Spoiler Review – A Young Farm Boy Takes Flight in Poe Dameron: Free Fall by Alex Segura
If you’re still scratching your head about the spice running backstory not so subtly inserted into the back story of Poe Dameron in The Rise of Skywalker…well, you’re not alone. Author Alex Segura set out to tell that story in Poe Dameron: Free Fall, introducing us to a sixteen-year-old Poe Dameron, living on Yavin 4 and carrying a familiar galactic wanderlust we’ve seen in Star Wars before. We know what happens when wide-eyed protagonists go looking to leave the comfort and safety of their quiet, remote homes for adventure. SPOILERS AHEAD….
Poe Dameron was the first character we met in The Force Awakens. Originally slated to die, Oscar Isaac’s engaging performance of the best pilot in the Resistance no doubt saved the character and he stayed with us throughout the trilogy. Not only did Poe Dameron rise to being one of the more prominent characters in each film he’s also had an extensive presence in the ancillary comics and novels expanding upon events of the films. Poe’s has the distinction of carrying his own Marvel series, written by Charles Soule and running for more than two years. He was featured prominently in the recent novels Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse and Spark of the Resistance by Justina Ireland. And he appeared in the animated Star Wars: Resistance as a mentor to Kaz, the series’ protagonist and aspiring Resistance pilot. We talk about Darth Vader fatigue all the time but Poe is arguably reaching the same height.
So…why do we need another story about Poe Dameron? The answer: We didn’t, at least not right now. Look, if Poe Dameron is your favorite character of the sequel trilogy and/or Star Wars you are probably anxiously awaiting this story and I don’t want to take that away from you. You’re probably going to like Free Fall but what I’m curious is about is why this story arrived now when there seemed to be a concerted desire by both Lucasfilm and fans to move beyond the Skywalker saga characters for a future of The Mandalorian, The High Republic, a couple Disney+ series, and future films. I dunno, maybe it’s the perfect time for this? Many fans were offended by the coded drug smuggler past imprinted on a character portrayed by a Guatemalan-American actor and perhaps this was a way to retcon or clarify what being a spice runner means in a galaxy far, far away. Whatever the intent and timing, Free Fall is a pretty formulaic story and would have been very hard to get through without the inclusion of another onscreen character’s backstory…Zorii Bliss.
Though Free Fall arrives as a story about Poe Dameron, it’s as much about Zorii Bliss and how she came to don this visage when we meet her in The Rise of Skywalker. That’s right, Zorii isn’t covered in this armor when we meet her and we learn how it’s earned. She’s known as Zorii Wynn and Zorii’s story is a much more intriguing one than this snapshot of Poe’s time with the Spice Runners of Kijimi. By the end of this book I wanted to know so much more about her. Zorii shines so much brighter in this story because it’s essentially her middle-act with the Spice Runners of Kijimi. The Spice Runners are Zorii’s life and there’s no doubt she’s committed to the fellowship found amongst their members. The stakes always feel much higher for her, especially when we find out how deep her ties to the Spice Runners of Kijimi are.
The story begins on Yavin 4 at the Dameron homestead (pictured above), seventeen-years before the events of The Force Awakens, giving us a sixteen-year-old Poe. Before we start to track the events of Free Fall, a MAJOR problem many people will have with this book needs to be discussed. Shara Bey, Rebellion hero and Poe’s mother, is dead. First off, Star Wars needs to stop killing mothers. Seriously, can you think of a mom in Star Wars who doesn’t end up dead? Not only did Shara Bey have a compelling story with a promise for many more when we met her in Greg Rucka’s Shattered Empire, her death serves no purpose in the narrative of this story. Yes, it does create a small undercurrent of tension and sadness between Poe and his father, Kes, but the benefit of her presence in this story would’ve been much more useful than her death adding a shade of melancholy. The tension between Poe and his father could have still been there, or, heaven forbid, Shara could have been a part of that tension, as well what comes from it when Poe joins the Spice Runners. It’s a useless, cheap plot device used too often in this franchise and I really hope it stops. Shara Bey deserved better.
