Immediately after watching The Force Awakens last Thursday night, I was itching to know more about the new characters from the film, so I was delighted when my pre-ordered digital copy of Greg Rucka’s Star Wars: Before the Awakening hit my library on Friday. Read on for the full review.
Before the Awakening is a junior novel and a companion piece to the other Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens character novels released back in September (The Weapon of a Jedi, Smuggler’s Run, and Moving Target). Don’t be fooled by the term “junior novel”. Much like the others in the series, this book is a fun read that can be enjoyed by all ages; it just happens to be written with that age group (9-12) in mind, and at 126 pages, is about half the length of a standard adult novel.
Unlike the other three junior novels in this series which focus on Luke, Han, and Leia in the original trilogy era, this book – although about the same length as the others – focuses on three new heroes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens just months, weeks, and days before the events of the film. The book is divided into three chapters with each one devoted to a specific character’s story.
The first chapter is all about Finn (FN-2187), the second is about Rey, and the final chapter follows Poe Dameron right up to the time of the film itself. I have included in this review some spoilerific summaries of the three stories, but you can skip ahead to the conclusion at the bottom to read my final thoughts on the book if you wish to remain unspoiled.
Finn’s story begins a short time before The Force Awakens and details the rigorous training and routine of the life of a First Order stormtrooper. From the film you learn that the stormtroopers are basically raised by the First Order, given a designated number instead of a traditional name, and are indoctrinated in combat from early childhood. I enjoyed how the book gave me an even deeper look at the life of a stormtrooper. I also loved how it added to Finn’s motivation to flee at the beginning of the film and why he had such a hard time following his orders during the village raid.
At the beginning of the story, Finn is a cadet, not yet a full-fledged stormtrooper. We follow him as he progresses through his training and end with him preparing to go on his first official mission as a stormtrooper. We quickly discover that Finn, or FN-2187 (as he is called in the book) is an exceptional combatant and leader. Part of a four-man fireteam, he has naturally assumed the position of leadership on the squad. His team look up to him, and follow his orders, although they tend to distance themselves from him on a personal level.
“FN-2187 has the potential to be one of the finest stormtroopers I have ever seen.”
– Captain Phasma to General Hux
Much like the clone troopers of old, the First Order troopers have nicknames to ease communications during combat. Some of them, like FN-2199 (“Nines”) and FN-2000 (“Zeroes”) have nicknames that were naturally derived to shorten their designations. Others, like FN-2003 (“Slip”), who was clumsier than most of the others, had actual nicknames that were associated with their character.
FN-2187, although sometimes called “87” to shorten his designation, was usually just called by his full number, and didn’t really have a nickname. FN-2187 was one of the best stormtroopers anyone had ever seen, always scoring in the top 1% no matter the test. He was brave, smart, loyal and on his way to becoming the ideal First Order stormtrooper, even taking the notice of Captain Phasma who oversaw his training and was his commanding officer.
Initally showing such great promise, it eventually becomes clear that although FN-2187 is a near perfect soldier, he has one major flaw that proves problematic for his future as a soldier for the First Order – his compassion. On multiple occassions, Finn shows his compassion for his teammates, especially with Slip who tends to fall behind the others. Phasma confronts him about it, urging him to let him fail and focus on the task at hand. This goes against Finn’s conscience and we begin to see the seeds of doubt grow in Finn throughout his training.
“You have great potential, 2187. You are officer corps material. Your duty is to the First Order above everything. Nothing else comes before that. FN-2003 must stand or fall on his own. If he stands, the Order is strengthened. If he falls, the Order is spared his weakness. Am I understood?
– Phasma to FN-2187 (Finn)
One of my favorite parts of this story was the hand-to-hand combat training where we see the cadets make use of a number of different melee weapons in a sparring exercise. Finn, as in all other exercises, excels in this arena and takes down challenger after challenger. It’s not until Slip – dazzled from a previous bout – comes into the ring with him, that Finn begins to draw displeasure from his superiors.
