I’ll get this initial take out of the way right off the bat. It’s about the scope and attitude of the new High Republic setting in general: it’s nice to read modern science fiction with a generally positive outlook. I think to finger it as Star Wars comfort food for the weary souls of 2021 is reductive, but rather it affirms that there is a place for big-ticket franchise SF that doesn’t involve heapings of grit. Star Wars aims with the High Republic to, somewhat paradoxically, look forward by looking backwards, inventing a golden age before the fall depicted in the prequels. While I never found myself blown away by its prose, it does its job well enough, so I won’t dwell on it. In the High Republic, writers like Soule and others have crafted a rich vein for exploring some of the freshest themes seen in Star Wars for a long time.
I was a bit worried about the weight of expectation I was setting on this one, even as only a recently-revived Star Wars enjoyer. It’s not really fair to expect franchise SF to compensate for years of misery-driven content, after all. Despite occasionally feeling a bit too insistent about the sunny outlook of the current state of the Galactic Republic (especially at the novel’s start) it all pulls together to create a setting that feels unique in Star Wars. It’s incorrect to claim the High Republic is a clone of the long-established Old Republic, as I’ve seen. They share very little DNA. I’ve always loved the material set in the now-‘Legends’ Old Republic, but disliked how similar the setting was to the mainline stuff despite a supposed separation of thousands of years.
In contrast, the High Republic setting is much more aggressive about being aesthetically distinct from the other phases of cinematic Star Wars. In an article on the art direction of the series, artists explained that they’re aiming for an artisan-driven look in the ships and clothing. This vibe definitely comes through in Light of the Jedi, and it’s refreshingly different – it creates an interesting trilogy of aesthetic directions between the High Republic, the prequel era’s intermediary stages and the lived-in scruffiness slash austere Imperial aesthetics of the original trilogy. While this setting reduces the capacity for the sort of essential dark side/light side psychomachia that so defines the rest of the Star Wars franchise, Soule sets up scope for interesting conflicts within this more stable setting.
I did struggle somewhat keeping up with the many characters Light of the Jedi throws at you in its first Part, though your mileage will vary on this one. Speaking of its first Part – how well does this novel acquit itself in the introduction? If it’s set at the height of the Galactic Republic, does it have a clear sense of stakes and impetus for the action? Is the all-new cast (excluding Yoda) interesting? How does Charles Soule (and the large team involved in this setting, formerly known as Project Luminous) set up and execute the challenges, both physical and philosophical, that will face this ascendant Republic?
While meaning to avoid any particular spoilers, Light of the Jedi is split into fairly distinct sections. Part 1, the novel’s introductory chapters, primarily concerns the Jedi response to the Great Disaster, the aftermath of an accident in hyperspace that threatens an entire star system. Soule uses this to set up a window into the era of the High Republic. The system, Hetzal, is primarily agricultural, and is home to several billion people. The reader is provided with a quite uncommon sense of scale from this, a little vision of some of the vital economics of the era.
There are a variety of perspectives on show here, from all across the system. On the other side, we have the Republic itself, and its most heroic agents, the Jedi, attempting to avert the crisis. This takes the form of a number of perspectives, from young Jedi Bell Zettifar and his charismatic master Loden Greatstorm on the ground, to Jedi Master Avar Kriss and her longtime companion Elzar Mann at the head. While as I mentioned the character overload can be a bit much, it’s an effective introduction to the period as well as its own discrete arc; looking back, it was maybe my favourite part of the book, neat and self-contained. Despite its lack of a concrete villain, it manages to present challenges, character interest and tension.
Speaking of villains, it’s appropriate to address Light of the Jedi’s antagonists, the Nihil. A set of mysterious pirates with the ability to appear seemingly anywhere, they offer unique questions and challenges. In the novel they’re a sort of elemental opposite of the High Republic-era government’s orderliness and collective attitudes (if that wasn’t obvious from the name), a backstabbing hive of raiders obeying no law or set of principles beyond getting what they want, when they want it. Organised into tiers of thunderstorm-themed leadership, they’ve loosely coalesced under Marchion Ro, known as the Eye, the source of their mysterious abilities. Ro is one of the novel’s standout characters, with ultimate goals left mysterious. In the face of the Republic’s expanding influence under Chancellor Lina Soh, exemplified by the enormous Starlight Beacon in the outer rim (around the construction of which the book’s timeline is loosely organised), the Nihil embody a brutally individualist spirit of wildness, Ro aims to oppose it to the bitter end.
Despite the obvious power imbalance between the Nihil’s enigmatic pirate sect and a peak Republic potentially offering lower stakes, Charles Soule’s novel evens the stakes by exploring hyperspace. Often a sort of convenient method of locomotion in Star Wars and quite loosely defined, much of this novel concerns our central Jedi characters attempting to unlock the closely-guarded secrets of the hyperspace industry in order to prevent the ongoing disasters.
This reflects a lot of other bits about the book – in avoiding the more familiar Force-based moral conflict of the franchise, Light of the Jedi is able to explore many of SW’s most granular elements while also shooting for a more heroic, chivalric view of the setting’s heroes. Though it casts a very wide character net, sometimes to the point of confusion, once it’s in motion its varied cast manages to coalesce into an impressive vision of the Republic at the height of its powers. There’s a refreshing number of heroic, intelligent alien characters in Light of the Jedi alongside its spread of central human characters, which is nice to see. The Republic of these books is imperfect, but at least aspirational, aiming for a sense of unity diametrically opposed to the fractiousness of the prequel era. Alongside its tales of heroism, it presents a rallying cry, as much an expression of a wish for the future as an affirmation: we are all the Republic.
Anyway, I thought this book was quite good, and I look forward to seeing how Soule and other writers carry on utilising this creative blank slate. It’s an unusual risk for a huge franchise like Star Wars, and I hope it pays off.
If you want to read more of my perfect and correct opinions on Star Wars, consider looking at my reviews of Aftermath and Life Debt, as I reconnect with the new canon. If you like your sci-fi more grimdark and less noblebright, take a look at Nevi’s 40K reviews.