Star Wars: The High Republic: Out Of The Shadows – Book Review

Listen, I don’t know who among the current roster of go-to Star Wars writers is the best “Star Wars writer”, that’s something you can all argue about, plus it’s boring. And when people say, “that’s a really great Star Wars story”, frankly, I don’t know what they’re talking about, never have. It’s either Star Wars or its not, just because you like or dislike something doesn’t make it any less or more Star Wars, it is, or it isn’t.

What we’re really talking about here is the art of storytelling, and who is good at it, and who is great at it. Now, if you’re looking for a simple exchange of information, something without a pulse, there’s a few writers I can direct you towards. But if you’re looking for someone who can spin a yarn that makes you feel something inside your guts, makes your heart grow a size or two, and makes your arms bump with little gooses, in my opinion, there’s only one answer, Justina Ireland.

Yes, the author of the best book from the first wave of phase one of The High Republic publishing initiative, is back with the best book in wave two, Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows.

Here’s the summary…

Sylvestri Yarrow is on a streak of bad luck with no end of sight. She’s been doing her best to keep the family cargo business going after her mom’s death, but between mounting debt and increasing attacks by the Nihil on unsuspecting ships, Syl is in danger of losing all she has left of her mother. She heads to the galactic capital of Coruscant for help but gets sidetracked when she’s drawn into a squabble between two of the Republic’s most powerful families over a patch of space on the frontier. Tangled up in familial politics is the last place Syl wants to be, but the promise of a big payoff is enough to keep her interested…

 

Meanwhile, Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh has been summoned to Coruscant, but with no idea of why or by whom. She and her Padawan Imri Cantaros arrive at the capital along with Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his Padawan, Reath Silas—and are asked to assist with the property dispute on the frontier. But why? What is so important about an empty patch of space? The answer will lead Vernestra to a new understanding of her abilities and take Syl back to the past… and to truths that will finally come out of the shadows.

The fundamental aspects of good storytelling were developed a long, long time, and no, not in a galaxy far, far away, in Greece actually. Back when people were just starting to get used to the idea that the Sun wasn’t a vengeful deity. You’ve heard of Aristotle, right? Well, he came up with a list of key storytelling ingredients: plot, character, theme, dialogue, melody, décor, and spectacle, and has remained so more or less since. And despite the mechanical and rigid nature of the form, the process of storytelling is an art. Being able to tell a story that audiences will not only enjoy but also connect with is both a compelling endeavor, and difficult to accomplish.

Historically, in Star Wars, writers have been allowed to develop some of what they write, but they’re still writing an IP, so things like themes, décor, even plot in most cases are hand steered by the Lucasfilm story group and overlords. Where the writers get to play a little is in the melody and dialogue departments, and even then, there’s some framework involved as accountability follows them around like a dark shadow. Where they really get to stretch, the Luminous Five in particular, is in the character department, and there’s no better character writer in Star Wars today than Justina.

The summary, despite its length, actually leaves out a huge chunk of this book, and I’m in no position to go against the will of whoever wrote this copy. So, while I may mention the character Nan (yes, that Nan!), it behooves me to steer clear of her chapters in this book all together, respecting the wishes of the copy editor. But understand that her contributions are both incredibly vital and also just plain fucking awesome. Plus, if you thought she was a one and done, well, think again.

Anyways, here we go…non-spoiler version…

Out of the Shadows is set approximately one year after the galaxy-wide event known as the Great Disaster, which was the impetus for wave one, and a few months after Daniel José Older’s Race to Crashpoint Tower and Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm, which focused on the Republic Fair conflict on Valo. This book deals not only with the aftermath of that disaster, but really starts to stretch the map as far as the Nihils’ reach is concerned, and the dirty politics involved. As you’ll see in wave two and likely going forward, these isolated incidents are anything but and the Nihil’s list of subordinates, allies, and grease list buddies is long.

But even at a handful of novels and several comic books in, we’re still at the getting to know phase when it comes to the Nihil. Meaning the Jedi are mostly clueless and underestimate not only the galaxy’s war boys’ ruthlessness, but their tactfulness and Marchion Ro’s political prowess as well. They keep up the appearance as though they act with a reckless abandon, with little or no regard for, well, anything. But we (us, the Jedi, everyone) are learning that this organized chaos is not only a literary oxymoron, but also incredibly effective, astoundingly deadly, and goes much deeper than we once thought. But in the simplest of terms, lives are lost, and many on this side of the Force struggle with this reality, that in absence of a clear motive, there are those that just want to see the Jedi burn. Ouch!

Get ready to play the name game in Out of the Shadows and while it’s not super important to have read A Test of Courage and Into the Dark, it definitely couldn’t hurt either (you should read them). Yes, you’d be surprised how many times you can come across the same people in a galaxy this big but here we are. But nothing feels shoehorned in either, it’s a contrived series of happenstance’s and I know someone who can help us’es, and unless this is your first foray into Star Wars, it’s something you get used to.

