SWNN Review: There’s A Lot of Heart in The High Republic: A Test of Courage by Justina Ireland
The High Republic is finally here! After nearly a year of waiting, a new era in Star Wars storytelling begins. Author Justina Ireland delivers a wonderful story about courage, friendship, and healing in her middle-grade novel, A Test of Courage. Vernestra Rwoh, the youngest Jedi of the order, guides four survivors of a destroyed Republic cruiser, Steady Wing. In a dire situation, they must come together to not only survive – but face dangers of a strange world and the ones within themselves. SPOILERS AHEAD….
Before I get into A Test of Courage, I definitely recommend reading Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule first. If you don’t have time and just want to dive into this novel, at least make sure to read Darby’s excellent review or watch our SWNN Book Discussion. This novel and the forthcoming Into the Dark by Claudia Gray assume you’re well aware of everything going on at this moment in the galaxy. Though these stories take place very close to each other, A Test of Courage doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining what’s happening around the galaxy. In my opinion, it’s good to know this going in. Also, just a reminder there will be SPOILERS in this review.
The biggest strength of this story are the characters we meet on the Steady Wing as it’s preparing to depart. A Test of Courage is one of the most character driven stories I’ve read in Star Wars. Their stories begin here and by the end of this book, they’ve worked through so many things together and individually, it’s hard to say goodbye. You’ll be thrilled, saddened, excited, and even disappointed by these characters and some of their choices. This period of High Republic is four-hundred years before anything established in canon, so I hope A Test of Courage is an introductory novel to these characters, because the stage is certainly set for them to have a larger role. Author Justina Ireland certainly sets the bar high through condensed and very effective character development.
A Test of Courage begins on the remote outpost, Port Haileap. Two Nihil (the marauders giving the Jedi and Republic an awful lot of trouble in the midst of a galactic hyperspace crisis), Klinith and Gwishi, plot to sabotage a diplomatic mission to the new Republic waypoint station, Starlight Beacon. The pair board the Steady Wing, bound for Starlight Beacon carrying dignitaries from the planet Dalna and enact their plan to disrupt the voyage. If you’re coming off Light of the Jedi, don’t expect the Nihil to play as large a role in this story. Klinith and Gwishi are trying to make a name for themselves in the vast and ruthless hierarchy of the Nihil. The vacuum of space and the elements of a strange planet are the real adversaries of the story.
We’re introduced to sixteen-year-old Vernestra Rwoh, the youngest Jedi in the order and the youngest to ever pass the trials (at the age of fifteen!). The former apprentice of Master Stellan Grios, who we’ve heard a lot about so far but haven’t met, is on her first assignment. She’s a new Jedi, setting out into a galaxy on the edge of chaos, due to the Legacy Run tragedy. An anxious galaxy still waits to see where other emergences will occur after the Legacy Run tragedy in Light of the Jedi. Vernestra focuses on her assignment, keeping a close eye on Avon Starros, the daughter of a distinguished Republic senator. Also worth noting, before setting out on this mission, she felt compelled by the Force to modify her lightsaber into a whip-like blade, something only the Nightsisters currently practice and a design not used by Jedi since the Sith War (a war vaguely referenced in High Republic material).
If the name Starros sounds familiar to you, that means you’ve been reading your comic books. Avon is the ancestor to Sana Starros, a character featured prominently in Marvel’s Star Wars and Doctor Aphra, as well as this year’s excellent auidodrama, Doctor Aphra by Sarah Kuhn. It will be interesting to see if this connection is deliberate to Sana, since there are a lot of High Republic Easter eggs popping up in Alyssa Wong’s Doctor Aphra series. That series is on hiatus until March and it’s my little tinfoil hat theory it has to do with the delay of the High Republic and this characters connection, but that’s a whole other article itself.
Avon Starros is a gem of a character. She’s a twelve-year-old genius with aspirations to become the greatest inventor in the galaxy far, far away. I loved her perspective because she’s so curious about everything. She’s been sent to Port Haileap by her mother, hoping to simultaneously broaden Avon’s perspective and show her how privileged the citizens of Coruscant are. Justina Ireland takes advantage of Avon’s curious mind, allowing the reader to learn a lot about the Force and other aspects of the galaxy via Avon’s. Her constant contemplation about how things work and her awkward, abrupt social skills raise some very important questions in the story and stir other characters in just the right way. Avons critical and analytical outlook help other characters find solutions in so many difficult situations.
