Can you have a Star Wars novel without a lightsaber? Apparently so. The newest installment of the Star Wars EU goes back 20,000 years before any other novel when the Jedi still used swords. So how can it possibly succeed where so many novels have been failing lately? Because Tim Lebbon remembered that the heart of Star Wars has always been with the depth of the characters instead of the shininess of the weapon or the radius of the explosion.
Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void is linked to the comics of the same name, but I didn’t feel like I was missing information because I hadn’t read them. I also think this is a great read for people who have read little to no of the other Expanded Universe books. Because it’s set so far in the past, there isn’t a bunch of history you need to brush up on to understand what’s happening. I would also suggest it for a casual EU reader because it manages to evoke many of the best qualities of the movies. There’s a gritty realism to this story that has been missing from many of the books in the last five years. The Jedi, or in this book Je’daii, have tremendous power, but frequently it is the everyman who carries the day.
For people who do try to keep up with the many Star Wars novels, you will definitely recognize several of the plot lines in Into the Void. We’ve seen them before – quite recently in fact. Yet, they are so well executed here, it is easy to forgive the repetition. In my case, I found several of the plots better handled here than they were in their original series. Sister having to hunt down evil brother anyone?
For a second, I want to try and ignore the fact that Dawn of the Jedi is a Star Wars novel and look at it as a generic fantasy or science fiction novel. (Like all good Star Wars novels, it wanders back and forth between the two genres an awful lot.) There were two particular elements of Dawn of the Jedi that I found very pertinent to some of the discussions I’m seeing from the speculative fiction community.
First, the main protagonist spends the book doing all the things we expect from a superpowered individual: wiping the floor with all the bad guys and struggling to find the balance between light and dark in her own heart. The fact that Lanoree Brock is a woman has pretty much nothing to do with the story at all. Readers have been all but screaming for a Star Wars novel with a female lead for a while now. Partly because the last three major ensemble megaseries left everyone hungry for a book that focused on at the very least a small handful of character if not the development of only one main person. We’ve been getting more and more of these books these last two years and greet all of them with enthusiasm. But with Dawn of the Jedi and Knight Errant, the comics and their respective spinoff novels are succeeding where the rest of the timeline is still struggling. They’ve created main characters whose gender is an aside.
I think many of modern readers of the EU share my “what the heck was that?” attitude toward the Courtship of Princess Leia. However, that novel did a great good by canonizing the marriage of Han and Leia. Return of the Jedi certainly left little doubt about their relationship, but based on the major shipping wars that rose as soon as their daughter Jaina grew up, it’s probably best that any doubts about her parents were cleared up early. Too often in Star Wars and other major series, the response to an unattached young woman is, who does she get together with? It honestly never occurred to me as I read Harry Potter the first time that there was doubt over Ron and Hermione becoming a couple. But it’s interesting to note that in all the fights, there was never a major camp that contended that the series should end with Hermione unattached. No one really thought that after losing most of their high school years to a major showdown with evil, all three of them might need some time to recover before reaching a point where normalcy could resume. Lanoree is still in the process of discovering herself. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that in five years she won’t decide to settle down and form a family. But for this story, she’s a Je’daii on a mission, and Mr. Lebbon refused to go down the popular path and throw in a love interest.
However, that doesn’t mean she’s a solitary loner. And this I think is very significant. Many of the things I’ve read about how underrepresented women are in speculative fiction or how we need more strong female characters comes down to the fact that what we’re really want are realistic portrayals of everyone. Lanoree isn’t some deeply damaged person who isn’t looking for love because she’s built walls around her heart. She’s harboring some guilt over her brother’s supposed death, but I think most people have something they regret that spurs them to do better. It truly comes down to the fact that’s she off on a long term assignment and that it isn’t the right time in her life to be looking for a husband. It’s clear she had a good relationship with her parents, (which I will note made a pleasant change to how the Je’daii academy worked) and she has completely embraced being part of the Je’daii and has a great deal of respect and care for her compatriots.
This is the second thing I think this novel handled better than a lot of science fiction I’ve read. It’s just plain been a long time since there was a good mentor relationship in Star Wars. But even outside that universe, I often find the wise old wizard trope has a nasty habit of falling flat. Too often the elder becomes one dimensional, either urging the young hero toward only good things, or, if they are really the evil mastermind in disguise, they nudge an essential good character toward the “dark side.” There are often variations between the two. Sometimes a good mentor’s harping drives the main character straight into rebellion for example. And I have seen this trope spectacularly executed once in a while, but too often it becomes a simplification of what should be a pivotal and character defining relationship.
In Into the Void, Lanoree’s mentor remained one of the largest enigma’s of the book. It’s clear there is a deep bond between the two that has been years in the making. Lanoree’s “force specialty” is rare and had been carefully fostered by Master Dam Powl since they first met. However, it’s also clear that while Force Alchemy isn’t inherently evil, it is a discipline that treads the line between light and dark quite closely. The later Jedi Order as we’ve seen had no tolerance for such things, demanding its adherents avoid emotion and attachment so that they won’t even get close to the line. With a mentor like Dam Powl, it’s quite possible Anakin would never have fallen. The fact that she encouraged Lanoree’s gift while helping her stay on the right side of the line made her a much more interesting character. You don’t often have mentors in stories telling the hero that the risk of stepping over the line is worth it. That if you mess up, I’ll be here to help pull you back. I think a lot of the traditional hero angst would dissipate with this kind of encouragement. In this book, it gave the main character a chance to fully unleash her powers without fearing disappointment and rejection, and it added so much strength to her character.
Yet, as much good as Dam Powl did for Lanoree, we are left to wonder about her as a character. It is indicated more than once that she’s no stranger to crossing the line…but we are never allowed to see how deliberate it was and whether or not there was any true regret on her part. She became a character I’m dying to see more off. And I love the possibility that even while she was keeping Lanoree more or less on the right path, she was wandering happily off it herself. The wise old mentor trope is one that we see in nearly all fantasy and science fiction. Making it more than a plot delivery devise or a convenient conveyance of back story is much rarer. Dawn of the Jedi is reminder of how significant that connection can and should be to the hero and allowing it the same depths and dimensions of any well written relationship gave the tired route new life.
I think that Into the Void probably won’t get the kind of attention it deserves from Star Wars fan simply because it’s a less popular era. Let’s face it. A lot of readers are only looking for Han, Luke, and Leia. And with Timothy Zahn creating masterworks of science fiction in that era, it often doesn’t feel like there’s a need to branch out. However, I think people who really love the movies, and in particular the original trilogy, would love the tone of this book. And honestly, I do really think that this book, possibly more than any other EU novel, can stand apart from the rest of the series. Without the words Star Wars on the front cover, you can easily believe that it’s a book with similarities to another series without actually being a part of it. And more than the majority of the EU, it deserves to stand on its own as a spectacular addition to science fiction and fantasy and as a book that has successfully listened to the people and delivered.