Review: Star Wars: Rebel In The Ranks by Jason Fry (or, The Swimsuit Model Edition)
I have a confession to make: I don’t generally have a high opinion of children’s or young adult books. This is silly for lots of reasons, but maybe now isn’t the right time to go into that. Actually, just briefly: it really doesn’t matter if something you like is high art or not. The only thing that truly matters is whether you like it. At least, this is what I tell myself as I watch the new Thunderbirds series.
All this is to say that, my expectations often are not very high – but once in a while, I read a children’s book that, maybe in big or small ways, undermines my preconceived notions and very pleasingly surpasses my expectations. This book, “Rebel in the Ranks,” written by Jason Fry, published by Egmont, and second in the Servants of the Empire series, does just that. Wow, that’s a long title! So without further ado, here’s the review. Hey, that rhymed! Aww, I ruined it.
Warning: mild spoilers for the book and the Star Wars: Rebels episode Breaking Ranks from here on out.
Bruce Willis has been dead this whole time. Die Hard 4 makes so much more sense now.
“Rebel In The Ranks” sees the return of Zare Leonis as he enters Lothal’s Imperial Academy, in his continuing mission to discover the fate of his missing sister, Dhara. However, he is no longer alone – not just in his quest (because he wasn’t even alone on that front in the first book) but also in terms of POV characters. His girlfriend, Merei, a young hacker, budding rebel and avid fandango enthusiast (not really … she actually prefers the waltz), is promoted to POV status. And not just that, she carries the entire book, too – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For this isn’t just about a search for a lost sister; we get to see the growth of a proto-rebellion – or maybe not, but I’m convinced that this is the series’ ultimate destination – as well as Leonis’s training as an Imperial cadet, which allows us to get much more detail on the Imperial infrastructure than we normally would have from just the TV show, and a classic, albeit truncated, spy story to boot. So perhaps it’s best if I handle those things individually, starting with Zare.
Zare, I must point out first, is much less annoying a character in this book, than in the first, for which I am eternally grateful. But this character progress aside, I was not particularly interested in his parts, as his story doesn’t progress all that much. This is quite surprising, given that it’s essentially Zare’s series. He’s the main POV character. It’s his face on the cover – alongside some blue-haired boy, but he only shows up for the last thirty or so pages. He can’t be that important; it’s not like he has his on TV show or anything.
Speaking of those last thirty pages, these are the ones that show any real development – for Zare, that is. In the rest of the book we have Merei to advance the plot, which is great, but for Zare? Yeah, not that much. Oh, there are some minor bits of character growth for him, and plot growth in terms of knowledge gained, but the real developments, both in terms of said character and plot, happen right at the end. What we do get is to hear about his own cadet training. I personally love hearing about training and learning. For example, I love Stephen Fry’s “The Liar” for its delving into British public school life, and I loved Eric Nylund’s “The Fall of Reach” for its discourse on the Spartan training program (even if it did skip the fact that it was morally reprehensible) – and I loved to hear about the Imperial training program in this book. And I especially loved the fact that, however briefly, Fry called out how terrible and self destructive the Empire’s training techniques are – perhaps not to everyone’s satisfaction, and perhaps not even to mine, not fully, but it does rightly call it out and it’s there it’s there oh my it’s there I can point to it and say ‘hey! It’s canonically stupid!’.
Ahem. So I appreciated that. But while I enjoyed all of the above, you may not, and others may not; and that may be a factor in your buying and/or consumption of the book. Certainly, old readers may feel that the impetus in Zare’s story from the first book is lost, and for readers who are starting with this book, they may not be as invested in Zare and may feel that his segments are a bit of a drag on the story.
There is another aspect to the book that I’d like to address: The TV show does have a rather Randian outlook on beauty. By that I mean, the heroes are beautiful, and that the villains are ugly. Don’t ask me to explain it further, I honestly don’t get that line of thinking. This is something we see in numerous films and TV shows, and it’s what we get in Star Wars: Rebels. The villains are either pale and emaciated, short and fat, mutton-chopped (sorry, Cornwallians) or, well, menacing with vampire teeth. In essence, conventionally ugly. (Also, I had no idea Aresko’s first name was Cumberlayne. Now I’m sad he’s … gone to a better place).
