Star Wars: The High Republic: Into The Dark – Review

Claudia Gray finally makes her entrance into The High Republic octagon, and like the champion she is, Into the Dark is written by someone who knows they’re on a roll, delivering an emotionally resonant Star Wars thriller like you’ve never seen before.

Hard to imagine there’ll ever be a time when I’m not stoked for a Claudia Gray Star Wars book, there’s just something so thrilling about seeing the proof of artistry at work from her each time. She’s of course known for great character work, but her writing also has that perfect combination of grace and nuance that others just can’t quite seem to match.

What do I mean when I say “great character work”? Well, that means she writes her characters in a purely tactile way, creating an invisible bond between the reader and her stars. In short, you become those characters, and the lessons they learn are the book’s themes, the significance we learn along with them. Claudia doesn’t tell us what the moral is from her pulpit, she shows us, and not by preaching, but by letting actions and dialogue reveal what’s happening. Using this method her storytelling becomes organic and natural, and not simply derived from other sources.

And so, when you have that kind of ability and are then given the keys to the Star Wars universe, well, the result can be genius such as 2019’s Master & Apprentice.

Anyways, it’s for these reasons and more that I believe Claudia to be greatest Star Wars writer of all time. And so, with all that bootlicking behind us, I welcome you to Claudia Gray’s little shop of horrors, Star Wars style…cue the music!

Heres’ the publisher’s summary…

Padawan Reath Silas is being sent from the cosmopolitan galactic capital of Coruscant to the undeveloped frontier—and he couldn’t be less happy about it. He’d rather stay at the Jedi Temple, studying the archives. But when the ship he’s traveling on is knocked out of hyperspace in a galactic-wide disaster, Reath finds himself at the center of the action. The Jedi and their traveling companions find refuge on what appears to be an abandoned space station. But then strange things start happening, leading the Jedi to investigate the truth behind the mysterious station, a truth that could end in tragedy…

Minor Spoiler Warning…

Like your Star Wars weird? You’re in luck as Into the Dark is at times very weird, but it somehow all works. Yes, Claudia let’s her freak flag fly a little complete with insidious carnivorous trees that make Ents look dovish by comparison. And there’s even living breathing rocks who not only happen to be navigators but are essential beings. Throw in some smugglers, Jedi, Nihil, evil death plants, pissed off gardening droids, and you’ve got yourself a party, or Claudia Gray’s version of one.

Compared to the other The High Republic launch titles, Into the Dark is a slow burn, certainly when you compare it to Light of the Jedi, which puts a cinderblock on the gas pedal and leaves it there. Where Charles Soule deploys a full-frontal assault on your senses, Claudia lures you in with a more philosophical recitation. She instead explores the space first before delivering an emotional Spirit Bomb to the gut. As Into the Dark revels in its form, creating depth, intrigue, and excitement, it also lures you into a pensive state, turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill “B” plot into something revelatory.

And while head-scratching at first, the book’s delayed release creates a bridge that you didn’t know you needed. And while I doubt this was their intent, only when you read this book will you begin to understand that a little time between this and those enhances the reading experience. Plus, it plays into the narrative choices of Into the Dark which, while certainly part of the broader scheme, really carves out a unique experience even within this new Star Wars machine.

My first Padawan craved endless adventure. My second one would happily avoid it.

At the top of the marquee for this tale is the relationship between the finicky Padawan Reath Silas and his astute Master, Jora Malli. For context, Reath is that one Jedi who would’ve taken Yoda seriously when the old master went on about not craving such things as adventure and excitement.

No, Reath’s definition of adventure is discovering a new holocron in the Jedi Archives, not moving across the galaxy to the Starlight Beacon. He’s quite cozy on Coruscant and if it were up to him, he’d never leave the safe, and bug free, confines of the Jedi Temple. But his Master thinks a good Jedi is a well-rounded one, that a Jedi in search of balance should experience all that the galaxy has to offer. And you know the old saying, where Masters go…

No other writer has explored this relationship between a Master and their Apprentice with as much care than Claudia has, and there’s plenty of that in this book. And its relationship(s) like this one that left me emotional and speechless by the book’s end.

