The High Republic debuted last year, bringing us into a galaxy filled with hope while mired by disaster. As the stories progressed, disaster seemed to eclipse hope until the galaxy found itself steeped in fear. Across novels and comic books, we watched the Jedi struggle against forces determined to spread chaos and convolute the Republic’s outreach to the Outer Rim. “We are all the Republic!” waves like a banner, but by the end of The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray, that flag of hope flies torn and torched. At the end of this first phase of The High Republic, the only unity the Jedi and the Republic have given the galaxy is they are all targets of Marchion Ro and the Nihil.
At the heart of this first phase of stories is Starlight Beacon. The most advanced station built by the Republic and maintained by the Jedi Order, its namesake serves as its mission. While the Nihil and Drengir spread terror across the galaxy, Starlight Beacon remained mostly untouched. For the same reasons, it served as a waypoint in most of these stories. A place for the Jedi to regroup or gather before heading out into the stars to defend against a new threat. In The Fallen Star, we rarely leave the confines of this station, and it feels like anything but a beacon. Gray successfully inverts this symbol of infinite hope into a coffin of dread.
If you choose to continue reading, I will touch on some spoilers, including some major deaths. Gray’s writing meets the standard she’s set for herself. It effortlessly conveys specifics without having to spell things out. The strengths of her showing and not telling us what each character struggles with (or overcomes), while creating one of the most pervading, ominous atmospheric backdrops in Star Wars all succeed. From the opening pages of The Fallen Star, you’ll know nothing is well with anything, and each page-turn feels like a procession to doom. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad, you’ll have to decide, and I’ll let you make that determination without saying more. Feel free to come back and read my thoughts when you’ve finished your reading.
For those of you sticking around, let’s continue…
Leading up to The Fallen Star, Lucasfilm warned us what lay ahead. Few of these stories have ended on a hopeful note and I didn’t go into The Fallen Star expecting one. A surprising aspect of this story is how eerily quiet most of it is. Gray uses the introspection and self-reflection of each Jedi to establish their collective fragility. All of these people are ready to break and I felt it in each passage. Though they’ve overcome a lot, they are still reeling in their individual trauma. Putting this unease in the confines of Starlight Beacon makes it feel more like a tomb than a fledgling, hopeful arm of the Republic and Jedi.
The story begins in orbit of the planet Eiram, a distant world the Rebublic aids in building a water treatment system in hopes of bringing ease to the struggling population. Master Stellan Gios establishes himself as marshal in Avar Kriss’ absence, while she hunts Lourna Dee, the presumed Eye of the Nihil (Marvel’s The High Republic by Cavan Scott fills in those gaps). Arriving on the station are Padawans Bell Zettifar and Burryaga, along with their masters Nib Assek and Indeera Stokes. They’ve captured Nan and Chancey Yarrow, imprisoning them on Starlight Beacon, believing them to be Nihil agents.
Marchion Ro shows up right away in The Fallen Star. While there is solemnity in his state, we’ve never seen a more merciless incarnation of Ro. Gray removes every nuance in Ro, making him the clear villain in this story. His motives have been consistent throughout these stories but his eagerness to inflict pain on the Jedi, the Republic, and anyone who would stand with them is more raw than ever. The joy Ro takes in each horrific act is like nothing we’ve read before. If there was ever a road to redemption for this character, he’s never been further from it by the end of the story. On top of everything else, he’s assembling his own droid army, tired of dealing with the infighting of the Nihil structure. He’s consolidated his power among those most loyal and has managed to seduce Senator Ghirra Starros into his ranks, who’s been feeding him information about the Republic.
Ro’s hatched a plan to launch several attacks across the galaxy at once. His trick is attacking relatively unremarkable planets without the resources to deal with the Nihil onslaught, hence turning them toward Starlight Beacon. The Nihil attacks are unforgiving, causing thousands to flee and eventually overwhelm the Republic outpost. This gives cover to Nihil agents aboard, who’ve been quietly sabotaging every failsafe system of Starlight Beacon. Like the Jedi maintaining it, Starlight Beacon is at the precipice of breaking, only no one knows it until it’s too late.
The Leveler, though never named or elaborated upon, has somehow arrived on Starlight Beacon. And it’s contributing greatly to Ro’s plan, blocking the Jedi’s abilities to feel the Force. It also claims a number of victims (I’ll get to the bodycount in a bit) among the Jedi. This ultimately proves to be Ro’s most effective weapon and remains the most elusive to the Jedi and us readers. While Gray’s vagueness about the Leveler is no doubt intentional, it’s frustrating. This does so much damage but we never learn anything more about it. While I haven’t read Mission to Disaster or Midnight Horizon, my hope is they expand a bit more upon it. The devastation it causes through its ability to debilitate the Jedi’s connection to the Force is central to the story.
While Ro is EVIL in this story, this is the least compelling I’ve seen him. You know exactly who you are going to get in every scene. One of the reasons he’s been so terrifying is because he’s so unpredictable. In The Fallen Star, Marchion Ro singularly pursues inflicting pain and mostly stays out of the story. He’s confined himself to his ship, Gaze Electric and cut himself off from most of the Nihil. His fierce leadership is always where the character shined and in this story he’s more of a quiet, evil mastermind.
