The HoloFiles

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: The Living Force

By George & Josh Bate

The Living Force review

The High Republic publishing initiative finally allowed for some insight into the events prior to the prequel trilogy. However, High Republic books and comics so far have been set over 200-300 years before the prequel trilogy. With the upcoming Star Wars series The Acolyte set 100 years before The Phantom Menace, Star Wars canon is pulling ever closer to filling in all of the pieces leading up to the prequels. The Living Force, a new adult novel by Star Wars veteran John Jackson Miller, shines a spotlight on an era seldom seen in canon as he crafts a story centered around the Jedi Council just one year before the events of The Phantom Menace.

The Living Force takes place in an era in which the unprecedented time of peace and prosperity ushered in by the Jedi Order is coming to an end. Long gone are the Renaissance-esque days of the High Republic era as the Republic is spread thin and corruption is rampant. Eventually, this leads to a Senate recommendation to close a Jedi Outpost on the planet Kwenn. A once troubled world, Kwenn became a symbol of the Jedi’s light in the galaxy, but has fallen out of favor with corporations departing the world, pirates occupying neighboring planets, and the Jedi no longer visiting the once-frequented planet. Shocked by the recommendation to close such a meaningful Jedi Outpost and spurred on by the rebellious words of Qui-Gon Jinn, all 12 members of the Jedi Council journey to Kwenn to assess the state of the planet and hold a celebration honoring the Outpost. All is not well, however, as the Jedi soon find themselves in the middle of a war among pirate gangs with the ruthless Zilastra determined to use the Jedi’s arrival as an opportunity to enact revenge.

Perhaps the most unique feature of The Living Force is its almost forensic examination of and focus on the Jedi Council. Novels that adopt an ensemble approach with an array of characters to follow aren’t uncommon. One can simply look, for instance, at any of The High Republic adult novels over the past three years and see how well an ensemble piece can unfold in literary form. But The Living Force is different in that the ensemble here are the 12 members of the Jedi Council. First seen in canon in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council consists of the most senior and well-respected Jedi Masters and has always been kept somewhat at arm’s length from Star Wars fans. For instance, the Council features integrally in the three prequel trilogy films, but the films’ narratives are largely centered around Jedi who are not on the Council (i.e., Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin Skywalker). With The Living Force, Miller allows a fascinating peek behind the curtain of the often elusive body of elite Jedi.

With its focus on this ensemble, The Living Force doesn’t really have a single main character. Each member of the Council is given a distinct arc and place in this story. Even more strikingly though is the personality and character development Miller creates for the Jedi Council members. Take Yarael Poof for instance. The long-necked Quermian Jedi appeared as one of the elusive members of the Jedi Council in The Phantom Menace, but no story has really honed in on what this character is like. The narrative of The Living Force, however, cycles through members of the Jedi Council and gives newfound attention to members seldom given the spotlight, such as Yarael Poof. Who was once just a funny looking Jedi in the background of the films is elevated to a fleshed out, endearing character by Miller. In the novel, Poof is a seasoned Jedi as his species lives much longer than humans. Poof is described as a Jedi who bores easily, who likes to pretend he has a persecution complex and who is unafraid to trade sarcastic remarks with other Jedi like Ki-Adi Mundi. 

In dedicating time and effort to develop each of the members of the Jedi Council, Miller does what authors of the best Star Wars novels do, which is alter the way in which the films are viewed. In the case of The Living Force, subsequent viewings of the prequel trilogy feel decidedly different. The likes of Ki-Adi Mundi, Eeth Koth, and (admittedly, our new favorite) Yarael Poof, are more than just stock characters in service of a story – there’s a real background to them. 

While The Living Force is best characterized as an ensemble piece, if one were to select a lead character, it’s probably Depa Billaba. Unlike the rest of the Jedi Council, who have found themselves largely restricted to staying on Coruscant and away from conflicts in the galaxy, Depa Billaba is introduced while right in the middle of an undercover operation. Following the death of a dear colleague, Billaba has gone undercover with the Riftwalkers, a pirate gang whose leader has a particular vendetta against the Jedi (we’ll get to her in a moment). As a well-intentioned and kind-hearted Jedi, Billaba grows close to a young girl in the Riftwalkers named Kylah, who she identifies an innocence and light in. Miller spends great attention on Billaba, who plays an integral part in the developing story, especially as the novel crosses its halfway point and everything begins to converge on Kwenn. Hopefully, Miller’s attention to a lesser-known Jedi like Billaba influences other Star Wars authors to hone in on specific Jedi, elevating background characters from the films to characters fans can really invest in.