Back to the story. With Malli having left a few weeks ahead of him, Reath is making the journey to the Starlight Beacon Master-less, but not alone. Joining him on this voyage and rounding out this stellar cast is Jedi Dez Rydan, Jedi Orla Jareni, and Master Jedi Cohmac Vitus. They are squeezed into a transport ship, the aptly named “Vessel”, and her crew of three. This includes our “rogue” Captain Leox Gyasi, his enthusiastic co-pilot Affie Hollow, and their navigator, “Geode”.

Because her character work is so strong, she seamlessly brings together this diverse group of characters who are all at different stages in their lives. This includes a character even strange by Star Wars standards, the aforementioned “Geode”.

His is a capricious nature, one of many moods and climes.

The best way to describe the suitably named Vintian (he’s made entirely of stone…I think), is that he’s an always present, always silent, affirmation machine. When others interact with him, it’s akin to a Rorschach inkblot or a Turing Test, how you react to “Geode” says more about you than him. And while on the surface he appears to be a majestically useless bit of dead weight, don’t kid yourself, he’s got it where it counts. In fact, he might just be the hero of this story.

Another interesting character is the Umbaran Jedi, Orla Jareni, who has adopted the Wayseeker lifestyle. What is that? Well, according to the text a Wayseeker is, “…a Jedi who would operate independently of the dictates of the Jedi Council.”

Basically, it’s a leave of absence where you still follow most of the Jedi protocols, you just don’t take work direction from the council. Pretty sweet deal really and speaks to the more independently minded, free-thinking Jedi who have been known to disagree with the Council from time-to-time. It occurs to me that someone like a Qui-Gon Jinn for example would make for a rather good Wayseeker. Still a Jedi crony, Reath has his doubts about this life choice but seems a little smitten with her and wouldn’t dare say a word.

Near as I can figure, hyperspace is broken.

Anyways, like Orla, they all have their reasons for making their way to the Starlight Beacon, and slowly but surely those reasons get revealed. And this trip, which would’ve been a breeze otherwise, was interrupted by you guessed it, hyperspace troubles. If you didn’t guess it, then I have two suggestions, don’t worry about it and read on, or read Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule.

Basically, the normally debris-free hyperspace has suddenly and without warning turned into very not-debri-free hyperspace, so they are forced to hang a left. Once they get their bearings and realize they are mostly in the middle of nowhere, they start to receive transmissions, one of which is…

“All hyperspace lanes should be considered closed until further notice. For travelers beyond the boundaries of the Republic, through to the Outer Rim, we reiterate that hyperspace is currently unnavigable and extremely hazardous. All traffic is advised that hyperspace travel should be avoided at all costs.”

So that’s the first anomaly, the second is that their ship has a preprogrammed destination loaded into the nav computer and nobody, Leox included, seems to know why. So, in leu of any other viable options, they decide it’s better than nothing and mark a course for what turns out to be an abandoned Amaxine (!!!) space station. This is where it’s important to understand the role that Leox and Affie play in this story besides balance and levity. They currently work for the Byne Guild, which is ran by Affie’s foster mother, Scover Byne. The “Vessel” is a Byne freighter so the fact that this station is in its memory banks raises an eyebrow or two. Does Geode have eyebrows?

Anyways, this introduces an entire sub-plot involving Affie, Scover, and what exactly the Byne Guild is up to. It’s complicated by the fact that Affie is being groomed to take over the family business, and what secrets may or not be found on this station, could jeopardize that future. While en route they respond to an S.O.S. and end up towing that craft, and those aboard, to the station where they find that some other refugees beat them to it, also apparently redirected there.

This, for all intents and purposes, is where the story begins, on this station that starts out as a refuge for some, but quickly turns into to a nightmare for all. Alien, The Thing, take your pick as to what claustrophobic monster/horror franchise you prefer but this in that wheelhouse. Like the house in The Changeling, the station itself becomes a character, with danger and mystery lurking behind every door and around every corner. It acts as a cognitive behavioral mirror for its guests that reflects something perhaps even more frightening than death plants or ghost monuments, their own shortcomings.