It becomes obvious very quickly that Slip is in no shape to fight, and Finn goes easy on him, which once again draws unwanted attention from Phasma and Hux. Captain Phasma, originally one of Finn’s biggest supporters, begins to lose hope that he will be able to lay aside his convictions for the sake of the order, but decides to give him another chance. She assigns FN-2187 on his first real mission to aid Kylo Ren in a village raid on Jakku, giving the trooper one last chance to decide his fate.
Rey’s chapter is a little less back story and a little more about showing the reader just how hard of a life Rey lived on Jakku. The film does a great job of underscoring this point, but in this book, we dig a little deeper into her day to day life and how she operates as a scavenger. What little she possesses has been scrounged from wreckage across the desert landscape and with very little left untouched, sometimes she goes days without finding anything of value, and even then, it’s just enough to buy her a meal or two and a bottle of water.
It’s still not clear from the book what her relationship was as a child with Unkar, but we see that as a young woman, she strictly has a working relationship with the gruff alien businessman. She brings the parts; he gives her food. He’s all about the bottom line and what he can get out of what she can bring in, and he never really shows an ounce of compassion, much like what we see from him in the film itself.
“Give you three portions, one for each of them.”
“The Z-70 is worth three alone, Unkar.”
“I’m offering you three, Rey. Take it or leave it.”
– Rey and Unkar
What I liked about Rey’s story, was that although we get virtually no backstory on her parentage or why she was left behind on the desert wasteland, it did answer some of the questions that were raised by the film. When not scavenging or trading with Unkar at the Niima outpost, Rey spends virtually all of her free time building things and mastering her skills in flight simulations that she has restored from crashed ships scattered across Jakku’s landscape, which helps to explain how she knows so much about flying in the film and how she is able to single-handedly pilot the Falcon with such skill.
The skills she displays in this book add greatly to what we see on screen, and further bring out the similarities between her character and Anakin and Luke before her. We’ll have to wait till Episode VIII or IX to find out more about her family history, but she is without a doubt following the familiar Skywalker narrative that we have seen before. At this point, I will be greatly surprised if she is not a Skywalker.
The plot of this chapter is driven by the fact that a storm has just affected the landscape which may have uncovered some new treasures to be discovered by those willing to brave the wasteland. On her search for these new treasures, Rey finds the discovery of her life – a small light freighter that was for the most part in one piece. Knowing that if she could restore this vessel, Unkar would pay a pretty price which would allow her meals for a long time, Rey begins to spend every second that she’s not just trying to survive on restoring the ship.
She encounters some trouble along the way and has to defend what’s hers as others want to make a grab for it. She eventually draws the attention of some other scavengers, a human girl about her age named Devi and her partner Strunk, a human male, who offer to help her restore the ship in exchange for a cut.
“Sure, yeah, perfect! We help you fix it up, we do shares of the sale, split whatever Unkar’s willing to pay. That’s what I’m thinking. That’s fair, right? Each of us gets, like, a third?”
“It’s my ship.”
“Right, that’s fair, too, your ship, you found it. So you get half, and Strunk and I split the rest. That’s gonna be five thousand shares for you, at least. Unkar’ll fall all over himself for this, you know he will.”
– Rey and Devi
Initially, Rey doesn’t trust the two of them, but they begin to prove themselves as useful and show genuine interest in getting the ship up and running while being a friend to Rey, something she has never had before. The general rule on Jakku seems to be “you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you”, but as Rey begins to let her guard down she begins to build a relationship with the two scavengers and very soon, the vessel is in working order.
After a test run, they make their way to Niima to make the deal with Unkar. As Rey is heading to make the deal, and just as she begins her conversation with Unkar, she hears the heartbreaking sound of the engine igniting and turns to see the ship fly off into the distance. Following her betrayal, Rey heads back home resigning herself to carry on as usual as she waits for her parents to return.
Poe’s story was my favorite of the three. It gave us a little background on his character and some great details on the political climate in the galaxy which had little explanation in the film itself. Basically, one side of the galaxy is under Republic control with the other being controlled by the First Order and some neutral systems in between which act as a boundary between the two.
Poe Dameron is the son of pilot Shara Bey and ground-pounder Kes Dameron, who both served the Rebellion in the final days of the Galactic Civil War. Kes was on the ground on Endor as part of Han Solo’s strike team and Shara was in the space battle to destroy the second Death Star. Their story is told in the Shattered Empire comic miniseries, which was also written by Rucka.
