The last book to hit shelves in The High Republic’s first Phase, presents a side adventure that sets the stage for what’s coming next. Let’s talk about it!
Two hundred years before the events of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, in the era of the glorious High Republic, the Jedi are the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy!
The Jedi think the dreaded Nihil marauders have been all but defeated. Their leader is on the run and their numbers have dwindled. Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh hopes this means she will finally have time to really train her Padawan, Imri Cantaros―but reports of a Nihil attack on Port Haileap soon dash those hopes. For not only have the Nihil attacked the peaceful outpost, they have abducted Vernestra and Imri’s friend, Avon Starros. The two Jedi set off for Port Haileap, determined to figure out where the Nihil have taken their friend. Meanwhile, Avon must put her smarts and skills to the ultimate test as she fights for survival among the Nihil―and uncovers a sinister plan. Can Vernestra and Imri find their friend before disaster strikes?
Okay, here we go, the last book review of Phase One of the Star Wars The High Republic publishing initiative!
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? On one hand, it feels very much like an ending, like we’re saying goodbye to our friends, that’s what the promotional language is telling us at least. We’ve been told to prepare for a death toll; we’ve seen images of fire in the sky, of falling ghost monuments, warned about the Jedi flying too close to the sun.
But in reality, because Star Wars is a money-making machine first and foremost, it’s not going anywhere. Sure one door may be closing, but that only means another one is opening, and we’ll be reading (and watching eventually) stories from The High Republic Era for many years to come. Evident by the recent drops of Phase Two book author/title announcements, with Zoraida Córdova, Tessa Gratton, and Lydia Kang, and George Mann now joining the team. But that’s then, this is now, and it’s only fitting I end Phase One talking about the author I started it with, Justina Ireland.
Her first two books, A Test of Courage and Out of the Shadows, were the clear winners of the first two waves in my opinion, and damn well nearly the third if not for some inspiring work from Daniel José Older and his YA book, Midnight Horizon. And the rumor is this book reveals at least a portion of what Phase Two will focus on and when (150 years prior), but with nothing confirmed, that’s best left to the online community to squawk about. For now, let’s deal with the six inches in front of us and this wonderful junior novel from one of my favorite authors.
The summary tells us all you need to know as this parallel narrative structure hits the ground running (or jumping if you will) and really doesn’t let up until the very end. But, while Mission to Disaster does have a wonderfully energetic climax, bombastic action, and plenty of reveals along the way, Justina also explores the space between, and does so to great effect. Yes, the emotional threads that weave together a tapestry, binding the story together, are absolutely wonderful and my favorite moments of this book. In fact, while maybe just another spoke in the P1 wheel, there’s nothing insignificant in this book, a testament to Justina’s abilities as a storyteller. What’s also helpful is that Justina is VERY familiar with these characters by now, having created them herself, and knows them inside and out.
But enough bootlicking, lets get to the book.
[Note: We’ll be diving into spoilers. Even though the book has been available digitally, not everyone has been able to check it out. So be warned.]
“A sharp pain of longing stabbed Avon, and she blinked away hot tears. She missed J-6. If she’d been there, no one would have messed with Avon. The thought was too close to sadness, so she took a breath and blew it away.”
I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision to have Avon Starros go through the experience of abduction again. While Avon is still relatively young, she’s a much different person now, having been through a thing or two since then. Conversely, it makes the experience more difficult as well. Not only has Avon gained in knowledge, experience, and craft, she’s also learned the value of friendship. And when you finally have pals in your life, you learn that losing or being separated from them can be just as difficult as having none in the first place.
These scenes, where an already captive Avon’s mind drifts to her friends are highly emotional and broke my heart every which way. In true Starros fashion, her steely determination and courage cause her to push on, to find a solution. She knows giving up or giving in to emotion won’t get her out of this predicament, and if she wants to see her friends again, she’ll have to save the pity party until later. So, Avon, have yourself a good cry, blow your nose, splash some water on your face, and get back to work.
It was clear from our very first introduction, that Avon’s keen intellect, voraciously scientifically curious mind, and near total social ambivalence would get her into trouble. I even said as much in my review for A Test of Courage over a year ago…
“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.”
It’s not too often I quote myself, but when you’re right, you’re right. And so, unsurprisingly Avon’s unique abilities catch the eye of her Nihil captors, a pile of leftovers giving off a pleasant matriarchal feel, lead by Tempest Runner Kara Xoo. Their mandate seems to be a numbers game, kidnapping children for either recruitment or enslavement, depending on their disposition and fortitude.