J-6, an droid reprogrammed by Avon, is also looking out for the young Starros girl. J-6 adds a much missed droid presence to A Test of Courage. We didn’t see any sentient droids in Light of the Jedi, and with Ireland noting Avon had a hand in making J-6’s programming one of autonomy, it suggests droid consciousness we’re familiar with may be a new technology in this era. It’s highlighted how many different types of programming Avon’s installed in J-6. J-6 is very confident in her role as Avon’s caretaker and takes her job seriously but is much more assertive than subservient. I’m looking forward to droid evolution in the High Republic, as well.
Soon after we meet them, the Steady Wing begins its journey for Starlight Beacon and we also learn why it’s so important. Ambassador Weft, envoy for Dalna, the system where Port Hileap is located, is curious about joining the Republic as they reach out further into the Outer Rim. Supreme Chancellor Soh has put an emphasis on expanding the Republic to the Outer Rim and it’s the first joint initiative between the Republic and the Jedi. Ambassador Wefts son, Honesty, reluctantly accompanies his father on this voyage. It’s notable Dalna structures the education and maturation of their children in a similar structure of the Jedi. Each Dalnan child goes through a trials, called Metamorphosis, to prepare them for life in their world and the galaxy. All of their education up to that point is focused around the path they are interested in following.
Honesty Weft, though twelve-years-old, is eager and ambitious to finish his trials. He’s not happy with his father for pulling him away to go on a diplomatic mission. Hoping to go into military service, Honesty doesn’t understand his fathers intentions for bringing him along on the journey to Starlight Beacon. The relationship between Honesty and his father is tense when we meet them. They both have their own ideas about what’s best for Honesty, with the child often having a hard time accepting only one of them will make that decision at this point. Honesty is a big reason Avon is onboard, with her mother and the Jedi hoping she’ll be able to connect with him. His father also wishes for his son to make connections and see the larger galaxy, diplomacy, and culture outside of Dalna.
The last of our cast is Imri Cantaros, an ambitious Padawan who is very close to his master, Douglas Sunvale. Imri thinks of Douglas as a father figure. He’s especially skilled in picking up emotions and thoughts of others through the Force, something which helps and hinders him throughout the story. In A Test of Courage, Imri experiences the biggest rollercoaster ride of everyone. He’s curious about the Jedi trials well aware he’s not ready. When we meet him he’s a very patient Padawan but the events of this story quickly disrupt that serenity.
Not long after all these characters meet, disaster strikes the Steady Wing. During a reception, the sabotage of the Nihil unfolds as explosions rock the ship. The ceiling of the room they are explodes, sucking almost everyone into the vacuum of space. Vernestra, Douglas, and Imri use the Force to try and hold everyone in place. All of the children survive, but Douglas and the others are killed. Vernestra quickly realizes the entire ship is about to go up and gets them to a shuttle. Just as they escape, the Steady Wing explodes, leaving them stranded in deep space without a way to contact help. Ireland’s great at balancing the action of the story with the emotions and thoughts of the characters, especially Vernestra as she tries to find calm during the desperation of keeping everyone else alive. She knows she needs to be the hero and finds a way to persevere.
At this point, Imri and Honesty are wrecked emotionally. Imri lost his teacher and the only person he considered family. The Jedi Order of this era are not as trepidatious about attachment and love. In fact, the dogma we’re used to is nowhere near the rigidity of the prequel era. Yes, they are still wary of the dark side but emotions aren’t taboo. The padawan and ambassadors son quickly form a connection through sharing the collective grief they feel. The sadness plants seeds of regret in each of them, recalling memories of the paternal lessons. For Honesty, the wish he’d been a better son and not pushed back as much, while still wishing he’d never come aboard the Steady Wing. Imri, being attuned to detecting emotions through the Force, feels these ripples as he deals with his own grief and feels he’s lost a father, too.
Vernestra doesn’t have time to grieve. The situation is perilous and the shuttle they managed to escape won’t sustain them all in time for a rescue. Survival is the priority but while they search for a planet Avon and Vernestra are compelled to understand what caused the accident. Due to the Legacy Run disaster, emergences still occur across the galaxy, so they figure that had something to do with it. Avon, still unclear how exactly the Force works, suggests Imri and Vernestra use it to figure out what happened. Through this, we learn Jedi are able to construct events of the past in their minds eye using the Force but it’s not something Vernestra or Imri are skilled at. Instead, they pool their collective abilities for a Jedi planet searching method called “wayfinding”.
