As I write this I’m trying to think how long it’s been since I read a Star Wars novel. I was never much of one for the Expanded Universe. The entirety of my exposure to the EU is Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the first Star Wars novel, published before The Empire Strikes Back was released, and thus worth a read if just for its unique take on where the story was going before a sequel to A New Hope became a sure thing) and the fan favorite post-Return of the Jedi Thrawn trilogy, which I’m told is about as good as the EU ever got (and which I’d probably give a solid B as sci-fi literature). Oh, and I read the official novelizations of the prequels when they came out for some reason, probably because as a lifelong Star Wars OT fan I was grasping at whatever rare straws of gold I could find in the trail of dung that was the prequel trilogy. And I played a few of the games, especially Knights of the Old Republic (a.k.a. the best thing to happen to Star Wars since the original movies) and for a while I DMed a group playing Star Wars d20, so I suppose all that counts. But beyond that Star Wars has mostly just been the movies to me. My nerdy friends have told me about moons falling on Chewbacca, the lovechild of Captain Planet and the Borg invading the New Republic, and a Solo kid racking up dark side points, but when the EU turned into a Force ghost it didn’t mean much to me as a fan.
Except now that Disney is in charge and the old EU is gone Star Wars canon has a relatively clean slate, and it’s never been easier (well, at least since the 90’s) to jump in and know what the hell’s going on in the books. John Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn serves as the opening salvo of a new multimedia canon that’s supposed to tie every game, show, comic and novel–and oh yeah, the movies–under one big umbrella where everything counts… and I was curious. And hell, I’ve been working nights recently, might as well get paid to read a Star Wars book, right?
That’s the funny thing though–bits of A New Dawn feel like a Star Wars book and other bits don’t. All the trappings are there–the Imperial bureaucracy in all its self-important brutality, TIE fighters patrolling the skies, a scattering of alien species mostly lifted from the cantina scene in the first movie. But the story’s set in the mostly unexplored era between the fall of the Republic in the PT and the rise of the Rebellion in the OT; our protagonists Kanan and Hera on the cover there also happen to be two of the leads in Disney’s new Star Wars Rebels show, which takes place a handful of years after this novel. Serving as something of a prelude to the show, A New Dawn tells of how they meet during a crisis on the planet Gorse and its moon Cynda, where the Empire is mining rare minerals necessary to build their fleet of Star Destroyers. This is not a book about Jedi fighting Sith agents. It’s not even a book about the Rebellion fighting the Empire. Mostly it’s a book about valuable space rocks, who wants them and what they’re willing to do to get to them.
Details on the mining operation fill a surprising amount of space early in the book, and I almost felt like I was reading something a little harder sci-fi than Star Wars at times. Surely I know all I’ll ever need to know about the procuring and uses of thorilide now. Frankly the first hundred or so pages about put me to sleep yammering on about the stuff. Eventually the plot picks up, and the nods toward modern themes like terrorism (especially through miner turned conspiracy theorist and mad bomber Skelly) and the surveillance state (through Zaluna, who goes from running electronic surveillance for the Imperials to undermining them) feel both timely and in fitting with this era of Star Wars stories. And I have to give it to Miller, the last hundred pages or so actually comes together pretty well, and it does so without relying too much on lightsabers and Force trickery to solve problems in the plot like a lot of other Star Wars side stories seem to do.
But there’s a lot of so-so fluff in the first half of the story, and to be honest if this novel wasn’t a milestone for Star Wars and an object of my curiosity I wouldn’t have read it. That’s not just on the plot either–a lot of that has to do with the prose. I get that this is a Star Wars book, but does it have to read at the fourth grade level? I haven’t read anything else by Miller so I’m not sure whether to drop this at his feet or at the line of leather loafers cutting his check. My admittedly spotty exposure to the old EU makes me suspect the dumbed-down prose is a mandate that comes from on high and there’s not much any individual author can do about it.
So A New Dawn… eh. I don’t regret reading it because it gave me a glimpse of Star Wars’ future, but I can’t recommend it on its own merits. Can’t say whether or not I’ll bother with any of the other Star Wars books coming out either. But until the movie comes out next year we Star Wars fans don’t know whether we should be hyped for the series’ return to glory or ready for more disappointment, and Disney has every opportunity to take the fandom for every cent they can in the meantime–doubly so since there’s no longer decades of EU canon to wade through if you want to pick up one of the books. If you have a tween in your life who’s the right age for Rebels, toss this at ’em and see what happens. I’m thinking about starting up another game of KotoR II with all the content mods installed to get my Star Wars fix until Episode VII comes out.