The High Republic kicked off with the launch of Light of The Jedi, but the middle-grade book, A Test of Courage, shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Long before the Clone Wars, the Empire, or the First Order, the Jedi lit the way for the galaxy in a golden age known as the High Republic!”
Through 40+ years of storytelling, Star Wars has always leaned on the narrative construct of George Lucas’s 1977 baby. On occasion they have been audacious, but for the most part, Star Wars has stayed Star Wars. And sure, they’ve made slight attempts and veered off course, testing the fan base with slightly buggier, Avant Garde type stories, but those who like their Star Wars “weird”, still mostly look to the Expanded Universe for that fix.
And that’s because this new Canon era has seemed a little hesitant to rock the Gozanti cruiser, going on the assumption their base is a bunch of neophobes. So, they’ve stuck with the safe “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality when it comes to mass market.
But there’s a new hope…
I’m pleased as punch to say that for the first time since 2014 Star Wars is stretching the timeline and taking us to a whole new era. The only question is, will it bend, or will it break?
Set 200 years before anything recognizable, The High Republic publishing initiative introduces us to a host of new people, places, and things. And though many will recognize the aroma in this High Republic hookah lounge, the fact is, this is a bold move for this current group of overseers. Yes, there’s nary a Stormtrooper or Skywalker in sight and it’s a beautiful thing. And so, after much ballyhoo, we’ve finally dipped our toes into the High Republic waters with the release of Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s A Test of Courage, the latter being the focus of this review. A month from now, Claudia Gray’s excellent Into the Dark comes out, but we’ll discuss that then.
It’s important to understand that even though there is most definitely a broader view to this overall narrative, each of these books provides a more focused look at different perspectives. And even though I received all three at the same time, and there’s a preferred order, I read this book first.
Truthfully, after reading all three, I really don’t think it matters that much.
Here’s the summary…
Vernestra Rwoh has just become a Jedi Knight at age fifteen, but her first real assignment feels an awful lot like babysitting. She’s been charged with supervising eleven-year-old aspiring inventor Avon Starros on a cruiser headed to the dedication of a wondrous new space station called Starlight Beacon.
But soon into their journey, bombs go off aboard the cruiser. While the adult Jedi try to save the ship, Vernestra, Avon, Avon’s droid J-6, a Jedi Padawan, and an ambassador’s son make it to an escape shuttle, but communications are out, and supplies are low. They decide to land on a nearby moon, which offers shelter but not much more. And unbeknownst to them, danger lurks in the forest?
So, why did I read A Test of Courage first?
Waaaayyyy back when The High Republic was first announced, during the Disney-Lucasfilm Publishing presser, they wowed us with a trailer, basic plots, and lots of images showing the Jedi and Nihil both looking fanciful. The art (mainly by Grant Griffin) showed various Jedi sporting elegant outfits and wielding ingenious lightsabers. Not to be left out, the Nihil, with their steampunk aesthetic and plucky attitudes, looked scary enough to at least warrant a further looksee. Near the end, while I was certainly feeling optimistic, I wasn’t necessarily euphoric.
But, as I scanned through the images, I found myself suddenly taken aback, and even asked myself aloud, “Who the fuck is that?” Yes, that was the very first time I laid eyes on a Mirialan Jedi named Vernestra “Vern” Rwoh. While the other Jedi looked their usual stoic indifferent selves, Vernestra looked like a world on fire. She told me, with just a look, that if I but only had the courage to follow, adventure waits, and I’ve been love-stricken since.
So, how did she do? We’ll get to that.
The first thing you might pick up on in A Test of Courage is the similarity between this book and Justina’s last Star Wars title, Spark of the Resistance, and that comparison is somewhat warranted as the structure is analogous.
Both groups find themselves stuck on a strange planet that is strong in the Force, they must work together, despite their differences, to vanquish an unknown enemy and find a way off the planet. All while learning something about themselves, and each other. That’s where the similarities end, however. On a side note, if you haven’t read Spark of the Resistance, go do that, it’s a good time and gave us a great character named Glenna Kip.
