There have been a lot of Mad Max comparisons leading up to the Force Friday release of Phasma, encouraged by author Delilah S. Dawson’s references to Fury Road. The tale of Phasma’s journey across the irradiated desert on the planet Parnassos certainly has a lot in common with George Miller’s blood-and-gasoline opus; people on this planet are desperate to survive, and will cannibalize and wage war in order to do it.
Phasma the novel also features a near-silent protagonist, but without the visual component, it takes a long time for the story to show what exactly is behind the chrome mask. I had this essay and the ensuing Twitter conversation in mind as I read the book. Would the novel be a character study, or more of a Wookieepedia entry? It turns out that it’s a bit of both, Phasma’s characterization is drawn in reflections as distorted as those on her helmet. We see Phasma mostly through other people, and her story makes her more frightening, not more sympathetic – a good call for a character tied to the evil First Order.
The story is framed by an interrogation. Resistance agent Vi Moradi finds herself in the clutches of Cardinal, a stormtrooper training officer who wants to get revenge on Phasma for usurping some of his duties and his value in the Supreme Leader’s eyes. Vi knows Phasma’s history second hand, and so it’s through this thirdhand account that we get the Parnassos sequence.
Knowing the Mad Max inspiration definitely colored my experience of Parnassos. The planet itself clearly had a dramatic history, and Dawson does a good job of putting together enough scenes so that a savvy reader can figure out the timeline of the several disasters there without having it directly stated. I’d call Parnassos Space Australia to keep going with the Mad Max theme if it wasn’t so much more brutal than that; the middle of the book generates tension from every corner, since the reader knows that even if the characters escape a mine filled with ancient droids, they’ll have blood-sucking beetles and enemy raiders to deal with.
Phasma was discussed on the latest Star Wars Blaster Canon podcast:
The original characters are interesting products of their world: Siv, the one we get to know the best, is a healer whose tolerance for the more brutal aspects of her society go a long way in explaining her people’s attitudes. She’s also a genuinely likeable person, and the extent of her suffering tugged at my heartstrings even if her voice isn’t particularly unique. The characters in the Parnassos sequence all speak in Phasma’s relatively formal phrasing, which could get a bit dull when not broken up by Vi’s more natural-sounding dialogue.
The prose itself is less punchy than that in Dawson’s previous Star Wars contribution, the short story “The Perfect Weapon.” That’s a good thing; given room to stretch her legs Dawson has a varied vocabulary and a skill for evoking cinematic landscapes.
In general, I liked the back-and-forth format. Vi and Cardinal’s story is neatly organized. The pacing in the Parnassos sections is controlled if a little slow, and keeps things colorful with new enemies, natural threats or bizarre societies. Some things about the world were unclear because they were explained after the characters visited a location instead of before; it took a while for me to be able to picture the Scyre, since the impression of people backed up between an ocean and a cliff wasn’t described immediately.
The severity of the landscape gives the entire story a claustrophobic, low-tech tinge of horror, though, and once I figured the Scyre out it felt like a symbolic expression of Phasma’s attitude. Her back is always to the wall, but she has the weapons and armor she needs to get out of even the most inhospitable situation alive.
Unfortunately, the thirdhand point of view does take the reader out of the story a little. Vi’s point of view means that the reader is never directly there on the sand of Parnassos, and the distance makes those scenes not less frightening, but just a little further away. In that way, this isn’t a character study of Phasma at all – it’s a character study of Vi, as she tells an encyclopedic story about Phasma.
There is no through line for Phasma, no recurring themes or emphasis on one event pushing her one way or another; she is simply a juggernaut. I could’t help but think of criticisms of Boba Fett, who some fans felt became less interesting after he was shown as a child onscreen. With Phasma, maybe it’s better to keep her thoughts a mystery.
This book definitely does answer big questions and provide some scenes that truly show who Phasma was before The Force Awakens. It also fills in a bit of information about the First Order’s other face, General Hux, while mostly skirting around Kylo Ren’s closely-guarded history. Phasma isn’t admirable: she’s as much a weasel as the Huxes.
Then there are Vi and Cardinal. Vi’s dialogue was snarky and fun, and it was a delight to follow a character who is both clearly very good at her job and in some of the direst of straits. The mix of flirtatious banter and poorly-managed torture was jarring at first. Cardinal goes through a lot of changes, though, and he, instead of Phasma, is the sympathetic member of the First Order here. Their chemistry and the contrast between someone free spirited and good at her work with a rather hapless interrogator made their segments flow nicely, even while keeping that blood-and-iron feel of the rest of the story. There’s a discussion to be had here about who deserves redemption and why – look at the programmed First Order soldiers like Finn versus Phasma’s very intentional cruelty.
While it didn’t tell the story from Phasma’s point of view as much as I liked, this was definitely a solid Star Wars story. The violence reminded me of Darth Maul: Lockdown, the inhospitable planet of Aftermath’s Jakku, and if you’re a fan looking for more information about how the First Order operates, this will definitely have some answers for you. It doesn’t make Phasma likable, but nor should it – I expect the defeat of the First Order will be all the sweeter because I read this.