I admit, I’m a sucker for anything Leia related. She’s my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise (sorry, Doctor Aphra, but you will always come in second). That being said, Claudia Grays new YA novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan (hereafter PoA) blew me away. And I already loved Bloodline, Gray’s novel about middle-aged Leia set not long before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I didn’t think Gray could prove to me even more how much she understands Julia’s, Kylie’s, and my perceptions of Dutiful Princess Leia after Bloodline. And then she wrote this.
PoA is stunningly in character, character driven, and rich. I know for a fact that I’ll be reading it again and again, and that’s not something I normally say about YA novels. There are deep, multi-layered relationships between female characters, complicated family dynamics, a shit-ton of pre-A New Hope era worldbuilding, and plenty of easter eggs for more dedicated Star Wars fans (Krennic anyone?). In short, it’s one of the best damn Star Wars novels of New Canon and a must-read for any Leia fan.
A (Brief) Spoiler Free Rundown
Sixteen-year-old Princess Leia Organa faces the most challenging task of her life so far: proving herself in the arena of body, mind, and heart to be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan. She’s taking rigorous survival courses, practicing politics, and spearheading relief missions to world under Imperial control.
But Leia has worries beyond her claim to the crown. Her parents, Breha and Bail, aren’t acting like themselves lately; they are distant and preoccupied, seeming more concerned with throwing dinner parties for their allies in the Senate than they are with their own daughter. Determined to uncover her parents’ secrets, Leia starts down an increasingly dangerous path that puts her right under the watchful eye of the Empire. And when Leia discovers what her parents and their allies are planning behind closed doors, she finds herself facing an impossible choice: dedicate herself to the people of Alderaan—including the man she loves—or to the galaxy at large, which is in desperate need of a rebel hero…
The Good Stuff
Fair warning, I’m going to gush. A lot. You can tap out of my fangirling whenever you want, but I have so much to say about this book that I couldn’t cut anything. Think of it as more of a book analysis than a strict review, if that helps.
PoA is not a traditional YA novel, though my opinion on that might stem from having mostly read YA dystopian novels in the past few years. For starters, Gray utilizes third person intimate narrative perspective rather than first person. I find the choice not only refreshing but fitting. Third person intimate offers all the benefits of first person—close, visceral engagement with Leia’s feelings and thoughts—without the drawbacks of a potentially boring or annoying headspace. (Not that Leia would have either of those, but still.) We experience Leia’s struggles with her, but we get to see beyond that as well.
Leia’s Character Arc
PoA is almost entirely character driven rather than being a rapid-fire action story like the Abyss duology. Leia’s internal conflict acts as the major motivating factor for the plot rather than the plot itself. The Challenges of Heart, Mind, and Body she must accomplish to be invested as official heir to Alderaan exist to contextualize and further develop Leia’s psychological and emotional struggles with her parents’, and eventually her own, involvement with the budding rebellion against the Empire.
It’s a character study of teenage Leia, a privileged (in the socio-political sense) royal heir on the cusp of adulthood transitioning into a determined, compassionate leader both for planet and the rebellion. Yet rather than give us a silly, pampered, spoiled, or naïve princess learning how to have compassion and look beyond herself as some authors might have done (a rather sexist narrative in itself given the underlying assumptions about teenage girls such a perspective implies), Gray offers something completely different. The Leia we encounter already has much of the character traits we love about her: her sense of duty, her compassion, her instinct for command and leadership, her ability to manipulate other people’s perceptions of her to her advantage in order to accomplish her goals, a dedication to her people and the oppressed of the galaxy at large.
Nor does Gray shy away from honestly representing Leia’s character flaws. Her temper comes up more than once—a flaw Gray also highlights in Bloodline, so A+ marks for consistency in characterization. Leia’s tendency to judge people instinctively and be slow to change her mind about them is a recurring theme. So, too, her action-oriented, impulsive approach to problem-solving that sometimes misses the forest for the trees. In short, she’s the Princess Leia we know from the film franchise, just younger and still figuring some things out.
