“What happens when the light of the Jedi goes dark?”
That question permeated much of the lead-up to the release of the highly-anticipated end of the first phase of the High Republic storytelling initiative, Claudia Gray’s The Fallen Star. The era kicked off a year ago with Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi, a triumphant look at the heroism of the Jedi and Republic amidst devastating circumstances. Unbeknownst to the rest of the galaxy, the villainous marauders known as the Nihil, under the leadership of the mysterious “Eye” Marchion Ro, were responsible for the Great Disaster, a hyperspace tragedy just as the Republic was expanding under Chancellor Lina Soh.
But then came Cavan Scott’s The Rising Storm, and no one could ignore the threat of the Nihil any longer: they launched a devastating attack on the Republic Fair on Valo, and shortly after reveal their most dangerous and most secret weapon – one that can strike fear into the heart of even the mightiest Jedi. And after appearing as a supporting character in Light of the Jedi, one of the mightiest of all the Jedi took center stage in The Rising Storm, as Jedi Council Member Stellan Gios was thrust into the midst of the chaos in an attempt to hold fast against the onslaught. In the wake of that event, as images spread across the holonet of Gios helping an injured Chancellor Soh out of the rubble, his fame spread all the more.
Which makes it all the more fitting that it is Stellan Gios who is at the heart of The Fallen Star, the Council Member who is viewed by his friends and fellow Jedi as their guide, their example, their constant. And so here is Stellan Gios, the recently-appointed Marshall of Starlight Beacon in Avar Kriss’s absence, left to defend against another Nihil attack – this time at the very light of the Republic. Against the Starlight Beacon, the defining achievement of Soh’s administration, the proof that the Republic was a beacon of hope to those in these outer reaches, the light that signified a new and better galaxy.
And make no mistake: the Starlight Beacon will burn, and it will fall. I’m avoiding any major spoilers in this review, but since this was revealed in artwork and marketing prior to the book’s release, and since it’s literally the entire plot, I feel that it has to be mentioned. The Nihil manage to take the light of the Republic and destroy it.
It’s an elaborate plan, all devised by mastermind Marchion Ro. And it means all hope for escape – for anyone on the station – seems bleak. But that’s where the Jedi, struggling with their connection with the Force, must step up and lead. That is not to suggest, though, that this book is filled with a ton of optimistic and uplifting moments. No, if you felt that the losses in The Rising Storm were significant, just wait for The Fallen Star. There are massive losses, including to the Jedi. People – plural – die. Marchion Ro’s plan does indeed work to perfection. In some ways, it’s like The Empire Strikes Back of the High Republic, for the heroes take some devastating defeats, the villain emerges victorious, and you wonder what hope is left for the good guys moving forward.
I found this to be a really great read, though it’s definitely my least favorite of the three main High Republic novels so far – which, of course, isn’t. saying a whole lot given that the previous two are both among my all-time favorite Star Wars books. And this is a very worthy installment coming after those two, but it didn’t quite seem to have the scope as the previous two. That was by design, as almost the entire thing takes place aboard the Starlight Beacon, and it is admittedly almost a necessity in order to adequately tell a story of this magnitude. And so it’s ironic, that a moment that has massive implications for the galaxy as a whole seemed to feel less connected to that galaxy than the other two stories have. I’m not saying Claudia Gray should have done it differently, for as I already said I’m not sure a story like this could have worked without a riveted, narrow focus. And zeroing in on the Starlight Beacon allowed us to truly sit in the terror with those on-board. Namely, there’s Jedi like Stellan Gios, Elzar Mann, Orla Jareni, Bell Zettifar, Burryaga, Indeera Stokes, Nib Assek, and others. There’s non-Jedi, like Leox Gyasi, Affie Hollow, and the real star of the whole thing, Geode. There’s former Nihil allies Nan and Chancey, who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’ve grown familiar with any of these characters, get ready: you’re probably in for a few gut punches along the way, and maybe a tear or two.
But if you’re not as familiar with them, I’m not sure how it would come across. I felt like one of the real strengths of the first two adult novels in this series was that you could follow along fine if you didn’t read any of the other stuff, but that you were richly rewarded if you did. I think that’s still true with The Fallen Star, but it’s definitely the one I wonder the most about in that regard. It is very clearly no longer just the adult novels that you need to read in order to stay up on what’s happening, as some of the other novels are more and more essential as well. I’m not saying this necessarily as a negative, either, since it makes the whole inter-connected storytelling experience that much more rewarding. The last thing you’d want is for the other novels to feel insignificant and unimportant, so of course the further this story would go the more connected it will get! I think this is actually a strength of the era, without question, but it does have me wondering how those who just pick up the “main” novels will be able to follow along. You will get the storyline and basic premise just fine; you’ll probably be left confused about several characters and their relationships.
And speaking of the characters, I really appreciated the narrative journeys of Elzar Mann and Stellan Gios in this novel, as I felt like they really took center stage (and this is how Avar Kriss was pulled in as well, as the third member of their trio). The three Jedi grew up together and are close friends, but the events of the Nihil attacks have strained that a bit. Elzar and Avar are continuing to fight (or not) feelings for each other, while they both look to Stellan as their polestar. Elzar struggles to know his place in all of this and his connection to the Force, while Stellan has it all figured out – maybe too much so. But Claudia Gray does a good job at taking them through a journey as the book unfolds and as they are thrown into a situation where, quite frankly, all hope is lost for Starlight. What do the heroes of the Jedi do when they can’t save the station, but might be able to save the people on it? That’s what this book is about.
What it’s not about, though, is answers. We don’t really learn much new about the Nihil, their motivations, or their secret weapon (some, but not much). This is probably one of my biggest frustrations with the book, albeit rather small: for being the last major novel before phase two, and now that phase two is a prequel it seems the last major novel in this period for quite a while, it was rather light on reveals. Marchion Ro isn’t a major player here, and we don’t learn much about his methods – particularly about his deadly Jedi-killer that plays a prominent role in this story – but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t set up phase two, for it does in some pretty powerful ways. Namely, that the Starlight Beacon has fallen, Jedi we know and love are dead, and the galaxy knows and fears the Nihil.
Yet in the process, amidst the searing pain and the devastating losses, there is a slim yet constant line running throughout that perhaps the true light of the Republic was never the Starlight Beacon, but was always the Jedi – and even more than them, the everyday people of the galaxy who give witness to the fact that “We are all the Republic.” And so long as there are good people in the galaxy willing to rise up and stand alongside the Jedi in the fight for light and for life, there is hope. There is always hope. As Stellan Gios says at one point in the novel, “This is what hope is. It isn’t pretending that nothing will go wrong if only we try hard enough. It’s looking squarely at all the obstacles in the way – knowing the limits of our own power and the possibility of failure – and moving ahead anyway. That is how we must proceed. With hope.”