The novelization of Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes marked as an Expanded Edition, but don’t expect to find a standard edition somewhere on the shelf. Including some deleted scenes from the film, input from director Rian Johnson, and a prologue crafted just for the novel, The Last Jedi by Jason Fry does what a tie-in novel should do with competence and enthusiasm – but the prologue is the best part. Johnson recommended that Fry keep the story happy and adventurous, and he was an excellent choice for that sort of tone.
The prologue opens on a startling line and gives a glimpse into an alternate world where Luke Skywalker never left Tatooine. Luke’s complacency is deeply unsettling among all of the implications that the Empire won, wiping out all of the people Luke would otherwise have become bonded to. The dark backdrop to his normalcy is wonderfully creative. It also enhances Luke’s feeling of purposelessness later and the triumph of his eventual decision to face Kylo Ren.
The prologue brings something very unique to the novelization. Star Wars authors have done similar what-if stories in comics before. For example, the short story “Contingency Plan” by Alexander Freed played with the idea of Mon Mothma speculating about what would happen if the Empire won. This is the first time that I can recall that this sort of idea has appeared in a novelization, though, and it made me want more. Does Luke think of this alternate timeline throughout Rey’s training? Does he think of it as a nightmare? Maybe further interrogation isn’t necessary: the alternate world is unquestionably a bad one, horrors still happening even though Luke is sheltered from them. Some of the new material lacked clear follow-up or pay-off later.
With these few exceptions, the bulk of the book follows the movie quite closely in terms of the emotional state of the characters. The writing is worlds more enjoyable than the novelization of The Force Awakens, which stumbled on the prose level and didn’t introduce many new ideas, but doesn’t follow through with characterization as well as the Rogue One book did. The prose is brisk and direct, earnest and relatively straightforward. Readers familiar with Fry’s other Star Wars work will find the same attention to detail here. Sometimes the story gets a bit dry, though, important moments given no more or less weight than they were in the film.
Fry spent a lot of time working with Johnson on how to present some of the more visually inventive scenes in the book, and the interviews are very interesting. At the very least they show that Johnson’s vision was translated to screen very clearly, because the book’s interpretation of the characters lines up directly with what we’ve seen in the movie.
The prose can’t always keep up. Admiral Holdo’s death is relatively cold, without the visual splendor of the filmed version, and jokes like the iron in the First Order laundry room or BB-8’s antics don’t have as much of an impact on the page.
In some cases, the book format reveals aspects of the film that just don’t translate very well: very short scenes end abruptly instead of with humorous, fleet-footed energy, and at times I found myself wishing the book included the charisma of the actors in order to make certain jokes or quips work better. John Boyega’s delivery in particular clearly added a lot of character to his lines. Finn and Rose get some extra pieces of characterization, with the history of Rose’s home planet informing her hatred for the First Order clearly and an explanation for why Finn never told the Resistance about the First Order flagship.
Some pieces of characterization are forced to wait until more is revealed in Episode IX, so don’t expect too much in the way of Kylo Ren and Luke backstory here, although there are some glimpses. The more I think about it the more I think that this is a weakness of the Sequel Trilogy as a whole: pivotal moments are withheld, characterization put off until it can be dramatically revealed, the Vader twist rebuilt into something that fans expect. Those things aren’t the fault of the novel, and in some cases, the book improves upon them. Luke’s characterization is nicely done, his sense of loss and grief for the time he spent “searching for ancient lore and a current purpose” made clear and relevant.
Both Kylo Ren and Rey find themselves in Snoke’s throne room, and her characterization is done pretty well too: she recognizes that Snoke was dangling the knowledge of her parents in front of her and that she had the answers all along.
The parallel between Rey and Luke is welcome, if muted. Another delightful moment comes when Rey and Luke dance at a holiday organized by the Caretakers, the amphibian aliens that live on Ahch-To. Luke is stunned by Rey’s willingness to fight for a good cause at the drop of a hat, and Rey begins to see some of the kindness the old Jedi Master was once known for. It’s a touching scene that I would have liked to see in the film, since it adds a bonding moment to the generally contentious interactions between the two.
The novel is sometimes very focused on hardware and officers’ names, sure to please fans who are interested in matching what they see in Star Wars visual guides to what they see on the screen. Starship stats are dropped here and there, a valiant effort to keep canon consistent but one which sometimes distracts from the momentum of the story.
Overall, the book is a solid effort, clearly the product of a labor of love for the author, a long-time Star Wars fan and frequent contributor to the canon. It’s because of this that I wish my praise for the book were higher. If you liked Servants of the Empire, you’ll find the same strengths here. However, the prologue is the place where they shine the most.