I’ve lost count of how many Star Wars novels our team has reviewed since 2014. It’s always a privilege to open these pages and enter the mind of an author bringing their best to the galaxy far, far away. Usually, I have some idea of what to expect, but try very hard to leave those expectations behind the first page turned. The Star Wars canon provides a foundation of world-building and the state of the galaxy when you enter a typical Star Wars novel: period, geography, and affiliations of the main characters. With Ronin, none of these foundations apply, and author Emma Mieko Candon makes their own rules – and they succeed in every undertaking. Ronin is the story I’ve been waiting for since I picked up a Star Wars book so many years ago.
We should all be so lucky as Emma to have a writing prompt like “The Duel” from Kamikaze Douga, the first episode of the excellent Disney+ Star Wars: Visions series. While the first pages of Ronin are a direct adaptation of “The Duel”, their writing immediately transcends anything which could be captured on a pixelated screen. Granted, I bring a lot of my own experiences to Star Wars, but Emma’s writing moved me in a way I was unprepared for. Their words, cadence, and emotion touched my soul and felt like a story that had been written just for me. For someone who has experienced a roller coaster of emotions from Star Wars and my own life, Ronin delivered a promise I hoped (but honestly never believed) would be fulfilled in the galaxy far, far away.
This review will contain very broad references to the characters and the plot, but I’ll be very careful not to spoil it for you. I was lucky enough to finish this novel before seeing “The Duel”, so it felt like Kamikaze Douga adapted one of my favorite books. The episode is not at all required viewing, but I do recommend it because it’s damn good. Other than introducing the titular character, as well as another very important character, “The Duel” is essentially the opening scene to a much larger story. So, if you don’t have a Disney+ account, don’t sweat it, because Emma has you covered and their writing is just as good as the anime.
Our story opens with an introduction to two Sith: Ronin and Kouru. Ronin is driven by a voice in his head, leading him from planet to planet, wandering the galaxy in search of other Sith. His purpose in this search changes as the story progresses. Here, he’s come to vanquish the Sith bandit, with his cursed lightsaber blade which can never be extinguished. The blade is a representation of both the voice in his head and the pursuit he’s bound to. After he seemingly defeats Kouru, Ronin and his droid companion, B5, encounter a mysterious traveler in a Fox mask. This leads them to a ship called the Poor Crow, which will take them into the stars of a galaxy still reeling from the effects of a devastating war, to complete the next steps in Ronin’s ever changing purpose. Before they can leave, a reanimated Kouru hears the same voice which speaks to Ronin, leading them to another confrontation and a pursuit which spans across the galaxy.
The voice driving both Ronin and Kouru puts forth a quest against the backdrop of a war-torn galaxy, fraught by two divided princes and a corrupt feudal Jedi Order eager to hold on to power. The Poor Crow carries a mysterious cargo which aligns with Ronin’s purposes. Aware he’s being pursued by Kouru, Ronin joins the Crow, hoping deliverance of their mysterious cargo provides resolution with the ghosts and secrets he’s been carrying for so long. Unfortunately, nothing is that simple when the Force is involved. Especially when Ronin and Kouru’s paths in the Force intersect at an inflection point when the Jedi enter the story, not to mention the voice in both their heads of a Sith witch, pulling their strings like jōruri in bonkaru – Japanese puppets and puppet theater. Don’t confuse this manipulation with the type of self-fulfilling political theater Palpatine moved his pieces toward, because the existential and personal stakes of both Sith feel far more personal and spiritual.
And that’s really all you should know going in. Trust me, this book is like walking through a beautiful maze, where each turn brings a new surprise and revelation making you question every turn you took before. Though this might be hard for some to understand, there are no heroes and no villains in Ronin. That’s why this story works so well. In Star Wars and Western storytelling, we’re so quick to look for who is wearing which hat. In Ronin, there is an inversion, and all the characters find themselves as their own heroes and villains. I imply ownership of those roles because it’s exactly what Emma gives to each character, despite the oppressive systems they maneuver, they have agency like no others we’ve seen in Star Wars.
The use of mythology and symbolism is frequent and welcome in Ronin. It’s both subtle and overt, providing an essential etherial layer to the story. Emma moves their characters through this story in a way which feels deliberate while maintaining a spriitual fluidity where anything feels possible. When big revelations and twists arrive, they feel as organic as they do surprising, thanks to Emma laying a sturdy foundation of mythological tenets. I found myself often re-reading chapters or pages after learning a shocking new truth in Ronin only to find Emma provided plenty of foreshadowing breadcrumbs along the way. For me, these felt very satisfying while feeding the constant intrigue of what could happen next, especially in the dazzling final chapters.
