STAR WARS Bloodline – Claudia Gray’s Shadows of the Empire

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Up until recently only two new canon STAR WARS novels were books that I thought both captured what this thing of ours is and just added something potentially valuable to the mythos or how we understood it. Also, and this is important, were cool. The rest, of which I have read all off (excluding those aimed specifically at kids), were in various degrees problematic.

They were also both surprises.

One, Twilight: Battlefront was based on a video game, which historically thus far has been the bane of many a novel and film. It was excellent, had a marquee sublimely atmospheric Vader moment, depicted better than any of the numerous scenes in Lords of the Sith (a fine enough novel), and offered us the vantage point of the rebellion outside of the household names. The other, Lost Stars, was from an author I was not familiar with and was a YA novel. It not only captured that aforementioned unique STAR WARS essence, but carried it on, and, beyond a few scant interludes, the only post-Return of the Jedi new-canon novel worth reading thus far.

Until now.

Gray’s trick with Bloodline is a bit different and probably more fraught. Lost Stars was a a surprise, much like past days of reading the old expanded universe and the joy of finding that one gem in eight novels you’d read, it was extra in the way unexpected gifts can be. Everyone now sees Bloodline coming. First, we live in a post-Force Awakens world which offered as many questions as answers, and if that wasn’t enough, film-centric sites (which dwarf publishing related sites) are all now reporting that Episode 8 director Rian Johnson has reportedly had direct input into Bloodline. All of these new novels are canon, but this rather timely news drop the week leading up to the publication gives Bloodline even more momentum.

I’m actually surprised the embargo has held and in doing so it has created an extra level of mystery and anticipation. Before I get into this book, I want to put it on front street, while there are scenes within that make real what I think were several connect the dot issues that make the universe status quo of The Force Awakens more seamless, nothing incredible was revealed here, though there are revelations and introductions that may promise such in the future in new forms. Which is now. We’re at now, now.

Gray probably lets us cross some things off of our list, but doesn’t add a tremendous amount that I think simple common sense would tell us, but her gift I think, like with Lost Stars, is that thus far in Claudia Gray Star Wars novels, we get to feel it. We get to live it. And it feels right.

Bloodline is a solid precursor to episode 7, though not a complete one, and is very much like a novel James Luceno wrote, the excellent and no longer in-canon novel Labyrinth of Evil, that led to the occurrences of Revenge of the Sith, and vastly superior to what I feel like is his more popular Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader — which I think gets an automatic and not wholly earned uptick due to specific subject matter alone, something that I think happened a bit with Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith as well. I very much like that book but feel I don’t like what others do about it.

In turn, and back to Gray’s Bloodline, while Gray is playing with an enviable position in the timeline, she earns this story, and it is an important one, giving us a Princess Leia joint that doesn’t feel like a token novel they can throw into a large line because they have so many others. This is what happens before The Force Awakens, and we are gonna experience it through a Leia story.

He(i)r to the Empire

While I always thought Leia’s slower or even non-existent path to become a Jedi through various canon in her own right was associated with what was not even a struggle but a total rejection of her birth father, his legacy, and power, I never really thought much of her as what she is, the daughter and heir of the Darth Vader even as it is a central element that I was confronted with in Zahn’s flawless post-trilogy stories, where the Noghri gave sanction to Leia’ authority, or at the very least put up with her and let her put her feet on the couch, because she was the daughter of Vader.

Gray brings us the story of the other sibling coming to grips with her heritage, her secret, while seeing it played out. It’s the biggest reality tv spoiler imaginable on a galactic scale. It’s a powerful idea to deal with, literally the biggest secret in the galaxy. We witnessed Luke go through it in film, his own heroic journey, but there were others.

There is notable difference too.

We never saw Leia go to war against her father. She found out about her father at Endor. The revelation that it was her father who was the right-hand of evil, the symbolic representation of everything she was fighting against, was party buzz kill. More than ideology, however, it was personal — this is the man who tortured her and let her watch her planet be destroyed. She was the other Yoda spoke of, but Luke was the one who confronted his father and made peace with a man his sister has spent her adult life fighting, but never her father. She didn’t confront him at Cloud City before, her destiny was different. She was trying to defeat him, her brother rescued him. Now, she’s the daughter of Darth Vader in a universe trying to recover from that regime.

Except when it’s not.