This book starts off at an outpost in the Dalnan sector called Port Haileap, with folks of all shapes, sizes, and constitutions boarding a luxury cruiser called the Steady Wing. And it behooves me to encourage you to keep track of the many names/faces you’ll meet in these early pages.
Anyways, the Steady Wing is bound for the Starlight Beacon ribbon cutting when it is sabotaged along way by a pair of Nihil scum. It’s also important to understand that while we know they’re Nihil scum, nobody else does…yet. So, out of the hundreds onboard, the only survivors appear to be Vernestra, inventor Avon Starros, her nanny droid J-6, an Ambassador’s son named Honesty Weft, and a Jedi Padawan named Imri Cantaros.
They manage to get off in time aboard a small shuttle thanks to the fatal heroics of Imri’s Master, Douglas Sunvale, and are basically adrift in the middle of nowhere. After a few days of getting to know each other and nearly out of rations, Imri senses life on a nearby moon, a gift of his, and they make their way there. This is where the story really begins as they quickly discover that their temporary reprieve from certain death is inhospitable, even dangerous. But the moon conveniently provides just the right number of obstacles and pitfalls so that this group’s only chance of survival is by tapping into their individual skillset and learning to work collectively. Basically, it’s a stress test, Star Wars style.
Justina’s plotting is exceptionally good, always has been, and A Test of Courage is no exception. You know exactly where her characters are in the story, always. There’s a defined path for each of them and all find purpose by the book’s end, with each experiencing some sort of catharsis. Those goals of course vary depending on the person’s particular hitch, but to the person, find some resolution.
A Test of Courage is a middle grade book which makes it terrific fare for kids no doubt, but the underpinnings of its story lie in Justina’s ability to convey empathy which should universally speak to any age group. However, combined with the PG aesthetic of Star Wars, she keeps things age appropriate as far as content is concerned. This doesn’t stop her from dealing with some weighty issues however as this group, regardless of where they come from, have to come to terms with the fact that living in this galaxy isn’t always predictable, and rarely safe. And that having status doesn’t always protect you from experiencing grief, loss, and trauma. This of course is the essence of conflict, both outward and inward, and the arc they fulfill as individuals is both important and necessary.
One detail that I particularly enjoyed is this idea of the Jedi depleting their energy and requiring rest, something that comes up in all three books, as the Jedi are called upon to perform tremendous feats. I’m hard pressed to think of another instance in canon where this was explored with as much detail and affect. The only thing that springs to mind are the Chiss navigators who deplete their Third Sight ability and must rest. In this instance, with other lives in their care, the still fledgling Vernestra and Imri drain their Force batteries often and must nap or meditate to recharge them. It really shows these Jedi aren’t a bunch of ubiquitous superheroes, there fallible, and this, along with their predictable pacificity, is something the Nihil will absolutely wish to exploit.
As I stated earlier, my expectations of Vernestra were reasonably high going in and I feel confident in saying they were met. Justina’s recent likening of Vernestra to Doogie Howser is an apt assessment, both displaying high levels of genius at a young age. And like Howser, Rwoh’s problem isn’t in the comprehension or applications of their gift, in her case the Force, it’s in the understanding of the nuance of behavior due to a lack of experience. In their defense, they’re both 16 so learning and understanding these social cues will come with time.
Vern is very steady and carries herself with a definite degree of self-assurance, exuding certainty. This has a positive effect on those around her, even when she’s silently lacking in confidence or unsure of the right path. But what aids her in her decision making is her ability to look inward and connect to the Force, which she unequivocally trusts to reveal the true purpose of things. It’s this ontogeny that has allowed her to break the norm when it comes to becoming a Jedi Knight at such a young age.
And like the more monastic style of Jedi, Vern seems to be cut from the same cloth, preferring diplomacy over violence. But rest assured, if Force push comes to Force shove, you wouldn’t want to mistake her discretion for weakness. That would likely be your final slipup, as Vern is as skilled as they come when it concerns throwing the old stick around. Which, by the way, is gloriously purple and more than meets the eye. But this cool under pressure, occasionally aloof guise does have one flaw, it doesn’t steal too many scenes.