Whereas the heroes are all conventionally pretty:
The Servants of the Empire series continues this: both Zare and Merei are conventionally pretty. Zare’s drill sergeant, Currahee, is described as a ‘squat, powerful looking woman with a ruddy slab of a face and pale scars that snaked up from her collar and disappeared into her hair, which was the same industrial gray as her uniform.’ AKA: un-feminine and ugly; or put more blunty, she’s as hideous as Hades’ heretical heiny. I should add as a caveat that we don’t really explore her character, so she might be one of the good guys, but for now all we know of her is that she’s the drill sergeant, and thus The Enemy Of Zare.
We do, however, get another Imp, who may or may not break this mold. His name is Chiron, and he’s a kind, sympathetic, charismatic, genteel officer who often helps and guides Zare. He’s also incredibly handsome.
I’m a little bit torn on this aspect. Don’t get me wrong, I love the inclusion of Chiron. Just on its own, he adds to the depth and nuance that I appreciated in the first book. I just don’t know how his Adonis-like looks fit with the Randian beauty thing. Like, does he break the mold because he’s a pretty Imp (and thus adding more nuance), or is he pretty because he’s a nice guy, despite being an Imp (and thus fall into that same old trope)? I don’t know, and it keeps me up at night.
But enough about that. Let’s move on to the star of the book, Merei.
When I first realised that we’d be getting a POV of a woman character, I was thrilled. This is something that Star Wars could do with, more often. So I was a little irked to start reading and see that she spent more time thinking about her boyfriend than school, her spy mission, gravball, literally anything else (whereas Zare barely thinks of her). I haven’t read many of Fry’s books, but he’s often struck me as someone who is good at writing diverse and strong characters – so this was a bit of a misstep. Luckily it doesn’t last long; after about the first third this quietly ends, with only the briefest of surfacings here and there afterwards. But this is pretty much the only flaw in Merei’s story.
With Merei, we get more of a feel for her character as she goes out into Lothal for the purposes of her mission. Through this, Lothal is opened up for exploration, and we attain a firmer grasp through the book than we would get from the TV show – understandable, given the different formats, but still. Granted, given the size of the book, we don’t see a lot. But what we do see has a sense of realism that, even though it’s on a fictional planet, felt entirely tangible to me.
As I’ve said, the plot itself is carried by Merei. However, I must note that there isn’t a lot of it – just enough for the duo to learn a few things in time, I suppose, for the next book. And this, more so than Zare’s lack of action, is the book’s biggest flaw. It felt too much like a lead up to the next book. SPOILER SPECULATION Not just that, but it had me worried that this whole storyline would see its conclusion on the TV show. I sincerely hope not, because I’ve been quite impressed by this series thus far, and think it would be rather unfair – and perhaps make this series a little pointless – to see such conclusion occur outside of this series. END SPECULATION.
I’m a little hesitant to go into much detail, plot-wise, for fear of giving too much away. But I will say that, on more than one occasion, I was very impressed by the small, nuanced touches that Fry displayed, that gave various moments a sincere and natural depth. I distinctly remember the point that I realised that my previously discussed low opinion of children’s books was essentially so much garbage. When Merei’s story advanced to that certain point – I know that sounds vaguely ominous and spoilerific, I know, but I don’t mean it as such….
– I was suddenly reminded of similar actions earlier in the book, and was quite pleased with how those actions, that foreshadowing, was woven into the story with both subtlety and finesse, with a naturalness that felt remarkable. Not just that, but it opened up the world with mystery and intrigue that, again, I entirely did not expect from a young adult book.
It was these small moments that made the book for me, made it a delight and elevated it beyond the filler book that I occasionally felt that it was turning out to be. And indeed, I don’t think I could label it thus, looking back, but at the same time I don’t think I can comfortably, in my position as a reviewer, leave that unsaid.
Earlier I said that this book has some mild spoilers for the Rebels episode Breaking Ranks. This is because the last third or so of the book adapts that episode, and adds a few touches of its own. When I watched that episode I immediately had a few questions with regards to Zare, such as, does Zare have access to the Force, like his sister? This adaption doesn’t resolve these issues. I thought it did, but then the epilogue comes along leaves me almost as surprised as Zare himself, had me stare at the last page, wishing there were more, and then finally had me appreciate Fry and then curse him out in equal measure.
I’m not really sure, but I think I actually mean that as a positive. Sure, the book has faults, but it very much got me invested in the story and the characters, and the epilogue alone was worth it, and I simply cannot wait for the next installment in this series.
Star Wars: Rebel in the Ranks by Jason Fry, published by Egmont, is out now in UK bookstoresPowered by Sidelines