For a film as action-packed and war-movie-esque as Rogue One, it’s strange that the prequel novel would feel more like a prestige TV political thriller character study. Or maybe it makes perfect sense. Let’s take a look at Catalyst by James Luceno.
It’s hard to give a straightforward summary of the plot. Mostly because it feels like trying to give a plot summary for one season of a TV show. The basic through-line of the story is simply the construction of the Death Star (though they never actually call it that), but the story is presented with an episodic structure and frequent time jumps.
Really, the book is less about what is happening and more about who is making it happen. It sets up key relationships that we see play out in Rogue One, and how the construction of the Death Star, referred to here as Project Celestial Power.
Much like a television series, the storylines shift between Galen and Lyra Erso, Orson Krennic, smuggler Has Obitt, and eventually Governor Tarkin before all converging in the end.
3 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)
1. Orson Krennic vs. Galen Erso
What I like about these two as presented here is not only how they contrast each other, but how they are presented in relation to their film counterparts.
To be fair, Galen Erso is not in Rogue One much, though he is mentioned a fair bit. When we do see him, he is broken down, tired, and 100% over it. Galen Erso in Catalyst? Unrecognizable. He’s an academic who prefers to take a 100% objective view to his research, trying and failing to stay apolitical. He preaches neutrality and “both-sides” it so hard, he doesn’t even notice right away when he falls headfirst into working for the Empire. He’s also got a bit of a nutty professor vibe that I find very endearing. He believes so much in the work he does, and knows it to be superior to existing systems that he doesn’t know how to play office politics and doesn’t know when to stop talking.
By contrast, Orson Krennic is exactly the man he appears to be in Rogue One. He is ambitious, proud, and doesn’t care who knows it. He will scheme his way to the top of the Imperial ladder, stepping on anyone more capable to get there. He recruits Galen into Project Celestial Power knowing that Galen can make the project a success. He doesn’t seem to care about the implications of the projects success as it pertains to the Empire’s desire for control. Rather, his interest lies in how that success will reflect on him and his standing within the regime. Tarkin sees this for what it is and is determined to knock him down a peg or two (which carries over into the film as well).
Most characters initially presented as straight-up villains are given a humanizing element, either in ancillary materials or in the films themselves. But not Krennic. The man is an ambitious asshole, and I kind of love that they just leave it at that.
2. Lyra and The Force
This novel is remarkably Jedi-free considering how much of the plot revolves around Kyber Crystals. There are offhand mentions of the Jedi, but from the point of view of the Empire. They are either aggressors, or traitors, or covetous and selfish.
The only person who does not see it that way is Lyra Erso. Lyra takes an interesting view of the Force for a non-Jedi and I actually found myself wondering if she’s Force-sensitive on some level and doesn’t realize it. She encourages Has Obitt to “feel” the Force in nature and natural environments. She herself is invigorated by environments where the Force flows strongly. She even used to wander the gardens of the Jedi Temple before wartime closed it to the public. She embraces the philosophy of the Jedi though she isn’t one herself, and finds balance and peace in the Force through nature. As far as I remember, we don’t generally see people so removed from the Jedi order appreciating it in this way – they are either ignorant of it all together or don’t believe in it.
3. The Language
There are moments in the book where the author makes certain subtle language choices that I absolutely love.
He consistently uses the terms “standard months”, “standard years”, etc. to denote a passage of time, which absolutely makes sense. Of course each planet has its own definition of a week, month, year, etc, and of course the system of government (be it Republic or Empire) would have standardized a way to mark time. Honestly, trying to think of the implications of each planet in each system marking time differently gives me a headache so I’m glad I don’t have to do it here.
At the conclusion of chapter 12, the Clone Wars end. The final words of the chapter are “the war […] was just as suddenly over.”. On the very next page, the author immediately makes reference to an Imperial Star Destroyer. The change in government was likely very jarring for the citizens of the Republic, and it is no less jarring to the reader. We are pulled into the Empire right away, like it or not. It’s a subtle moment, but lands like a sucker punch.
Finally, while Jyn is often mentioned, and speaks occasionally, the narration is never from her point of view. Never, that is, until the final page and a half. As the Ersos flee Coruscant and make the move to Lah’mu, where we will later meet them again in Rogue One, the point of view becomes Jyn’s. We as readers are slowly being transitioned out of Galen and Krennic’s points of view, and phasing into Jyn’s in order to move into Rebel Rising, and later Rogue One.
4. Technical Specifications
This is not so much an issue with the book as it’s just my personal preference. I loved the political thriller aspects of the novel, and I would get really into it until it all came to a grinding halt when discussing the technical aspects of the lasers, or the ships, or some other detail to do with the construction of the Death Star. I understand the necessity, but that doesn’t mean I find it interesting.
Each of the project code names that Jyn reads out in Rogue One before landing on “Stardust” are all related to some aspect of the Death Star construction.
I honestly couldn’t remember how Has Obitt paid off until I saw he is the one who recruited Saw Gererra to help the Ersos escape Coruscant.
I love in all these pre-Empire books how everyone always blames Dooku for things we know are Palpatine’s fault. Like Krennic confidently telling Galen that it is because of Dooku’s former Jedi status that he is able to predict what the Republic’s next move will be, when it’s really Palpatine playing both sides. Not that there’s any way they could know.
The Kyber Crystals used in Galen’s research were all removed from Jedi lightsabers, which I find chilling and deeply unsettling.