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Star Wars: The Fallen Star is The High Republic's Empire Strikes Back

Book review: Author Claudia Gray gives us this era's darkest story yet and the best Star Wars novel in years.

Star Wars: The Fallen Star cover
The Jedi are at their most vulnerable in Star Wars: The Fallen Star.
Penguin Random House

Since Star Wars: The High Republic kicked off in December 2020, novels like Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm and other stories introduced a bunch of heroes and villains in an era set more than 200 years before the Skywalker Saga. All of this was apparently leading up to Claudia Gray's incredible The Fallen Star, which could put many of their heads on the chopping block.

Gray's novel, out Tuesday, throws a chunk of The High Republic's cast into the Star Wars equivalent of a disaster movie as increasingly brazen pirate group the Nihil launch a sneaky, multipronged sabotage operation on Starlight Beacon. This space station is the Galactic Republic's base in the Outer Rim during its expansion into that region, so it presents the anarchistic Nihil with the perfect target.

Starlight has also been a constant throughout the early High Republic tales, a largely safe location for the good guys to hang out in when the going got tough. A direct attack on it represents the darkest moment we've seen in this era, much like The Empire Strikes Back was for the Original Trilogy.

The novel's first half is largely spent gathering the Jedi and other heroes on Starlight as the saboteurs go to work under their noses. Gray gets into the heads of characters we've gotten to know in previous High Republic stories from her and other authors, giving us emotional stakes before catastrophe strikes.

This presents us with countless references to the High Republic novels and comics of the last year, but Gray's breezy style makes them intriguing rather than alienating; an invitation to explore this era further rather than a demand to get caught up. 

The tension is dialed up once the saboteurs' mission is completed and Starlight's systems fail, largely trapping everyone on the station as it careens toward disaster. The 352-page novel's latter half moves at a blistering pace, and I could hardly tear myself away from it after this point. 

Beyond the mechanical sabotage, the Nihil also bring aboard creatures that warp the Jedi's connection to the Force, diminishing their ability to sense threats and disorienting them. At close range, this effect grows to the point of being fatal to Force users.

Star Wars: The Fallen Star alternative cover

The exclusive out-of-print cover hints at Starlight Beacon's fate. 

Penguin Random House

That makes these creatures a scary, mysterious presence on the station, and the moments when the Jedi search for them feel like classic sci-fi movie Alien – they're both hunters and hunted in these wonderfully tense scenes. Things get trippy when the creatures get in range of any Jedi, with Gray giving us the overwhelming feeling that those Jedi are doomed. It's a clever way to nullify their superpowers and present them with a threat beyond the usual dark side baddies.

The Fallen Star's main heroes are Stellan Gios, a Jedi superstar who's become the station's boss, and Elzar Mann, a cocky Jedi humbled by a brush with the dark side in The Rising Storm. Each of them has a pretty rough time in this novel, but their emotional journeys are fascinating and you'll find yourself rooting for both.  

It's not all Jedi, though; there are plenty of civilian pilots on the station, and Gray takes the time to develop them as well. Since they're unaffected by the Force creatures, they offer a practical contrast to the Jedi's spiritual problems – they just want to get their ships off the doomed station as quickly as possible.   

This adventure is punctuated by tragedy, with Gray cleverly (and cruelly) maximizing your attachment to characters before killing them off suddenly. But it's never too grim; the author hops between intense danger and humor – often by continuing an ongoing quirky joke about ship navigator Geode, who's a sentient but nearly expressionless rock. It makes the novel's characters feel like real people, so you'll care about them when they inevitably end up in peril.

We're used to Star Wars novels jumping around the galaxy, but this novel is primarily set on Starlight. It's a refreshing change and makes the story feel grounded, like the Star Wars equivalent of the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. Unfortunately, the station's size means we only follow a limited number of the people on board – one half of the location and its characters are largely unexplored, so we're left with little sense of what happened there. Maybe that's a tale for another novel or comics, but returning to this location after these events may feel redundant.

The Fallen Star is the most engrossing Star Wars novel in years, giving The High Republic its Empire Strikes Back moment and offering an incredible conclusion for the first of The High Republic's three phases, Gray uses the attachments we've made to this era's characters to devastating effect, leaving those who survive with an epic new status quo. Phase 2 will be set 150 years before this one, so it's unclear when this novel's plot threads will be picked up. 

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