Thursday, July 4, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: Kenobi

I've had the privilege of receiving advance reading copies of several upcoming Star Wars novels and permission to share my thoughts with readers. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting exclusive reviews on Poli-Sci Jedi. Feel free to share, but if you do so please cite Poli-Sci Jedi as the source.

This first review is about Star Wars: Kenobi, due to be released on August 27. I promise that at least one upcoming review will focus on a very important Star Wars politician. Enjoy!

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Ever wonder what would happen if George Lucas and Joss Whedon combined forces to make a Star Wars—Firefly crossover?

Apparently, John Jackson Miller (JJM) did because Star Wars: Kenobi is a bona fide Star Wars Western novel. Del Rey Publishing has been taking the Star Wars franchise into new genres in recent years, from horror (Red Harvest) to detective stories (Shadow Games). Kenobi is probably one of the better results of this effort. It certainly reads unlike any other Star Wars book in recent memory. So, does it live up to the hype? Will this transform our image of Obi-Wan Kenobi the way Plagueis transformed our image of Sidious? Find out below:

SPOILER WARNING: Because this book will not be released until August 27, I have tried to avoid spoilers. But basic plot points will be mentioned.


As I noted above, this is first and foremost a Star Wars Western. In fact, I’d say at times it’s almost more Western, less Star Wars.

The book starts off slow as it introduces us to life on a Tatooine frontier town, a small area called the Oasis. We meet a cast of misfits, lowlifes, and castaways as they struggle with the chores of everyday life – minding the store, scrounging up enough money to make ends meet, and, of course, warding off Tusken Raiders. The characters seem like they could have come straight out of a Western novel, except that they have blasters instead of pistols and moisture vaporators instead of cattle.

John Jackson Miller also took the effort to adjust his writing style to match the setting. Especially in the earlier chapters, we see turns of phrases that echo the Westerns. When Annileen Calwell, the saloonkeeper character, sees her son with her neighbor’s daughter, she thinks, “the boy had eyes for Orrin’s daughter…” Of course, Annileen’s nickname is “Annie,” another Western trope. Orrin Gault, Annileen’s neighbor, is the “big man” in town, organizing patrols against the Tuskens and being the center of attention.

I appreciate that this book is not for everybody. If you read Star Wars novels because you like giant space battles and lightsaber combat then Kenobi might not work for you. However, I personally loved the change of pace. By slowing down in the beginning and giving the setting a real Western vibe, JJM really brought Tatooine to life in a way I’d argue we haven’t seen since Star Wars: A New Hope. The characters are grim, pathetic, mundane, flawed – and all the more realistic for it. It’s easy to see these characters as real people in the Star Wars galaxy, often unaware of or unconcerned with broader political events.


Our protagonist, Obi-Wan Kenobi, only appears briefly in the prologue and then several chapters in. Even then, the story is mostly told through the point of view of the Oasis residents and a Tusken Raider. Kenobi himself is mostly seen through the eyes of others. Again, I think this was a brilliant choice on John Jackson Miller’s part. He allows the rest of the characters to live and breathe before throwing in the main star.

As we know, at this point in the timeline Kenobi is trying desperately to avoid the Empire and to watch over Luke. Yet, Kenobi isn’t just, or even primarily, about those efforts. Rather, Kenobi is about how Obi-Wan struggles copes with the loss of the Jedi community. We see Obi-Wan, a man who had many Jedi siblings and parents, grow – or regress – into Old Ben, an isolated hermit. Because JJM took the time to establish the Oasis as a real Tatooine frontier town, we come to see it as a real community, making it a great backdrop for Kenobi’s internal struggle when he comes back into the story.

Of course, as is his wont, trouble seems to follow Kenobi. Kenobi doesn’t seek to be hero, but his strangeness draws others to him. However, I was glad that for the most part JJM doesn’t rely on the tired tropes of Stormtrooper raids and Jabba’s goons. The crises the Kenobi faces are of a much smaller scale. Yet, they also dictate his relationship to the community ever so subtly. Can Ben participate in and learn from the members of Oasis? Will he become the town hero? Or is he doomed to being a hermit?