Yavin 4 has become something of a small retirement community for veterans of the Galactic Civil War. Aside from a small settlement guarded by the local Civilian Defense Force, life on Yavin 4 is described as serene and pretty quiet, that is until teenage Poe Dameron crashes his late mother’s A-wing and finds himself in a lot of trouble. Not only is Poe in deep trouble with the local authorities, his troubled relationship with his father Kes has come to a head. Kes Dameron is not well, still plagued by grief from the death of Shara. We unceremoniously learn Shara was shot down, with both Kes and Poe bearing witness to the tragedy. Poe’s youth has provided him a sense of resilience in coping with his mother’s death, while Kes is described as “slowly dying” by one observer. Again, the tragic shading of these two with Shara’s death feels useless and just mean.
When Kes confronts young Poe, we learn not only has a state of arrested development overwhelmed the Rebel veteran, he’s terrified of losing his son. It’s never hinted at but one can imagine there is an aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the Rebellion. Kes and Shara were on the frontlines of the Galactic Civil War, most notably the Battle of Endor. They’ve seen a lot (Currently, Kes and Shara are featured in the ongoing Marvel Star Wars series by Charles Soule, if you want a bit more history) and Kes feels the Dameron family has given enough to the galaxy. The last thing he wants is Poe hopping in an X-wing and blowing things up like he and Shara did. Young Poe shares a lot of the same energy Luke Skywalker felt about being held back on a backwater planet when he could be jumping across the stars with the rest of the galaxy. Where Luke acquiesced to his Uncle Owen’s stern objections, Poe runs away from Kes in their heated argument, unaware he’s about to begin his life as a spice runner.
And the race begins! About thirty-pages Free Fall takes off like it’s trying to break Han Solo’s Kessel Run record…and that’s not a good thing. Poe, seeking refuge in the local watering hole, talks his way onto what he perceives to be a relatively harmless group of smugglers. Zorii Wynn, a young woman the same age as him, recruits him to be their pilot after his exaggerated claims of being a great pilot. The truth is, he’s never even piloted a ship out of Yavin 4’s orbit, but he’s able to help the smugglers get away, only to find out he’s unwittingly joined the dreaded Spice Runners of Kijimi.
One thing repeatedly stated in Free Fall: Crime is alive and well in a galaxy far, far away. Most criminals find it easier to operate in the Outer Rim and more remote corners of the galaxy because the New Republic is still trying to establish itself and rebuild. While this sense of lawlessness is something which has been hinted at in other novels, it’s underscored by Segura several times. The New Republic is exhausted from years which followed the Battle of Endor, vanquishing the remnants of the Empire. However toothless they may be when it comes to law enforcement there is one emboldened officer among them and she’s another character shining bright in a novel designed to showcase another: New Republic Security Bureau officer Sela Trune.
Trune saw her family and community decimated from the crossfire of a conflict involving the Spice Runners of Kijimi. She joined the New Republic, rose quickly through the ranks, and when we meet her she’s armed with a mandate to bring their operation to an end. She’s not much older than Poe and Zorii, which she notes is often used to disregard her authority. Trune is hot on their tail from the moment Poe pilots the Spice Runners off Yavin 4, barely escaping her and the local authorities. What little we get of Trune kept me turning the pages and it feels like she’s about to show-up in every scene where the Spice Runners are pulling a job. As much as she wants to catch the Spice Runners, dead or alive, she feels a dilemma about what to do about Poe, which adds an interesting dynamic each time she appears.
And there is plenty for Sela Trune to chase. Like I said, Free Fall makes The Rise of Skywalker feel glacial with how quickly it moves. Bouncing from job-to-job, Poe quickly learns through Zorii that just because he’s proven himself as a pilot doesn’t mean he’s considered one of them. In fact, she doesn’t even consider her placement among them secure and refuses to share her reason for being among them, only stating she’s been with them most of her life. A place among the Spice Runners of Kijimi is a place earned and their leader is the only one who bestows this. A friendship forms between the two teenagers, eventually edging into romance. The romantic element is really awkward and feels out of place, mostly because it’s dangled by Segura at times and never fully explored. It would’ve almost been better to leave it out, focusing more on the bond they share due to their age and trying to stay alive through the juggernaut of events the Spice Runners crash their way through. It would’ve given the above moment in The Rise of Skywalker equal weight if they’d just been friends. Now, I love romance in Star Wars but the romantic notes of this story felt really clunky and the time-gaps thrown in randomly between chapters doesn’t help the development.
