Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: Catalyst by James Luceno

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel
By: James Luceno
Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 978-0-345-51149-2


Spoiler alert: As this novel is a prequel to the recently-released Rogue One film, this review may contain movie spoilers!

Long before Jyn Erso led a ragtag band of rebels on a dangerous mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, her parents Galen and Lyra found themselves unwittingly caught up in Palpatine's plans to develop a monstrous weapon the like of which the galaxy had never seen -- one capable of crushing resistance -- and hope -- in a single, well-aimed beam of laser fire. As the Clone Wars wind to a close, Galen Erso, one of the Republic's most brilliant minds and an authority on energy research, is more interested in furthering his efforts to make affordable, sustainable, crystal-powered energy available to all rather than in the political machinations reshaping the galaxy outside his lab. As both he and Lyra prepare for the birth of their first child, their shared determination to foil all attempts to convince Galen to turn the potential of his altruistic research toward weaponization bring them afoul of Separatist forces.

When rescued by Orson, Galen's old school chum, the Ersos find themselves drawn back to Coruscant and deep into the heart of the newly-minted Emperor's efforts to coalesce the Empire's power. Krennic is convinced that lying within Galen's brilliant mind is the key to realizing the Emperor's desire to see a game-changing superweapon brought to life, making the Empire's reach -- and Orson's career potential -- unstoppable. But as Galen and Lyra soon learn the cost of doing business with the Empire may exact a cost neither is willing their fledgling family to pay -- but extracting themselves from the Empire's grip will require an act of well-timed rebellion that could cost them everything.

After seeing Rogue One opening weekend, I immediately started the prequel which, thanks to the holidays, took me far long to read than expected. James Luceno is well-versed in Star Wars lore given his previous releases, and this novel is no exception. Media tie-in novels often have a generally poor reputation when it comes to quality, but here Luceno delivers a meticulously executed treatise on the war between conscience versus expediency and compromise. Much like the characters introduced in Rogue One, Catalyst bridges the events between Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One by shining  a light on the regular men and women who found themselves fighting for their lives and freedom while the Republic and its Jedi guardians fell beneath the bootheel of a rising Empire determined to crush any and all opposition.

The first half of the narrative felt a tick sluggish in comparison to its conclusion, but the setup and insight it provided into Galen's character and the crisis of conscience he faces that sets the course of his daughter's life makes the payoff worthwhile. I'll be the first to confess that when the Star Wars expanded universe re-set I was disappointed, as the original expanded universe novels so wholly enriched my love of the world and characters of the films. In spite of some pacing issues, here Luceno delivers exactly what I crave in a Star Wars novel -- a character-driven tale where rebels refuse to buckle to oppression despite the overwhelming odds, one that honors the films while making the epic on-screen, on-going struggle of good versus evil even more intimate and real.

Watching Rogue One I wasn't invested in Galen's character except as to how his absence, and the choices he made, impacted Jyn's arc, even though Mads Mikkelson (SWOON) made the most of his relatively brief screentime. However, Luceno took the angst with which Mikkelson imbued his performance and translates it to the page, giving Galen a noble pathos and completing his transformation into a tragic hero of the Rebellion. The kyber crystals at the heart of Galen's energy research aren't simply a breakthrough to powering the Death Star, but a perversion of the Force, a once a critical part of the methodology used by the Jedi (powering their lightsabers) to maintain order and balance in the galaxy. While Galen's research motives were pure, in researching the power and potential of the kyber crystals he dabbled in a power far beyond his ken.

The revelation that the fearsome power of the Death Star was made possible by the perversion of an item held sacred by the Jedi is a heartbreaking twist in the Star Wars saga that frankly, I didn't see coming -- but I absolutely adored. Galen's growing horror as he realizes that his single-minded fascination with his research and the limitless possibilities of the kybers could come to stand for everything he and the Jedi abhorred broke my heart. But there's sad sort of poetic symmetry in this revelation, humanizing the conflict, a stark reminder that the thinnest of threads separates Empire and Rebellion, for they are truly two sides of the same coin. The potential for good or evil exists equally within each party, while it is the choices that define and delineate the two sides of this classic conflict between dark and light, oppression and hope.

Catalyst is an extremely worthwhile entry in the new Star Wars canon, expanding on events within the films and adding depth and heart to this world I've loved to lose myself within for over two decades. I hope that this Rogue One era in the Star Wars universe heralds a new chapter in the on-going saga focusing on the "smaller," but no less important individuals, that played galaxy-changing roles, often on the periphery of the main action, often without credit, but no less deserving of their moment in the spotlight than a Leia or Luke or Han or Rey. The perfect case in point is Luceno's conflicted smuggler with a heart of gold, Has Obitt (and I'm not just saying that because I have a weakness for dashing smugglers who remind me of Han Solo, no, not at allll... *wink*).

Luceno has delivered an intelligent, methodically unspooled, game-changing chapter that fits nicely within my favorite era of the Star Wars universe -- the period leading up to and encompassing the original trilogy. He knows how this world works and how it should feel and delivers on all fronts. And after this tantalizing glimpse into his characterization of the infamous Grand Moff Tarkin, I'm determined to go back and read his novel focusing on the rise of Tarkin's career at the first opportunity. I sincerely hope that this still-relatively new era of Star Wars publishing continues to make room within its release lists for entertaining, thought-provoking novels of this ilk that sit between the big-screen spectacles as worthy epic miniseries chapters in the on-going story. (I know 2017 has just started but seriously is it time for Episode VIII to release yet?)

About the book:

War is tearing the galaxy apart. For years the Republic and the Separatists have battled across the stars, each building more and more deadly technology in an attempt to win the war. As a member of Chancellor Palpatine's top secret Death Star project, Orson Krennic is determined to develop a superweapon before their enemies can. And an old friend of Krennic's, the brilliant scientist Galen Erso, could be the key.

Galen's energy-focused research has captured the attention of both Krennic and his foes, making the scientist a crucial pawn in the galactic conflict. But after Krennic rescues Galen, his wife, Lyra, and their young daughter, Jyn, from Separatist kidnappers, the Erso family is deeply in Krennic's debt. Krennic then offers Galen an extraordinary opportunity: to continue his scientific studies with every resource put utterly at his disposal. While Galen and Lyra believe that his energy research will be used in purely altruistic ways, Krennic has other plans that will finally make the Death Star a reality. Trapped in their benefactor's tightening grasp, the Ersos must untangle Krennic's web of deception to save themselves and the galaxy itself.

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