So far, the stories of The High Republic remain in the pages of novels and comics. For us bookworms (I’m assuming you’re one, too, if you read these reviews) that’s not a bad thing. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been hoping for these characters to come to life at some point. While we’ve yet to see a live-action take on them, Tempest Runner by Cavan Scott is arguably just as good and maybe even better. The story of Lourna Dee, the most ruthless Tempest Runner of the Nihil, is one of the most action-packed, fantastic Star Wars stories I’ve experienced. Thanks to a full cast, incredible sound design, and a wonderful story, The High Republic leaps off the pages and into your mind.
Lourna Dee is certainly a presence in the Nihil. She’s become a fan favorite, with her low tolerance for any B.S. in her ranks and eagerness to get what’s hers in the galaxy. With most of the novels so far focusing on Marchion Ro, there hasn’t been an opportunity to learn what drives this one Twi’lek force. Author Cavan Scott takes full advantage of this opportunity, equipped with the medium of audio drama and a fantastic cast, bringing Lourna Dee and her story into our ears. If you’re familiar with Scott’s other audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost, the structure is very similar. Dee’s flashbacks provide exposition, showing us where she comes from and how she ended up at the near top of the food chain in the Nihil.
You’ll finish this story and never look at Lourna Dee the same way again in future stories. That’s the point, huh? Well, you likely won’t look at the galaxy, the Nihil, the Jedi, and maybe even contrasts of good and bad in your own life the same way. A basic truth Lourna’s story exhibits is nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It’s a popular adage to say “No villain believes they’re the villain“, but what makes Lourna so complex and so easy to sympathize with is she very often does. And not in a guns-blazing, scorched earth sentiment. It’s often when she’s on the verge of accepting friendship or help, she discounts herself, and the sins of her past continue to grip and drag her down. Lourna is not her own worst enemy, she’s just never allowed herself to feel deserving and, as you’ll learn, it’s because she’s been under others’ control for so long. Whether it’s under the weight of the Nihil or a Republic therapy session, Lourna is often forced to let someone else write her story.
I’ll keep this review mostly spoiler-free, but if you want to go in with fresh eyes, which I recommend, maybe stop reading here and come back after. Cavan Scott continues to elevate the standards fans have come to expect from him. This is a remarkable character portrait and an incredibly compelling story. The cast is excellent, and the sound design will blow you away. You won’t be disappointed at all.
Tempest Runner takes place between the events of Scott’s The Rising Storm and Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland. In that sense, it definitely feels like it bridges Dee’s presence in both, but it’s so much more than that. After a thwarted raid attempt on a Republic outpost, Lourna Dee and several members of her crew are captured by responding Jedi. Favorites Keeve Tennis, Avar Kriss, and Sskeer are all along to help. Tempest Runner helmets turn out to not only be utilitarian, as they provide a shield of anonymity. Most of Dee’s crew have never seen her or her face, which works out in her favor, since the Jedi and the Republic believe Lourna Dee is The Eye of the Nihil. No one even knows who Marchion Ro is, the trick of the devil.
Dee improvises quickly, hiding her identity and calling herself Sal. She blends into the general population of inmates aboard the floating prison, the Restitution. Though the Republic paint it with a rosy color of rehabilitation, it differs little from what we know in the real world as a modern prison. Inmates are transported from world-to-world, providing forced labor to planets, with what little credits prisoners are paid being put right back into the cyclical economy of the commissary. There are those who view the prisoners with disdain and those who truly wish to see them rehabilitated, but Dee doesn’t distinguish.
It’s not Orange is the New Black in a galaxy far, far away, but we are reminded criminality is not often a conscious choice. It’s usually a slow, long path of small bad choices, eventually leading someone like Lourna Dee into the forest forgetting the trees. Through Dee’s debriefing, we see where that journey began. Dee wasn’t born into the Nihil, she actually comes from a distinguished Twi’lek family, feudal lords of a planet in the Ryloth system. Her family’s struggles to provide food for the population while paying the tithe to Ryloth and the Republic are what turn her toward a morally dubious path. Lourna knows there is a vast amount of narcotic spice on the planet and encourages her family to harvest it to provide for the people. When they refuse, she makes the decision herself, setting off a chain of disastrous events which end up with her in the cell of a slave ship bound for Nal Hutta.