Thus, Leia grows not by learning compassion or how to take charge; she already has those traits. Rather, she learns what it takes to be the leader she already wants to be, and must choose if she’s willing to accept the sacrifices, and the burden of guilt, loss, and remorse, that such leadership requires. She experiences the consequences of decisions made without all the information. She learns how to form alliances, rely on others, and delegate tasks to those with the best skillsets for the job. She’s not learning that she can lead, but how.
Leadership has burdens, some of which can and ought to be shared, some of which must be borne alone. How to balance the two, as well as how and when to let yourself enjoy life even when the world is full of oppression, is yet another aspect of Leia’s journey. The novel both assumes and proves Leia’s capability even as Leia herself struggles to prove herself to her parents. It’s a delicate balance and Gray manages it deftly.
Moreover, Gray acknowledges Leia’s privilege yet never condemns her for having advantages other people don’t. She can’t help who her adopted parents are or what her home culture is like. She can, however, use those advantages to help shield and lift up others, which is precisely what she does. As a message to teens, I can’t help but marvel at how delicately Gray handles the concept of privilege. Leia’s story is a call to arms for girls (and boys) with systemic advantages to use those advantages for others.
Along similar lines, I cannot overemphasize enough the importance of a story about a 16-year-old princess—and one who is decidedly not Not Like Other Girls—who stands up for herself, for others, and for what’s right. One who believes she can make a difference and acts on it. One who loves her parents, and they love her, and understands that open, honest communication is the key to healthy relationships even if she has to figure out exactly how to do that. One who stares down tyranny and oppression and fights not to be Rebellious™ for it’s own sake, but to do the right thing and right the wrongs of an oppressive society.
I really, really love Princess Leia, okay?
Romance and Relationships
Also unlike many YA stories, the romance takes a back seat to Leia’s complicated dynamic with her parents, which I appreciate. She also gets to have meaningful friendships with other female characters alongside of her love interest. For Gray, no one kind of relationship, being it platonic, romantic, or parental, matters more than any other. They all make up who Leia is as a person and have different roles to play in her story.
I’ve seen some people criticize the love interest, Kier Domadi, for being boring, but I quite liked him. He’s different enough from Han to not be a copy, but not so totally different that it undermines either of them as love interests for the same character. He’s neither a knockoff or a replacement for Han, but Leia’s attraction to him still makes sense. Their relationship also helps contextualize Leia’s resistance to forming lasting attachments in the midst of war and why it was she fell for Han in the first place.
More than anything what I enjoy about Kier and Leia’s relationship is the emphasis placed on friendship, mutuality, and consent. Leia is in control of how far the relationship progresses and never changes herself to gain Kier’s approval.
It must be said that many of the same people I see criticize Kier often argue in favor of a queer relationship between Amilyn Holdo and Leia. While I understand the draw of this ship (it’s pretty fantastic) and am sympathetic to the desire for a queer Leia, I think it’s important to remember two things. One, The chances of Disney and Lucasfilm story group canonizing queer Leia are less than none. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s the truth. Gray is not at liberty to inject her own version of Leia into the novel. Even if she wanted to canonize queer Leia (which may or may not be true), given how tightly Disney and Lucasfilm story group control new canon, it would never happen.
But that doesn’t mean they’re close-minded. The team is actively working on expanding the diversity of their representation, including the normalization of diverse gender identity, sexual orientation, racial and species backgrounds, interracial relationships, and women in all levels of society and work. The effort put into building such diversity into the minute fabric of the worldbuilding in the Star Wars comics and novels is quite evident. Part of normalization is working diversity into the background, and it’s everywhere in New Canon.
It’s not just background either. They have okayed protagonists (Aphra) and secondary characters as queer (Amilyn herself) and permitted pretty heavy queer subtext for some iconic characters (Ahsoka). They’re moving in the right direction. While more can definitely be done and pushed for representation-wise, they’ve been pretty clear about Leia’s sexuality. And I’m okay with that. Canonizing their most iconic female character as queer is a lot to ask. It’s fair to be disappointed, but it’s also important to be realistic.
