Review: Star Wars Before The Awakening

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Review: Star Wars Before The Awakening (or, Star Wars Asleep)

Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka, published by Egmont, is a collection of three short stories, with each centred around our new Big Three of Finn, Rey and Poe. As such, I thought it best to focus on each story, as is, rather than review the book as a whole (though I will do a little of that).

PLEASE NOTE: There will be mild spoilers of the book, and due to the nature of the stories, these ought to be treated as spoilers for the film, as well. THIS IS YOUR FINAL SPOILER WARNING.

First off, we’ve all heard the phrase that ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’; this may or may not be true, but it doesn’t say anything about judging the cover itself. And speaking of this particular one, I thought it – which may or may not have been done by Phil Noto – to be rather beautiful and a piece of art in and of itself.

As for what’s beyond the cover, I want to make something clear: I came to this book, rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly) with some expectations. I wanted to learn more about the galaxy at large. It may not have delivered precisely, or as fully, what I wanted, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you may be displeased. For each part of the review, I’ll discuss briefly how that said, my experience with each story was largely positive, and if you go into your reading of this with the above in mind, you may very well find the experience to be quite enjoyable.

Finn

A cerebral story that leads almost directly into the events at the beginning of The Force Awakens, it details Finn’s otherness, of how he doesn’t belong amidst the identical ranks of stormtroopers – because he’s the perfect stormtrooper. Top 1% of his class, he’s the most accurate, the smartest, the bravest, the most loyal and a natural leader – he is this to all, Rucka informs us, except to himself. And so begins the story of how Finn – ack! I can’t even be smarmy about it. Look, when I write it out like that, it sounds so stereotypical – and that’s true, but just because something is a stereotype, doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. It really comes down to quality, how well it’s thought through and executed, and in this case I had no complaints with Rucka’s Finn.

finn-star-wars

Well, one complaint, which I’ll get it in a minute. Finn’s story is belonging to a group – whether for good or ill – and fitting in. Rucka captures this well, as he ably demonstrated how the First Order swallows and engulfs all it encounters and moulds it into whatever it wants. There’s a neat little moment in the beginning when Finn notes how, though they’re identical in armour, once their helmets come off, the real diversity shines through, with all manner of people filling the ranks of the First Order – echoing Finn’s line in the movie of ‘that’s what we look like … well, some … a little different …’ And for Finn, well, he feels like he just doesn’t belong, my gripe is that it’s not delved into as much as I would like, there’s still plenty in that cave to explore. It’s his starting and end point, with no arc beyond ‘eh, I’m not that into the First Order’ to ‘okay, now I really don’t like the First Order.’ All that said, when he does question the only support structure he’s ever known, which is often, it does feel entirely natural as a process and right for every encounter.

Also present was an interesting look at the learning process of the modern (sorta) stormtrooper. Admittedly it was more action oriented than I would have liked, but it was fascinating reading about Finn learning his melee training, which is apparently standard in the new model of stormtrooper.

'Press here to order your stormtroopers into battle, and here to extend the cup-holder.'
‘Press here to order your stormtroopers into battle, and here to extend the cup-holder.’

As an aside, I’d be remiss to not mention something that’s been doing the rounds on the internet, and that would be TR-8R, the stormtrooper who yells ‘traitor!’ at Finn. It hasn’t yet been confirmed, but it’s highly suspected that TR-8R is one of his squadmates in the book. Slashfilm goes into some detail about that.

As for how the story provides a look into the wider galaxy – well, it doesn’t. Not particularly – aside for a few scenes with General Hux and Captain Phasma, that is, but not so much with Finn. But that’s to be expected from the perspective of a lowly grunt, and a trainee one at that.

Rey

This is a curious story, as it doesn’t really tie into anything in The Force Awakens, beyond merely taking place before the film begins. It simply exists; a story where Rey passes the time. Which, for the book as a whole, is a minor stumbling block, but considering the whole point of her character is simply waiting, it is understandable. It’s just a little jarring for the pace of the book.

Rey-In-Star-Wars

The story itself – and here I must spoil it just a teensy bit – centres around Rey finding a crashed ship. Which is hardly a surprise on Jakku, but the difference here is that it’s mostly intact. Not just intact, but just a few repairs away from being space-worthy. For a starving Rey, this presents the opportunity of a windfall in decades-old ration packs from Unkar Plutt. As she goes about the business of repairing it, some other scavengers join in her effort. I think you can guess where this is going – and again, it’s about stereotypes. Will she be double-crossed, or will these other scavengers keep their word? Saying nothing about the ultimate outcome, but it was satisfyingly compelling, and most importantly, kept me unsure of myself right up to the last page.

And it was compelling in how Rucka demonstrated Rey’s thoughts and uncertainties. It was utterly fascinating to see how Rey handled working with two strangers, and how she adjusted to becoming part of a team – a team that she felt she couldn’t even trust, no less. If you’re feeling like things are a little too by the numbers, I’ll say again that it’s in how well it’s told that matters, but even then, best not to get too hung up on it. The story here – the ship, the will they/won’t they – is merely the framework upon which we can explore Rey’s inner thoughts, and that goes for the book as a whole. We come for the character, not the plot.

Poe

Ah, now. This was the jewel of the book. Speaking of plot, this was by far the strongest: Poe does some fancy flying, some sleuthing, some pew-pew-pewing, and some smouldering. And here we do get a good glimpse at the larger galaxy, and the politics, for those who were feeling a bit flummoxed by what little we discern in The Force Awakens. I won’t go into any more detail, because again it was his characterisation that made it an enjoyable, fun read, but also because I don’t think anything I say can do it justice.

oscar-isaac

If you had ever read an X-Wing novel from the old Legends canon, then perhaps it would suffice to say that it felt like one of those? That feels like a cop-out, but it’s so very true. It had the derring-do, the easy, comforting characterisations, and the intricate plots that were the highlight of Michael Stackpole’s and Aaron Allston’s work. I would happily read the continuing adventures of Poe and his merry band of pilots.

And overall, what stands out best is that, for each character, Rucka manages to keep their ‘voice’ true to the characters we see in the movie. Finn, the thinker. Rey, the pragmatic dreamer. Poe, the joyful pilot. Reading the book, I could perfectly imagine the same pilot who proclaims ‘my work here is done’. This, before the movie was even out, on its own is worthy of applause, but to do so and deliver compelling stories for each character is worth, I’d say, six portions.

I’m so sorry.

Michael Dare

Star Wars: Before The Awakening by Greg Rucka, published by Egmont UK, is out now in bookstores everywhere. With thanks to Egmont for providing a copy for review purposes.

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