And discovering its secrets, who all these people are, what they’re doing there, the station’s murky past, what the hell those idol thingies are, is the story unfolding in front of you.

Don’t worry so much if all of this has lost you, and comps aside it all comes back to Star Wars in some way, they just aren’t always obvious. But understand that what Claudia has done here is the use the station as a bridge to the past, a warning for the present, and a metaphor for the future. There are several plots that all converge here, this fixed point, and although the story takes us away from the station occasionally, this is its anchor point.

Hemingway once said that there is nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Claudia doesn’t bleed for us; she bleeds for her characters; she gives them a connectivity through a shared experience that goes beyond simply being in the same place at the same time. I doubt any of these characters, when it’s all said and done, will ever forget the events that unfolded on this innocuous space station.

This goes to what I said earlier about all these folks being here for a reason. They each experience strong emotional arcs, and she engages us by foreshadowing that emotion and then setting the final act for the appropriate response. This is all in lockstep with a metronome like pace that is both efficient and pleasing, she nails it.

But again, don’t worry Star Wars-only fans, this book has plenty of pew-pews, laser sword action, and sci-fi sensibilities. These Jedi are all more than capable and despite some personal issues, perform some genuinely terrific feats. She implicates both the broader ruling body and the local jurisdictions in political malfeasance with a nice touch of “justice was served” in the end. But there’s always a cost to be paid when you act honorably and grappling with that is a big part of this books final act, which is one of the best in recent memory.

In one of the subplots, she uses time jumping to great effect, essentially giving you just a bit of exposition each time you defeat a level, or, in this case, our characters have a breakthrough. This type of narrative reward management system is something Claudia used to great effect in Master & Apprentice and does the same here. The focus of these flashbacks is Jareni and Vitus, who we see as Padawans 25-years earlier, during a mission the results of which impacted both of their lives in a big way, for different reasons.

These earlier misadventures alone could be their own book, they’re that good, but here Claudia uses them as a means to an end, to reunite old friends and to apply the lessons learned from the past. Again, it all ties into a larger scheme, even involving a certain criminal organization that most will recognize.

As far as the bad guys are concerned, it’s no secret that Nihil are playing the role of mollycoddlers in The High Republic initiative. The galaxy’s new War Boys up to now are mostly viewed as either fire-breathing or mouth foamers, with little or no regard for, well, anything really. What Claudia does here is she manages to humanize the normally bombastic Nihil for the first time to great effect, at least one of them anyways. And while no one in this story particularly thinks this vulnerability could or would spread throughout their Tempests, we see here that at least one of them isn’t made of stone (sorry Geode). That type of fracture is the sort of thing that usually leads to a full-blown rupture…time will tell.

And where the Jedi go, the Sith’s shadow is always looming so look for a very cool and dark twist to this whole situation that involves “that” side of the Force. In a way, it’s kind of the best Doctor Aphra story never written, and it’s yet another way Claudia makes this story distinct.

So, what are we left with?

Listen, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. The structure we’re used to, things go right/things go wrong, start fast/end slow, then repeat, doesn’t necessarily apply here. Like I said, this is more a psychological thriller than space adventure, so don’t expect a thrill ride of epic proportions, this isn’t that. There are lessons to be learned here that don’t necessarily reveal themselves until late in the book. And like Master & Apprentice, this third act is lights out good which makes Into the Dark both about the journey and the destination. Which, the more I think about it, was Master Malli’s plan all along.

And even though there’s nothing simple about Into the Dark, this line courtesy of Reath Silas sums it all up pretty nicely…

What simple words for describing a nightmare indeed.

As far as what’s next? We already have an idea of what’s coming this year thanks to some recent announcements, and yet, still nothing from Claudia. Michael Siglain was his usual coy self when asked what’s next for her, revealing only that there is in fact a “next” for her. Book, novel, comic book, your guess is as good as mine.

She does have some graphic novel experience under her belt now and with books coming from Justina Ireland, Cavan Scott, and Daniel José Older, perhaps she’s going to swim in short-form waters?

Star Wars: The High Republic: Into the Dark is on sale now, pick up a copy by clicking HERE!

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