One Star Wars element, kyber, is used in such a beautiful way it’s hard to even write about without spoiling huge parts of the plot and eventual ending. This is one of the many Star Wars-isms Emma made their own while totally staying true to what readers already know from established lore. They do this in so many ways with Ronin, taking the ideas of Star Wars and adding a new shade or dimension to them. The sense of freedom and joy I picked up in Emma’s writing added so much to my enjoyment of Ronin. I’ve said this about Star Wars authors before, but the smile I imagined Emma had on their face while putting these words down only made mine bigger. As a reader, I’ve never felt so much goodness passed through the text as what I took away from Emma’s writing.
Personally, I’ve always been a canon stickler. When Lucasfilm did the “great reset” in 2012 and promised a unified Star Wars story across film, television, comics, and novels – I was here for it. And I still am, but canon has become more malleable for me in recent years, and I’m grateful to Emma’s writing for finally freeing me from such a narrow Star Wars experience. I’m only addressing this because of the unfortunate truth that so many fans hinge their enjoyment of Star Wars on canonical unity, which is something I’ve been guilty of in the past.
My advice: don’t look at stories like Ronin as defiance of canon. Trust the authors and/or creators have been given this license for good reason and they are just as aware as you are. Emma creates their own canon and trust me, after a few pages in, the last thing you will be thinking about is how/if this lines up with other Star Wars stories. As Rian Johnson mentioned when asked about canonical implications of The Last Jedi, these stories are not intended to be Wikipedia pages. Emma does plenty of world building here through experiences of the characters they’ve created, as any good author should. You’ll have a vivid sense of this galaxy far, far away while left with enough mystery to keep you wondering what other stories might be happening (or could) beyond Ronin.
Though Ronin is the titular character, this is as much Kouru’s story. The trauma, sadness, and solitude she’s carried for so long manifest themselves in “The Duel”. Yes, Kouru is one of the toughest badasses we’ve ever seen in Star Wars, but that strength is derived from a storm of trauma buried within her. Kouru’s journey is my favorite arc of Ronin, and you’ll find that’s saying a lot because they are all amazing. Many times Star Wars bends so many characters truths in favor of a relatable through-line to redemption for the villain they’ve chosen. I’ll be the first to say I’m a huge advocate for redemption and atonement through living. With Kouru, things are different, and the healing she experiences is through understanding and making amends with herself. Letting go of the things which were out of her control in the past and finding the path forward on her own terms. Kouru’s been robbed of her agency for so long, and Emma frees her very early on in the story to make her own decisions. Emma puts a mirror up to her face often. You’ll find Kouru’s badass-ery isn’t in the umbrella lightsaber she wields, it’s the emotional strength she finds within and the choices she makes, honoring herself and the person she wants to be.
If you’ve noticed I continue to praise Emma’s writing, it’s with good reason. We’ve never seen meditative elegance of writing like Emma’s in Star Wars before – and I’ve rarely seen anything comparable elsewhere. This is their first novel, and the lush cadence of Emma’s syntax is the greatest strength of Ronin. I found myself consistently re-reading passages, paragraphs, and pages in awe of the beauty Emma poured into this novel. Poetry is a term often used to praise great writing, so I’m being careful not to fall into that cliché, because Emma’s writing is so wholly unique it defies definition for me. There is an immeasurable iambic beauty in their words, and anyone reading this will likely be telling people in the future they were here for Emma’s first novel. I will certainly be here for any writing they do whether it’s in a galaxy far, far away, or whatever worlds of beauty they dream up.
Ronin is the Star Wars stories I’ve been waiting for. For me, that is not a hyperbolical statement. I truly mean it. When I finished the last page, I set this story down in tears. Tears of joy, gratitude, and awe that something I’ve been waiting for finally exists. Through our lives, we travel in our own ways across the stars to learn why we wear the masks we do. We meet those who challenge us out of antagonism and out of care. It’s up to us how to face them, but if we are able to look for empathy and forgiveness within ourselves, both friends and enemies can teach us valuable lessons. They can teach us how to be our own heroes instead of our own enemies, allowing us to be heroes for those who need us. It’s not about being worthy of redemption or being beyond it. It’s about realizing we are all good enough today, and if we can just make it through that, we’ll be good enough for the next day. And the next, and every other day ahead. Ronin honors that simple truth for each character, putting them on a path to heal. I’ll take so many of Emma’s words with me beyond this book and I hope you do, too.
Ronin is an absolute triumph of storytelling, writing, and adventure. It’s a story of hope, healing, and everything Star Wars should be. I’ve gone looking for this story so many times, and I’m so grateful I finally found it in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Ronin is available wherever books are sold. Special thanks to Del Rey for the advanced copy used in this review.