Book Review of STAR WARS: A NEW DAWN by John Jackson Miller

The new era of Star Wars canon fiction begins with John Jackson Miller‘s STAR WARS REBELS prequel novel Star Wars: A New Dawn, an intriguing preview look at the upcoming animated series’ lead characters Kanan Jarrus and Hera Syndulla. If Miller’s new book is an indicator of what is to come from the collective creative force produced via the Lucasfilm Story Group and various authors (including STAR WARS: EPISODE VII screenwriters J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan), then the future of Star Wars is looking like a bright indeed. While A New Dawn fulfills a scope more suited for a novel than an epic STAR WARS feature film, how Miller is freed to bridge key moments in the Clone Wars from the Prequel Trilogy through his book and leading into REBELS on TV this Fall shows great promise for future books, films and series.

Miller begins building that bridge in his own prelude chapter, revisiting a crucial moment between Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and one of his youngling students, Caleb Dume, at the Temple security center. In this encounter, Kenobi instructs the youngling class about the automated signal programmed to call all Jedi back home when alerted. At the time, such an all-encompassing message summoning Jedi from across the galaxy seemed like a peculiarly unnecessary precaution, but the events following Palpatine’s Order 66 proved this precaution all too necessary to save the Jedi Order from extermination as we know.

Jump ahead about a decade-and-a-half to meet Kanan Jarrus, a lone Jedi living a low-profile life as a mining hauler, unconnected to all in the galaxy but a few trusted work associates as the Empire cruelly strengthens its grip on myriad star systems. Jarrus assists in the mining of a rare element crucial to the Empire’s production of Star Destroyers to enforce its rule across space. Living on the run after Order 66, Jarrus has endured years of sleepless nights wondering if Imperial spies or troops would capture and execute him at any moment. Such uncertainty and isolation, made harsher by Palpatine’s ruthless betrayal of the Jedi Order, have prompted Kanan to submerge his Jedi training, leave his lightsaber unused and effectively deny the Force in his life — an interior battle that he has fought long after the Clone Wars’ conclusion. Sure, it’s a Star Wars Saga tradition to feature a reluctant hero in its tales, but perhaps never before (certainly not in canon fiction) has a hero been made justifiably reluctant to serve his better instincts and others by such a compelling Saga-based reason. Miller finally gains the freedom to explore this officially unexplored Dark Time between EPISODES III and IV to actually witness a surviving Jedi living the fallout of Order 66.

It’s in the crowded, contentious orbits of mineral enriched planet Gorse and its shimmering moon Cynda where Kanan unknowingly crosses paths with Hera Syndulla, an expert Twi’lek pilot and secret scout for the nascent anti-Empire movement that will eventually become the Rebellion as we first learned of it in EPISODE IV many years ago. Her mission: to monitor and possibly disrupt the efforts of Count Vidian, a ruthless Imperial efficiency enforcer tasked with doubling the productivity of Gorse mineral mining to feed the Empire’s materials needs for building its fleet. A physical ruin rebuilt with biomechanics enhancements and limbs, Vidian’s hideous semi-human form intimidates Imperials and miners alike as he imposes his goals upon all in the Gorse system, regardless of the costs in lives or careers as long as his mission gets fulfilled.

Miller puts these three main characters on a collision course as Gorse, Cynda and Imperial rule over them literally explode in dramatic conflict under Vidian as he enforces his increasingly extreme edicts. Kanan and Hera form a contentious alliance hindered by their individual secrets regarding intent and identity, even as Kanan lives only slightly closer and less guarded with his associates like Okadiah and the troubled Clone Wars veteran Skelly. One of Miller’s strengths is creating such secondary characters around Kanan and Hera who effectively represent the fallout of the burgeoning Empire’s obsession with power and utter disregard for life in human (and alien) terms. Despite its positive, hope-filled title, Miller’s novel depicts a time in the galaxy when thousands of star systems and billions of lives suffer through an increasingly bleak existence. The Jedi history has already been rewritten or erased by the Emperor’s propaganda, spoken of only in hushed whispers or forlorn thoughts if dared to be recalled at all, given how Imperial surveillance of every day life grows ever more intrusive and condemning to those who fail to abandon the old ways… and the old truths. In short, these are the Dark Times from which heroes must emerge, however reluctantly and cautiously, and Miller urges readers to root for that emergence as the chapters ensue.

