Star Wars: Catalyst – A Beyond the Films Review

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Star Wars Beyond the Films‘ Nathan P. Butler is now posting short, non-spoiler reviews for many new releases. Spoiler-filled discussion will often follow in the weeks or months thereafter on the podcast. 


catalyst

Catalyst by James Luceno (hardcover, 2016)

James Luceno, AKA the “Lucenopedia,” has written Star Wars novels off and on since 2000’s Hero’s Trial. His works have ranged from relatively straightforward stories that I found “alright” (Labyrinth of Evil) to those that really made great use of his extensive continuity and chronological knowledge to weave a tapestry that gave enhanced importance to many minor events  in various publications over the years (Darth Plagueis). Now writing for a relatively new continuity with less dots available to connect, Luceno recently provided the lead-in to Rogue One with Catalyst, his second Story Group Canon novel (after Tarkin, which we reviewed on the podcast with Johnathan Brenner).

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

For Catalyst, Luceno was in an unusual position. He was writing backstory to develop film characters, as he had done quite well with Tarkin, but the novel was scheduled to arrive before the film, meaning that he could not necessarily count on his audience, at least at first, to know enough about them already to have that knowledge enhance the significance of events in the novel.

The book spans about five years, beginning during the first year of the Clone Wars (22 BBY) and ending with an event that Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual Guide pins down to 17 BBY. Time moves relatively quickly throughout, often jumping weeks or months between chapters or even between segments within a single chapter. The tale focuses on Galen Erso, Lyra Erso, and Orson Krennic, all of whom appear in Rogue One. At this time, Galen and Krennic are old colleagues whose careers have taken different paths, and Krennic, now in charge of work on the first Death Star, seeks to draw Galen into working on the project. He knows that Galen’s expertise in crystals, especially kyber crystals, could provide the key to creating a working superlaser for the battle station.

The novel’s tension is rarely one based on action or grave physical peril to any of the characters. Instead, it is the interpersonal conflict, often fueled by doubts, trust, or faith issues when actions are considered, which drives the story. That tale is then hung on a framework of showing the audience how the Death Star was constructed and why it took twenty years to build the first one, while it only took four years for the second. (Yes, there’s a legitimate reason for that apparent Original Trilogy plot hole.)

The way the story plays out, there is a sense of inevitibility to the proceedings, even without seeing Rogue One. One cannot imagine Galen being ignorant of how his work could be used forever, and we know Krennic is manipulating him (and Lyra, to a degree) from the start. That leads to more of a “when will he see through his old friend?” sense of expectation rather than “oh, what is going to happen next?” excitement. Often readers will want to scream at the novel in the same way one would yell at a horror movie character running upstairs instead of out the door: “What are you doing, Galen?”

That said, the characters are handled well. While we get relatively little of other film characters like Jyn Erso and Saw Gerrera, the novel’s own “big three” (Galen, Lyra, Krennic) are all treated realistically. Krennic comes off as a career-climbing uber-bureaucrat distinct from Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and other more maniacal Imperial villains. Lyra’s faith and knowledge about the Force provides stability for her as she plays the role of a conscience for Galen. Meanwhile, Galen himself is shown as an eccentric scientist, focused often more on his work than anything else, who might very well be somewhere on the autism spectrum if using modern real world diagnostic methods. All of this gives seeing the trio on film more weight (and really makes me want to skim the book again to figure out exactly when a certain film flashback takes place in the context of the novel).

The downside here is that while the Tarkin novel (Luceno’s previous Story Group Canon effort) tells a story that has its own compelling spine and hangs flashback character development for Tarkin upon it, Catalyst is a “backstory” novel that presents a fairly straightforward throughline that is much less compelling. The characters draw you in, but a lack of action, often a lack of significant peril, and a sense that this is all just to add build-up and development for Rogue One all serve to hinder the novel. As a lead-in to Rogue One, it is excellent. In fact, I daresay it provides what I call the “Stover Effect” for Rogue One, giving us a book that enhances the movie-going experience by providing important backstory. However, it would be very difficult for this novel to stand on its own as a solid Star Wars tale. There’s just not enough there.

The Verdict

Catalyst is one of those Star Wars novels that has a purpose to serve and does it well, but which spends so much time being a tentpole for another story (Rogue One) that it never quite finds its place as a story in and of itself.

Fans of Rogue One should absolutely read Catalyst. You will go into a rewatch of the film with even more appreciation for the Ersos, Krennic, and even the relationship between the Ersos and Saw.

Lastly, I should note that there is a standard hardback release of the novel, along with a “special edition” that is exclusive to Barnes and Noble, which includes a bound-in poster of the Death Star both with and without its superlaser and vulnerable parts highlighted.

Recommended for: Those interested in getting more out of Rogue One by getting to know Galen and Lyra Erso alongside their nemesis, Orson Krennic, back before they first parted ways.

Not recommended for: Those who prefer their Star Wars novels to be able to stand on their own without relying entirely on a film to be their payoff.

The copy used for this review was a retail purchase from Amazon. A Barnes and Noble Special Edition was also purchased, and Del Rey did send a review copy that arrived the same day as the Amazon retail copy.

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