Review: Skywalker Rises a Little Higher in Star Wars Episode IX Audiobook

Review: Skywalker Rises a Little Higher in Star Wars Episode IX Audiobook

Now that the stardust has settled, the consensus is in: Star Wars Episode IX wasn’t a disaster, but it was kind of a letdown. The fan service of The Force Awakens felt thrilling after George Lucas’s iconoclastic prequels, but by The Rise of Skywalker it felt overdone. Rey and Kylo got a satisfying resolution to their story arc, and Poe got to run the Resistance, but Finn and especially Rose were hung out to dry. The return of Lando was almost perversely bland.

It was satisfying to see, as he put it with characteristic modesty, “the one true Emperor” return in the person of the inimitable Ian McDiarmid — but his retconned master plan made absolutely no sense, robbing the film of drama. Our heroes ended up chasing a MacGuffin of a “Sith wayfinder” across the galaxy, only to arrive at a climactic confrontation in which, yet again, an ultimate weapon has a crucial flaw for a few plucky pilots to exploit.

Working in the new model of Star Wars novelization, in which the book comes out months after the movie and is advertised as an “expanded edition” of the adventure, author Rae Carson had an opportunity to buttress the shaky story and add resonance for fans ready to flip 272 pages — or, in the case of the audiobook, to listen for nine-and-a-half hours.

The gold standard of Star Wars novelization is Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith, which froze the action at crucial moments to elaborate on the weight of the betrayals and deceptions driving that pivotal chapter of the saga. Jason Fry’s Last Jedi illustrated the potential of the “expanded edition” approach, with its haunting introduction imagining an alternate life for Luke as a moisture farmer like his uncle back on Tatooine.

Carson, author of the sprightly Solo prequel Most Wanted, doesn’t get too flowery with Rise of Skywalker. The audiobook, with franchise audiobook go-to Marc Thompson eerily matching the actors’ voices and line readings from the movie, underlines how directly the film was translated into prose for the novelization. In the era of video-on-demand and fan hyper-acuity, the slightest departure would surely be noticed. (The original Star Wars novel, by contrast, came out months before the movie and deviated from the film in several details.)

The novel adds some useful detail and backstory; perhaps most critically, an explanation for how the Emperor managed to have descendants that doesn’t involve anybody getting it on with this old smoothie between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

The more Episode IX questions Carson answers, though, the more she raises. When you watched the movie, for example, did you think to wonder how and why Kylo Ren retrieved the pieces of his smashed helmet? Did you ask how, exactly, the Resistance got the Tantive IV (Leia’s Blockade Runner from the Star Wars opening) back from the Empire? Did you wonder how the vexis (the underground worm creature healed by Rey) got hurt?

You probably did wonder how the Emperor built and staffed that vast fleet of Star Destroyers out in the unknown regions. Carson fills us in on that, and introduces us to the respective posses of Kylo Ren (“my Knights”) and Zorii Bliss. She also explores the relationship between Ren, back when he was Ben, and “Uncle Chewie.” Yeah, it’s a little weird, and Thompson’s Wookiee voice is the one he never quite nails. Really, it’s not entirely fair to ask any human narrator to simulate bear sounds blended with a menagerie of other animals.

Thompson’s performance is supplemented by whiz-bang audio effects and John Williams’s stirring score — though whatever licensing issues have prevented Star Wars audiobooks from drawing on post-prequel music are still in place, meaning that Rey and Ren have to settle for borrowed past themes when they make their appearances.

The Random House Audio editors do expert work, though, infusing the story with an unmistakably Star Wars atmosphere and dropping in choice cuts like the “celebrate the love” Ewok victory music overwritten by the Special Edition. It’s almost as satisfying as the moment when “Lapti Nek,” rudely shoved aside for the abysmal “Jedi Rocks,” came back for a celebration scene in Dooku: Jedi Lost.

One of the notable aspects of Rise of Skywalker was its subtle insertions of canonical characters from TV shows and other media. Those connections come out more clearly in Carson’s book, complete with explicit references to Inferno Squad and Alphabet Squadron.

Those looking for more hints of a potential romance between Poe and Finn, though, will be even more disappointed than they were with the movie. Poe reflects that he and Finn are now like brothers, and kinky connections are decidedly not the way it is in their family. “In his own strange way,” reflects Poe, “C-3PO was his brother too.”

If the book can’t make up for the movie’s missteps, it does make the most of the film’s more satisfying scenes. If you’ve spent as much of your life following the Star Wars saga as many of us have, it’s hard not to get a little misty-eyed when generations come together for the final battle.

(Even if you’re not a young adult, it’s worth considering the breezier junior novel instead — or in addition, if you really need every available drop of wisdom on the Knights of Ren and the Jedi texts. Author Michael Kogge keeps a tighter emotional focus on the generational relationships, and the death scene he writes for Leia is positively lyrical. Audiobook narrator Jessica Almasy has a pleasantly spunky mien, and deep-dive fans will appreciate references to the Rise of Skywalker run-up Spark of the Resistance.)

Carson’s not a prose stylist (“Poe’s relief was so huge, he almost choked on it”), but she has the sincerity required for this kind of assignment, and Thompson has never had such an unapologetically bleeding heart in his throat. “The familiarity,” Thompson groans at one unexpected reunion, “was like a lightsaber through his gut.” We all know the feeling.

Jay Gabler