In this era, it’s frequently implied hyperspace is a very delicate method of travel and there are still many unknowns in the galaxy. The lore of exploration and the danger involved is invoked whenever hyperspace is brought up, especially how dangerous it is. We learn of the San Tekka legacy in Light of the Jedi and in this book we learn about an early explorer who set out to map the galaxy but disappeared. Even though centuries have passed, probes of his still randomly return to Coruscant with the data they’ve collected. Hyperspace mysteries don’t really factor into this specific story but it’s worth noting as they appear in all three books I’ve read so far (Into the Dark by Claudia Gray arrives next month so I’m keeping quiet on how that connects).
Eventually, they are able to find a planet through the Force. Avon continues to raise the alarm the destruction of Steady Wing was an attack, not the result of an emergence. Her fears are set aside as the five of them turn their focus to figuring out a way to survive on the planet. Though the planet supports life, its not exactly hospitable. They quickly find the rain is acidic and must seek shelter in a cave. Unsure if the acid rain storms last for hours or months, the five survivors are left to stew in their uncertainty. Anytime caves show up in Star Wars you can be pretty sure a transformation of some sort is on the horizon.
The time spent in the cave brings us back to the strength of this book, the characters. While Avon isn’t happy about her predicament, she’s coping the best way she knows how, burying herself in asking questions and finding answers. This isn’t to suggest she’s aloof to the emotional distress Honesty feels. Avon deals with her own confusion, feeling the absence of a parent who is busy with a life of politics. Though her mother meant well by sending her out into the galaxy for growth, Avon can’t help but feel neglect. She and Honesty share the uncertainty they feel about their parents love and Avon reveals at one point she’d been kidnapped. This made her mother overprotective, which makes Avon confused as to why she was sent away after the extreme sheltering.
As the group reconcile their own grief, sadness, and anger over what’s happened and their situation, we learn the two Nihil responsible found refuge on the planet, as well. Klinith and Gwishi are confounded the five kids and their droid survived the destruction of Steady Wing. Vernestra and Imri come upon the Nihil, unbeknownst to the marauders, so the Jedi take the opportunity to listen. As the Nihil describe their sabotage, Vernestra sense Imri’s emotions turning towards anger.
It doesn’t take long for the anger Imri feels toward the two Nihil to overtake him. The grief and circumstance confuses his perceptions of the Force and the reader experiences the slippery slope of internal false rationalizations. Imri conflates justice with balance of the Force. While Vernestra intends on arresting the Nihil and bringing them to the Republic, Imri quickly decides he’s capable of dolling out the same justice the perpetrators would receive. Imri decides to set out and dispense punishment to the Nihil, recruiting Honesty while everyone else sleeps in the cave.
Vernestra realizes something is bad as soon as she wakes up and sets out to find Imri and Honesty. When she catches up with them, Imri and Honesty have been disarmed by the Nihil. Avon and J-6 give up their position and a fight ensues. Vernestra is capable of taking on the Nihil but once Imri is freed she can sense the dark side. He declares his intentions to act as judge, jury, and executioner but Vernestra won’t let the dark side take him. The two of them duel, Vernestra easily defeating Imri. The padawan realizes what he’s done. Honesty speaks up and doesn’t give up on his hope to bring the Nihil to justice, proclaiming he will speak to the senate to expose the threat of the marauder group.
They are able to establish contact with the Jedi and Republic, finally making it to Starlight Beacon. Avon says goodbye, having picked up a few pieces of Imri’s destroyed lightsaber, she intends to study it (making a note to myself about this and you should, too). Imri is afraid he’ll be expelled from the Jedi Order for drawing on Vernestra but instead she offers to be his new master. They are both disappointed in what happened on the planet, Vernestra partially blames herself for Imri’s momentary turn. This new path forward will allow them both a chance to continue healing the wounds and trauma. And they intend to prepare for the threat of the Nihil.
It’s very hard to convey how well written these characters are in a review. Author Justina Ireland gives us the best of Star Wars: courage, hope, friendship, and redemption. And just announced this week, she’ll continue Vernestra’s story in the YA novel, Out of the Shadows. A Test of Courage is a fantastic introduction to these characters and a great story. The friendship and bond formed between characters as they cope with grief and trauma is touching to see. The hope they find in each other lifts them above the grief and out of the dark. It’s Star Wars at its finest and I’m so thrilled these characters will be introducing readers, young and old, to this new era of the galaxy far, far away. Get excited because the High Republic is just beginning!
Star Wars – The High Republic: A Test of Courage is available at your local bookstore and online retailers. Special thanks to Disney Lucasfilm Publishing for the advanced review copy provided.