I want to tell people to stop reading now if you plan on reading the book and care about spoilers. While I’m not going to bullet point spoilers here, I’m also not holding anything back if I need to mention to get any observation across, so consider yourself warned. I’d extend the spoiler warning to people who may not want to eliminate theories that could be revealed in episode 8.

There’s some Imperial groupies around. And there would be. To this day we in our world have collectors of memorabilia from despicable wars and conflicts, and to take it to the next level, in every one of our neighborhoods, probably dwells some neo-nazi idiot or some holocaust denier, sitting around dreaming of finding apt pupil. You can’t drive down the road and not see some hick wearing a cowboy hat with the star and bars on his bumper. And look, one thing about the Empire, unlike hicks, was that they looked pretty rad.

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This make sense, typically a complete culling does not occur in modern revolution, more or less, a new majority is empowered and the old, powerful, and shrewd blend in and retain what they can. Our own congress is full of people like that. We see this all the time, and in Star Wars enough time had passed since Endor where some of the worst parts of Empire are somewhat romanticized. They had style, they had power, and perhaps if removing all of the most grotesque policies of the Empire, there was a kernel of truth that I can get behind regarding having a strong leadership that doesn’t talk about decisions to not make any, where procedure and philosophy take the place of actual implementation and action. I think we saw the fruit of that both in The Force Awakens and the beginning of it, if you were able to suffer through to get to it, in Wendig’s Aftermath. We very much have a situation where both sides of the political spectrum understand something is broken, and they just have two different ideas on how to fix it and move forward.

I know what you are thinking, this is kind of obvious and could corner us into a black and white conflict and book, but Gray sidesteps that by giving us degrees of both parties, and letting us see the nobility in factions we may not approve. In the Centrist party, Gray gives us two new characters, in contrast of each other, and to Leia herself. Both are characters we hope to see more of, one is of noble birth and in her own way is loyal to that, a title and position Leia herself never had time for — though others would always recall given her action. Leia’s nobility is one given to her but also one she exudes even while denying it.

Lady Carise Sindian is someone who wants. She wants and is proud of what she has and hasn’t earned, and she wants to make a name for herself. Someone like Leia reacted because rebellion had to be done, it was a cause. She happened to be successful and that’s why she has some for of fame, notoriety, and respect, but in a perfect world Leia and the rebellion would never have had cause. Sindian creates causes to elevate herself, it’s almost merely a game, Renly’s knights of summer who have not forgotten war, they indeed never knew it — they just like the procession.

There is a threat though. We see veterans, we see coordination, and we know there are funds. The First Order is a real thing and we are even named drop a significant officer we see in The Force Awakens. Bloodline takes place just several years before The Force Awakens so we know this is an organization that has means and is very prepared to make a movie.

The other centerist featured in the book… let’s wait on that for a minute, and let me get to what people who are fans of The Force Awakens might want to know in terms of big picture that can be gleaned from the book. Spoilers abound.

It is highly unlikely that Leia is the mother of Rey. She mentions Ben several times in this book, and that he was with Luke still. So right now we have no betrayal and no Luke in exile. Remember, this book occurs only a few years before the film, so Luke’s exile was not a long one, and apparently A LOT happens between the end of Bloodline and The Force Awakens. She never mentions another child, while often reflecting on Ben and her husband, whom she is still with, though they kind of do their own thing. So between the end of this book and and the film, we still have Kylo’s betrayal of a new Jedi Order and the appearance of Snoke, whom we are given the impression in the film that Leia and Han know or knew of before their son’s turn. She also never mentions that Luke and Ben are with someone else, the way you might think she would if her brother had a child. While this doesn’t mean one wasn’t present, it could mean she is unaware that her brother has a child, if one doesn’t want to let go of the Rey is Luke’s daughter theory, which feels like the most prevalent one. Watching The Force Awakens over and over, the scenes of both her and Han regarding and interacting Rey throughout the film share this odd combination of being frustrating but still alluring, charming in the way perhaps only Harrison Ford as Han Solo can be.

He likes her. He knows her.

It should speak volumes that when we met Han Solo in 1977 that he only is rolling with Chewie. Nearly 40 years later, the same. Yet, he offers Rey a place on the Falcon, on his home, that he just reclaimed. No such person is mentioned here, just a few years before the film.

