Saturday, June 4, 2016

Review: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

By: John Jackson Miller
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 978-0-345-54684-5


With the loss of his once-promising apprentice still a raw wound, Obi-Wan Kenobi retreats to the remote planet of Tatooine, charged with guarding the galaxy's hope of redemption -- young Luke Skywalker. But until that far-off day that Luke should finally meet his destiny, Obi-Wan determines to adapt to a life without the sense of community and far-flung driving purpose that he once knew. But despite his determination to remain unnoticed and unremarked, descending into obscurity even on a backwater planet such as Tatooine proves harder to accomplish than the one-time hero of the Clone Wars ever expected. With Luke delivered into the custody of his uncle Owen Lars for safekeeping, Obi-Wan -- now calling himself Ben -- determines to settle into the role of watchman some distance away, resigned to a life of watchful meditation. Getting drawn into the lives of the settlers in the area is the last thing he needs...

Dannar's Claim, a trading post, inn, and bar, operated by Annileen Caldwell and her children Kallie and Jabe is the center of life at The Oasis, the hub around which those brave souls attempting to eek out a living from Tatooine's harsh environment seek community and connection. Dannar's Claim also houses the Settler's Call, the brainchild of moisture farmer and entrepreneur Orrin Gault. The Call is a subscription alarm service, consisting of a fund managed by Gault that coordinates the community response to attacks on subscribers by Tusken Raiders. As the best friend of Annileen's late husband, the lives of the Caldwells and the Gaults are inextricably entwined. When Tusken attacks spike, led by the raider known only as Plug-eye, tensions spike between Annileen and her long-time friend, made worse by her son's insistence on joining Orrin's dangerous raids. As tensions between the settlers and the Tuskens mount, a reclusive stranger named Ben arrives, one whose secrets may hold the secret to the settlers' salvation...if he isn't destroyed first.

It's been YEARS since I read a Star Wars extended universe novel. I cut my science fiction-loving teeth on the likes of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, novels which captured not only the feel of the original trilogy, but were superb storytelling that -- long before Disney acquired Lucasfilm and announced plans to make new films -- opened new chapters and introduced new characters to the Star Wars universe. Thanks to Disney's reboot of the extended universe canon, the original extended universe novels that I loved are now no longer canon, but classified as "Legends." However, stories like Kenobi are stellar examples of these books at their best -- illuminating new facets and eye-opening possibilities in the lives of beloved characters like Obi-Wan whose screentime only provides tantalizing hints of their history and potential.

Ewan MacGregor's portrayal of a young Obi-Wan was a highlight of the uneven (to say the least) prequel trilogy, and portrayal heavily influences Miller's characterization of the Jedi Master in Kenobi. I've always viewed Star Wars, particularly Episode IV, as a western in space, and this novel takes the concept of a western space opera and turns it into a full-fledged, old-fashioned classic western epic. Obi-Wan -- now the hermit Ben -- is the retired Gunslinger who wants nothing more than to be left in peace. Orrin, the rancher-cum-robber baron whose once pure motives have been corrupted by a drive to consolidate power and succeed, while Annileen is the determined widow transformed into a businesswoman, one whose once-bright dreams have long laid dormant until the arrival of a stranger, the compelling and mysterious Ben.

Miller knows the story beats of a classic western, and therein lies the success of his exploration of the unknown chapter of Ben's life on Tatooine prior to the arrival of a blue and white astromech droid bearing a desperate plea from a princess. This novel is everything I never knew I wanted from a Obi-Wan-centric story,  everything I felt the prequels wasted with an actor of MacGregor's potential bringing a youthful Kenobi to life. Miller brings Kenobi to vibrant, three-dimensional life, delving into the insecurities, questions, and sense of failure he must have grappled with following Anakin's turn to the dark side. Here Miller explores if a man who once thrived on action, who was conditioned to never let a call for help go unanswered, adapt to the life of a hermit -- if such a withdrawal from a society in need is even possible.

I absolutely loved how this novel fleshes out not only Ben's character but the culture of Tatooine, a world that plays a critical role in the Star Wars universe as the home of Luke, the birthplace of Anakin, and the site of a rage-fueled massacre of Tuskens that sets Anakin on a galaxy-shaking trajectory, culminating in his transformation into Darth Vader. While Ben's characterization is a welcome addition to the extended universe, and the settlers are deftly sketched western mainstays, transplanted in space, its the characterization of the Tusken Raider culture that proves most illuminating. On film they are faceless, mindless bandits -- here the Tatooine natives have a culture, history, and drive, led by the formidable, fearless warrior Plug-eye, a Tusken with secrets that, if discovered, could reframe the Tuskens' age-old conflict with the settlers.

Kenobi is peppered with echoes of the films, from mentions of Jabba and the Lars family to suggestions of greater events unfolding in the galaxy as the Empire rises following the Jedi's fall. But putting the Star Wars references aside, Miller has delivered a cracking good western capable of standing beside classics of the genre by the likes of  L'Amour and Mulford. This is why I love science fiction, why I adore the Star Wars world -- Kenobi is page-turning adventure filled with compelling characters, explosive action scenes, intrigue, and a classic showdown between good and evil. For all the talk of destiny in the canon, for me Star Wars has always been a story of choice, of choosing light, of choosing to be the best version of one's self., and Miller taps into the timeless nature of that battle. I can only hope that Miller one day gets to revisit this universe, but if not, here he's delivered one of the most satisfying reads in this extended universe -- and if, like me, you can't help but view it as canon...who can blame you? This is a Star Wars (and westerns) at their best -- entertaining, thought-provoking, and just plain fun.

About the book:

Tatooine, the harsh desert planet on the edge of civilized space, is an unlikely place to find a Jedi Master in hiding. Known to locals only as "Ben," the bearded and robed offworlder shares nothing of his past and goes to great pains to remain an outsider. But when violence erupts between some of Tatooine's farmers and a tribe of marauding Tusken Raiders, Ben finds himself drawn into the conflict. It's a move that may reveal him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, hero of the Clone Wars, enemy of the Empire -- and endager his true mission as protector of the galaxy's last hope. But with blood unjustly spilled, innocent lives threatened, and a ruthless opponent unmasked, Ben as no choice but to summon Jedi wisdom and the formidable power of the Force.

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