With a backlog of recorded episodes and episodes to record very soon, 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 thereafter on the podcast. (In the case of minor releases, that discussion may be kept for a Year in Review series of episodes.)
Bloodline by Claudia Gray (hardcover, 2016)
Back on Force Friday, Claudia Gray entered the scene as an established author and new Star Wars writer with her young adult novel Lost Stars, which I have previously stated on many occasions is (at least so far) the best novel in the Story Group’s new Star Wars canon. (You can see my review of Lost Stars here.)
Upon learning that Gray was writing an adult novel for Del Rey that would focus on Leia, I had high hopes, given how much I enjoyed Lost Stars, but the track record of Leia-centric works in recent years is far from stellar. The last attempt at a novel with Leia at its heart was Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge, one of the most generic, throwaway Star Wars stories of the last decade. Moreover, the last time Leia was the focus of her own comic series, Mark Waid’s Princess Leia for Marvel, the result was an inconsistent characterization that provided a Leia whom readers could barely recognize. She was even prone to teenage outbursts with lines like (and I’m quoting here), “If things would stop going wrong for two seconds…” (Yes, that should be read in a whiny, spoiled brat voice for full effect.) Fans of Star Wars Beyond the Films will likely remember my mantra from our review episodes: “That’s not Leia!”
Has Claudia Gray captured Leia’s essence better than Mark Waid or Martha Wells? (And is there something just cursed about someone with the initials M.W. writing a Leia story?)
One of the most common complaints about The Force Awakens is that the film does not provide enough context or explanation for certain key story elements, such as the nature of the Resistance in relation to the New Republic, the origins of the First Order, etc. Some of these “missing” elements are quite obviously being held back for future films (e.g. Rey’s familiy background), but with the new “all things being equal” approach to canon, readers have been hoping for new novels that might fill in some of the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens in a period much closer to the latter than the initial (disappointing) novel in that gap, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath.
Bloodline was designed to fill that role. The story focuses on Leia six years prior to TFA, during her tenure as a New Republic Senator. The tale that unfolds serves to illustrate the hidden conspiracy that would give rise to the villains of TFA, the frustrations and political twists that lead to the formation of the Resistance, and a rather interesting political schism within the New Republic in the years prior to the recent film.
This is Leia at her best. She is witty, intelligent, driven to action, and dignified in the face of a political situation that almost makes Donald Trump’s campaign seem tame. (I said “almost.” Let’s not go crazy here.) That Gray captures Leia so well is even more important to making this a quality story when one takes into account that Han Solo is only in the story sporadically and the Jedi duo of Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo are frequently referenced but never actually seen. Leia has to carry this tale with mostly new characters at her side.
Those new characters (and the until-now-undeveloped Korr Sella, seen dying on Hosnian Prime in TFA) are a pretty strong batch, though their depth varies. We meet a brash young pilot in Joph Seastriker, a somewhat haunted former racing pilot in Greer Sonnel (recently featured in the Star Wars Insider short story Scorched), a seemingly shallow politician in Carise Sindian, and a rather interesting new political foil in Ransolm Casterfo.
Ransolm often nearly steals the scene whenever he appears, only failing to do so by being placed alongside a strongly-written Leia. His political views are complex and nuanced enough to make readers reluctant to like him at first, but he grows on you throughout the novel as he is further fleshed out and his views become clearer. He is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting new characters introduced in the Star Wars novels or comics since the “reboot.”
Bloodline is at times an action tale, but at its heart, it is a political thriller with serious ramifications for Leia and the galaxy. I am a political junkie myself, so seeing the New Republic torn between the Centrists and the Populists, the fracturing of governmental structures, and the political machinations on Hosnian Prime and beyond is just what I had hoped to see when it finally came time to explain how the Resistance formed from the New Republic and the First Order coalesced as its new foe.
That said, one aspect of the book will likely take many readers a moment to process, so I will raise a warning ahead of time. Many of the events in the Big Three’s lives that we know must take place before TFA have not happened yet in this novel. That can be quite a shock, given that most fans have assumed that the events that scattered them and set the stage for TFA must have happened long before (perhaps even at the same time Rey was left behind on Jakku). To have so much have happened in just the six years between this story and The Force Awakens is unexpected and might cause frustration for some readers. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how that six year gap is filled by future stories in the coming months and years. Bloodline‘s context is already a bit of a curve ball.
Bloodline is an excellent Star Wars political thriller with strong new characters and Leia finally done right. Those looking for answers to many of the burning backstory questions in The Force Awakens will find many (but not all) of those answers here.
I highly recommend this to fellow Star Wars readers as one of the few true must-reads of the Story Group’s “canon.” Claudia Gray has managed to do it again.
Recommended for: Those looking for political intrigue, Leia done right, and answers to some of the burning backstory questions from The Force Awakens.
Not recommended for: Those looking for significant amounts of Han, Luke, or most other established film characters other than Leia, or those for whom the idea of certain major events taking place in just six years prior to The Force Awakens will be migraine-inducing. Those who cannot stand politics will still find enough to enjoy but may wish to wait for paperback.
A review copy was received from Del Rey and used for this review. The reviewer also purchased a signed retail copy through Barnes and Noble.