Given the short amount of time, however, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Snoke has to be in play during the time of Bloodline, given his control of The First Order and how massive that operation seems to be. While the First Order’s face amongst the Republic’s government seems young here, I suspect it’s a certainty that they have massive resources in the unknown regions, where we know Imperials, led by a fleet admiral, fled to in Aftermath. While there are what I view as stereotypical Imperial old guard, I think there’s a reason why we seem to see the young specifically targeted in the senate to join cause with them.

Which brings us to Ransolm Casterfo, the second of the young Centerists I mentioned before and winner of the newest best Star Wars name. You are going to like him because among other things he represents something that’s often lacking in novels, especially ones associated with massive multimedia properties that have mandates other than to tell a creator’s story. He seems to be working with a fluid internal logic. While there might seem to be some clunk in the telling, I think what in fact happens is Gray creates a character first via the perception of him by Leia, and then offers us who he really is as Leia learns. While the idea of a grey character is just as stereotypical and mundane as a black or white one, we should always laud characters who seem to make choices that make sense given what they are presented with. The characters is being promoted in publicity literature as the total opposite of Leia politically, but I don’t think that’s true. They are very much the same, suffered when they were younger, and are trying to get to the same place. Because Ransolm is gifted with this power of thought and choices, he’s a character that I’d like to think we haven’t seen the last of even though his path seems somewhat complicated when we leave him. In the end even Leia tells him that she think he would make the right choice, when the ultimate decision was at hand. I would not call him an incredibly deep character, it’s just refreshing that Gray makes me feel like his choices direct the plot, not the other way around, when that certainly is the case. These are fully formed character interacting with the one we are familiar with, and Gray uses our trust in Leia to both guide and hide from us.

One of weaknesses of The Force Awakens was that I think the political climate was not really addressed in a satisfying manner. We understood why Alderaan’s destruction meant something — it was Leia’s home. Further, I think we get to really get into Leia in this novel and truly understand what kind of moment that would be for anyone. I think it’s telling that a generation later, Leia is still working, not settled with her husband, kid, and brother on some beautiful new homeworld living off of that galactic hero pension — she has nothing somewhere that someone like her daddy can come and just take away from her. Her son is with the most powerful guy she knows in the Galaxy. Her husband is away.

Bloodline sets up the galaxy status-quo nicely, in that Leia’s Resistance is a group operating outside of the Republic against a First Order that actually seceded from the Republic. This is the fruit of Mon Mothma’s ridiculously naive policies we see birthed in Aftermath, which makes me extra mad now because of how amazingly chill-inducing Mon Mothma’s appearance was recently in the Rogue One trailer.

That’s the macro take away, but the micro, which because this is Star Wars might be the macro because it’s Skywalker business, is finding ou the effect on Ben finding out Darth Vader is his grandfather might have on him. From the film, we can see maybe not the best way since he’s since procured his helmet and talks to it. Yet, even with that knowledge we have the thought is important here because, again, it is through the prism of Leia’s own thoughts. The shadow of her birth father has weighed heavily on her. I know some may rebuff the idea that she may have been in denial in the extreme sense, but as I mentioned before, she does seem to have made the choice of not being a superhero ala her brother, and even more, the idea that she doesn’t seem to really interact with the idea of what she is until her secret is revealed. She’s a princess, so lineage is still a thing, something we are reminded of through the character of the aforementioned Lady Sindian, and she’s the daughter of Darth Vader as she is her party’s (the Populists) nominee for a new Chancellor type of role.

Forget the personal aspect, it’s like Hitler’s kid secretly running for President of Israel. It’s so understandably inflammatory, that even while we are always on Leia’s side, we still understand how that may be problematic to people. We understand how that’s a problem, and if you don’t agree, read up on the stipulations we put on the scions of Hitler in the U.S.

You may be getting worried right now.

Sounds like some of that political heavy storyline that may have bored you in the prequels. Gray gives us action as well, introducing two other characters who kind of represent Leia’s continuing and growing aspect as a leader. She is a general in Force Awakens, and what you come away from Bloodline with is that she is who and what she has to be to make things right. She later will see this in Ransolm, and it helps her deal with who she is, most fundamentally: the daughter of Anakin Skywalker.

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Though perhaps not a superhero like her brother, Leia is every bit a hero. Gray reminds us. She had no darkside cave or duel in the clouds, her life has been what she is measured by. Even while hidden away, and ignorant of why, she chose to fight, without being handed a legacy or lightsaber. She faced Vader, and mocked him for what he was, not who she didn’t know. She rebelled.

And for that, to me, she is royalty.