The two families the summary alludes to are the San Tekkas and the Graf’s, neither a fan of the other. Like the synopsis says they’re fighting over a “patch of space” for reasons that I won’t discuss because that would be a spoiler. But would you be surprised to learn that the Nihil were also interested in this land dispute out in the middle of nowhere, and have a vested interest in which family succeeds? Oh, and that those the stuffy corporate Republic bureaucrats definitely want to know what the fuck is going on? The intersectionality of interested parties is enough to make you head spin, so it’s probably something pretty good, right?

This part of the story takes up most of, if not all of the political thriller/mystery aspect of Out of the Shadows and is done very well. The McGuffin in question is important to the overall wave two scheme and the way in which all the stakeholders converge on this nexus is handled in a calm and cool manner by Justina. It’s adventure without a pulse rate and she keeps the ship steady and the ride very pleasurable. But that’s of one of Justina’s calling cards, isn’t it? Her pacing is downright meditational, and her plotting is excellent, and this book is no exception despite the intricately woven whodunit, whowantsit, and whogetsit, everything is airtight.

Front and center on this crazy adventure (literally, I mean, look at the cover), is Sylvestri “Syl” Yarrow who plays the role of the everywoman, well, every woman who isn’t a Jedi that is. She’s a Level 10 rogue with a chip on her shoulder the size of a small moon, and with good cause, she’s got beef. You see, before she died, Syl’s tough-loving mother Chancey Yarrow suddenly and without warning, dropped her off on Tiikae to learn about the exciting world of hyperdrives and sublight engine repair. I know, right?

In her short stint there, she met and fell in love with Jordanna Sparkburn, the soon-to-be local sheriff whose family (San Tekkas) has ties to the planet. Besides having an affinity for scary weird animals and a cool as shit last name, Jordanna is all business, with a steely resolve and cold blood running through her veins. She even gives the normally sedated Vernestra a bit of a wake-up call, showing the young Jedi Knight that women like her and Syl are no bullshit. Anyways, when it was time to leave Tiikae, Jordanna refused Syl’s offer to go off-worlding with her, citing family obligations, blowing up Syl’s heart like a Deathstar, I or II!

Fast forward to now, she’s lost her prized ship, the Switchback, during an encounter with the Nihil, went back to Coruscant with a bum conscience, and entered into a dodgy deal with a rich, connected, sly fella named Xylan Graf…and yes, of those Grafs. He’s looking for some information on her mother who he thinks can help with this “patch of space” that his family is eyeballing, and he wants Syl’s help. But wait, isn’t Chancey dead? Plus, guess who else is on Coruscant, Jordanna Sparkburn. We’re fine, everything’s fine.

Joining Syl on this ride to nowhere is the foursome of Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his Padawan, Reath Silas. These names should be familiar to you unless this is your first High Republic book as they’ve all appeared before. Again, a little pre-reading can go a long way here so hit up those titles I mentioned earlier, and you’ll be in the know zone. Speaking of the not-to-distant past, guess which Senator thought these Jedi needed another diplomatic mission under their belt? Why, Ghirra Starros of course! Yes, Avon’s mother makes an appearance but sadly her daughter does not, although she is on Vernestra’s mind occasionally. Avon clearly left a strong impression on her, here’s hoping their reunited in the future for some whacky adventures.

The Jedi of this era aren’t the battle-hardened road weary politicking group we’ve come to know and love. No, this group is inexperienced in the ways of such things, in fact, they’re downright naïve when it comes to the comings and goings of the Republic and those that would wish to exploit greed, fear, and uncertainty. So, you have to ask yourself, are these Jedi merely pawns in this deadly game between competing families? Part of the journey for these four will be figuring all of this out before it’s too late. Justina of course handles this perfectly, having us learn along with the Jedi, not ahead of them, yes, you’re kept in the dark almost as much as they are. It’s wonderful.

Writing young adult isn’t just about youthful expression, in a lot of ways it’s about the search for truth. While their young, yet to be jaded, not yet beaten down by life minds are fertile and still full of hope, these “kids” remain open to a world of possibilities. For us, that all ends as soon as you go to college or move out of your parent’s house, but for younglings and Padawans, it’s whenever they leave the Jedi Academy and embark on adventure.

And that’s what Vernestra is after, and that’s why she’s the most “us” character in Star Wars ever, and that’s why she is the best character in The High Republic. On the borderline of youth, she’s being burdened with adulthood like most of the young people around the world are today, forced to make decisions they have no business making for another 5, 6, or even 10 years. It’s a harsh reality that gets mostly missed by our white Western gaze, but it’s true nonetheless, and Vernestra is experiencing that. This transition expresses itself in many ways, and you’ll be glad to know that despite the idolatry way other young Jedi see her, Vern is prone to frustration and impatience just like us, from time to time.

