The fourth season of Star Wars Rebels is coming to a close this winter. It brings the story wheeling back to Lothal, the planet where most of the first season took place. Back in 2014, I wondered whether Rebels would use the single location to reinforce the show’s themes, tailoring the story to a place coded as “home” for the viewer through the perspective of Ezra Bridger. The show has traveled away from the planet along the way, but the fate of Lothal still parallels Ezra’s arc, becoming as scarred as the boy and resisting the efforts of the Empire to pollute it.
But one of the best Rebels stories set on Lothal doesn’t actually feature Ezra at all. If you’re a Rebels fan who wants more to read before or after the finale, the four-book Servants of the Empire series by Jason Fry is a quick, enjoyable look at Lothal. It follows Zare Leonis, an Imperial cadet who finds himself working undercover for the Rebellion while he searches for his missing sister. The Servants of the Empire books for young readers aren’t as detailed as Star Wars novels like Phasma, but they do tell a fun story that digs deeper into what was happening on Lothal and why.
As it is for Ezra, Lothal to Zare is the place where the hero sets out on his journey. The hero’s home is just as mythical as all the adventure that comes after. Servants of the Empire doesn’t necessarily explain some of Lothal’s greatest mysteries, such as the ancient Jedi Temple located in those strange, tooth-like mountains, but the books do have a connection to Rebels and the rest of the Star Wars saga:
The Details on Lothal
When I first read the series, Servants of the Empire helped me understand the damage the Empire was doing to Lothal. We see TIE fighter foundries on Rebels, and in the book series we learn that the metal from those foundries is mined from the planet – and the Empire is happy to rip up farmland in order to do it. Zare was raised on a space station, so all the vistas of Lothal are strange to him. He notices when older residents say that dust storms have increased, though, and sees how the planet is slowly being destroyed. Farms are taken over and plains dug up to make room for the mines. It’s an environmentalist message that has been written many times before in many different franchises and pieces of media, but it’s still important.
The series also shows the competitive nature of Lothal’s schools. Fry, a sports fan himself, focuses Edge of the Galaxy, the first book in the series, on the grav-ball team at Zare’s school. Although one wouldn’t really be able to tell from the cover, the first book falls squarely into the elementary school sports genre while using that world to tell stories about prejudice and competition. The school’s athletic director begins trying to weed non-human players off the team, showing the prejudice of the Empire. In this way, the book fleshes out the issue of anti-alien prejudice, a fact of life in the Empire that isn’t fully explored on Star Wars Rebels.
Zare’s grav-ball team is fiercely competitive, with star players likely to move on to more prestigious (and more obviously Imperial) academies. At first, he’s jealous when his sister gets to go to a well-connected school, but as he sees more of the traits the Empire values, the schools begin to feel more like a trap. In Rebels, we see that the Empire is aiming to make Lothal a hub for TIE fighter factories, and from these academies come the pilots and soldiers that serve in and around those ships. Zare is beginning to see the pipeline, the restrictions the Empire puts on him – which brings us to how his journey is both similar to and different from Ezra’s.
Listen to the Star Wars Blaster Canon podcast:
Zare is a soft-hearted boy who has to keep his true life under cover, hiding his Rebel sympathies from his father and the authorities. Zare’s mother agrees to her son’s plan, though, so the story doesn’t paint all of the adults with a sinister brush. The stakes in his story rise from ball games to life-or-death, and he finds himself having to balance making friends and fitting in with working to free his sister. Zare’s determination and good-heartedness set him apart, but his secrecy keeps him alive.
He’s a different protagonist than Ezra in that he’s still tied to a family, which gives him strength while also preventing him from fully fighting alongside the Rebellion. While one of Zare’s main goals was to return himself and his sister to the arms of his parents, Ezra finds a new family with the crew of the Ghost. While Zare has support, especially from his mother and his girlfriend, he’s also limited. Ezra never had to experience the feeling of the slow revelation of the Empire’s trap. His story includes not just the fantasy of becoming a Jedi, but also the fantasy of having the freedom to roam a city alone — a tragic story, but also one that sparks the imagination of any kid who ever dreamed of setting off on their own to have adventures. Zare doesn’t have that freedom, so his story shows the more gradual and mundane effects of the Empire.
Zare’s sister, Dhara, is supportive and friendly, but her real appeal for me is that she’s a Force-sensitive girl in a time particularly ill-suited for kids who might once have been Jedi. Dhara’s story is only told in bits and pieces through Servants of the Empire, but for me she was one of the most memorable characters.
What might it have been like if she had been born earlier, and discovered as a child by the Imperial Inquisitors? Or later, just in time to join Luke Skywalker as a Jedi Knight, but in much more danger because her family lives in plain sight? Maybe it’s fun to fill in the details of her story because there aren’t many presented in the book. Either way, she stands out as a Force-sensitive character whose fate is not yet sealed.
Dhara’s story also plays as a parallel to Ezra on Rebels. What if Dhara had been lucky enough to be discovered by Kanan and trained in the ways of the Jedi? The book series shows how the rest of the Force-sensitive people of the galaxy get along without that guidance.
Speaking of secrets, Zare wouldn’t be able to keep his without Merei. She stayed on Lothal’s Capital City while Zare was at the Imperial Academy, and works as a hacker for a local gang. She lives a fantasy life for smart kids, running circles around counter-intrusion technology and digging up information on government databases. She also ends up dealing with big questions about death and guilt, and the story nicely paces out her emotional growth alongside Zare’s.
The Roots of the First Order
The later books in the series, especially The Secret Academy, drop hints about The Force Awakens. First Order fans will find some visceral examples of Brendol Hux’s early training regimens here. Before he went on to find Captain Phasma and follow Rae Sloane into the Unknown Regions, Brendol was running the brutal Arkanis Academy. Completionists who want to trace the Hux legacy from its bad beginnings could start here.
While not part of the rise of the First Order per se, Governor Arihnda Pryce does help the Empire establish its presense on Lothal. She features as a minor character in the books, and her presence explained a lot about the political situation on Lothal. In Rebels,Pryce knocks heads with Grand Admiral Thrawn, who depends on TIE factories delivering the productivity that Pryce once prized. In both Edge of the Galaxy and Thrawn, the novel by Timothy Zahn, she emphasizes that the Empire will bring progress to Lothal — a vow that might haunt her in Rebels.