Miller’s prequel novel sets up the tenuous context of the underground political and strategic movement that will become the Rebellion well enough while keeping its actual birth a specific event for future exploration by the STAR WARS REBELS series debuting on Disney Channel and Disney XD this October. For fans anticipating the animated series, A New Dawn is recommended reading to deepen Kanan Jarrus’ backstory and troubled Jedi past which may or may not get explored in such character depth during the TV show. Hera Syndulla remains much more enigmatic and mysterious in character, though her past life links directly back to THE CLONE WARS episodes in which the Jedi and Republic assist the Twi’leks on Ryloth, set when Hera was just a baby and later told stories of the Jedi by her elders after the Empire’s betrayal of the Order.

The novel establishes Hera’s prowess and talents for piloting a ship along side Kanan’s somewhat reckless adventures as a reluctant leader in satisfying fashion. While Hera and Kanan work well together as equals in standing, Miller focuses much more on his character than hers, which may disappoint some fans to which the book’s cover art implies a co-starring role in this story. On the other hand, Miller’s novel establishes a great springboard for Hera going forward into the REBELS series, where we can only hope Hera’s character will be similarly explored in depth as a long-run episodic show can more easily afford.

Miller does represent a solid cast of female characters around Hera to prevent this Star Wars adventure from being another “boys club” tale, including: Rae Sloane, the dark-skinned captain of the Imperial Star Destroyer Ultimatum, and Zaluna, a surveillance monitoring expert caught up in the political turmoil at Gorse who proves an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Both characters earn and deserve future appearances in the REBELS animated series as compelling representatives of how the Empire exists at the individual level in both its execution within and its effects upon others.

As for Count Vidian, he may seem to readers as a Vader imitator early on, but Miller makes Vidian’s individual motives and values so specific to his character that his half-mechanical appearance becomes a more general symbol mirroring the destroyed-and-remolded status of a war torn galaxy. Likewise, Clone Wars veteran Skelly, laden with a defective prosthetic arm and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that prompts his not-so-crazy conspiracy theories, also supports the metaphor of how badly the Empire’s reign of terror has disfigured, dismembered and corrupted lives and morals that once thrived during the Jedi Order. Miller further exemplifies this galactic fall from grace with the creation of Gorse and Cynda, a planet and major moon representing the light and dark forces of the galaxy that are quite literally pulling each other apart in their shared orbit. Will this system be destroyed by a relentless exploitation of its natural resources in the name of tyrannical power, or can it be saved (at least temporarily) from catastrophe by those who value life force over the material? Vidian quickly becomes a villain you’ll love to hate, and his brutal actions and devious mind offer plenty of opportunities to hate him with gusto.

Miller dips into these familiar Star Wars Saga themes and images with clever inventiveness, echoing familiar symbols from the feature films while redrafting them in a new story. I fully expect that such creative continuity and firm footholds in what is now deemed Star Wars canon via the Lucasfilm Story Group assisted Miller and the authors whose books will soon follow A New Dawn, making them just that much more exciting for the collaborative effort.

Per his foreword to the novel, Dave Filoni is right to be so enthused about this new era in Star Wars and where its headed, as there seem to be few limits to where this space adventure saga can expand looking ahead. Miller has launched the canon fiction era with a solid hit in A New Dawn, and while I enjoyed his previous Star Wars novel Kenobi better in the author’s ability to capture the lead character’s voice in print, this book earns a place in the reading libraries and collections of Star Wars fans both casual and devout in their interests. If your appetite for STAR WARS REBELS isn’t already stoked, Miller’s novel will surely leave you hungry for more adventures with Kanan, Hera and the crew of the Ghost.

This book includes a sample chapter of James Luceno‘s Star Wars: Tarkin, the next canon novel publishing this November — though this is the same sample from Del Rey Books we’ve previously reported on and linked in an earlier report on TheStarWarsSaga.com. This excerpt is very worth reading again and I look forward to the novel very much. Watch for our review of it this November.

Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller is published by Del Rey Books and is © 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ® or ™ where indicated. All rights reserved.

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TheStarWarsSaga.com thanks Del Rey for providing a review copy of this novel.