This Star Wars review contains major spoilers.
Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel looks forward, ushering in Rogue One, but when I began reviewing it as a novel, I couldn’t help but look backward. Many of my feelings about Catalyst are the same as those I felt about James Luceno’s previous Star Wars novel, Tarkin. Meticulously plotted and encyclopedic, it keeps its distance from its characters while delving into the psychology of brilliant men in political turmoil. Fans who are familiar with the franchise’s Expanded Universe or may have just picked up a Star Wars book for the first time will both find the same thing: a Luceno staple, which thoroughly sets up the film but doesn’t bring anything new in terms of style.
About half of the book takes place before the fall of the Republic, and half during the very earliest days of the Empire. Although the protagonists are Galen and Lyra Erso, the person who is most driven to accomplish something in this novel is Orson Krennic. The man destined to face Jyn Erso on the battlefield decades later starts the book as a member of the Republic’s Special Weapons Group, determined to rise into the ranks of Chancellor Palpatine’s advisors. His efforts to beguile Galen Erso into using his genius knowledge of kyber crystals for weapons research comprise most of the plot.
Buried in that plot is some fantastically relevant and moving discussion of how far people are willing to fall, and what it means to comply with a regime during wartime. All of the characters, Ersos and Imperials included, ask themselves why they are doing what they’re doing. In particular, Lyra’s moral struggles are given a lot of weight. Adherent to the philosophy of the Force even though she isn’t a Jedi herself, Lyra’s free-spirited exploration and subtle thinking drive many of the book’s revelations.
Likewise, Galen is characterized in a way that goes beyond his role in Jyn’s life. A scientist overflowing with ideas, he’s also loyal to his family and slightly naive. A bit arrogant, he downplays his own skills in critical, kind moments, and the relationship between him and Lyra is characterized not so much by outright romance as by sweet outpourings of personality, such as when he fills a letter to her with scientific notes and diagrams. They have a nice relationship, and Galen’s struggles to balance his work with his relationship with Jyn and Lyra are quiet but meaningful.
Unfortunately, the exploration of Krennic’s character isn’t as deep and is even more quiet. His upward climb is clearly motivated, but impersonal and dry. Even in the midst of intrigue, I found myself becoming distracted from the story because of how quiet and restrained all the characters were even in the midst of tragedy. Has Obitt, an alien smuggler, adds a bit of humor but not a lot of personality. He’s a good effort at writing an everyman, but even his high-intrigue smuggling comes off as bland.
Part of that impersonal feeling comes from the third person point of view, which is ostensibly from specific perspectives but often feels omniscient. At times, the subtle threat implied in Krennic’s manipulation is very meaningful, but at others it’s simply paced too calmly to feel powerful. Krennic, Galen, and their political contemporaries are all clearly smart enough to be worthy of one another, though, and the banter clearly shows that all of these characters think several steps ahead.
The audience knows that the characters are working on the Death Star, and fans who are looking for more information about the years between Attack of the Clones and A New Hope will find some new information here. The technobabble is dense, but it also connects Galen’s project to Jedi philosophy in interesting ways, both philosophical and scientific. It also fills in some interesting details about Jyn Erso, although she’s young enough that we’ll have to wait until the movie itself to see how her dramatic early experiences really impact the person she grows up to be. Some details are a lot of fun – Jyn has apparently inherited her father’s “nocturnal habits” and doesn’t like to sleep at night.
Luceno also has a strong sense for irony and understated fear: after all, it’s a story of how people are cowed or convinced into complacency and then evil. There is a dawning sense of the death of the Republic, with painful moments of outs offered and not taken, followed by plunging revelations. The author’s trademark info-dumps are here but are worked into the scenes pretty well, usually occurring when characters are in motion and would have time to think and muse anyway. The tone is so spot-on at times, but never seems to accelerate or raise the stakes. Catalyst did everything right in theory, but in practice can’t elevate quiet intrigue into a truly engaging story.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the graphic design of this book. The hardback edition has been embellished with background images: diagrams of the Death Star and fields of stars reminiscent of the Star Wars opening crawl decorate the interior. They’re found at the section breaks throughout the book, and make the novel look elegant, as well as adding a bit of value to it as a physical object. The reflective surfaces on the relatively nondescript cover also gives the impression that the designers went the extra mile to make sure this was a book that will make people feel like they got their money’s worth for buying the hardcover. It may have no bearing on the story itself, but as someone who looks at a lot of Star Wars books, this one immediately stood out in terms of its appearance.
Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel is out now!
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.