Veteran Star Wars wordsmith James Luceno returns to the galaxy far, far away with the Rogue One prequel novel, Catalyst. A novel which does double duty leading both into Rogue One as well as Luceno’s previous entry in the new canon, Tarkin.
Catalyst focuses on the relationship between research scientist Galen Erso and Imperial Engineer turned Advanced Weapons director Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic. Supporting characters include Galen’s wife Lyra Erso who serves as an assistant to his research as well as an explorer and researcher in her own right, as well as their daughter Jyn and a myriad of scientific and fringe contacts. On the Imperial side Krennic’s primary interactions are with Moff Tarkin and Grand Vizier Mas Amedda. The surprise appearance of another Rogue One character, Saw Gerrera further adds connective tissue between this novel and the film as well as connecting back to the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series in which Saw made his debut.
Caught in the middle of the Clone Wars, Galen, Lyra and their research team have set up shop under the auspices of Zerpen Industries on the planet Vallt. Attempting to stay neutral in the war raging across the galaxy and it is only a matter of time until they are dragged into the conflict as it comes to Vallt and they are “rescued” by an old college buddy Orson Krennic. Alas for the Erso’s they slowly discover that their rescue was not for their benefit but for Krennic’s and his own agenda to climb the ranks of Imperial power.
Krennic’s ambition is as powerful and explosive as the energy potential he is trying to get Erso to coax out of the Kyber crystals. Krennic’s perceived rivalry with Moff Tarkin and his not unsubstantial skills and effectiveness drive a story that feels much like a Star Wars version of House of Cards. Unfortunately as brash and talented as he is, he is going after Tarkin while the Moff holds the higher ground in Imperial Court and you don’t have to be Anakin Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi to guess how that will turn out.
Catalyst gives us a fuller understanding of the construction of the Death Star from war-time plans to early development that gives obvious echoes to our real world nuclear development and arms race. It also gives us a different perspective on how Palpatine began to marshal the talents and skills of Republic citizens for the benefit of the state, particularly the universities, laying the ground work for how his Empire would function.
Perhaps most interestingly the novel explores the mysterious kyber crystals. Used by the Jedi primarily in their lightsabers, these crystals have unique properties making them seemingly living things. As a lightsaber junkie, the crystal lore that we got from Luceno here was particularly enjoyable. It also struck me as a rather obvious parallel the research that Erso was doing with the Kyber crystals and the research that Darth Plagueis was doing into the manipulation of midichlorians in the Legends novel, Darth Plagueis, also written by Luceno.
Luceno’s knowledge and research into the connective tissue that binds the Star Wars galaxy together is without parallel among the authors. Often this means his books are incredibly dense and referential, arguably they should be required to carry footnotes. So to this reader it is a mixed blessing that Luceno is writing in the new canon, because this curtails this habit of his somewhat significantly. Don’t get me wrong Luceno still name drops more places and events than your average Star Wars author but most of these references are either new or they are connections to pretty commonly consumed content such as The Clone Wars series. Given his style of writing Luceno can be a polarizing figure among fandom, but I enjoyed this book a great deal and despite some challenging vocabulary words it was probably Luceno’s most accessible novel of his recent Star Wars works.
That being said the novel isn’t without its critiques. We spend far too little time in Lyra Erso’s head. It isn’t until over halfway through the book that we get a substantial bit of character development for her. She is a very interesting character but severely underutilized in the novel. Given her likely fate in Rogue One this is a rather important missed opportunity.
I also could have used more of the Krennic and Tarkin rivalry, which was an interesting and important subplot to explain how we go from Krennic’s role here to his complete absence from A New Hope.
Finally I would say that too much time was devoted to the smuggler subplot which served some story purposes but largely distracted from the more interesting Galen/Lyra/Krennic and Krennic/Tarkin/Amedda relationships and stories.
Overall I really enjoyed Catalyst, but it feels like Luceno cut the wrong facets into his storytelling crystal that denied it the full awesome power it could have possessed.
Catalyst is a must read for fans to get a back story on characters and relationships that we will see in Rogue One, particularly Jyn with Saw and the Erso’s with Krennic. Catalyst is on sale now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats from the Del Rey imprint of Penguin/Random House.