The latest Star Wars novel offers fans a new adventure with Cal Kestis and the Mantis crew ahead of the next game, that’s over a bit too soon…
The wait for Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is nearly over, even if we recently had to deal with a slight delay. Set five years after the events of Fallen Order, there’s clearly plenty of things that have happened with the crew since we last saw them. That’s where Battle Scars comes in. While it doesn’t fill in all the gaps during that five year period, the story it tells gives fans an idea what the characters have been up to, while setting the stage for where we find them when Survivor kicks off.
Star Wars Jedi: Battle Scars
Written By: Sam Maggs
Published By: Random House Worlds
Release Date: March 7, 2023
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For the most part…it works. Actually, it’s quite impressive how Sam Maggs managed to capture the exact feeling of playing a video game story through prose. The issue is it manages to suffer from some of the same problems I had with Fallen Order’s story as well. Let’s talk more about it.
A few years after the end of Fallen Order, Cal Kestis and the motley crew of the Stinger Mantis have largely settled into their new lives on the run and with one another. Things change, however, as they embark on a mission to the hidden base belonging to the Haxion Brood crime syndicate.
The Brood are grumpy after Cal managed to escape their clutches in the events of the first game. As a result, the crew has had to deal with them over the last few years on top of dodging the Empire. Here, they have a chance to make a preemptive strike to hopefully keep the Brood off their backs once and for all.
As you can imagine…things don’t go exactly according to plan. In the mayhem, however, they find themselves meeting up with (and saving) an Imperial defector named Fret. She’s looking to ditch the Empire and sees the Mantis crew as her ticket out. Eager to prove herself, she provides the crew with a tantalizing new mission and a chance to strike at the Empire in a more meaningful way.
That is, of course, if she’s being honest. As Cal, Cere, Merrin, and Greez follow up on Fret’s lead, they must tread carefully to ensure everything they’ve worked towards doesn’t come apart. The journey sees them encounter eccentric Rebel sympathizers who may not be on the level, force them to come to terms with their own feelings, and even the Fifth Brother Inquisitor. Along the way, Cal and his found family will have to confront the idea that their goals may no longer be aligned.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, that’s about as much as I’ll say about the story. Suffice it to say, it maintains a fairly tight focus on the main characters we came to know (and love) from the game, while helping set the stage for where we might find them in the new game.
From Controller To the Page
Despite the fact Battle Scars is an original story and not adapting either of the games, the novel expertly captures the feel of playing a video game. Sam Maggs does an excellent job describing the action, incorporating those tiny elements from the game (e.g. BD-1 helping out with the health stims and even Cal’s sliding jumps/rope swings). Hell, there’s even some fun references to finding in-game collectibles!
The pacing of the story and character beats play out in a very similar way to a video game. There are moments of intense action, punctuated by the quieter re-grouping moments with the team. There are times during some conversations where you can almost feel the “choice” being presented to a player, even though we’re watching as outsiders this time. There’s even an couple upgrade/level-up type moments!
The way the prose unfolds manages to emulate a cadence gamers will find instantly recognizable. As I was envisioning it in my mind, I was able to easily see, “oh, this would be gameplay” and “we’re entering a cutscene.” It’s an impressive accomplishment, and it’s obvious Maggs was having fun putting it all together.
While this style may not be for everyone, especially those who aren’t normally on the video games, I loved it. It managed to put me immediately in the same mindset I was with the game and it felt like I was picking up where I left off with these characters.
On top of that, this made the overall story flow quickly. It’s a fast read, and Maggs’ breezy/flowing writing style means even if you’re approaching Battle Scars at a “leisurely” read, you’ll be flipping pages and done before you know it.
Lots of Heart
I’ve only ever read another book by Sam Maggs, and that was The Unstoppable Wasp. It’s a character I can’t say I ever cared about (if it’s not Spidey, I don’t read much Marvel), but by the end of the book I was enamored with this version of the character. All of it came down to how Magg’s writes people.
There’s a naturalness to how she portrays characters. An approach that makes characters feel instantly relatable (and likeable) even in these fantastical settings. She brings that same style here in Battle Scars, and it’s pretty damn great.
All around, it was nice to get deeper insight into all of the characters. In the game, we’re always playing from the perspective of Cal. Here, Magg’s takes us into the mindset of ALL the crew, allowing their deeper thoughts, fears, and personalities shine through in brand new ways we couldn’t see before.
While Cal is, ostensibly, still the focus, Merrin is very much an equal player in this story. I’d say her and her dynamic with Fret is actually the crux of the story being told and made for some of the most interesting character moments all around. Even when the story kinda wavered (which I’ll talk about shortly), the character writing and interactions pulled me along while reading.
All in all, Battle Scars does some really solid things…but not everything landed for me. In emulating the setting/structure of the game, it also picks up on one of the main issues I had with the Fallen Order when I played. Namely, it feels like it’s over just as it feels like the story is getting started.
Without getting into spoiler details, there’s a point in the novel where the characters have to take a break from one another following a particularly bad outing. They must then decide whether or not it’s worth it to keep going on this path together and complete the mission. It feels like a definitive turning point, from which the decisions afterward shape the characters’ choices and.
It’s very much that mid-way, or even second act closing moment that leads you into what comes next. And yet, it comes in with less than a quarter of the book remaining. By the time the crew sets out to confront the actual villain of the story (which also isn’t presented until around this same time), there’s only time to deal with that specific threat and be done. It doesn’t even feel like we—and the characters—are given time to unpack some of those crucial decisions made during that pivotal point.
The result is an ending that felt a bit rushed. Not necessarily that everything wraps up too quickly/neatly, but more that the story just kinda ends. It ends with some things still feeling unresolved, and much like I felt with Fallen Order, just when it felt like we were getting to the MAIN story. I get that part of this is setting up for where the next game, Survivor, picks up. Even so, there are specific threads unique to the story being told explicitly in the novel, that feel kneecapped by the ending.
It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but I was left wanting more, and not in the good way. It felt like there was just a little bit more story to be told. Maybe even just another 50 pages or so to make it feel like more of a complete standalone story.
Aside from that, the only other issue I had was that many of the characters early on feel a bit…samey. Their internal thoughts/dialog felt too similar to one another rather than having more distinct approaches. This was mostly an issue early on, as by the middle of the book, they all felt more unique.
It could very well have been a purposeful choice, as a major theme of the book is the characters coming to terms with their differences. So we see them diverging more and more as the novel goes on. Even if that’s the case, it made some of the earlier chapters a smidge confusing. Because they sounded similar in their ‘voices,’ there were a few moments where I mixed up which character was which in certain moments. It led to some initial confusion and having to re-read a few moments for clarity.
Again, nothing specifically deal-breaking, but an annoyance on my end.
All in all, I genuinely feel the positive aspects of Battle Scars (the character moments, fast-paced action, and overall style) far outweigh the negatives. While those quibbles mean the book didn’t land for me quite as well as it has for some of my peers, I don’t think that’s any reason to skip out on this one.
If you’re eager to learn more about the Stinger Mantis crew and see what they’ve been up to, you’ll certainly have a blast. Even as a standalone story that doesn’t specifically set up anything in Survivor, it does an excellent job of getting fans ready for what’s coming next. It’s a solid, and fun, lead-in.