After escaping during a revolt, Lourna finds herself amongst the Jedi and the Republic. Knowing where she ends up, these flashbacks are fascinating and add so much context to her disdain for both organizations. I won’t go too deep, as they should be experienced by the listener. Both the Jedi and the Republic mean well, but Lourna comes to see them as another force striving to control the galaxy’s path, as well as her own. They represent a trinity of controlling forces Lourna’s been forced to deal with since she escaped bondage, the third part of the trio being the Nihil.
Lourna’s arrival into the Nihil began as a means to an end. While seeking her own revenge for the tragedies befalling her family, she gets caught up with the interstellar marauders. This isn’t to say Lourna is some unwitting, naive child who found herself in over her head. Not at all. She quickly learns exactly who the Nihil are, and when the chance to grab a piece of their power presents itself, Lourna gets what’s hers. She’s not bitter or malicious toward the galaxy, only those who would seek to assert their dominance over it under the guise of virtue. Her experiences with the Republic and the Jedi inform her that villains can come at you with an open hand and a smile. At least the Nihil are honest about what they want.
Pan Eyta, who appears in both present-day and flashback scenes of Tempest Runner, plays an integral part of the story. We learn he’s the one who brought Lourna into the Nihil, and because of her betrayal, hunts her to the end of the stars. The binary of Pan and Lourna is a big subplot of Tempest Runner, of understanding, hatred, and a strange affection they share. The betrayal Pan experienced at Lourna’s hand in The Rising Storm has clearly stuck with him. Through all of the anger and hatred he projects, there is deep hurt, and you realize he saw Lourna as an equal and maybe even a friend. I don’t think Cavan Scott will ever be accused of giving us boring characters.
Aboard the Restitution, Lourna finds allies of her own. A curious warden named Councilor Wittick takes a special interest in Lourna and eventually gets her to reveal her true identity to him. For the first time in a while, Lourna is vulnerable, opening up to the councilor. The councilor helps her to find inner strength to believe she can forgive herself for the lives she’s taken and the crimes she’s committed. Their interactions are some of the most touching in the story, and the surprising turn this relationship takes towards the end of the story… Well, you’re just going to have to listen to it yourself. She also finds friendship with another inmate named Sestin, which takes an equally surprising turn with a sacrifice Lourna makes to keep Sestin’s hands clean.
It’s not all group therapy sessions and newfound friends on the Resitution. There are those among Lourna who know exactly who she is and what she’s done. They use that knowledge against her when they can. Lourna knows she not only has to watch out for Pan’s inevitable arrival, but also those who would be all too happy to hand him the vibro-ax when he does. Scott does a great job of never letting Lourna get too comfortable. He doesn’t drag her through the mud, but nothing is ever easy for Lourna in Tempest Runner. This is a character who is tough in both emotional and physical senses. Her trauma has been hyper-focused and self-molded into a weapon of survival strength – and those who cross her learn just how deadly it is.
Tempest Runner is not only a story of blaster bolts, revenge, and prison fights. It’s a story of redemption and choice. Redemption is often viewed as being saved from something evil. To Lourna, who finds her own sort of redemption, you can’t be saved from evil when the whole damn galaxy itself is. Every turn she’s taken stripped her of agency. Redemption for Lourna is reclamation of her agency, finding her own truth, and fighting the battles she chooses. By the end of the story, she’s undergone a transformation and a reckoning with herself and the galaxy. There is an understanding, but the fight isn’t over for Lourna Dee, it’s just going to be on her terms next time. And I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
Cavan Scott deserves a lot of praise for this, as well as the fantastic cast of actors voicing these characters. The ensemble is incredible, but Jessica Almasy steals the show as Lourna Dee. The range of emotions her voice conveys, sometimes seemingly creating micro-syllables, really pulled on my own emotions. In the tradition of Dooku: Jedi Lost and Doctor Aphra, Tempest Runner continues to validate how incredible the medium of audio drama can be for storytelling in the galaxy far, far away. This is a multi-faceted story of self-loathing, self-discovery, and self-love. While you may not be rooting for Lourna Dee if you’re hoping to see your favorite High Republic Jedi be okay, you will certainly understand her. Okay, let’s be honest, you’ll probably be rooting for her. I certainly will. I hope we continue to see Lourna grow and succeed in her own battle to understand herself.
No one has to be a hero and no one has to be a villain. Sometimes you can just exist and be okay with looking at yourself in the mirror. This is the biggest thing I hope listeners take away from Tempest Runner and the story, so far, of Lourna Dee.
The High Republic: Tempest Runner is available from online audiobook retailers. Special thanks to Random House Audio for the ARC used in this review.