The Jedi aboard Starlight Beacon must learn to survive without the Force. When the Nihil unleash their systematic attack on Starlight Beacon, Stellan Gios must lead the Jedi while protecting refugees all without the aid of the Force. As unique as this sounds, it really hampers the story, in my opinion. The Jedi’s continued frustration with the absence of the Force begins to feel tedious and redundant and it begins to feel like a gimmicky twist rather than a tool for character development. And the characters barely grow during and after this experience. When they do, it’s in very predictable ways, which left me pretty unaffected as a reader.
While there are moments of depth, they are fleeting and I feel that’s due to how many characters are packed into this story. I was happy to see Leox, Affie, and Geode again but they seemed more like an aside to the story. The same with Chancey Yarrow and Nan. There are certainly moments of joy with all of these characters and Gray writes them beautifully, but they took more from the story than they contributed, in my opinion. This is ultimately a story about the Jedi, potentially concluding many of their threads in this era as the next wave makes a major time jump backwards, and it felt incredibly diluted by the pages devoted to these subplots and background characters. If the novel was a little longer, I’ve no doubt I’d feel different, but it’s a very brisk 345 pages.
Elzar Mann is probably one of the more carefully written characters. We learn much more about his dip into the dark side, as his story begins during a rehabilitation journey under the guidance of Wayseeker Orla Jareni. His introspection and healing are my favorite scenes of The Fallen Star. The romance he and Avar dabbled in during their Padawan days is also elaborated and we learn how the Jedi dealt with such instances. Mann’s fears of backsliding into the dark side after his turn on Valo haunt him throughout the story and his disconnection with the Force is something he sees as a benefit. Mann survives the story and finds himself in the arms of Avar, setting up an interesting possibility should we get a continuation of this era. Though his growth isn’t major, the care Gray took in writing him shines through and seeds are well planted for more stories.
Bell Zettifar is another character Gray’s writing benefits. Though we’re well aware how troubled he’s been by losing his master, Loden Greatstorm, Bell’s grief feels fresh. That’s because Bell lost Loden for a second time The Rising Storm, seeing how the nightmare Leveler left him a husk. Bell’s haunted by Loden, trying to do whatever he can to ensure his new master, Indeera Stokes, and friend, Burryaga, are safe. Indeera is nearly killed by the Leveler and Burryaga is presumed dead after being blown out an airlock, Bell deals with his uncertainty by doing what he can to help them, no matter how futile that might seems.. Bell is incredibly courageous in The Fallen Star and embodies the hope these stories gave us in the beginning.
While I’m grateful Gray took the time to highlight the romance between Avar and Elzar, as well as the triad nature of their relationship with Stellan, it felt like she held back – and I don’t understand why. The most surprising and disappointing aspect of The Fallen Star for me is how quickly Gray moves through important character dynamics, especially this trio’s complex relationship. Gray succeeds in showing us there is real love between the three of them but this is an aspect of The High Republic I feel demands to be told. Give us some information-dump flashback scenes! We’ve barely seen the three of them together and this relationship doesn’t feel as underscored as it should. If any of the High Republic authors are suited to tell the Avar-Elzar-Stellan story, it’s Claudia Gray. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful passages regarding their bond and her contributions are sublime, I just wanted more.
By time time Starlight Beacon finally plunges into the waters of Eiram I felt exhausted. The death spiral of Starlight Beacon is a slow one. While the Jedi succeed in saving many lives and averting collision with a major city on Eiram, there is no mistaking the defeat the Nihil dealt. It doesn’t feel like a cataclysm, it feels more like a sad inevitability the Nihil led the galaxy to at the beginning of these stories. Throughout The Fallen Star, there is never a hope Starlight Beacon will survive once the Nihil strike and that made the final climax fall flat for me. This isn’t a pessimistic story by any means, but Gray does such an effective job with the foreboding text the final act feels more like a whimper. Starlight Beacon and those aboard endure such a beating I just felt relieved it was all over, rather than upset at the list of casualties.
The final passages of the book convey a new turning point in the galaxy, one where Marchion Ro reigns in the Outer Rim. Whatever hope the Republic and Jedi intended to extend, Ro and the Nihil have turned it to ash. While there are still a few more stories in this phase to be told, these initial High Republic stories will likely end on a very dark note. The entire galaxy watches as Ro claims victory and reveals himself as the Eye of the Nihil for the first time. Ro doesn’t have to hide anymore and he’s more dangerous than ever.
Admittedly, I set the bar very high for this novel and may have set myself up for a bit of disappointment. The shortcomings I felt in The Fallen Star can’t entirely be attributed to my own expectations, though. I feel like this could’ve been at least 100-pages longer, especially since it’s the last time we see several characters who don’t make it out of these pages alive. Though I have some issues with this novel, it’s very much worth your time. Claudia Gray is still masterful in her writing when it comes to Star Wars, especially the Jedi. Her interpretations of the Force and its relation to the Jedi are some of my favorite so far, especially in The Fallen Star. And if you’ve been reading this far, The Fallen Star rewards you in many ways, so please don’t be discouraged by my critiques. There’s no doubt it will be essential reading as this unified story of The High Republic continues to unfold.
As jarring as it is to end this phase on such a somber note, Gray never gives up hope in this story. The galaxy may be bruised and battered, but Claudia Gray planted several seeds of hope should we return to this era of The High Republic in the future. When Claudia Gray is planting seeds, you can certainly expect something beautiful to grow.
The Fallen Star is available wherever books are sold. Special thanks to Del Rey for the copy used in this review.