The adventure into the High Republic continues, and with it comes something novel: an adventure centred entirely around kids!
If you go back, you can see that I generally don’t take to the Star Wars middle grade books. However, I also acknowledge that I’m not exactly the target audience for these books. But if this is any indication of where the MG books are headed going forward, I cannot wait. I absolutely loved it. Let’s take a closer look at why, and dive into A Test of Courage by Justina Ireland.
Vernestra (a 16 year old Jedi knight), Imri (a 14 year old padawan), Honesty (a 12 year old ambassador’s son) and Avon (an 11 year old senator’s daughter) are all on board a ship bound for the dedication ceremony of the Starlight Beacon station.
Then it explodes.
Not quite all at once though. The adults have just enough time to spare the kids from immediate death, allowing them to hop on a service shuttle and escape. The circumstances surrounding the explosion are suspicious, made even more so by the fact that the service shuttle has clearly been sabotaged. Through a combination of their skills, they wind up on an uninhabited moon too far out of the way for anyone to pass by accidentally, and plagued with acidic rain making long term survival difficult.
They are followed by the two Nihil responsible for the destruction of their ship, who have been tasked with hunting them down and finishing them off. In delightful fashion, the four of them must band together and each use their individual strengths to try and get a rescue signal out while trying not to get killed by the environment or their pursuers.
3 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)
1. The New Characters
As I mentioned in my summary, A Test of Courage centres around 4 kids: Vernestra, Imri, Honesty and Avon. Because the whole book is just about the four of them on one mission, and they are together for most of it, we get to know them all really well. When the cast is too large, there’s always a bit of an imbalance, but each of them was given equal time and weight.
Vernestra is a prodigy. She passed her Jedi trials and became a knight at 15 (for reference, Obi Wan is about 25 in The Phantom Menace and still a padawan). We see her struggling with responsibilities and roles that would still usually be left to older, more experienced Jedi, and their situation means she has to rise to the challenge of taking care of a bunch of children, who in a lot of ways are still her peers.
Imri, a padawan, is keen to move on and take the trials. He sees what Vernestra has accomplished and wants the same for himself. He is very attached to his Master, who dies in the explosion, and is overcome with grief and anger, which allows the Dark side to creep in and influence him. In this way, he reminds me a lot of Anakin Skywalker. But where the two differ is in two key areas: Imri is not confident in his skills. He had no confidence at all until his Master picked him to train. The other way they differ is that Imri is an empath (though he hasn’t officially been identified as such). He can feel the emotions of others around him with ease, and is so overwhelmed by the grief of one of their party members that it influences and fuels his own, and drives his actions.
Honesty is the other child experiencing crushing grief. His father was one of the adults killed in the explosion, and he has a lot of regrets about their relationship and about how he spoke to, and treated his father in their last conversation together. He has goals and dreams of his own, but isn’t allowed to pursue them in the way that is customary for his people. By the end he has to find a way to make his skill set work for the team, and learn to let go, Of all of them, I feel like he got the most ambiguous closure, but I feel like he’s going to play a big role in the next stories we get with these characters, if the epilogue is any indication.
And last – but certainly not least – we have Avon. She is the daughter of a Senator who has been raised for the most part by relatives, and then later by a series of droids. As a result, she has a highly logical, scientific way of looking at things but has a much harder time connecting with people on a human level. Despite this, she and Honesty form a friendship that I found to be really really sweet. She also has a difficult time processing unspoken motivations, particularly when it comes to her mother, spending most of her time thinking she is unloved until everyone else points out that everything her mother does, she does out of love for her daughter.
2. Smaller scale (but not smaller stakes)
Unlike Light of the Jedi, this book does not try to set up the galaxy-wide Great Disaster. Nor should it. For one, we already have a book covering that, and for another, if it shifted through all those perspectives, a younger reader might get very lost very quickly. Instead, we get a quick recap of events via the characters merely discussing them over dinner.
But just because this book is smaller in scale and focused only on the four main characters one one singular adventure in one location, does NOT mean that the stakes feel any lower. They’re certainly different stakes – their own lives are at risk, not the lives of people they’ve been tasked to save – but they’re no less important.
This was a positive both for this book – we got a lot of time to get to know the characters better – and for the High Republic books in general. It’s reassuring to see that not every book is going to try and tell the same grand widespread story, and that there is plenty of space to slow down and let the characters have room to grow and drive the story.
3. Jedi and Padawans from a new point of view
One thing I really really wanted out of the High Republic was a look at life among the Jedi. Their systems within the temple, the dynamics between a master and apprentice in a conventional non-war setting. Most importantly I wanted to see this from a padawan’s perspective, which up until now has been sorely lacking. But this book delivered.
Also, not to get too much off topic, but it also confirmed/developed a lot of things I liked to assume about the Jedi.
Imri’s grief over his Master’s death makes him spiral. And why wouldn’t it. As Honesty points out, Master Douglas loved and believed in Imri the way a parent is supposed to, so in a way Imri is mourning the loss of his father (*quick pause while I wallow in my Qui Gon and Obi Wan feels*). But added to that is the fact that I still don’t think the Jedi teach their padawans how to manage their emotions in a healthy way. Or, at least, they don’t do it early enough. Imri is completely left adrift and goes right for the Dark at his lowest point.
Then we have Vernestra. This is her first big test as the senior most Jedi, so most of her story is taken up with her becoming a leader and learning what that means. I’m curious about her potential. I’d love the chance to dive deeper into what she was like as a padawan, while also seeing how she continues to grow and develop.
The Jedi are far and away my favourite part of The High Republic so far, and this book is a big reason why.
4. The Nihil
What a strange thing for me to list as my “dislike” considering the Nihil are one of my favourite parts of the whole High Republic. But hear me out.
I already said in my Light of the Jedi review that the Nihil read, to me, like people who are having their space colonized by the Republic. Marchion Ro all but says as much. But this book puts a huge focus on the works of the Jedi, and the Republic, and their benevolence in creating the Starlight Beacon so far out in the Outer Rim. On the other hand, the Nihil are painted as violent and murderous – which they are – but are not given any motivation.
I understand this might be a feature of Middle Grade books. You really hammer in that one assumption, and then have it slowly deconstructed in subsequent books. There is a line in the book about how awful colonization is to the people that are already living somewhere. So I have no doubt this will be addressed down the line. I just wish we had a bit more of a hint of it here.
Random Thoughts and Lingering Questions
In their talk about the kinds of luxury starliners people can take across the galaxy, they mention “Chandrila Star Lines”, which if I’m not mistaken is the in-universe fleet that the new Star Wars hotel is supposed to be in. With that park-related tie-in, I’m also choosing to believe the “Galaxy Tours” line is supposed to be a reference to “Star Tours”
Glenna Kip is mentioned in this book. You might remember Glenna Kip as the artifact hunter from Spark of Resistance. Which is set 250 years after this. Which now begs the question – how old is Glenna Kip?? (Was it mentioned and I just missed it? Possible)
Vernestra’s lightsaber can turn into a whip. A WHIP. This is apparently Nightsister tech, which makes me wonder if down the line Vernestra is going to have her struggles with the Dark side the way Imri did.