We discover that Poe’s parents settled in a colony on Yavin 4 after the war, and he was raised in their home on the small moon. His mother would often take him up in her A-Wing, a gift she was allowed to keep for her years of service to the Rebellion, and he developed a love for flying. His mother never really talked about the war with him, only that life under the Empire was oppressive and fearful. His father opened up more to him about his actions in the war, especially after the death of his mother. We aren’t told how she died, but that Poe was eight years old when she passed.
“So you were never scared?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m saying that what I was afraid of then isn’t what scares me now.”
“What’re you afraid of now?”
“That it was all for nothing.”
– 9-year-old Poe and his Father
Poe learned to fly in his mother’s A-Wing and became a hot shot pilot in the Republic Navy. He is now the leader of Rapier Squadron and is very well respected by his peers. The story begins with his squadron on a routine patrol where they are basically policing Republic space looking for pirates and anyone else who would threaten the well-being of Republic citizens. On their patrol, they get a distress call from another ship and after arriving at its location, discover the First Order is attempting to take the ship.
Unable to stop them and outnumbered, Rapier Squadron returns home one fighter short and Poe urges his superiors to start taking the First Order seriously as a threat to the Republic. Unwilling to make a move against the First Order and content to remain pacifists, Poe’s superiors deny him the request to look in to the matter further, a denial that doesn’t sit well with Poe.
Poe deliberately disobeys his orders while on his next patrol and goes on a solo recon mission following the possible trajectory of the captured ship. He ends up running into a First Order staging area, but manages to stay alive long enough for BB-8 to gather some intel and make the jump to hyperspace. Upon arriving back to base, it seems he has been found out. Awaiting his assured court martial, he is surprised to meet General Leia Organa instead.
His rash actions have been noticed by the Resistance, a militant group that has splintered from the Republic military. While the Republic is content to sit on their collective behinds, those of the Resistance actually recognize the threat posed by the First Order and are doing something about it. Leia offers Poe a position in the Resistance and he graciously accepts.
“You remind me of my brother. Fly like him, too, apparently.”
– General Leia Organa to Poe Dameron
Poe’s final mission in the story, this time working for the Resistance, is far from official. Leia is convinced that a Republic senator is a traitor and is selling secrets to the First Order, however they have been unable to catch him in the act as the records of his excursions are always purged from his ship’s memory before the Resistance spies are able to ascertain the truth of his dealings. Poe’s mission is to capture his yacht and download the information that they need. The problem is that they have a small window to do it in, and if caught, the Resistance must deny all involvement. In other words, Poe and his team would be on their own.
In the end, the mission is a success and discovered along with the wealth of information obtained from the senator’s ship, is the piece of a puzzle that General Leia has been trying to solve for some time. Unfortunately, the First Order appears to be trying to solve the same puzzle. Apparently, a man named Lor San Tekka knows information vital to finding Luke Skywalker and it’s of the utmost importance that the Resistance find him first. This leads us right into where we find Poe in the film’s opening sequence on Jakku.
Before the Awakening reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel, but it was an enjoyable read and gives some good background on the new heroes of the franchise. I wouldn’t say that these details were needed as the film did such a great job setting these characters up, but it is certainly appreciated and definitely adds to my understanding of some of the events of the film and the motivations behind the characters’ actions.
I can’t really think of anything I didn’t particularly like about the book, other than the fact that a whole book devoted to each of these heroes might have better served the characters and their stories, but for what it is, the book does a great job. I’m not sure how much of this story is his original creation and how much is what he was asked by the story group to write, but regardless, between this, Smuggler’s Run, and Shattered Empire, Rucka is well on his way to becoming one of my favorite Star Wars authors.
If you are an absolute Star Wars nut like me, I suggest you pick this up and give it a read. I wouldn’t call the stories within this book groundbreaking by any means, but they are well-written and provide some interesting information. The book is available now where books are sold whether you want a hardcover printed copy or a digital download. Share your thoughts and comments below, and as always, may the Force be with you.