Minor spoilers ahead…
Star Wars: A New Dawn is quite similar to Kenobi, John Jackson Miller’s award-winning previous Star Wars novel. Like Kenobi, it is an adventurous, detailed look into the galaxy far, far away. The book takes place primarily in one location (here, one sector) and devotes as much time to original characters as to the previously established ones. For those who want to read about how the heroes of the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels TV show started fighting the Empire, though, it’s not wholly satisfying, and some elegant observations rub shoulders with occasionally choppy prose.
Star Destroyer captain Rae Sloane and efficiency expert Count Vidian have brought the Empire to the ore-rich moon Cynda. There they butt heads with ex-Jedi Kanan, persistent watchdog and explosives expert Skelly, and Zaluna Myder, a surveillance expert who kept track of advertising data before the Empire co-opted her company.
One strength of the novel is in what isn’t said. Exposition for fans who may have never read a Star Wars novel before is present, but it blends into the story so well that someone well-versed in the franchise might never notice that the rules of that world are being reinforced. The writing itself is usually measured and insightful, but sometimes airy and overexcited with an excess of exclamation points. The dialogue flows well, and at its best hits the same kind of intensity and humor that has been shown in the Rebels clips so far. (“I’m a man with a mission.” “You’re an oaf with a delusion.”)
Perspectives switch in the middle of scenes, and while both point of view characters may be interesting and significant, the abrupt switch seems awkward. A hooded cult conveniently materializes on the planet when the heroes need to wear concealing cloaks without attracting attention. The ending is largely predictable and unremarkable.
A New Dawn was billed as the story of how Kanan and Hera met, but from the jacket onward, Kanan is really the main character. Although he suffered a similar fate as Obi-Wan did at the hands of the Empire, he isn’t a solitary, monkish figure. Instead, he’s an uncouth drifter, bouncing between dive bars and one-night stands, taking dangerous jobs because he can survive them.
There’s no question that Kanan’s perception of women as “magical creatures” (that’s a direct quote) is the opinion of the character and not the author. Miller makes sure to note that some of the Imperial troops in any given scene are female, and the leader of the mining firm for which Kanan works is an alien woman. However, with harassment in geeky industries and strong social media conversations about the dangers of a gender divide, giving Kanan that trait without Hera or anyone else commenting on it seems like it’s only telling half a story. Maybe that’s another issue that the show will resolve.
Hera and Kanan rescue each other throughout, and the action scenes are one of the book’s strengths, especially a kinetic, fun chase on a highway near the middle of the book. Other fight scenes are muddled, though, and plod when the descriptions are too vague. Miller has said in interviews that he didn’t feel it was his role to tell Hera’s side of the story, and I hope this is because Hera will be explored further on the show (both she and the Mandalorian girl Sabine may have ties to The Clone Wars.)
Hera’s perspective often comes only as a page or two ancillary to Kanan’s much longer narration of their adventures. The constant reminders that she was beautiful from at least three different characters’ points of view became trite quickly, and I never felt that I understood her interest in Kanan as a person, rather than as a Jedi, as much as I understood his interest in her.
Hera’s personality never quite felt complete because so much of it was hidden from Kanan, and the reader didn’t often get a chance to see her except through his eyes. Never is her characterization more inconsistent than near the beginning, when in the space of one of those two-page asides she thinks both that people as a whole were “basically decent” and could find it within themselves to rise up against unjust government, and then that no one in the spacelanes with her was “worth her time.” Miller strikes a great balance between compassionate and tough with Zaluna, but not as much with Hera.
But what about the fans who are reading the book without previous knowledge of the TV show? The strength of Miller’s characters comes partially from what they show about the Star Wars universe, and that works better with the original characters than the Rebels cast.
Zaluna speaks to today’s concerns about surveillance, although she’s more like a Facebook ad algorithm than an Edward Snowden. She becomes invaluable to the team without ever seeming superhuman. It’s not every day one reads about a near-omniscient information specialist whose company was bought out by the Empire.
Another resident of Cynda and its planet Gorse is Skelly, who had become a thorn in his mining company’s side for constantly, loudly predicting that their efforts could lead to the destruction of the planet. His complaints turn to sabotage when his boss refuses to listen, and throughout the book he’s portrayed as just unhinged enough to be dangerous.
Despite his distrust of big business, Skelly also initially trusts the Empire to listen to his concerns. The Empire he thinks he lives in isn’t an evil one; instead, for Skelly and other veterans of the Clone Wars, it’s a chance for peace and economic stability. Skelly’s point of view helps the reader understand that, but he’s also even more of a wild card than Kanan.
Star Destroyer Captain Rae Sloane is a woman of color defined, but not blinded, by her ambition within the Empire. It’s largely through her that A New Dawn explains, as Hera says, “why the Emperor needs an Empire.” Sloane’s point of view shows Miller’s knowledge of how regimes and economies form. She believes in the need for industrial, practical Imperial expansion. “Things had to be built,” she thinks. Most of the book is about the production of metals used to build Star Destroyers, although that isn’t stated in a heavy-handed manner.
There is less to be said about main antagonist Count Denetrius Vidian. His reputation as an inspirational, managerial speaker who makes regular HoloNet appearances is more interesting, frightening, and creative than the fact that he is also a Darth Vader-style cyborg.
A New Dawn has a cast that is diverse and entertaining, and a fast-paced story for those characters. It’s far from dull, but never feels like required reading, not for Rebels or for the new Expanded Universe.
Star Wars: A New Dawn arrives on Sept. 2 from LucasBooks.