Whether you’re a fan of the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy (I anticipate fewer numbers here but welcome you anyway), new to the Star Wars universe, a veteran, a terrified outsider, or a stubborn rejecter we can all agree on one thing: Star Wars is a franchise that has permeated much of our contemporary media. It has crossed international and cultural boundaries and stands as one of the great mythical stories of our time. Quite recently we had the opportunity to witness the beginning of a new generation of that myth with Episode VII: The Force Awakens directed by J. J. Abrams. This is not a review of that movie. Instead, Lost Stars by Claudia Gray takes us back a ways. Back to the early days of the Empire in a galaxy far, far away to give us a new perspective on the events of the Original Trilogy. Whether it's the Battle of Yavin against the first Death Star or the assault on Echo Base by Imperial walkers, Lost Stars explores these signature events in the Star Wars canon from both sides of the conflict and asks the question: if the Empire is inherently evil then are all who serve it, by extension, evil?
Lost Stars features two protagonists, Ciena and Thane, who, through circumstance and desire, both begin their journeys on the side of the Imperial Army. However, as time passes, Thane becomes disillusioned with the Imperial Army and defects, eventually finding himself allied with the Rebel Alliance. Meanwhile, Ciena’s personal and cultural concept of loyalty keeps her tethered to the dark machinations of the Empire as the Galactic Civil War drags on. This novel is carried by its protagonists primarily because the plot of Lost Stars is so familiar as to need no expansion. Anyone who has seen the Original Trilogy knows what will happen and when. But, aside from the occasional nod, the characters we are familiar with (Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, etc.) are not present. Instead, Lost Stars focuses not on the heroes of this conflict but on two people trying to do their best to be true to their principles and loyalties amidst a conflict affecting their whole galaxy.
Of the two stories Thane’s is the more familiar and ultimately a little less interesting. He is a cynic whose association with the Rebel Alliance eventually curbs this element of his character. Without surprise, the Rebel Alliance proves to be packed with as many inherently good people as we always suspected. It is Ciena’s story that is far more interesting since she remains in service to the Empire for the duration of the novel. From the early parts of the novel we are introduced to the idea that for a lot of people in the galaxy the Empire was a good thing, or at least appeared to be. And the Empire is not populated solely with Grand Moff Tarkins destroying planets on a whim but also decent people who saw Imperial service as the opportunity to do good throughout the galaxy. Ciena is just that kind of person but so are friends she meets along the way like Jude and Dash. I reference these two characters in particular because they represent the diverging aspects of Ciena’s (for lack of a better term) soul. Jude is kind and logical and after the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star she is crucial in helping Ciena to come to terms with the Imperial actions taken against the peaceful planet. Ciena and Jude give us a glimpse of how the morality of the Death Star can be justified, how good people can cling to the belief that they are still doing good when the institution they serve proves to be corrupt. Jude is not evil, not corrupt, she simply clings to a shred of hope that the institution she serves is not evil. Ciena embraces this idea wholeheartedly and as the reader you can’t help but see how there would be comfort in thinking as Jude and Ciena do. Furthermore, you can’t help thinking of real world comparisons. For example, I found it to be reminiscent of soldiers justifying the use of the atomic bomb during WWII. A terrible act taken to prevent more death and terror in the future. But then there is Dash Windrider, a native to Alderaan, who represents the other direction Ciena’s soul is being pulled. Dash is charming and kind. He witnesses his home planet destroyed but instead of hating the Empire for this he hates the Rebel Alliance for making it ‘necessary’. He becomes more entrenched in his devotion to the Empire, needing to believe that his planet died for a reason, that what he’d devoted his life to was worth the sacrifice. He becomes a fanatic and the corruption of the Empire seeps into him. Where Jude saves Ciena from this fanaticism with reason and logic Dash is lost to emotions and pain. The path to the Dark Side is not reserved for Force wielders, we learn.
But Ciena doesn’t always have Jude to help her make sense of the actions of the Empire with reason. Perhaps if she did then she would have seen the Empire for what it is sooner. But her loyalty is steadfast, a moral principle she carries with her throughout the conflict. Even as Darth Vader needlessly sacrifices lives in pursuit of the Millennium Falcon, commanding officers reprimand her for rescuing civilians, and her own mother is put on trial by the Imperial Courts for crimes she didn’t commit. Ciena is not blind or emotionless. Instead, as she sees the problems of the institution she serves she clings to the notion that if all the good people flee then it will only leave the corrupt. That she has a responsibility to remain loyal so that she might change the Empire from within. This is the tragedy of her character, struggling with the noblest of intentions against an inherently evil regime that spans a galaxy. Star Wars is the tale of how a few dedicated people with good intentions can foil the machinations of evil, but Ciena is not Luke Skywalker. She cannot single-handedly save the Empire from the rot at its core. And this reality, this inescapable fact that she has pledged her unbreakable loyalty to the Dark Side, doesn’t turn her evil. But it breaks her.
Lost Stars does stretch beyond the events of the Original Trilogy into the year following the death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. It shows the fractured Imperial Forces attempting to hold ground and fight back against the New Republic. This culminates in the Battle of Jakku, a critical piece of history where the New Republic ‘defeated the Empire for good’ and the first set piece for the events of Episode VII. Claudia Gray does an excellent job of depicting Ciena’s struggle and creating her own story within the pre-established world of Star Wars. The Battle of Jakku is a critical part of the new lore Disney has created for its Star Wars trilogy and in terms of the scale of the conflict Claudia Gray knocks it out of the park. Lost Stars is a story about Thane and Ciena always. It’s about their moral struggles and their love for each other. So, staying true to the heart of her story, the Battle of Jakku is not rendered with epic descriptions of massive spaceships locked in combat but instead it focuses on the conflict of these two characters. It is the first original action set-piece in the novel since the Battle of Yavin, Battle of Hoth, and the Battle of the Second Death Star are all copied from the films. The way in which Claudia Gray depicts the Battle of Jakku does not fail to deliver on the kind of epic set piece that a novel with the Star Wars title deserves.
I have never read a Star Wars novel before. None of the Legends Canon novels or any story of any kind from outside the films. In preparation for the release of Episode VII I followed a recommended watch guide for Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series. That was excellent and managed to do more for the characters of the Prequel Trilogy than the films ever did, in my opinion. Lost Stars is an example of a story set in the Star Wars universe that explores something untouched about the galaxy I thought I knew so well. It asks us to question the solid black and white distinctions of the films. Lost Stars does not try to convince us that the Empire is not inherently evil and the Rebel Alliance is not inherently good. Instead, it takes a look at how good people can find themselves on the wrong side of a conflict and how loyalty to those who don’t deserve it can destroy us from within. It is a well told love story and an epic space opera. If you are looking to return to a galaxy far, far away and want a recommendation for a novel to take you there then Lost Stars will not disappoint.
Gray, Claudia. Star Wars: Lost Stars. United States: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 4 Sept. 2015. Print.