With a focus on Billaba and the other members of the Jedi Council, Miller tells a story that is very much of the era in which it is set in. A few Star Wars novels take a more timeless approach, with stories general enough that they could fit into various time points in canon. That’s not the case with The Living Force. Miller’s novel is heavily grounded within the era leading up to the prequels and, as such, adds depth and detail to this point in the timeline. The Republic, while well-intentioned, is now too large to effectively govern all of the planets in their domain. The Jedi, meanwhile, are gradually slipping away from who they intended to be, as they have largely become agents of the Republic rather than broader guardians of the peace. It’s interesting to see the cracks in the Jedi Order and the Republic begin to show, especially as these cracks are eventually manipulated by Palpatine to become the Emperor. Qui-Gon’s recognition of how far the Jedi have fallen from their ideal selves is essentially what sparks the Jedi Council into going on its mission to Kwenn. With Qui-Gon recognizing the Jedi aren’t what they should be, and corruption rife within the Republic, Miller sets the stage nicely for the events of the prequel trilogy as he perfectly captures a ‘calm before the storm’ tone.

Opposing the Jedi Council are Zilastra and her pirate gang of Riftwalkers. For the first half of The Living Force, Zilastra is a fairly conventional character. She’s threatening and intelligent, but not unlike antagonists we’ve seen in this franchise on a number of occasions. This changes, however, around the novel’s halfway mark when Zilastra executes a master-plan and more about her background is revealed. Zilastra’s vendetta toward the Jedi centers around an oft-overlooked aspect of the Jedi Order, making her a compelling and uncomfortably understandable villain. 

The narrative takes the Jedi Council to the planet Kwenn, which they have decided to honor with a bicentennial celebration of the planet’s Jedi Outpost. It takes some time for the different plot threads to eventually converge on Kwenn, but, when they do, Miller achieves something we love in novels and films, which is establishing a sense of geography. Included within every copy of The Living Force is a black-and-white map of Kwenn, and those who purchase the special edition from Barnes & Noble will be treated to a more detailed and colored version of the map. Using this map, the reader can establish a sense of geography and context for the unfolding story, envisioning where certain events are happening relative to others. It’s something we love about media, the ability to capture a sense of geography, as it makes the story more immersive.

Minor flaws minimally detract from what is an extremely engaging Star Wars novel. Unlike recent Star Wars novels like The High Republic: The Eye of Darkness or The High Republic: Cataclysm, there isn’t really an initial hook or instigating event in The Living Force. The novel kicks off with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stopping several thugs by completing a fairly standard robbery, a not entirely compelling start to the novel. As Obi-Wan would say, however, “Patience,” as The Living Force takes some time to find its footing, especially when balancing so many characters. When the story hones in on Kwenn and the threat to the Jedi Council becomes more apparent, The Living Force transitions from a fun and somewhat disjointed Star Wars story to a captivating novel you won’t want to put down.

If you’re like us, then one of your favorite things about Star Wars is the interconnectivity of its stories and characters. Easter eggs and hidden details are always so much fun to pick up on, and Miller doesn’t shy away from his fair share of references. Some of our favorites include mentions of Maz Kanata and Avar Kriss, although a hilariously ominous joke foreshadowing Palpatine’s eventual rise to power takes the crown as a particularly clever and funny wink to the reader. 

The Living Force is John Jackson Miller’s first Star Wars novel in 10 years after penning the acclaimed, now Legends book Kenobi and the very first canon novel A New Dawn. Miller’s contributions to Star Wars lore over the decades are numerous, with the author perhaps best known for his work on the Knights of the Old Republic and Knight Errant comics. With The Living Force, Miller resoundingly announces his return to Star Wars. Miller has such an intuitive style of writing when it comes to crafting Star Wars characters and stories, making his latest novel one that lives and breathes like a cinematic entry for the franchise. Miller’s attention to minute character details, while never getting bogged down in unnecessary environmental descriptions or heavy exposition, is a commendable balance the author carefully strikes and makes us eager to see what the author has in store if given the opportunity to write in a galaxy far, far away again.

VERDICT

Taking place just one year before Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: The Living Force explores a period in canon that seldom receives the spotlight. Following in the footsteps of the various High Republic novels of recent years, author John Jackson Miller creates an ensemble piece with various characters to follow, as opposed to a single lead as he did in the Legends novel Kenobi. The ensemble of choice here is the Jedi Council, with Miller spending ample time to develop each and every one of the 12 Jedi Masters. All of the members of the Jedi Council are given their own unique personality and character arc in the novel, which make for a deepened appreciation of these characters in the prequel trilogy. Although the novel takes some time to find its footing and lacks an instigating incident to really hook the reader, The Living Force excels when its various plot threads and characters converge on the planet Kwenn, which beautifully comes alive with the neat map included with each copy of the book. Novel in its intricate attention to the Jedi Council and setting which leads up to the prequel trilogy, The Living Force shines a spotlight on the growing cracks in the Republic and the Jedi Order with a narrative that will engage and captivate most Star Wars fans.

The Living Force review

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