Thank goodness I happen to be a huge Star Wars fan, since that’s all the internet seems to be talking about when it comes to nerddom. I’ve only seen The Last Jedi once (so far), so I have to get my fixes in other ways. Well, praise the Maker because a new Star Wars novel was released the same day as the film, and it’s all about Rose Tico!
If you love her as much as I do, which is a lot, you’re going to want to pick up Star Wars: Cobalt Squadron, written by best-selling author Elizabeth Wein. It may be a Middle Grade book (aimed primarily at 8-12 year olds), but even adults will find a lot to enjoy. Not only do we get Paige and Rose Tico sisterly feels, there’s more backstory for the Resistance and the First Order, a metric shit-ton of powerful themes, and A+ POC representation. Amilyn Holdo makes a couple of appearances, too, so you don’t want to miss out. Oh, and if you’re into audio books instead, the audible version is narrated by none other than Kelly Marie Tran herself, who plays Rose Tico in The Last Jedi (TLJ).
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
While investigating reports of a First Order blockade in the Atterra system, Cobalt Squadron is approached by two freedom fighters from Attera Bravo, desperate to save their world from the stranglehold of the First Order. For Rose and Paige it feels all too personal, reminding them of their lost home. The Resistance devises a daring plan for the bomber ships to help the people of Attera Bravo right under the nose of the First Order. Will Rose and Paige help save a planet, or will their actions lead to all-out war?
This exciting story takes place prior to—and contains characters and ships from—The Last Jedi.
The Good Stuff
For me, one of the things that makes the Star Wars New Canon so compelling is the characters. When The Force Awakens (TFA) came out, Rey, Finn, and Poe drew me more than the plot itself. That’s still true of TFA, but I love that the rest of the New Canon continues to deliver interesting, diverse characters.
Rose Tico in TLJ makes a fantastic addition to the screen cast of Star Wars characters. She’s spunky, forthright, and willing to show fear even while we see her be courageous. She’s clever and skilled without being a bundle of stereotypes, either for female characters in general or Asian female characters in particular. She begins the film with a lot of grief, yet it doesn’t turn her inward. Instead, she serves as the middle way between Finn’s focus on individuals at the expense of the cause and Poe’s focus on the cause at the expense of good people. Rose embodies the balance of fighting for the right cause while doing it primarily to protect and care for others.
Cobalt Squadron offers us the chance to see Rose prior to the events of TLJ: her relationship with her sister, her role in the Resistance, and how it is that she comes to a place where she can be the balance between the extremes Finn and Poe represent. We see more than ever her struggle with fear. She even seems to suffer from mild anxiety, which only makes me love her more. We also get a better understanding of why she reacted to Finn the way she did at the beginning of TLJ. No spoilers, but for me, reading this book, her actions make so much more sense having seen what she went through in the weeks leading up to the events of TLJ.
Sisterly bonding in the face of a terrifying universe? Yes please. Anyone who has seen my reviews of Wynonna Earp S2 and S1-2 of Supergirl will know I’m a huge fan of sisters taking on the world. While Rose is the story’s protagonist, we also get a good sense of her older sister Paige and how their bond and shared experience of loss binds them together. They’re refugees and survivors from the First Order’s tyranny, a poignant story given how many refugees there are today from oppressive regimes around the world. Heroes who have suffered great loss yet choose compassion and empathy are my favorites, after all.
Paige and Rose are a window into the experience both of refugees looking for home and marginalized people resisting oppression. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we tell these stories, something the Star Wars franchise as a whole understands and wishes to center. Giving space to marginalized voices in order for everyone to get a chance to see themselves as the hero is a major theme of the current franchise, as I’ve explored elsewhere.
Seeing two sisters who are played by Asian women marketed as heroes of their own story is powerful. Star Wars may flub every now and again, every major franchise will. But they’re telling stories with compelling, unique, interesting, and, yes, flawed women of color protagonists. And they’re telling them for kids. A new generation of Star Wars fans will grow up wanting to be Rose Tico, and if that doesn’t make you want to pump your fist, I don’t know what will. We need more Asian heroes, and this is a fantastic start.
While still not as robust as I would prefer, we do get more backstory on the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance. There are still plenty of gaps to fill, don’t get me wrong. But given how starved we are for content to fill the 30-year span between the Original Trilogy and the Sequel Trilogy, one book can only do so much. What Cobalt Squadron does with the backstory, it does well. I don’t expect it to fill everything, though I am hoping that now TLJ is out we will start to get more content to fill the rest of the gaps. (In the meantime, definitely read Bloodline if you want more context for the conflict as well as an awesome Leia-centric novel.)
Wein clearly drew on the real-world story of the Berlin airlift when writing Cobalt Squadron, and it works well as a historical parallel. Cobalt Squadron takes place not long before the events of TFA, so the tense ambiance and sense that war could break out any moment is the perfect tone. Plus, we get a greater insight into just how bad things were under the First Order and why it is that the Resistance had to be undercover up until TFA and could not risk open conflict with the First Order.
I love my Force wielder stories, but I also love that we’re getting more backstory on the other members of the Resistance. As TLJ made clear, Star Wars isn’t just about a singular hero who saves the world anymore. It’s about a communal effort to resist oppression and be a force for hope and change in the galaxy. Thus, a story about Rose, Paige, and their squadron of heavy bombers airlifting supplies to a blockaded world shows us another avenue for what resistance looks like.