Secondly, such criticism of Kier ignores what makes him interesting and exciting as a love interest. For one, like most other Alderaanians’, he’s non-white; his skin tone is described in exactly the same way as Breha’s and Bail’s, both of whom are played in the films by Latinx actors. This may not sound significant, but it is. Interracial ships are still rare, especially white women with non-white men. There’s a lot of fandom racism about these kinds of ships in particular and Star Wars is no exception. Just scroll through a Tumblr search for Rey x Finn if you don’t believe me.
In that light, giving Leia a canonically non-white love interest is a big deal.
He’s also strongly coded as neurodivergent, which just adds more layers of impressive. While not queer, Gray gave Leia one of the most diverse love interests she possibly could, and that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
I also appreciate how well Gray, and other recent Star Wars novels, have nuanced the Imperial/Rebel Alliance conflict. Or, rather, how well they’ve nuanced the people on both sides of the conflict. Because regardless of what I’ve seen people say, the New Canon Star Wars novels never shy away from calling Palpatine of the Empire tyrannical, evil, and immoral. Nor do they shy away from showing the atrocities that occur under and because of its dominion. PoA is no exception. The Empire as a system of government and Palpatine as the leader of it are evil and oppressive and must be stopped, full stop.
That does not mean the books don’t attempt to put a human face on the people existing within and even supporting that system. People get caught up in pretty awful things for reasons other than “they’re racist bigots”. Sometimes it’s “I need to feed my family” or “I’m loyal to that one person and have a hard time seeing them as anything but the good person they used to be”. Sometimes fear keeps people from acknowledging how bad things are, or a desire for comfort, or a love of home and protecting the things they love. It doesn’t change or excuse their choices, but it’s worth remembering that not everyone who actively or passively supports a tyrannical regime does it to be a huge asshole.
A system can be evil, but that doesn’t mean every single person who either participates in or fails to fight back against it is also 100% evil. True moral complexity is not the same thing as moral equivocation. Nowhere do PoA or any of the other New Canon Star Wars novels seem to imply that the actions of such morally grey characters are anything but reprehensible. However, there’s a difference between saying someone acted immorally and calling that person evil. Star Wars is attempting to walk that line, and for the most part, I think they succeed admirably. That being said, I’ll be the first to tap out if it starts to veer too much into apology.
I know it’s a fine line between excusing and nuancing. And recent events in our social history may lend a less sympathetic eye to the goals of the Star Wars novels in attempting to paint a more nuanced picture of Imperial loyalists. At the same time it’s helpful to remember that these books were written before Charlottesville. Before our president failed to immediately and whole-heartedly condemn white supremacy. Such events may change how we digest these stories, for sure. But if anything, I think remembering the goal of such nuancing is even more important now.
To me, putting a humanizing, sympathetic face on characters who are loyal to the Empire helps us understand them. (Note: understand, not agree with, excuse, or give into.) Comprehending those who think differently, even in ways we find repugnant, helps us to fight back. Knowing how they see the world better arms those of us who resist to engage with them more effectively. Like Leia, we can fight better when we know those on the opposite side and why they act and think as they do. And we may even be able to win some of them over despite their passivity or even outright resistance to our perspective.
One of my favorite things about Bloodline was the canonization of Leia Huttslayer. If you don’t know what I mean, Leia Huttslayer was a fanon creation that sought to reclaim the sexist depiction of Leia in Return of the Jedi while Jabba’s slave. Leia Huttslayer turns an act of objectification (the slave costume) into an act of defiance (killing Jabba with the literal and metaphorical symbols of her slavery). In Bloodline, Leia Huttslayer has become a symbol of underground resistance to the Hutt cartels and a powerful motivator to rise up against them. The focus becomes Leia’s power rather than her exploitation and objectification. Canonizing Leia Huttslayer was a pretty blatant fuck you to one of the most sexist moments in Leia’s scripting.
Gray does something similar in PoA, though much more subtly. In the Original Trilogy, the second most sexist depiction of Leia, to my mind, comes at the end of Return of the Jedi when she’s intentionally softened and sidelined to being more of a traditional female love interest to the more active male protagonists.
