An overanalytical Rogue One fan reviews Rebel Rising

Star Wars: Rebel Rising
Author: Beth Revis
Series: Part of the new Disney Star Wars EU continuity
Pub Date: 2017
Pages: 304
Format: Audiobook

Spoilers will be hidden with JavaScript magic.

Oh, I wanted so much to appreciate this book…I loved Rogue One and so I was eager to look past every flaw I could just to get something to scratch the itch for more Rogue One. What I like best about Rogue One is its characters, most especially Jyn Erso, and so what I really wanted from this novel was solid character development. Mounds and mounds of character development. Sacrifice plot, worldbuilding, pacing, whatever – just give me pages and pages of intense character study.

This book does, in fact, sacrifice pacing so it can focus more on character study. And yet, sadly, it still doesn’t work. The characters in this story just did not do it for me. Maybe I have too much headcanon at this point. Maybe listening to it as an audiobook exacerbated the writing and pacing issues so they distracted me too much. I don’t know. But this book mostly left me feeling sad at all the opportunities it wasted for character goodness. There are so many kernels of great ideas, starts and hints at fascinating character arcs, but they never seem to quite pan out.

Saw, for starters, feels very blurry, even inconsistent. You see bits of how he cares for Jyn and tries to train her, bits of his charisma and the way he inspires his followers, bits of his anger against the Empire and his willingness to resort to questionable methods to fight it. But it never quite comes together. Most of the time you’re just being told that Saw gives Jyn special treatment, or everyone wants Saw to notice them, or Saw is being paranoid and dangerous now. There are little flashes of showing, actual good descriptive storytelling: the way others look up to Jyn as Saw’s mouthpiece, the scene where he risks his life to punish a suspected traitor by delivering him to the Empire. But Saw in this book still feels more like a list of character traits than an actual living person.

There is maybe one scene in the whole story where I actually felt moved by his and Jyn’s interactions. Which meant that I had almost zero emotional investment in their relationship to care when Jyn desperately wants his approval, or when she begins to distrust him, or when she finally turns her back on him. I wanted to be heartbroken by those events: they are teeming with narrative potential. But instead they just felt like more things being checked off the list.

Jyn doesn’t really feel true to the movie or the novelization until maybe the last part of the story. For one, she just feels too…soft, uncomfortable with violence and unfamiliar with the regular precautions and deceptions of people outside the law. I could understand her being soft at the beginning, having been raised in relative comfort by loving, sheltering parents, but by the time she’s been living in a terrorist organization for years you’d think she could at least kill somebody or effectively hide her identity. (Does she kill anybody in this book? She at least tries to once, but then is glad when traps set by other people actually finish her target.)

Like I said, maybe this is just my headcanon getting to me. But I expected her to have a little more of Saw’s fiery anger and competent coldness (especially when this is specifically remarked on in the novelization); some more intense, impulsive compassion or nobility like you see when she saves the girl in Jedha or speaks up at the Rebel meeting; more of the apathy and even genuine fear of being involved in something that makes her attack her own rescuers. Instead, in this book she seems more sad than angry about what the Empire’s done to her, and is more inclined to stay at Saw’s camp forging codes for missions she knows very little about than to seek revenge in the heat of battle. She’s horrified at the atrocities she witnesses, whether they’re committed by Saw or the Empire, but she just passively observes, gets out with herself intact, and then never brings it up. No desperate efforts to save people caught in the crossfire or angry words with Saw about why he did those things. And as for apathy, this Jyn falls in love with bland strangers and lives with them for months without any apparent issues trusting them, even after she’s been betrayed by both her other families.

The Jyn of this story is just a little bit too passive, too nice, and too trusting to really bring out all the intensity and sharpness that makes movie-Jyn so fascinating (and moving, when she finally finds a meaningful home for all her intensity). I was left feeling like the author was trying too hard to make her likable, and thus toning down all her interesting extremes that I wanted so much to get into.

(This isn’t just Jyn. I mean, Cassian has smiling eyes and looks like he’s good at making people laugh? What? Did we watch the same movie? This is dead serious, sacrifice my soul for the Rebellion, don’t tell anybody what I’m really planning, spy, assassin Cassian. That’s what makes his admittedly beautiful eyes so striking, and his arc in Rogue One so compelling. I get just as attached to sweet characters as everyone does, but there are other routes to my heart.)

The other characters seem to exist only to further Jyn’s character development. I started to crack up in the first third or so when every person Jyn talks to apparently wants to discuss how much Saw actually cares about her, or needle Jyn into proving what a badass fighter she is. Do these people have lives that don’t revolve around either being friends with or outdoing Jyn Erso? You can certainly use other characters just to support your protagonist’s journey. But to actually be a good foil character that really pushes forward the protagonist’s development, you have to be pretty well rounded yourself. A flat character has no strength to push with. These characters are thin little strings of flab, and thus poor Jyn is left somewhat flabby as well. They talk with Jyn, they fight with Jyn, they die in front of Jyn, and supposedly this all has some kind of lifechanging impact on her, but I don’t really see it and I certainly don’t feel it.

