Catalyst has already been labeled by others as “essential reading” for those planning to see Rogue One in theaters next month. That being said, the first thing you need to know about James Luceno’s Catalyst (as with all of the Star Wars novels) is that you won’t need to have read the book to enjoy Rogue One, nor would reading the book or this review spoil the film for you. It is my estimate that the novel would greatly enrich your understanding of the characters and their circumstances, thus enhancing your enjoyment, but Luceno himself said it the best when he called Catalyst a “companion piece” to the film.
Beware: This review contains spoilers for Catalyst…
Starting one year after the beginning of the Clone Wars and spanning to a few years into the rule of the Galactic Empire, Catalyst is a character driven book centered on the relationship between Galen Erso and Orson Krennic.
At the beginning of the novel, we find the Erso family – Galen and his pregnant wife Lyra – on the independent world of Vallt where Galen conducts his research into sustainable energy powered by crystals. Galen has kyber crystals in mind, but since they are under the purview of the Jedi, he has to settle for synthetic ones. When the Separatists take over the planet, Galen is imprisoned because he doesn’t want to provide his research for them – in fact, Galen doesn’t want his work used by any army. He and his wife are pacifists and so he is forced to languish in prison. During this time, his daughter – Jyn – is born.
The Ersos are saved by Orson Krennic, Galen’s old friend from the Futures Program, basically what could pass for college in the real world. Krennic became a part of Special Weapons Group, formed by Palpatine after the First Battle of Geonosis. We thus learn that the Death Star was initially a secret weapon of the Republic, known only to a few and built under the pretext that Separatists are presumably doing the same.
What follows are years of Krennic’s careful machinations and manipulations to maneuver Galen into providing a superlaser for the Death Star. It was occasionally very difficult to read how enamored Galen is with his research and the kyber crystals that Krennic eventually provides for him, while knowing what Krennic is doing behind the scenes to make the project successful. In a way, Krennic is a perfect reflection of the Empire – he would do anything and destroy anyone to achieve his goals.
It was interesting to compare and contrast him to Tarkin with whom he has an intense and very entertaining rivalry. Tarkin was always ambitious as well, but he is a believer in the Empire, and his ambitions never come before its goals. Krennic comes across as someone who would sell his own mother to advance in the ranks and expect her to like it too. He has a single weak moment when Galen offers him a partnership that would combine Erso’s genius and Krennic’s organizational skills to change the galaxy for the better. However, this barely entertained notion is quickly crushed by Orson’s loftier ambitions and self-interest.
They say that behind every great man there is a great woman and what a woman Lyra is! A former surveyor and cartographer, she ended up as a guide for various scientific teams where she met Galen. Physically active and independent, an adventurer of sorts, she is a perfect counterpart to Galen. When he is lost in complex corridors of his genius mind very few can understand, Lyra grounds him and connects him to the real world and – the Force. While she cannot use the Force, she feels it and feels connected to the world around her. She is spiritual and shares her husband’s pacifistic beliefs. She knows Galen well and knows when to give him space and when to bring him back to the ground.
Whether it be from her connection to the Force or women’s intuition, Lyra has an uneasy relationship with Krennic from the start. While she is grateful to him at first, she never fully trusts him and is the first to start doubting his motivations. Krennic, on the other hand, fears that Lyra could hamper his plans for Galen and hates her influence on the scientist. Reading about Galen and Lyra made me (if it’s even possible) even more excited for Rogue One and curious to see what their daughter inherited from these two exceptional people.
No Star Wars story is truly authentic without a great smuggler and Luceno gave us one in the Dressellian captain, Has Obitt. Initially recruited by Krennic to fly a ship that would rescue the Ersos, he is Krennic’s pawn in achieving his goals throughout the years that follow. Eventually though, every pawn gets tired of being used, and Obitt gives in to his own conscience after a mission for Krennic that reunites him with Lyra.
He decides to make a stand against the Empire connecting in the process with a familiar face – Saw Gerrera. It gave me enormous satisfaction when the two of them managed to outmaneuver Krennic – and Tarkin himself – and save the Ersos. The fact that Obitt managed to survive two great Imperial strategists is an incredible success on its own. We now know that Jyn’s connection to Gerrera goes way back into her childhood and some details provided in the book suggest that he might have been her guardian after Krennic eventually finds them. The planet we’ve seen in the flashback scenes in the Rogue One trailers is also given a name in the book – Lah’mu.
Jyn is a small child throughout the book so she doesn’t get a point of view until the very end of the book, but the lesson she learned is very telling:
Jyn watched them and listened. She didn’t know what the Empire was or who the Empire was, but Mama and Papa and Saw didn’t like it. In some way the Empire had made them leave behind all her toys and Mama’s and Papa’s clothes and other things. And Mac-Vee, too, who would have nothing to do without them there. But she felt warm and safe in Papa’s arms, and Saw was a new friend.
Luceno continues what many authors of the new canon novels have already done, painting a picture of the Empire strangling the galaxy by using and destroying its resources to gain full control. During the span of this book, we witness complete environmental destruction of several planets and deaths of tens of thousands of people. The magnitude of the Death Star project suggests that what we see here is just a tip of the iceberg. To add balance to the narrative, we also see the first independent seeds of what will eventually become the Rebellion, starting with individuals and spreading to isolated systems that want to preserve their independence.
He also shows how people can get seduced into believing that they are doing the right thing and how they rationalize their actions and those of others to appease their minds, mainly through the character of Galen who believes he is working to secure a peaceful and better future for his family. His fascination with kyber crystals blinds him to everything else and you occasionally want to scream at him to wake up from his reverie.
Out of the two books Luceno has contributed to the new canon, I still prefer Tarkin which stands firmly at the top of my list, but I am impressed with Catalyst nonetheless. At the end of it, I felt I knew these characters and I wanted to see them again and see how they changed in the meantime. Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long for that – as Rogue One is less than a month away! What I can wholeheartedly suggest is that you invest your time in this book. I am fairly certain you will enjoy it and become even more invested in Erso family and the forthcoming movie.
After reading some of your suggestions, our book review team has decided to experiment with a rating system. We landed on a 1 to 5 scale, and so Catalyst earns from me:
4 out of 5 Kyber Crystals (and a chip)
Share your thoughts on our new rating system and the book as well in the comments below. We welcome all your suggestions.