This Star Wars review contains spoilers.
Star Wars: Canto Bight introduces the glittering casino city Finn and Rose will visit in The Last Jedi. It’s a circus act of a book, energetic and colorful. The format itself is a new trick: a novel-sized collection of four novellas, it mixes the variation of Tales From anthologies with the detail allowed by the novella form. Canto Bight includes some of the establishments featured in the film, including the Canto Bight Police Department and the planet’s huge artificial sea.
Described by TLJ director Rian Johnson as “Star Wars Monte Carlo,” Canto Bight is filled with card players and gangsters. Characters flit in and out of these novellas neatly, and the length is perfect for allowing them to intertwine without connections feeling too coincidental. As can be expected, the quality of the stories vary — but with only four of them, whether the collection is worth it might depend on what you think about two of the four. The characters get a bit lost in the glam: I think I’ll remember the color of the wine Derla Pidys provided more than the sommelier herself. The book’s placement in the publication schedule just before The Last Jedi is interesting: it means that unlike in the Tales books or From a Certain Point of View, there are no direct references to saga heroes.
The first story, Saladin Ahmed’s “Rules of the Game,” is the most shallow, including the hapless mark and the criminal with a heart of gold without adding anything that feels particularly unique or particularly suited to Star Wars. It’s functional, but it feels a bit like a joke about Monte Carlo I didn’t quite get. Kedpin Shoklop, a salesman, won a trip to the city and finds himself in the hands of a criminal who wants to use him as a means to a murder. Kedpin is shoved from one scene to the next without much agency on his own part, and the story swaps from humor to high stakes fast without ever settling on a cohesive atmosphere. It dances around the idea that underworld denizens might cheat because they presume that everyone else is a cheater, but doesn’t really cohere around that theme.
Similarly, the last story “The Ride” by John Jackson Miller, overwhelms its protagonist with wacky supporting characters and snappy dialogue. The very dialogue-heavy story flings its protagonist around from a low-stakes beginning to a tense ending, and works well enough as part of the mosaic. Miller is a master of writing pazaak, the card game from Knights of the Old Republic, and the finale shows that he keeps that title. This novella also plays with the idea of cheating and winning — “The honest person fears losing. The cheater fears discovery.” It has some great character moments once it really digs into who card pro Kal really is and what he wants. As a person who can’t even follow poker properly, his “system” for card games and his banter about strategy made me feel like a pro compared to the bumbling but supernaturally lucky brothers who barge into his life. As with everything, humor is a matter of taste, but the brothers’ strange streak of luck seemed a bit too silly to work, even in a galaxy where odd phenomena can be explained by the Force.
The two best stories, though, are the ones in the middle. Where “Rules of the Game” doesn’t quite have the tonal chops to sink into its themes, “The Wine in Dreams” drinks up. It frames the city itself as a con: “…if they lied in the beginning, the ones who carry the cry now are telling the complete and utter truth.” Author Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire) brings a keen sense of color and stage setting, with characters dressed in opposing black and white outfits like pieces on a chess board. It’s a dreamlike story so musical that it practically has its own soundtrack. While the color is more compelling than the characters, it also has some touching moments — and impressively humanizes a Wookiee bodyguard who in a lesser writer’s hands might just have been a background character.
Rae Carson’s story “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing” is compelling too, with decent prose buoying up characters quickly drawn as morally ambiguous. It’s a bit convoluted — does it count as a victory if the main character, Lexo the masseur, traded one master for another? What happened to the countess’ husband, a character mentioned and then quickly discarded? Some meetings are too convenient, with scenes hinging on whether or not Lexo is recognized. Maybe the feeling that some of those encounters were shuffled at random ties into the theme of the city’s card games?
None of the four novellas can hold a candle up to the comedic density of the charming puzzle that was “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper,” the story about similar quasi-legal cantina hijinks in From a Certain Point of View. However, taken with all four novellas together, the format of the book itself is commendable — the stories fold into one another nicely, and each feels as glitzy and full of misdirection as Canto Bight itself must be. I’ll certainly keep these stories in mind when I watch The Last Jedi. Even if they don’t directly move the plot of the saga forward, they’re still worth it for adding atmosphere and giving fans a bit more of the casino city in which to dive. Fans who want more detail about the card games played in the galaxy far, far away will find them here, as well as some pleasantly realist notions like the “show” fathier stables open to tourists.
Fans who want the minutiae of the movies can turn to From a Certain Point of View. Instead, Canto Bight is vividly depicted as a city of opulent gilding, neon lights blurred as if through drunken sight. The novella format was a really great choice, and I appreciate the flavor of the story’s themes. I just wish that all of the stories had been as vivid as the middle two.