There’s no sugarcoating it: Catalyst, James Luceno’s prequel novel for the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story movie, isn’t much fun.
Now, I don’t mean it’s a bad book, because it isn’t. Luceno spins three interconnected and interesting stories. Each one helps set the stage for December’s big screen adventure.
Catalyst’s Cast of Characters
Galen Erso is a brilliant scientist who has spent his career searching for a source of safe, sustainable energy to improve everyone’s life. But his single-minded dedication to this noble goal blinds him to the cultural and political changes that threaten to cage him, his archaeologist wife, Lyra, and their infant daughter, Jyn (who will grow up to become Rogue One’s protagonist).
Galen and Lyra’s relationship is Catalyst’s emotional heart. Luceno beautifully breathes life into the couple, creating a completely believable portrait of love that endures physical hardship, fear, and the pain of broken dreams.
Galen’s friend and former classmate Orson Krennic is a mid-level Imperial naval officer with aspirations of greater authority, perhaps even a seat of power in Emperor Palpatine’s inner circle. Krennic is Catalyst’s most compelling character. If Ben Mendelsohn brings to the screen even half of the calculated charisma, dogged persistence, and ruthless ambition that Krennic displays in these pages, then the Star Wars mythos will have gained another memorable villain – a sinister mover and shaker to rival Grand Moff Tarkin (who is Krennic’s actual rival throughout the book).
Has Obitt is a Dressellian smuggler who, in the time-honored Han Solo tradition, finds himself drawn into the service of a larger and higher cause. Has seems the least developed major character in Catalyst. That’s too bad, since he is instrumental in connecting and resolving the novel’s several plot strands.
But we do get to know Has well enough to see that he must make, and try to recover from, compromises that allow him to survive under Imperial rule. Though an alien character, he “humanizes” the universal struggle to maintain personal integrity in trying circumstances.
A Dark Book About Dark Times
Students of Star Wars lore will find a lot to enjoy in Catalyst, from revelations about attitudes toward childbirth on Coruscant, to insights into the way some non-Jedi relate to and revere the Force, to detailed information about the first Death Star’s construction – a topic likely at the forefront of many readers’ minds, given Rogue One’s premise. (As if to reinforce that focus, nifty technical schematics of the battle station’s massive weapon face each chapter’s first page.)
But nothing lifts the shadow of despondency and dread looming over Catalyst. It’s testament to Luceno’s skill that he so effectively confronts readers with a Republic that is, from the book’s beginning, already the Empire in all but name. He makes us feel in our gut, along with Galen, that “normalcy has taken leave of the galaxy.” He makes clear that the Clone Wars didn’t so much end as pause, only to resume as the Rebellion’s conflict with the Empire. Real peace is as elusive in the Galaxy Far, Far Away as it is in our own.
So, no – Catalyst, while a well-written book, isn’t much fun.
Despite an ending that could fairly be called “happy,” and despite the knowledge that Luke Skywalker will come along in A New Hope with the Force and a couple of proton torpedoes to blow the Death Star to bits, Catalyst is somber and sobering stuff—a case study in how dark “dark times” can really get, and in how hard it can sometimes be to see, let alone fight for, the light.
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