But nobody puts Avon in a corner, she immediately assesses the situation and puts ideas into action, setting up a few memorable scenes involving some of the other kidnapped children, who are appropriately scared shitless. It’s not long before her boldness and uncanny technical prowess do get noticed by a particularly devious piece of work named Dr. Mkampa.
“It was a beautiful war there, the kind of endless civil war that gives a scientist numerous opportunities for experimentation.”
Some folks are just like that, they want to watch the world burn, and the doc is a true believer who spews non-sequiturs like, “The Jedi will lose interest, and then life can be good again.” In her current station, she’s developing a secret weapon for the Nihil and sees in Avon someone exceptionally bright and resourceful who can aid her in this assignment. Avon sees this as an opportunity to maybe gain some favor and buy herself some time as she machinates an escape plan, or at least get a message to Vernestra before it’s too late as they are hauled away to an unknown location.
On a slightly less ominous note, Mission to Disaster is one of the most sciencey books as of late. Listen, anytime you have an Avon Starros around, you’d better be science’d up, and Justina rolls out lines like…
“The Nihil had avoided capture by the Republic for a very long time because their Path engines didn’t use the calculations provided by the navigational beacons or even navicomputers but rather time-phased calculations provide by a women they’d called the Oracle.”
“…his treatise on integrated kyber crystal structures and the subsequent focusing abilities of a triple-density crystal matrix.”
Now, I don’t know what any of that means—I don’t know if Justina even knows what it means—it kind of sounds like bullshit right? But I COMPLETELY trust that Avon knows what it means and that is a substantial part of this book, Avon’s know-how. She’s basically God-Tier at this point and whoever wins the Avon-Recruitment-Sweepstakes is getting a valuable asset indeed. I love that Justina went real science-y in this book and it’s characters like Avon that allows her to do just that and make it plausible. It’s great stuff.
“Avon tried to clear her throat, but then she found herself crying, the stress and fear of the past few days rising at the worst possible moment. She cleared her throat and tried again.”
Something I mentioned in my review for Midnight Horizon, was the idea of children being thrust into unimaginable positions where they are forced to make life and death decisions. I don’t know what you were doing in your teenage years, but it probably wasn’t that, not in North America anyways. Avon’s a kid after all. Sure, a really fucking smart one, but still, a kid. Even though she’s more capable than most everyone else, she’s not a Jedi, she’s not a Force user.
As Justina says in the book, “Avon was just a regular person. She had more in common with the Nihil than she did with Imri or Vernestra.” And that’s an uncomfortable thought, right? Where the lines between good and evil are supposed to be definable? Jedi good, Nihil bad? I suspect if we all did some hardcore soul-searching, we’d discover that we have more in common with folks we despise than we’d feel comfortable admitting. And that doesn’t make anyone good or bad, just human, and Avon is that…and she’s fucking perfect just the way she is.
Speaking of coming a long way, the clear star of Phase One, and my heart, Vernestra Rwoh, is along for this ride. She’s been my favorite since I first laid eyes on her, and I know lots of people connect with her in profound ways, which is a good thing, because I hear we’re going to be SEEING a lot more of her.
“But that was one of the hard things about being a Jedi. It was about responsibility, and a Jedi had a duty to hep as many people as possible, not just the people they liked.”
Like a good Union Steward, Vern is trying to serve everyone equally, still balancing being an instructor to a young emotional apprentice in Imri, and still being a young Jedi Knight herself. Not only that but she’s still preoccupied with recent events and occurrences, namely those from Out of the Shadows. She continues to keep a couple of things from the leadership as well, an interesting scruple to Vern’s usually dyed-in-the-wool approach, making me think Vern would make out just fine as a Wayseeker. But one can only dream, and this is why Vernestra is such a great complex character, just when you think you’ve figured her out, she surprises you. Yes, if she’s allowed to survive to a ripe old age, Vern will be one of the great all-time Jedi.
Anyways, more to the point, we meet up with Vern on Kirima who is using a bit of down time to teach Imri some of the finer points of jumping really, really far. It’s a relatively harmless and serene moment for these two who like many of their peers, have been through some shit as of late. It’s also a moment to reflect and see where these two are at both mentally and emotionally, but it predictably doesn’t last as they get reports of the Nihil attack on their old home, Port Haileap, and are off immediately. What’s wonderful about this opener is that it establishes a couple of important things right off the hop using very little effort. Not only are Vern and Imri much more in tune and comfortable with each other, but we see some emotionality from the usually more stoic Vern, expressing some very non-Jedi like attachment for her friend Avon.