Throughout PoA Gray repeatedly points out the importance of hairstyles for the royal women of Alderaan. The intricate patterns of braids Breha and Leia wear symbolize their royal authority. Leia and Breha literally start their days with getting their hair braided and never take them out in public. An Alderaanian woman letting someone take down her braids is one of the most intimate acts she can allow, and even seeing her without her braids denotes vulnerability, intimacy, and trust.
Combined with Gray’s focus on Leia learning how to be ‘just Leia’ and celebrate life even in the midst of immense suffering, you have a powerful matrix for recontexualizing Leia’s scripting in Return of the Jedi. Leia unbraiding her hair now becomes an act of assertion, of Leia choosing to be just herself over her role as princess or rebel leader. Rather than a demure domestication, Leia quite literally letting her hair down is an act of defiance in the face of immanent doom. She’s choosing to “dance now” (as Breha encourages her in PoA) and embrace joy rather than wallow in fear or anxiety.
And that’s a goddamn gift. Just like Leia Huttslayer. In her two books, Gray has taken the two most sexist moments of the OT and turned them in their head. Bravo, Claudia Gray. Bra-fucking-vo.
Speaking of recontextualizing canon, Breha Organa. After having so long been sidelined to barely an appendage to Leia’s history, Breha finally gets to shine as the badass, strong, intelligent queen she is. Like showing off her pulmonodes (her artificial heart and lungs) as a reminder that “[she] cannot be so easily stopped” by near death experiences. Or her being the ruler of Alderaan while Bail works in the Senate. She may be more ‘conventionally feminine,’ but that doesn’t stop her from being awesome. Because honestly, it shouldn’t (despite what some tv shows seem to think). She’s an excellent bookkeeper, throws a mean banquet cum subversive alliance planning meeting, and an equal mastermind behind the rebellion alongside Bail. In short, she’s everything I wanted Breha to be.
Moreover, Claudia Gray finally gave us the Breha-Leia interactions fans have been clamoring for for years. Just as Bloodline was Leia’s book to grapple with her relationship with her adopted father Bail versus her blood father Anakin, PoA is Leia’s book to engage with her mothers. Bail actually takes a huge backseat to Breha. While this may upset some, given how little time has been devoted to Leia and Breha’s relationship, I’m more than pleased.
Via their interactions, we get a better understanding of Breha’s imprint on Leia. Leia often utilizes a calm exterior to defuse and disarm others, a move she must have learned from Breha, as that seems to be her default. Leia’s moral resolve where other’s might equivocate or take longer to decide, her attraction to danger and fierce determination in the face of it, her quick thinking and instinctive sense of what must be done in tense situations—all these come from her mother Breha.
While there’s less space devoted to Padmé, given Leia does not realize she’s her mother, Gray still manages to work in a truly heartbreaking scene of Leia visiting one of the moons of Naboo. There, she meets the current queen (I totally ship Dalné x Leia btw) as well as (Moff) Quarsh Panaka. When it comes to her biological parents, Leia may be more Anakin’s daughter than Padmé’s. But the trip to Naboo’s moon and the interaction with Queen Dalné invites a comparison between Leia’s determination to do what’s right for her people and her mother’s.
This is a damn near perfect novel, and there’s very little for me to find fault with. As noted above, I disagree with those who find Kier uninteresting or boring, and I actually find the ‘slower’ parts of the novel to be some of the most fascinating. That’s where a lot of the internal character work happens, and I love internal character work.
My one criticism of the novel is actually more to do with New Canon as a whole, namely, it’s treatment of Saw Gerrera. I see the point they’re trying to make overall, that good intentions are not enough (see Amilyn’s arc) but that extremist violence can be counterproductive. However, I’m not sure how well or how consistently this is being done across the various media platforms. PoA’s discussion of Saw’s tactics is more nuanced, and we get to see first hand just how unhelpful rash, violent action can be. However, Rogue One didn’t handle his story nearly as well, and I think that’s poisoned the well a bit for me. Though maybe I’m being too much like Leia and relying on poor first impression. Still, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Some have pointed out that “Strength through joy”—a phrase Leia utters to encourage herself in a tense situation—was the name of a German government agency in the 1930s. However, despite what some of the discourse going around might say, this is not a “Nazi slogan;” it was the name of the German Labor Front’s leisure and tourist board. It may sound like splitting hairs, but a government organization’s name, even one in the Third Reich, is not a “Nazi slogan”; one is nationalistic, the other is specifically a tool of oppression. Nor was this phrase on an equal level to “work makes you free,” the slogan that topped many of the Nazi concentration camps. I admit, my research has been fairly cursory, focusing primarily on the origins of the phrase rather than its aftereffects, so it may be the phrase evolved after the organization fell apart in 1939.