This is unfortunate, because hidden in some of these characters’ checklists of traits are some really interesting ideas. Take Idryssa, vaguely-substitute-mother-figure who eventually parts ways with Saw to join the Rebel Alliance. How could that have shaped Jyn’s perception of the Rebels, and her loyalty to Saw? How could Jyn’s complicated relationship to her mother – who bravely stood up to Krennic, but also abandoned Jyn – have played into it? I guess I’ll just have to make up more headcanon. Or Hadder – yes, their relationship as written has so many problems, but there is a core of something good there. Jyn, freshly abandoned, meets a pleasant, innocent, idealistic young man who compassionately takes her in and includes her in his family. She is torn between her attraction to his idealism and naivete, and her painful knowledge that the world is not that simple. As their situation gets more desperate, she’s forced to decide whether she’s willing to trust his idealism – and if she can’t, if she’ll destroy his innocence in an effort to keep him safe. There, a foil character actually making Jyn confront her internal conflict between idealism and cynicism, even if it’s with a somewhat cliche plotline.

The basic lines of that story are all in the book. But they get lost in how very nice, pleasant, and relatable Jyn is (surely she’d be at least somewhat irritated by Hadder’s incredible naivete?), how cute Hadder is supposed to be (half the dude’s family is dead, maybe he should be a little more serious?), and how stereotypical, out-of-character, and chemistryless their romance is. The Jyn I know from the movie and novelization has major problems with trust and commitment, but also a fierce desire for family. A romance could have been a great way to explore that – if you were willing to actually acknowledge Jyn’s major problems and the way they clash with her deep attachment to people she loves. This book seems to just want Jyn to fall in love with a boy because apparently all teenage girls do, and because it makes the ensuing events marginally more dramatic. It lets Jyn and Hadder remain safely familiar and nice with their happy relationship, and thus passes up the opportunity to actually dig into some interesting character development with a relationship that may have been less pleasant.

So the whole book left me with skeletons of good character arcs and seeds of insights that I was sad to see the author waste. I love the idea that Jyn is convinced Galen is working voluntarily for the Empire. You could take that one way and have her totally give up on him, think he’s a coward and beyond hope, and then be all the more shocked in Rogue One when she discovers he’s been sacrificing himself to work against the Empire all those years. (The novelization tries to go this route.) Or maybe you could take it a different way and have Galen’s apparent choice make Jyn question the Rebellion, wonder if maybe she should rethink fighting against the Empire. That would bring out how much Jyn doesn’t fit into the boxes of allegiance, how unwilling she is to commit to one side, and thus lend even more weight to her eventual decision to actually make a stand and sacrifice her life for something. But this book has one great scene where Jyn painfully acknowledges what her father is doing, and then kind of…drops it. Galen comes up now and again, but the author doesn’t make full use of that great idea to actually shape Jyn.

There are so many other little things. Jyn’s relationship to Saw’s other followers and the way he treats her preferentially – so many stories there, and we just get people like Reece who exists to be petty and jealous and then pop up again to show how sleazy Saw is getting. All the people mentioned in the novelization – Staven, Codo, Maia – who somehow manage to be more compelling in their few sentences there than in the many scenes they get dragged through here. I mean, look at this, here is the only place Maia is mentioned in the whole novelization:

“Maia?” Jyn asked [asking if she’s dead]. But that was stupid; she remembered now, she had been there when Maia died. Jyn had been the one to inherit – and promptly lose – Maia’s synthskin gloves, the gloves that had been so soft and smelled like carbon scoring.

So many good little evocative details there in just three sentences: the way Jyn forgot (suppressed?) Maia’s death, the fact that she got Maia’s gloves (why? what relationship did they have?), the little pang of the detail that Jyn lost them so quickly. You also get a larger sense of how hardened Jyn is to loss, and how cheap life is in Saw’s group. Then in Rebel Rising we get to actually see Maia die, plus her talking with Jyn and wearing the synthskin gloves. The scene where she dies is actually pretty interesting, one of the more striking and memorable ones in the book. Unfortunately, the Maia dying part of it was not the memorable part. Maia dying was the “this is a Bad Situation so somebody has to die, check!” part. Despite all the conversations with Jyn and the synthskin gloves, I just was not invested in her, and thus neither was Jyn. So neither of us were really heartbroken after Maia’s death, and the story that Maia and Jyn could have had is lost in the general blandness of it all.

That all being said, there are a few good things in this book I was genuinely happy with, fleshed out enough to actually feed some of my insatiable need for Rogue One goodness. You really get to see how and why Jyn is disillusioned with both the Empire and the Rebellion, and wants to be left to herself. The later parts of the book in general finally seem to get at the Jyn I know, and her desperate feeling of being trapped that Rogue One plays into with all its imagery of caves and prisons (and glorious eventual release). I especially like the bit about her freeing the slaves, and how it shows her instinctive compassion and cleverness but also her deep, fearful apathy that makes her immediately leave them. I love her anger that both Galen and Saw seem to care more about their work than about her, and how true it seems to the movie, where she is so broken by discovering how much they do care for her. I ate up everything about her relationship with her mother, the way she admires that Lyra took action in contrast to how Galen seemed to give up, and how Lyra’s words of trust and hope keep nagging at her. Then there’s the little detail that Jyn wears her scarf to hide the kyber crystal necklace, which made me irrationally happy – now Jyn has a canon excuse to wear the awesome scarf! And on a meta level, the whole book is made better by a wonderful audiobook reader, Rebecca Soler. Thanks to her, I had to think that much less about how terrible the dialog is, since she does an admirable job putting life into the voices of the characters she was given.

I am glad I read this book. All those good ideas are going to keep me thinking about and revisiting Rogue One for a while now, searching out further depths. But I think I’m going to go reread the novelization instead of Rebel Rising when I’m looking for the depths, because this book just is not willing to do the difficult, risky storytelling that Jyn Erso cannot be herself without.

Originally posted on Goodreads.