As she says goodbye to childhood, Vern is struggling to come to grips with recent events, some horrible, some mundane. But when you’re asked to be a leader before you even know who you are, well, not an easy task, but if anyone can do it, it’s Vernestra “Don’t Call Me Vern” Rwoh. Oh, and who by the way has a couple of secrets of her own that she isn’t quite ready to share with the Jedi upper-brass, and far be it from me to spill the beans.

You can already tell she has the mark of a great teacher however, good Padawans make mistakes, the great Master’s allow them to, and Vernestra is very good in this department. Part of the reason is that’s simply who she is, but part of it is because she’s still very much a Padawan herself. It’s also why paring up Vernestra and Imri is an inspired and brilliant choice to be sure. The former doesn’t fully understand and is mostly immune to the complexity of emotions, and the latter is a walking empath machine who feels everything thanks to his primary Force ability. Their relationship and the way Vern and Imri work together to better understand and control Imri’s impossible skill is beautifully handled, and their friendship seems built to last. So, yeah, pretty great opportunity there for Justina to flex her incredible skills as a YA raconteur.

As for the other two, Master Cohmac Vitus and his Padawan, Reath Silas, their only slightly better off. If you’ve read Into the Dark then you’ll know their union was one born of fire, both losing their previous partners direly, turning to each other really for a fresh start. Besides being really, really, ridiculously good looking, they both have an appreciation for the texts and are students of history, so, while pain may have brought these two together, it’s actually a really good pairing.

Again, I’m not going to go into details, but if you remember, Reath and Nan had a thing going on the Amaxine Station that ended, awkwardly? So, her reappearance, plus still reeling from experiencing that house of horrors, has this padawan out of sorts. Don’t worry friends, he’s maintained that boyish charm, high-level of intuition, and stick-to-itiveness, so he’ll manage. Oh, he has also a thing for Vernestra apparently? All I’ll say there is that he’s barking up the wrong tree.

If you don’t know Justina then let me tell you she’s funny in real life, very funny actually and that comes through in this book. She takes advantage of the irony of youth, the group dynamics, and some of her characters joke worthy hiccups, like Vernestra’s astounding ability to crash every ship she pilots for example. Not to say the stakes are high, they are very high, but it’s a staple of youth to provide some dry or sassy levity during the darkest of times, there’s plenty here.

Trust me, I know when I’m being glib so I want to be as sincere as I can here, this is THE best book of the second wave of The High Republic. Out of the Shadows is a perfectly written young adult novel that happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. Or is it a perfectly written Star Wars novel that happens to be young adult? No matter how you look at it, what Justina has done, doing, is making Star Wars more accessible than it has been in recent memory, starting with Vernestra. And while others are concerned with the make and model of some obscure Arquitens-class light cruiser or what was the name of Lobot’s cybernetics, Justina fine-tunes what’s actually important, the people dammit!

If this review sounds vague that’s because I’ve barely scratched the surface here and leaving out the Nan bits omits a good chunk of this very broad story. But this is a non-spoiler review so if you want to be spoiled, look elsewhere I suppose, like Reddit or Twitter. The last thing Justina needs is some idiot like giving the whole thing away. But each of these characters goes through a series of ups and downs from page one, and the story takes us to several locales, a couple of which I’ve mentioned.

This type of extensive storytelling isn’t easy, and Justina is being tasked with not only putting a pin in the old but ushering in a bit of the new as well. It’s a fine balance, with the scales of exposition versus character/plot each teetering and tottering, jockeying for position, but she more than succeeds. As for what’s next, Justina is returning to Middle Grade in Wave 3 with the just announced fatalistic Mission to Disaster, no other details have been released.

Look, the longer this High Republic thing goes, the more interconnectedness you’re going to see, with many of the characters already being shared amongst the other writers. They’re in constant communication, these architects as we’re now calling them, so accountability won’t be an issue, and I trust the folks at Lucasfilm to do their parts as well.

I was speaking to Daniel José Older recently, which you can listen to HERE, and we talked about having enough room in this timeline to see these characters stories fulfilled. And that’s an exciting premise as an avid reader of Star Wars books, getting to see many of these characters either die tragically, outlive their usefulness, or simply expire. Pretty cool.

But not Vernestra, no, she’ll live forever dammit!

The High Republic: Out of the Shadows is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!

About the Author: 

Justina Ireland is the New York Times bestselling author of Dread Nation and its sequel Deathless Divide (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), the middle-grade novels Star Wars, Flight of the Falcon: Lando’s Luck and Spark of the Resistance, a Star Wars Story (Lucasfilm Books), and the fantasy young adult novels Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows (both Simon and Schuster). Her short science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in the anthologies A Phoenix First Must Burn (Viking BFYR), Feral Youth (Simon and Schuster), Black Enough (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), Three Sides of a Heart (HarperCollins), and online at Vox.com. She is a former editor in chief of FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, for which she won a World Fantasy Award. She holds a BA in History from Armstrong Atlantic State University (now Georgia Southern) and an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University.

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