More importantly, regardless of the origins of the phrase, Claudia Gray herself has said she had no idea it was ever used by the Third Reich and is horrified at the associations readers with that background knowledge of the phrase have pointed out. While it is fair to ask questions about why such a phrase was not recognized by anyone else who prepared the book for publication, it seems most likely to be an extremely unfortunate coincidence rather than intentionally pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic (since Leia was played by a Jewish woman).
Final Score: 10/10
As a YA book, it’s an excellent read and a refreshing break from the much more common first person, romance and plot driven narratives. The messaging for teens about resistance, moral complexity, compassion, using privilege to help the marginalized, and standing up in the face of fear and tyranny could not be more necessary in our current political environment.
As a Star Wars novel, it’s unmissable—a captivating glimpse into Leia herself and the start of the Rebellion with Bail, Breha, and Mon Mothma, as well as another layer of nuance to the Imperial/Rebellion continuum.
As a Leia novel, this highly engaging, intimate exploration of an iconic character and her transition from teenage princess to Heir of Alderaan and Rebel leader is required reading. The only thing I can ask for now is that Disney and Lucasfilm contract Claudia Gray to write as many Leia novels as she can stomach. I’ll devour them all.
Images Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
GRRM’s The Hero is a strong commentary on war
Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
We started our journey through the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM) with his early amateur writing, published for the first time in the Dreamsongs collection. Like The Fortress or And Death His Legacy, GRRM wrote The Hero during his college years. It marks an important point in his career: this is Martin’s first professionally published story. That’s right, our boy GRRM went pro!
The long story behind its publication is told in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs. I recommend you all to read it, since it’s an interesting account on the backstage of publishing in early ‘70s and what it meant to start a career in writing. Written in late ‘60s, The Hero was published for the first time in the February, 1971 issue of Galaxy.
How well did it age?
From here on, spoilers for The Hero. Due to the nature of the points chosen for analysis, that segment contains spoilers as well.
The Hero follows Field Officer John Kagen, a soldier from the Terran Expeditionary Force on a quest to conquer new planets. The natives of those planets are no match for Terran technology, in all the glory of its Hollywood Science.
Back at the outpost, Kagen has orders to see Major Grady about this pesky little thing he wants:
“My term of enlistment is up within two weeks, Major. I don’t plan to reenlist. So I’ve requested transportation to Earth. That’s all there is to it.”
After twenty years of service, Kagen is entitled to retire with full pension. Major Grady doesn’t want him to leave, citing his great records and all the excitement that is to come now that they’re close to open war against the Hrangan Empire. Despite his insistence, Kagen is adamant about retiring and settling specifically on Earth. Born in one of the War Worlds that provide soldiers while Earth provides high-ranking officers, Kagen wants to see what he’s been fighting for all those years. He’s getting bored of fighting and feels he’s getting older and slower. Also:
As you say, everyone on Earth must know me. I’m a hero. […] On Wellington I’m just one of hundreds of old vets. Hell, every one of the troopers who does retire heads back to his old barracks. But on Earth I’ll be a celebrity. Why, I’ll be the fastest, strongest guy on the whole damn planet. That’s got to have some advantages.
When it becomes clar that Kagen knows his rights and won’t step down, Grady tries to reach his gun. Kagen stops him, but is seized by the tractor beams protecting Grady’s office. Still, Grady decides to give Kagen what he wants.
On the day of his retirement, Kagen takes a shuttlecraft for a starship to Earth. He’s kept in place with tractor beams for the liftoff, but instead of releasing him the tractor beams get tighter and tighter, to the point of hurting him.
“‘Cut it out!’ he cried, his voice shrill with pain. ‘You’re killing me. Damn you, you’re killing me!’ And suddenly he realized he was right.”