Port Haileap doesn’t offer much in the way of clues, so they help clean up a little bit, including everyone’s favorite noodle cart, and then take off in search of Avon and the other children. And as I was saying, this is another instance where we get a sense that Vern is still working out some of her stuff, attachment, balance and all that. It’s guilt that compels her to stay and offer assistance, not a sense of duty, in truth, she wants to leave immediately in search of Avon, fearful that every minute wasted might be a minute too long. I love this for Vern, this display of passion, internalized as it may be. Another nice moment for me here was the inclusion—albeit way too brief—of Professor Glenna Kip, one of my favorite Ireland creations. Her first appearance was in Spark of Resistance, and she spends her High Republic time on Port Haileap as it’s resident scientist and mentor to Avon. A Shani, she is also the catalyst for perhaps the books funniest line courtesy of Avon, “That’s silly. I think my mentor is the same species and she’s never eaten a single person.” It’ll make more sense when you get to it.
The next stop on their rescue mission takes them to the planet Dalna, where this group spends the remainder of book, minus a quick pre-inferno-sky falling-Starlight Beacon visit by Imri. This is where we uncover a whole bunch of secrets, mysteries, interesting locales, truckloads of exposition, hints at future stories, and it’s also where we meet some new Jedi, Master Nyla Quinn, and Knights Lyssa Votz and Yacek Sparkburn.
They certainly have their role to play, more information delivery machines than anything else, but still, and in particular Nyla, a cool bunch of new Jedi. Anyway, the more time we spend with this group and the local government, the more we learn Dalna has more dangers than just weird blue alligators. There’s geological instability above and below ground, and unstable planetary masses aside, the planet has a resource which has caught the eye of the Republic in the past leading to a nasty event called the “Night of Sorrow”. This also caused some levels of anti-Jedi sentiment, sowing seeds of distrust amongst the locals and their robed protectors. So, yes, the arrival of more Jedi to the planet inevitably pleases some, but angers others.
“Dalnans have a long memory, and many still blame the Jedi for the Night of Sorrow.”
This is as good a place as any to hit the pause button and leave the rest to you, but you don’t need to a genius to figure out paths will converge and Avon and Vernestra will not be denied a reunion of some sort. The emotionality of that moment, the particulars, any collateral damage, and how the stage is set for future stories is the stuff you’ll discover on your own, and you’ll enjoy it immensely.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Whether Mission to Disaster is serviceable in terms of setting up the next phase is beside the point, the timeline is a living breathing thing, regardless of the piecemeal style of storytelling they employ. Star Wars fans understand better than most, that chronology is a concept, and that the universe goes back a long, long way on the timeline, thousands of years in fact.
They are going backwards at some point regardless, and if they drop a little nugget, like say, the Night of Sorrow, so be it. The point is, don’t focus on that stuff so much, focus on the here and now and enjoy the unpredictability of the ride. Because much more predictable and on time will be the chorus of junior novel/middle grade humbugs that will reveal themselves in due time but do your best to ignore them. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and if your concerned with the age of the characters or the particular style of writing that kid-lit books employ, you’ve lost the narrative.
As it stands, this book does a good job standing on its own two legs, giving us a surprisingly well-rounded story for this late in the phase. In fact, unlike other efforts which for the most part is entirely reliant on what came before them, all three of Justina’s books stand apart in a way that’s not reliant on other titles. Sure, they are beholden to the broader narrative being told throughout the initiative, but they are comprehensible and enjoyable as standalones as well. While reading the comics (specifically the bounty hunter series) will fill in a few minor blanks with characters such as Deva Lompop, it is far from being a prerequisite.
I have some minor quibbles with a couple of the decisions made early on in the book and the very end, but they are negligible and not worth mentioning. What is worth mentioning is this book has a fantastic middle section, full of the kind of character work, social commentary, and pacing I expect from an Ireland book. She gives us lines like, “Or maybe people, even those from the same place, all have different ideas and values.”, a throwaway line for most, but for her it lands like a bomb and Justina always tells stories very much from the vantage point of looking out her window. I’m here for it.
Its clear Justina loves these characters very much, having birthed and now mothered them over the last couple of years, and it shows. We are the benefactors of this creative genius.
So, I guess the only thing left to say is…
…for light and life!
Star Wars: Mission to Disaster launches physically on March 1, 2022. Click HERE to order a copy today!