You know who does? Avon Starros, and her droid J-6.
Yes, as an ancestor of Aphra Heartbreaker/Mrs. Solo, Sana Starros, Avon is dynamic and completely chews up the scenery. She’s also a genius and has boundless energy which sometimes causes Vern’s head to ache a little bit. But she’s young and has a lot learn when it comes to empathy, thanks to some still low-level emotional intelligence.
You see, any emotional attachment to concepts beyond science and math, things Avon is proficient in but are indifferent, haven’t come easy to her. And as such, she hasn’t developed those biases we all need when interacting with other lifeforms. But with the help of her current guardian Vernestra, and her customized droid J-6, she’s learning. And it’s the quieter, more emotionally revealing moments that struck me as her most vital. In a clever switch, by giving J-6 more independent thought, it’s her fledgling autonomous droid that has developed more skill when dealing with the feelings of others, and their relationship is as important as any other here.
Did I mention she’s smart? Well, she is, very smart and along J-6, saves the group on occasion with her ingenuity. But it’s worth mentioning that Avon is someone the Jedi might want to keep an eye on, not only for her desire to build a Force-blocking device, but her fascination with kyber crystals. Something that would certainly catch the eye of a Conan Antonio Motti type, or, in the more immediate future, the Nihil.
Avon’s relationship with science is akin to the way the Jedi view the Force. She views science and invention as the answer to all things and has a burning desire inside of her that she can’t explain but embraces. And again, like the Jedi and the Force, anytime you give yourself freely to a power such as this, madness can sometimes follow, and these gifts can occasionally be used for malevolence. Let’s hope this isn’t the case for Avon, but for now just know that science is her Force, and like the Force, has a light and dark side.
The remaining members of the group, the Padawan Imri Cantaros and Ambassador Weft’s son Honesty, both find themselves in a similar position. They both have lost someone awfully close to them in the explosion, and as they are still both young and untested, fear, anger, and hate show up. So, when they get an opportunity for vengeance, they go off in search of a pound of flesh.
This rogue mission of theirs leads to a confrontation that doesn’t go the way either of them would’ve expected, with Imri in particular creeping dangerously close to the Dark Side. And if not for the others, the two of them could’ve committed acts there’s just no going back from. J-6 in particular shines bright during this rescue mission.
The resulting confrontation between Vernestra and Imri is where the rubber meets the road as far as demonstrating her quality as a Jedi and a person is concerned. Vern is reserved until she isn’t, and poor young Imri learns quickly the degree to which she can display the abilities which has prompted her brisk progression up the Jedi ladder. And while her physical prowess is indeed noteworthy, it’s her empathetic competence is the reason she’s where she is, Jedi hierarchy wise. The simple truth is, if not for this brand of composure and compassion, Imri would be in a different place right now.
So, what are left with? How does this less violent Lord of the Flies play out when compared to the other books?
By the end we can clearly see where Vernestra and Imri fit in, still with a job to do and a place to do it on the Starlight Beacon. Avon’s path less obvious however, but for the first time in a while, she’s clear-minded and resolute in her purpose, especially after dealing with some long overdue family issues. How big of a role she’ll play in future High Republic stories, your guess is as good as mine, but I’d bet on substantial.
And why not? She’s inventive and has good intentions, two things the Jedi will need going forward.
Unlike the bombastic Light of the Jedi and the methodical Into the Dark, Justina plays this one a little more intimately while also setting up her next novel, Out of the Shadows, which got a cover reveal at the launch event on Monday. And who should be on that cover? Why Vernestra Rwoh of course! We also know that Avon is in the book, we just don’t know how much.
Yes, A Test of Courage is a great MG book that kids will love, but it’s also just a great Star Wars book period, with great character work, emotional resonance, a ton of heart. I encourage you to not sleep on it regardless of your age.
Star Wars: The High Republic: A Test of Courage is available now, order one today by clicking HERE!