In the outpost, the perpetually bored Grady tells his aide to space Kagen’s corpse, release a fake news note on his death blaming the Hrangan Empire, and send his medals to the barracks museum in Kagen’s homeworld.
On Corps and Corpses
There are many reasons why I’m a fan of GRRM’s work, but when it comes to stories like A Song of Ice and Fire his skill with characters and worldbuilding stands out. To my disappointment, those two aspects fell flat in The Hero during my first read. It was only with time, thinking about the story and its themes, that I came to appreciate what GRRM was trying to achieve.
The story has only three named characters, but Ragelli doesn’t really count because he simply exists. Kagen and Grady have better characterization and we can tell more about their motivations and personalities, but they still feel quite bland.
The story constantly emphasizes how bored Grady is, and I think it’s part of the point that GRRM is trying to make with this character. He seems very aloof, seeing soldiers and natives as nothing but tools to achieve his goals. He clearly considers War Worlders second-class citizens, to the point of feeling offended with the idea of Kagen moving to Earth. Overall he reads as a sharp criticism against the people responsible for wars, who hide behind desks disregarding the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.
Kagen barely has any inner life and the only information we have about his personal motivations comes during his conversation with Grady. He feels more machine than human, particularly when he meets a group of natives early in the story:
One began to speak. He never finished.
During the brief flickering instant before the natives’ fingers began to tighten on their triggers, Kagen did not pause, Kagen did not hesitate, Kagen did not think. Kagen killed.
Kagen spun, still reacting, searching for the next foe. He was alone.
His reaction feels almost automatic, and it’s an effective moment to show how this violence has become a part of Kagen’s routine. His apparent lack of inner life does have a point: after twenty years of service that translated into killing, maiming, and conquering, there seems to be a little less humanity left in him. Kagen dedicated his life to military service and it took everything it could from him, both physically and emotionally. Even his death will serve to further an agenda against his personal wishes.
So both Kagen and Grady have a reason behind what feels like an apparent lack of characterization, but I wonder if the execution was done effectively or if they’re more commentaries than characters.
The setting suffers from a similar problem, because for the most part it feels very generic. There are a few hints of something more interesting underneath the surface: the near paranoia of the Terran Expeditionary Force, the fact that soldiers are expected to be on drugs to keep their performance, the hinted conditioning of soldiers in the War Worlds, the dynamic between Earthers and War Worlders… but most of this isn’t explored.
I suspect this also has a point: it’s not about this planet in particular or these people in particular, but the pattern on this military and those behaviors that GRRM denounces. The fact that the setting is so generic turns it into a surrogate for any real life conflict the reader may see on it. We never learn the reasons behind this conflict, but it doesn’t really matter.
So both characters and setting share this quality, an apparent blandness that is almost the point. I can’t say how well it worked for me, but I can understand why they were written this way.
What I can’t really understand is again the lack of diversity. Yes, I’m going to insist on this in every single story of this reading project, because it’s becoming a pattern in GRRM’s early writing. All his stories are about men, presumably white, straight, cis, etc. I say “presumably” because I don’t like the idea of assuming whiteness or heterosexuality as default, but he doesn’t give us any hint that this may not be the case. I realize the story has very few characters, but women aren’t even mentioned.
War… war never changes
The most interesting aspect of The Hero for me is GRRM’s commentary on war. Different readers may have a different reading since each country has different views on war and military forces—as for me, coming from a country that experienced a long military dictatorship in a not so distant past, I must confess I’m not very fond of the guys. It’s useful, however, to keep in mind the context during which The Hero was written.
GRRM wrote this story in the late ‘60s, during Cold War. We know from the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs that he opposed the war in Vietnam and even applied for conscientious objector status. When we consider those circumstances, we can see their influence in the story.
The Hero isn’t even subtle on its sharp criticism on war. We never learn the reasons of the conflict between Earth and the Hrangan Empire, so the whole thing feels somewhat pointless. It’s two major nations measuring forces against each other in a cold war, conquered people and territories be damned, but we never understand what they’re fighting for besides this expansionism. It doesn’t help that Kagen himself says he wants to see what he’s been fighting for, implying he doesn’t know that yet.
