Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Review: 'Star Wars: Bloodline'

By: Dominic Jones

The first half of this review is SPOILER FREE, but the second half will address the novel in detail and is intended for fans who have read the novel already.  The separation will be clearly marked.

Star Wars: Bloodline is the Star Wars novel I have been waiting for.  Author Claudia Gray crafts a fast paced story of political intrigue and personal introspection that bridges the gap between classic Star Wars and the new era.  Told primarily from Princess Leia's perspective, Bloodline expands on the political scene of the sequel era, which was (unfortunately) mostly left on the cutting room floor in The Force Awakens.  The novel sows the seeds for the coming of The First Order and the rise of The Resistance, without ever losing sight of Leia's personal struggles that stem from a life of service.

I can't say enough good things about Gray's writing style.  Her first foray into the galaxy far, far away was the very well received YA novel Lost Stars, released back in September 2015.  Bloodline couldn't be more different from Lost Stars in genre (one is a political thriller, while the other a romance) or tone, and yet both manage to draw the reader in with well rounded characters and plots.  Bloodline  is a page turner (as is Lost Stars, for that matter) and though the "reveal" is something that is known to readers well in advance, the depiction of Leia's reaction still packs a punch.

The story in Bloodline centers around Leia and her continuing fight for peace in the galaxy.  But this time, instead of battling stormtroopers as we see her do in the films, she is dealing with a senate divided into two distinct factions that refuse to agree on anything.  We learn that Leia is feeling defeated by the state of the political process, and is beginning to consider dropping out of politics for good.  She feels she can no longer make a difference given the stalemate, and would rather be out gallivanting across the galaxy with her her husband (Han has taken up ship racing in the time since the rebellion) or her brother and son (Ben is still training with Luke at this point and has not yet made his dark turn to become Kylo Ren).

It's interesting to see that Leia, who was involved with the rebellion long before Luke or Han, is the only one who has not been able to bask in the glory of its victory.  Instead, while the men in her life take advantage of the downfall of the Empire to pursue other interests, Leia can see that the New Republic she fought and suffered for is slowly crumbling.  It's the tragedy of Princess Leia, in a way, to have fought longer and lost more than anyone, only to see everything she fought for washing away--and we haven't even gotten to the part for which her son is responsible).

One of the best aspects of the novel is Leia grappling with her heritage.  It's clear that she views Bail and Breha Organa as her true parents--as well as maintaining a level of respect and admiration for Padme--though she knows the truth about Vader.  She has accepted the fact that Darth Vader was her father intellectually , though she tries to avoid thinking of him as anything more than the monster she knew him as.  Unlike Luke, she never got to meet Anakin, never got closure on anything that happened.  (This does seem to rule out any sort of conversation taking place between Leia and Force Ghost Anakin post-Return of the Jedi, which is a shame, though there's still a chance the Story Group can work some magic to make this happen).

Gray does an excellent job at portraying Leia as both defeated and determined.  From the first chapter of the novel, Leia knows that the senate is failing and she wants out, and yet she still continues to fight for the truth.  Also well portrayed is Leia's sense of solitude.  Though she is surrounded by friends, those with whom she was closest are all largely absent from the book.  Leia has people to support her, yes, but she is also without anyone who truly understands what she's been through.  This leads her to find camaraderie in an unexpected place.

The character of Ransolm Casterfo is an excellent addition to the Star Wars canon.  Casterfo is a Centrist senator which makes him an unlikely ally for Leia, a Populist.  The Populists and the Centrists are the currently at odds with one another, leading to the deadlock in the senate.  The Populists fear the rise of another Palpatine and believe that planets should make most decisions for themselves, whereas Centrists favor a more powerful galactic central government.  Both sides like to blame the other for the senate's inaction, though it quickly becomes clear that both are responsible and neither is truly equipped to lead the galaxy.

(We learned recently that the political factions in the novel came from Episode VIII director Rian Johnson.  It makes me wonder if we'll be seeing more political intrigue in the second installment of the sequel trilogy.  It certainly seems like a possibility).

Casterfo is a wonderfully layered character, and Gray slowly and precisely reveals more about him at just the right moments.  Though he and Leia initially clash over their political ideology, they quickly find common ground and mutual respect.  Casterfo shares a similar history with the Empire to Leia, having experienced Darth Vader's atrocities first hand.  As a result, he becomes the friend Leia needs at a time when she is separated from her husband, brother, and son and having a crisis of faith in all that she fought for.  All this makes a certain moment about three quarters of the way through the novel all the more devastating.

A couple of other quick observations about the novel.  It was fun to actually get to see Kor Sella appear in the story, even though we're still only seeing the beginning of her career and the early stages of her relationship with Leia.  Sella was to have a larger role in The Force Awakens, though most of her scenes were cut (she can still be seen on the balcony on Hosnian Prime during the Starkiller Base attack).  And Joph Seastriker and Greer were a fun duo, and I would definitely be interested in more stories featuring either character (or both).

