Audiobook Review: Star Wars Harks Back to the High Republic

Audiobook Review: Star Wars Harks Back to the High Republic

“For over a thousand generations,” said Obi-Wan Kenobi, moments after Luke Skywalker ignited the first lightsaber seen in the Star Wars saga, “the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.”

If you’ve been doing your math, you’ve figured out that thus far in the Disney era, Star Wars storytelling has gone back precisely one generation. At this year’s outset, the earliest media in the canonical timeline stretched back only as far as the youth of Count Dooku, the hapless Sith who Luke’s dad replaced as the apprentice of Darth Sidious.

Now, Lucasfilm has opened a much-hyped multi-year publishing project set in the High Republic: a period hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga, when the galaxy contained so many Jedi, they flew in formation like schools of fish. The High Republic stories will be interlinked across books, including comics, in a range of different reading levels. Three installments have now been released, with many more to come in a total of three waves that will take years of actual time to hit print.

The centerpiece of the initial launch is Charles Soule’s Light of the Jedi, a novel that sets the scene and opens with a disaster that claims untold lives across multiple Outer Rim systems, as a ship breaks up in hyperspace and its fragments emerge in myriad inconvenient places. Getting hit by one ashtray moving at the speed of light is like getting hit by 600 million semis moving at freeway speed, so you see the problem.

Fortunately, Chancellor Lina Soh can call upon the Jedi, who converge upon the Hetzal system as the first fragments start to wreak havoc. Soule introduces a range of masters, knights, and padawans to execute daring rescues and impossible feats of Force strength before the action moves to a grand space battle and an attempted kidnapping.

With the Jedi enjoying a near-monopoly on Force sensitivity, there’s no obvious foe for them to fight — and the two things you can’t change about Star Wars are that there have to be stars and there have to be wars. The antagonists of this wave, then, take the form of a band of raiders calling themselves the Nihil. With their motley membership, their spiky ships, their drugs, and their fondness for going to battle to the sound of space punk, the Nihil are a contrast to the crisply disciplined Empire, but feel a little derivative of Mad Max’s road warriors.

The High Republic project opens a potentially rich vein of Star Wars storytelling, and the most fascinating aspect Soule explores involves the fact that the High Republic isn’t as technocratic as it would become in the Skywalker era. Space travel is still a little janky (the plots of both Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s middle-grade novel A Test of Courage turn on massive ship disasters), there are no standing armies, and droids are somewhat harder to come by. The droids also have a little less personality, a situation that may be tweaked by a Test of Courage character with a family connection to a certain rogue beloved by Skywalker-era comics readers.

Just as Medieval populations lived closer to God and trusted in their holy knights, so High Republic residents live closer to the Force and rely on Jedi to execute feats technology can’t manage. Clad in robes festooned with the seal of their temple (there are many, including a new one on the space beacon Soule’s title suggests), Jedi fly lightweight ships called Vectors, designed to efficiently leverage their Force skills.

Test of Courage finds four young Republic denizens — two Jedi and two civilians — in a desperate fight for survival after their luxury space liner is struck by a Nihil attack. Despite the action-packed premise it’s a moody tale, shaded in anxiety as the kids nurse their grief in a cave on a planet soaked with acid rain. Just as Jedi prodigy Vernestra Rwoh keeps her pluck up, though, audiobook narrator Keylor Leigh resolutely marches listeners through the teens’ trials. Like Light of the Jedi and the first issue of the High Republic comic, Test of Courage leads up to the Starlight Beacon dedication ceremony, sabers held aloft.

Reading duties for Light of the Jedi go to Star Wars stalwart Marc Thompson, who in the absence of other actors gets to invent the voices of characters who will presumably become the centers of the series. Marchion Ro, called the “Eye” of the Nihil for his stewardship of crucial off-the-grid hyperspace paths, ends up sounding distractingly like Werner Herzog in The Mandalorian, but Thompson has fun with characters like a pirate Gungan whose goofy growl evokes Bobcat Goldthwait.

With the Nihil’s ability to use hyperspace in a manner that eludes even the Jedi, they’re set to remain formidable adversaries as the High Republic marches forward. The larger battle, though, will be Soh’s fight to unite her potentially fractious caucus in the service of connecting the Outer Rim, keeping the hyperlanes safe, and making more cool stuff. (Excuse me, “great works.”) She likes to say that “we are all the Republic,” but she also fears the high can’t last.

Jay Gabler