Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'

(C) 2016 Del Rey Books/Random House and Lucasfilm Ltd.

On December 20, 2016, four days after the theatrical release of director Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Del Rey Books (an imprint of Random House) published the novelization by Alexander Freed (Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company)

Based on the story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, and the screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story chronicles a pivotal event in the mythos created by George Lucas: how the Rebel spies acquired the plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon - the Death Star. 

Set, of course, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away before the events in Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, Rogue One fleshes out the title crawl seen in the original 1977 movie:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.....

As in Knoll and Whitta's original story and the screenplay by Weitz and Gilroy, Freed's novel begins with a prologue set 13 years before Rogue One's main storyline. The Clone Wars are over. The Galactic Republic is now the Galactic Empire, and Emperor Sheev Palpatine rules most of the galaxy with an iron fist. To crush a growing insurrection led by Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, and other Rebel leaders, the Empire is building a huge weapon of mass destruction code named "Death Star."

The Death Star under construction. (Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.)

But the battle station is far from complete. Development of the Death Star's primary weapon is behind schedule because Galen Erso, the brilliant polymath scientist assigned to work on the kyber crystal for the super-laser, has left the project and fled for the agrarian world Lah'mu with his wife Lyra and their daughter Jyn.

Imperial Commander Orson Krennic, Director of the Empire's Advanced Weapons Research division and responsible for the security of the Death Star, finds Galen Erso on Lah'mu. A pacifist who realized (in Star Wars: Catalyst, a Rogue One Novel) that Krennic had tricked him into creating the Death Star, Erso tries to talk his way out of being recruited by his former friend:

The man in white halted less than three meters away. "You're a hard man to find, Galen," he said, not quite smiling. 

"That was the idea." Galen did not quite smile, either, though he could have. He could have let the farm and sky fade, let the troopers become shadows, and conjured an office on Coruscant around him, allowed himself to believe he was sparring again with his friend and colleague Orson Krennic. 

There was no point in nostalgia, however. Orson surely knew that as well as he.

Orson was tugging at his gloves as he studied the fields with an exaggerated crane of the neck. "But farming? A man of your talents?"

"It's a peaceful life," Galen returned.

"Lonely, I'd imagine."

With those words, Orson had declared his game and his stakes. It did not surprise Galen.

"Since Lyra died, yes."

The corner of Orson's mouth twitched, as if he were taken aback. "My sincerest condolences," he said, then gestured to the troopers and spoke more sternly. "Search the house. Shut down any machines - we'll want them examined by the technicians."

Four of the troopers obediently, rapidly, made for the doorway. Galen stepped aside to allow them past. 

"I don't imagine," Orson said, "you've laid any traps? Nothing that would harm a patriot doing his duty?" 


"No," Orson agreed. "I've always found your constancy refreshing. Galen Erso is an honest man, unaltered by stress or circumstance"

Troopers called to one another in the house behind Galen, and he stifled the impulse to turn. "Honest, perhaps. Still just a man."

After a bit of verbal sparring with Galen, including a skeptical question about Lyra's death, Krennic comes to the point of his visit:

Orson was replying carelessly, feigning the blunt honesty of a man too worn to lie. "The work has stalled, Galen. I need you to come back."

"I have the utmost confidence in you. In your people." 

"You don't,' Orson snapped. "You were never that humble."

"And you have too little faith in your own skills," Galen said easily. "I told you that when we were practically children. You could have done everything I did, but you chose to dabble, to shepherd people instead of nurture theory. I always respected your decision, but don't let it narrow your world."

All of it was true. All of it was also designed to hurt Orson, to pry away at his insecurities. Galen kept his tone measured, casual. Infuriatingly so, perhaps, but Orson's fury did not frighten him. He feared focus, efficiency, speed; not wild rage.

Orson only grimaced - a forced smile that didn't take. "You will come back." 

My Take:

Go beyond the film with a novelization featuring new scenes and expanded material.

As the shadows of the Empire loom ever larger across the galaxy, so do deeply troubling rumors. The Rebellion has learned of a sinister Imperial plot to bring entire worlds to their knees. Deep in Empire-dominated space, a machine of unimaginable destructive power is nearing completion. A weapon too terrifying to contemplate . . . and a threat that may be too great to overcome.

If the worlds at the Empire's mercy stand any chance, it lies with an unlikely band of allies: Jyn Erso, a resourceful young woman seeking vengeance; Cassian Andor, a war-weary rebel commander; Bodhi Rook, a defector from the Empire's military; Chirrut Îmwe, a blind holy man and his crack-shot companion, Baze Malbus; and K-2SO, a deadly Imperial droid turned against its former masters. In their hands rests the new hope that could turn the tide toward a crucial Rebellion victory—if only they can capture the plans to the Empire's new weapon.

But even as they race toward their dangerous goal, the specter of their ultimate enemy—a monstrous world unto itself—darkens the skies. Waiting to herald the Empire's brutal reign with a burst of annihilation worthy of its dreaded name: Death Star. - Dust jacket blurb, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Published late last year in hardcover and e-book format, Alexander Freed's novel takes the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story screenplay and expands it by adding additional scenes that were not in Gareth Edwards' 2016 film and going further into the characters' inner thoughts and emotions. 

In addition, Freed, who also writes comic books and was a game designer for BioWare, the video game developer behind Star Wars: The Old Republic, gives readers some "asides" that reveal some of the political and military stratagems of Imperial leaders such as Wilhuff Tarkin and Rebel Supreme Chancellor Mon Mothma. Some are excerpts from memoirs, while others are memos - often snarky - from an exasperated Tarkin to his rival for command of the Death Star, Orson Krennic:

To Director Krennic:

I find these communications distasteful, but since you evidently require written reminders of your duty I will oblige. It is incumbent upon everyone involved in the construction of this battle share a unified vision for the technologies involved and, in turn, our doctrine of use.

The time for painstaking compartmentalization of development cells is past. Lying to your engineering teams about our ultimate goal let you recruit energy researchers and materials experts more interested in revitalizing Coruscanti infrastructure than in building a weapon; for this, I give you credit. But we are building a weapon, one with a specific purpose that must not be compromised.

Quite simply, it is time to stop playing games.

Freed, in these memos and memoir excerpts, captures the essence of the characters' various personalities - Tarkin's supercilious arrogance, Krennic's eagerness for upward advancement and the Emperor's approval, Mothma's struggles to keep the Alliance together and verify the Death Star's existence - with uncanny accuracy. So vivid are these memos that readers may even hear the voices of Peter Cushing (Tarkin), Ben Mendelsohn (Krennic), and Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma) as they read Freed's prose on the printed (or electronic) page. 

I have not read any of Freed's previous work, save for an excerpt of Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company (which I now must add to my reading list of canonical Star Wars novels!), but I was impressed how well this young writer was able to adapt Gareth Edwards' successful stand-alone movie into a novel that is more interior piece than it is a purely visual action extravaganza. His style is clean, spare, and unpretentious, and Freed's eye for telling detail and dry humor are evident in the characters' dialogue and personal sketches. 

This book is a must-read for fans of the new movie and long-time readers of the Star Wars movie novelizations. 


Freed, Alexander, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Del Rey Books; New York, 2016