What we do see of this conflict are its consequences, from the vivid description of the assault of a nameless city in the story’s opening scene to everything that happens with Kagen. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that Kagen’s exhaustion or his drug use are exceptions. It’s just how it is.
Those issues, the character of Kagen as a whole, and his dynamic with Grady remind me a lot of the way GRRM handles war in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve seen fans defending that ASOIAF is an anti-war statement, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s hard not to see a point in conflicts like Robert’s Rebellion or the war against the Lannisters, even if we don’t agree with how they were conducted. I think ASOIAF, much like The Hero, wants you to think about the consequences of war. It argues that the people fighting this war or suffering its effects more directly are often not the ones that will benefit from it.
I see echoes of Kagen’s story in the famous “broken man speech” from A Feast for Crows. The speech is too long to copy on its entirety, but it deserves its place among the most well-remembered lines in ASOIAF:
“One day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . . And the man breaks.”
One could argue that Kagen is a broken man, or a man in the verge of breaking. War isn’t glorious, but now there’s no going back. And who is he fighting this conflict for, anyway? He gave so much of himself, physically and emotionally, and it was sort of… expected?
The ending is perhaps the sharpest criticism of all: what do we do with our war heroes? Once the war is done and we took everything we wanted from them, what do we do? Do we fulfill whatever promises that sent them away from home? Do they get rest, peace, an exciting life for themselves? Are they honored as heroes or celebrities? Or do we honor just their medals, but not the person carrying them? What do we do with that person?
Despite its shortness and shortcomings, The Hero was a surprisingly deep story. It’s still not classic GRRM destroying our hearts with his sweet, sweet themes, but he’s getting there.
The story’s commentary on war and the treatment of war heroes are surprisingly contemporary. It’s not the first time one of GRRM’s old stories touches issues similar to the ones we’ve been dealing with, and I suspect it won’t be the last time either. It’s not very subtle and the execution isn’t perfect, but I think The Hero is very successful in making the reader question those issues in real life.
Next time: haunted highways and genre mash-up await us in “Exit to San Breta”
The Force Resurfaces in Legends of Luke Skywalker
So, with Ken Liu’s Legends of Luke Skywalker Luke is finally really back to the extended canon of new Star Wars. Of course, it is not his first official appearance. He took part in many adventures in the comics series, for example; but, Legends of Luke Skywalker is the first new canon novel installment to focus on the Jedi and his personal path. The first to give us a close-up on him.
It is quite understandable why Luke stayed on the margins of larger story for so long. Luke is the centerpiece of The Last Jedi, after all. So, when dealing with his character and plot, they have to avoid both spoilers and a chance for out of character actions. Which is great, by the way, as such caution is new for Star Wars.
All that to say, Ken Liu had a very complex mission cut out for him. And oh my, did he succeed! Gretchen wrote a really deep and insightful essay on how the book acts as a manifesto of New Canon’s overarching goals, particularly the emphasis on diverse storytelling. Me, I’m going to take a different route and talk a bit about the world- and character-building aspects of the book and how they relate to the Expanded Universe (EU).
Meeting Luke Skywalker
But did we actually meet him? Ken Liu himself advises us against this assumption:
“Without giving away spoilers, I do want to caution the reader against assuming that any of the Luke-like figures they encounter in the book is in fact Luke Skywalker. Sometimes we retell legends not just by recounting the stories, but by emulating their heroes.”
However, having read the book, I think we can assume that we did in fact, as did the people telling us these stories, meet Luke Skywalker and walk with him for a while. That’s the assumption I’ll be working with in this piece, that this novel gives us actual insight into what the Luke Skywalker of New Canon did, said, and is like.
And this person we met is somewhat of a stranger to us, especially to those of us who are accustomed to the much less closed off, much more outgoing and social-oriented Luke of the EU. It is difficult to imagine the Luke of Legends changing girlfriends once an issue/novel and being a prototypical Masculine Hero of the whole Galaxy. It’s hard to imagine Legends Luke in this (perfectly canon; those women are physically attracted to him because he’s a Jedi, you see) situation:
The Luke we meet in Liu’s book is a dreamer, a hermit, a pilgrim. We see him interacting with other people and see that despite being friendly and helpful he is very closed person. He seems estranged from the others—all the more as years pass.