Overall, Bloodline is hands down the best release in the adult novel line of the new canon.  Claudia Gray did an excellent job balancing plot, character development, and exposition.  The novel stays focused on Leia's internal struggle with her past and her future, with interesting new characters whose impact on Leia will be seen going forward.  Bloodline keeps the reader intrigued through strong character moments that explore this previously uncharted portion of the Star Wars timeline.

Score: 9.5/10

Below are some Spoiler-filled thoughts on Bloodline.  Obviously, if you haven't read the novel yet you should stop reading now.  This is your SPOILER ALERT!
We might as well dive right in with the big plot twist in the novel.  After having built up a friendship with Leia, based largely on their horrific experiences with Vader, Casterfo shocks the Galaxy by revealing that Leia (and by extension Luke) is the offspring of Darth Vader.  Obviously, this isn't a reveal to the audience (we've known since 1983) but Gray did an excellent job of depicting Leia's shock at Casterfo's betrayal.  Gray also manages to make Casterfo's motives for the revelation understandable from his point of view.  Casterfo's experiences with Darth Vader make him uncomfortable with anything relating to the Dark Lord, so you can understand how learning the facts of her heritage would shatter his opinion of Leia and move him to expose her as the potential threat he thinks she may be.

I'll be honest--this was not the revelation I was expecting.  I thought that Bloodline was building up a first appearance by the First Order, though I'm certainly not complaining about the way the story went.  I thought that, based on Leia’s and Casterfo's experience with the Empire, a devastating reveal for the two of them would be to see a stormtrooper or a TIE fighter for the first time in over twenty years.  It does raise the question of how Leia will react when The First Order does emerge.  Her outburst upon seeing Casterfo's collection of Imperial artifacts may give us an indication.  We know she's preparing for a threat at the end of the novel, though I doubt she is fully prepared for that threat will be.

An important question arising out of  the exposure of Leia and Luke's parentage that is still to be determined is how this will affect Ben.  We know that Kylo looks up to Darth Vader in The Force Awakens and we learn in Bloodline that he doesn't yet know who Vader is to him.  It seems safe to assume Snoke will utilize this information to turn Ben/Kylo away from the Light.  In The Force Awakens, Han describes Ben as having "too much Vader in him" and Leia cites this as the reason she wanted him to train with Luke.  In the novel Ben is currently off with Luke, so it seems safe to assume that he may already be showing some signs of the dark side being strong in him.  If I may speculate a little, I could see a situation where the revelation of his mother’s (and his) heritage would lead to Ben wanting to know more about his grandfather, eventually leading him to Snoke--who would present Vader's story in a way that would convince Ben to embrace the dark path and become Kylo.

I also found it interesting to learn that Luke has been off exploring the galaxy and seeking out answers to the mysteries of the Force and the Jedi ever since the Empire fell.  This helps to explain Luke's status as a myth in The Force Awakens, given that his heroics are only thirty years ago.  To the galaxy at large, Luke Skywalker disappeared decades before The Force Awakens.  The main difference between Luke's journeys pre-Ben's fall and post-Ben's fall are that he kept in contact with his friends before his nephew turned to the dark side.

I found Lady Carise to be  another intriguing character.  As with Casterfo, Gray did an excellent job at peeling back the layers on Lady Carise’s motivations.  I am curious to see how she may factor into future stories, if at all.  Given her loss of noble status at the end of the novel, one has to wonder what path she will take.  She still has strong ties to The First Order and another reason to hate Leia, so I hope to learn that this slight becomes her motivation. 

I was also impressed to see that the novel did not feel the need to tie up every loose end.  We still have many more years of storytelling to cover the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, so it's nice to see that Lucasfilm is not racing to fill in every gap.  One particular instance of this is the suggestion by Lady Carise in her final scene that the Centrists will move within months to secede from The New Republic.  Again, Carise's loss of status may be a factor motivating her prediction, but she is just one of many in the Centrists.

And then there's the issue of the Napkin Bombing.  This is another concept that we know comes from Rian Johnson, so it's entirely possible that we don't know its full significance.  (That said, I find it hard to believe that the events of the novels will have any major impact on the films, so it will be interesting to see how/if this is addressed in Episode VIII).  It's also not made clear whether or not the "RUN" note was intended for Leia or not.  It could just be coincidence (or her Force abilities) that she was the one that found it -- or is this part of some larger conspiracy?

Finally, I just want to say how much I loved the final scene, where Leia meets with those who will become the backbone of The Resistance.  Throughout the novel we'd been dealing with a Princess Leia who was feeling very alone (though she did get a brief respite when Han showed up) and lacking in drive.  So it is a fitting way to end the novel with Leia surrounded by some of her closest friends and a new sense of purpose, setting Leia up for her next chapter.

You can follow me on Twitter: @DominicJ25
Also check out my reviews of past Star Wars novels: Battlefront: Twilight Company Lords of the Sith and A New Dawn
This article is an opinion piece and represents the views of the writer, and not the entire Star Wars Underworld organization.

Follow The Star Wars Underworld on Twitter @TheSWU for more updates about this story and other breaking Star Wars news.


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