Many of the advertisements for the book hinted that Kenobi might get involved romantically with one of the natives. That’s definitely in the book and I think JJM hit this subplot out of the park. JJM handles the romance subtly and without relying on tropes. It never feels like it trivializes Kenobi’s character. Quite the contrary, everything we see is consistent with the character we see in A New Hope. I hesitate to say more for fear of spoiling it, except to say that I doubt the novel creates one of the more realistic unfulfilled romances in the Star Wars EU.

That said, I did think some of the scenes in which Kenobi tries to communicate with Qui-Gon Jinn’s Force Ghost were a bit too on the nose. What the rest of the book had in subtlety these scenes spelled out. We see a bit too much inside Kenobi’s head in my opinion. Fortunately, JJM is careful to keep the mystery around Qui-Gon’s Force Ghost; the relationship never deteriorates into a casual conversation (as many allege the scene with Ben’s Force Ghost in Return of the Jedi did), but rather stays on a mystical plane.


As mentioned above, one of the point of view characters is a Tusken Raider. These felt a bit flat to me. For much of the book, the Tuskens don’t feel like compelling characters, but rather more like plot devices. We hear many of the Tusken leader’s thoughts, but see little of their culture or beliefs. At times, they come across as generic warriors who are focused on conquests and raids. Nothing like the depth we got from Ralph McQuarrie and Kevin J. Anderson’s The Illustrated Star Wars Universe. In short, I still feel like I understand what made the Tuskens, as characters or as a race, tick. 

Fortunately, there is a payoff to the Tusken subplot. It also helps reveal something about Kenobi’s character. By the end, I did appreciate that the character grew and learned from the experience. Again, JJM does a pretty good job to not trivialize or stereotype the Tuskens. There’s nothing in this book that will make you view them as any less fearsome than when you first saw them in A New Hope. The growth that the character undergoes is entirely consistent with what would happen in a warrior tribe. So, at the least, the book certainly doesn't undermine the Tusken Raiders, but I just wish we’d gotten a bit more depth.


I enjoyed Kenobi, but not for the reasons I thought I would. I’d advise readers not to start this book thinking you’re going to learn every single detail and secret about Kenobi’s life on Tatooine. You won’t. Do pick it up if a) the idea of a Star Wars Western appeals to you, b) you enjoy strong character development, or c) you’ve always wondered what it felt like to live on Tatooine. Tatooine has always been one of my favorite planets and John Jackson Miller really makes you feel like you’re there.

In terms of the writing, JJM is a great. His prose is probably one of my favorites amongst all Star Wars authors. What I really enjoyed in Kenobi is again the subtlety. He’s willing to treat readers as intelligent and let them draw connections between the book and what happened in the films. We see incidents like Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken camp in Attack of the Clones obliquely mentioned, but JJM doesn’t his us over the head with them. He’s not like James Luceno, who litters his books with references to other EU material (although I did notice pretty conspicuous shout-outs to Zayne Carrick and Kerra Holt, two of Miller’s characters from the Star Wars comics). As such, I feel pretty confident that Kenobi is one of the more accessible Star Wars books. You really don’t need to know anything about Star Wars except what happens in the six feature films and possibly the Clone Wars.

I would definitely recommend having The Illustrated Star Wars Universe and the The Wildlife of Star Wars books as visual references so you can better imagine the landscapes and animals mentioned in the book.

Overall, easily 4.5 stars, possibly 4.75 except for some problems with the ending (which I'll discuss in depth once the book is released).

* I thank the publisher for sending me an advance reading copy and trusting to my reviews. However, the publisher did not communicate with me directly and most certainly did not attempt to influence my opinion of this book. This review reflects my opinion, for good or bad.

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