What Does Being a Jedi Mean?
This Luke, unlike his EU counterpart, comes with a question: “How does one be a Jedi?”. Which is understandable, given that this Luke, unlike his older counterpart, is created in the post-prequel era.
Before those movies there was no true definition of what a Jedi was, apart from the general idea of being a Force-user. Thus, Luke could both be a Jedi and adventure around the Galaxy with random girls who leave him as soon as a story arc ends. He could even afford to marry the most fanbase-acclaimed of them, Mara Jade.
Even more so, he could afford to create his own Jedi Order with only such vague rules regarding what it meant to be a Jedi as existed among the authors at that time. Those Jedi married each other and lived with their families in a Jedi temple; they kinda practiced some Force technique or another; they served the New Republic. They fought the Dark Side, too—which mostly meant “some weird guys who believe they are new Sith.” The Dark Side as “something bad within a person” was generally just that: something bad, like envy, hatred, or anger. They were spiritual, of course, but again, it was a very vague spiritualism and adapted to the needs of the authors. Nothing was standardized.
The Luke we encounter in Legends of Luke Skywalker exists in the post-prequel universe. This shows not only in a quick mention of Padme Amidala, but also in how the Jedi theme is presented. A Jedi is meant to be an ascetic, selfless person now. With no attachments and no interest in the outside world, apart from serving the Republic they are sworn to protect that is.
And while Luke is not quite free from being interested in worldly matters, he is still much closer to that ideal than he ever was in the EU.
As a side note, I find it interesting that while Luke’s character has changed because the concept of Jedi has changed, Star Wars: Rebels provides us with a very old-fashioned New Jedi Order-like figure in Kanan. But old (and by “old” I mean “pre-prequel”) EU traces in the series are a subject for a different essay, I think.
The Force And Luke
So, as our main hero is a Jedi, he has to deal with the Force, has he not?
And this book is rich in Force worldbuilding. Some of it is fairly traditional; we see people talk about Dark Side and Light Side, using familiar tricks and all that. Some of it is truly revolutionary, and I can’t help thinking if it may be connected to The Last Jedi.
I mean “Fishing in the Deluge,” of course, which included a idea truly new idea for the Star Wars universe: that using the Force in and of itself may be wrong, or at least inherently prone to distortion. If the Force is what it is believed to be, why try bending it to your will? Better devote yourself to it, and let it flow freely and do its job. This is interesting as a religious view, as well; it reminds me of Orthodox prayer “do not what I want, please, but what Thou think would be better.”
Along with “Big Inside,” Legends also provides us with glimpses of non-Jedi Force-using communities. While they are very different from each other—one is primitive fishermen tribe, the other a highly organized society with the ability to weave time itself, one deems using the Force always wrong and other has mastered things nigh impossible with it—they share important elements. They both are post-prequel creations. They both seek freedom from attachments, for example, though not in the same way as each other, or the same way as the Jedi do.
It was a hasty essay, I freely admit it, but I hope you’ll still see some value in it. For the final thought, I want to talk about how this book gives us a glimpse of Luke after Kylo Ren’s fall. I am talking about the first story, that from Dwoogan: “The Myth Buster.”
Given that Luke had already gone missing by the time Dwoogan meets the mysterious man in the teahouse, this event would likely be after the tragedy. And this gives a whole new meaning to his words about the Dark Side…
“The heroes of the New Republic didn’t think of themselves as heroes. They thought of themselves as ordinary men and women who did what had to be done to restore freedom and justice to the galaxy. For me to challenge her would have been giving in to fear, fear that their reputations, rather than their deeds, were what mattered. It would have led to anger, anger that they were not worshipped by everyone who benefited from their sacrifices. It would have led to hate, hate that the truth was not enough by itself. But that would have been giving in to the dark side.” (p. 55)
Makes you think, huh?
Images courtesy Del Rey and Marvel Star Wars
Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter
I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.
Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.
I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.
What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.
Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.
What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.
In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.
You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.
*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.