Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller (Minor Spoilers)

Let's cut to the chase. Just go buy (pre-order) Kenobi now and thank me later.

Kenobi is not space opera, but it is Star Wars.  It is a story told on a much smaller scale that focuses on building characters, making and braking relationships.  Under the harsh and unforgiving twin suns of Tatooine, Miller tells the quintessential Obi-Wan Kenobi story.  

The Republic has fallen.Sith Lords rule the galaxy.Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi has lost everything . . . Everything but hope. Tatooine—a harsh desert world where farmers toil in the heat of two suns while trying to protect themselves and their loved ones from the marauding Tusken Raiders. A backwater planet on the edge of civilized space. And an unlikely place to find a Jedi Master in hiding, or an orphaned infant boy on whose tiny shoulders rests the future of a galaxy. Known to locals only as “Ben,” the bearded and robed offworlder is an enigmatic stranger who keeps to himself, shares nothing of his past, and goes to great pains to remain an outsider. But as tensions escalate between the farmers and a tribe of Sand People led by a ruthless war chief, Ben finds himself drawn into the fight, endangering the very mission that brought him to Tatooine. Ben—Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, hero of the Clone Wars, traitor to the Empire, and protector of the galaxy’s last hope—can no more turn his back on evil than he can reject his Jedi training. And when blood is unjustly spilled, innocent lives threatened, and a ruthless opponent unmasked, Ben has no choice but to call on the wisdom of the Jedi—and the formidable power of the Force—in his never-ending fight for justice.

I don't think it is a coincidence that two of the best novels in recent memory were also probably the two stories that were the longest in terms of development by the authors.  I put Kenobi on par with Darth Plagueis in terms of quality and what it adds to the grander Star Wars mythology.  While the two books are much different in tone and content, there is a quality and loving craftsmanship that shines through in both works. Plagueis was a book that was announced, cancelled and the subsequently brought back to life.  Kenobi is a book that originally started as a graphic novel story idea and was shelved and later developed in it's current form.

Kenobi also follows the recent trend in Star Wars publishing of genre hopping. This is very much a western told in the Star Wars universe.   The basic premise will be familiar to fans of the western genre. Mysterious loner drifts into town, trying to mind his own business.  Instinctual acts to protect a victim from an attack. The victim becomes a friend and the loner is put in a position that he has to protect this new friend against the threat. 

The story in Kenobi is told from a few point of views, we have Obi-Wan, a Tusken Raider warlord, a moisture farmer/militia leader, and a shopkeeper.  The story centers around a frontier community on Tatooine, the bright center of which is Danner's Claim.  The Claim is a one stop frontier shop, it features of mercantile, a saloon/restaurant, storage, offices and repair shops.

We meet Obi-Wan Kenobi early in his return to Tatooine at the beginning of his watchful self-exile.  The novel brilliantly balances the internal struggles that Obi-Wan faces as he tries to adjust to the new realities of his life with the external struggles that he faces in the novel.  

Fans of Superman will pick up on the very strong Clark Kent vibe that infuses the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi in this novel.  This fits nicely with the humor of Kenobi.  One of the reasons that Ob-Wan is one of my favorite Star Wars characters is his sense of humor.  A humor hinted at by Sir Alec Guinness in the original trilogy, given full form by Ewan McGregor in the prequel trilogy, and further refined by James Arnold Taylor in The Clone Wars animated series. 

Kenobi's humor stands in start contrast with the guilt and pain that the character of Obi-Wan is drowning. This humor provides an emotional grounding for the character and speaks to an underlying optimistic nature. 

One of the overriding themes in Kenobi is how relationships not only create bonds but create burdens.  The Jedi were bound to the Republic and thus had a duty to defend it in The Clone Wars, Obi-Wan was bound as padawan to his Master Qui-Gon and thus felt duty bound to fulfill Qui-Gon's dying wish that he train Anakin.  Obi-Wan was bound to Anakin as a Master and a friend and was thus duty bound to confront him on Mustafar and stop the evil that Anakin had become.  As a Jedi and as a friend of their parents, Obi-Wan was bound to Luke and Leia, choosing the burden of protecting the boy from the Emperor's clutches. From one simple relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, all of these events and relationships spring that shape the course of Obi-Wan's life.  

This theme of relationship created burdens is echoed in the experiences of the shopkeeper Annileen Calwell, the Tusken war leader, A'Yark, and the moisture farmer Orrin Gualt.  All of whom have relationships and duties that force them to make choices and take actions.  Sometimes these burdens become larger than the underlying relationship would justify.  This pushes our characters to their breaking points and we see their true characters revealed.

This brings me back to one of the other qualities that I love about the Obi-Wan character. Obi-Wan is a man of honor, he will always do his duty no matter the personal cost. At the same time he doesn't cut himself off from relationships and emotions but feels these choices. Life continuously takes it's pound after pound of flesh from Obi-Wan, yet he perseveres.  This makes the character at once both very human in his weaknesses and very super-human in his ability to overcome them. 

Miller crafts some truly enjoyable characters in this novel, the miserly and paranoid moisture farmer Wyle Ulbreck is an absolute riot.  Miller populates the Claim with a cast of characters that are unique and feel organically developed to the setting of the story.  Even some of these back ground characters that don't appear in the dramatis personae get character development.  

The beautify of the universe that George Lucas created is that it provides an immense canvas upon which other artists can craft stories. Star Wars has room for stories that range from the grand galactic space battles all the way down to the personal one-on-one relationship stories or those focused on the internal struggles of the individual. I cannot stress just how much I enjoyed this story and the loving craftsmanship that John Jackson Miller put into it. Every Star Wars novel shouldn't be written like Kenobi, but I am damn glad this one was. 

Editor's Note: An advance review copy of the novel was provided by the publisher for this review.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I was hesitant to read this at first because I intend to read this when I come back around to the Dark Times and I'm not a fan of spoilers on books I haven't read yet, but nothing was seriously spoiled here and it made me look forward to the book.