As for the rest of the Spice Runners of Kijimi…well, it’s not just Poe and Zorii. We have Tomasso, the oldest member of the crew and the one who Zorii is closest too. Vigilich, who is the leader of their small contingent, as we learn the Spice Runners are a vast organization operating in cells who answer to the big boss, Zeva. Marinda Gan and another crew member named Gentri. If these descriptions seem vague that’s because we barely get to know these characters and they fade in and out of the story frequently. I don’t want to spoil everything but let’s just say the mortality rate for Spice Runner crew members is remarkably high. My favorite member of the crew, by far, is the droid Eevee-Sixbeesix, or Eevee, who definitely should’ve survived the story.
A problem with the pacing are the huge time jumps, which happen with very little explanation and feel confusing. By the time we get to the end of the story, eight-months have passed but the events we read about feel like they’ve only spanned a couple of days. It also feels like there’s a checklist of things Segura set out to accomplish and some of the more enjoyable aspects and characters read like filler. Poe learns hyperspace skipping. Poe learns how to fire a blaster. Poe and Zorii find the Y-wing she’ll eventually fly. Poe doesn’t trust droids but through Eevee he learns to. Poe meets Babu Frik. Yes, I know these things probably needed to happen but they feel so forced so many times and reduce the better story points to servicing a retcon.
Months into Poe’s time with the Spice Runners and luckily dodging Sela Trune, Kes Dameron and L’ulo L’ampar (pictured above), close friend of Shara Bey who also flew alongside her, catch up with Poe. Kes and L’ulo have gone rogue, tired of waiting for Sela’s meticulous hunt and using underground connections of their own. Kes pleads with Poe to return, as does L’ulo, but their reunion is cut short by Trune’s arrival and some hostile indigenous predators of the swampy planet they’re on. Kes is nearly killed and Poe is torn whether to stay with his father. L’ulo tells Poe he needs to find his own way in the galaxy and they’ll be there for him if he ever returns. So…why couldn’t have Shara been in this story? Why replace her with L’ulo? I’m still not okay with the way this was handled and think her wisdom and Poe walking away from his mom, who we learn is his hero, to seek his own path with the Spice Runners would’ve had much more weight.
Just before we make it to Kijimi, we get the big reveal. The mysterious leader of the entire Spice Runners organization, Zeva Bliss, is Zorii’s mother. Hence Zorii Wynn, because she’s wanted to work her own way up the ranks of the organization while hiding her true identity. When they arrive, Zeva declares Poe and Zorii rightful members in the Spice Runners of Kijimi. We quickly learn she’s called all the various, competing crime syndicates to come to Kijimi to form an alliance. While the New Republic isn’t doing a great job of enforcing the law, the crime syndicates are divided and working against each other. Zeva proposes a new era of unity once they are all assembled and then abruptly turns on them all, preparing them for execution and for the Spice Runner to ascend even further in their criminal ambitions.
Because there are so many double-crosses and major character deaths involved, I’m going to avoid spelling out the ending for those who may want to read it for themselves. As relating to Poe and Zorii, as abrupt as their moments of romance came in, their final goodbye is quite possibly the most abrupt thing in Free Fall. Not all endings demand a kiss silhouetting a sunset but that wouldn’t have been appropriate here either. It’s the end of a pretty significant friendship and the door is simply slammed. Sure, that’s life sometimes, but it just felt like the author didn’t feel like writing their story anymore, so it stops.
Poe finds a new resolve after watching the broadcast of a certain New Republic senator and knows where his future will take him.
In short, Free Fall was not for me. While I piled on a lot of criticism I will say author Alex Segura is great at writing action sequences. Often times those passages are the most cumbersome to read and visualize for me but I had no problems here. He also does a great job of refining Poe’s piloting skills, giving the character a little bit more in his toolbox each time he’s in the cockpit and faced with a new adversary. Also, Eevee is a great addition and adds a lot of humor to some tense moments. She’s a very helpful droid who doesn’t realize she’s being as funny as she is in so many scenes. If you love space battles, there are a few here you will probably enjoy. If you want more Poe Dameron, this book might be for you. Though, if you have some other summer reading to get through there’s no reason at all to rush out and get this on your bookshelf.
Special thank you to Disney Lucasfilm Press for the advanced review copy used for this review.