual Dictionary, because facts and names are scattered throughout the story with little actual import or emotional impact. Particularly jarring are two spoilery and oft-rumored ideas: Palpatine is living in a clone body, and his “son,” Rey’s father, was also a clone. This explains how Palpatine is still alive but doesn’t have any more internal consistency than him just being able to survive using Force magic. It’s all very technical without actually being a meaningful addition to the larger story.
The appearance of A New Hope‘s Tantive IV in the Rebel base is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to Star Wars easter eggs that feel signposted with flashing lights to the audience but are totally disconnected from the story. The novel mentions the ship several times but never explains what Rey knows about the history of the ship or even whether she cares. It might as well just be a landmark to her, but Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker, in particular, is full of too many references for it to feel subtle.
For every cool expansion or interesting structural choice, there are a few story beats that are woefully overlooked. Rey apparently mind-tricked Finn (maybe under Kylo’s influence) and that invasion of privacy is never addressed. What feels like an attempt to give Leia some more agency over her own death just reads even more as an inevitability, and even Rey fighting the Emperor is somehow less about Rey as an individual than it was in the film.
Even with a good amount of extra scenes and expanded roles for characters like Lando, Zorri Bliss, Babu Frik, and Leia, the book feels like it hews too closely to the movie. On the other hand, sometimes that’s exactly what a novelization needs to do. If you want a brisk, entertaining look at the movie, you’ll find it here. But fans who want to dig into the scenes they already know might get about the same experience from reading the Visual Dictionary instead.