And that brings me to the themes of the novel, which to me were far and away the best reason to pick this book up—aside from an amazing, funny, and relatable Asian woman protagonist that is. As I’ve read more and more of the New Canon print materials, I’ve had a growing sense that the term “Resistance” is highly intentional as a name for the underdog team fighting back against the First Order. You can take any situation where we see the Resistance involved and think “resisting oppression means_____” and fill in the blanks with what the Resistance is doing and not be wrong. In TFA, resistance means finding and utilizing strategic information to find key personnel. And taking the oppressor’s biggest ‘weapons’ out of play in order to more effectively deal with them.
In Cobalt Squadron, resisting oppression means doing what one can even in the face of overwhelming odds and a power that seems to dwarf the good, but relatively small, things being done. Resistance means remembering that being alive and not giving up matter more than the size or significance of the gains made in any one mission.
“We’re still alive and we’re still together. And we’re doing what we can.” (p.236)
Just keep fighting, keep resisting. Where there’s life and community, there’s hope for change. You don’t have to take it all down at once or do everything, you just have to do what you can.
Another major theme is the interplay between fear and courage. For Rose and her team, courage means doing what you have to do even when you’re scared. Almost every single character is shown or talked about as being afraid. Yet none of them let that fear keep them from acting. They cope with it or mask it in different ways, but the fear still exists. Heroes aren’t those who lack fear, but rather those who act in the face of fear.
“He was scared. It didn’t stop him, though. He did what he had to do anyway.” (p.244)
And sometimes, being brave means letting go of someone you love and stepping out on your own. I found myself thinking of George R. R. Martin’s lines from Bran’s first chapter in A Game of Thrones,
Bran thought about it, “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him. (Bran I)
Recall that this is written for 8-12 year olds. These messages are for kids! They’re being shown that fear doesn’t equal not getting involved when someone needs help. Fear is admitting you’re afraid and acting anyway. This is how you raise the next generation of resisters, folks.
The other significant theme of this book is responsibility. Throughout the events of Cobalt Squadron, Rose learns what responsibility in the middle of a war zone means: knowing what is and isn’t yours to take on. Other people’s choices aren’t your responsibility. What other people do with something you’ve made is not your responsibility. How other people feel because of something you’ve done is not your responsibility. What is someone responsible for, then? Their own choices and behaviors, and just that. There are consequences for choices, of course, and one has to live with them. But one cannot blame oneself for what someone else decides to do, even if it leads to tragic consequences. One can grieve and honor others for their choices, but that doesn’t have to mean assuming responsibility for what they did.
Once again, I remind you that this is for kids. I can’t tell you how impressed I am by how Elizabeth Wein is able to weave such important, weighty themes into the book without it feeling stilted or preachy. All three of these themes—resistance, courage, and responsibility—weave throughout not just Rose’s arc, but also those of the secondary and tertiary characters. For every instance of telling, there are two instances of characters embodying what the exposition puts in plain prose. I know books written for adults that could learn a thing or two about creating thematic and character resonance from this book.
Star Wars taking the effort to not just offer diverse characters but also meaningful, important, and relevant themes for daily life and our current social situation blows me away. I have yet to read a New Canon novel that’s disappointed me in that regard. That this is a book aimed at middle school kids only makes it that much more significant. These are stories we need to tell. Rose Tico is a hero kids need to see and relate to. Her story is needed. Thank god Star Wars is telling it.
In terms of prose style, this is definitely for middle grade readers. I don’t say that as a criticism but rather as a PSA. Know what you’re getting when you pick this up. It’s for middle school kids, so you won’t be getting a serious tome with high prose and intricate symbolism. To my mind, that’s not a drawback. In fact, it’s a huge benefit because it’s accessible to both young readers and new fans of the Star Wars franchise.
I would have no qualms recommending this to someone first getting into Star Wars novels as a great example of the character- and theme-driven power of the franchise. If you have a friend who likes sci-fi and is interested in dipping their toes into the water for Star Wars but doesn’t want a lot of lore or mythology to have to wade through, this is a great book to start with. It’s very action oriented and there’s very little Force or Jedi mythos. It’s a space adventure with a quick pace and very little in-universe jargon to confuse new or young readers.
Similarly, the plot is pretty basic and straight-forward. For readers looking for intricate political maneuverings this isn’t the book for you. For that, I recommend Leia: Princess of Alderaan and the second two of the Aftermath trilogy. (Or you could read the Darth Vader, Poe Dameron, and Star Wars comics because they are all amazing.) I didn’t mind the straight-forwardness of the plot or the strong historical echoes because to me, they allowed the characters to shine and the themes to come to the fore. For a book aimed at 8-12 year olds, it strikes an excellent balance of action, emotion, and thematic significance.
Final Score: 9/10
I enjoyed the heck out of reading this book. The thematic weight and meaning behind the story cannot be overstated. Seeing an Asian woman as the center of a Star Wars story aimed at middle school kids brings me so much joy, and the fact that it’s sisters as heroes only makes it that much sweeter. Overall, it’s an exciting story with a diverse group of protagonists and a great introductory book to the New Canon of Star Wars and the franchise’s overarching goals and themes.
Also, the fact that Rose was hand-picked by Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo to be on her maintenance team makes Rose that much more of a boss.
Rose Tico forever. XOXO