– Spoiler Review –
Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, written by James Luceno, is an important prequel to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as it charts the earliest days of the Death Star, how important the parents of Jyn, Galen and Lyra Erso, are to the project, and just how Orson Krennic fits among what we already know regarding the superweapon. While it might lack a lot of action, its true strength distracts from that omission: the fully-realized, well-written, and engaging characters and their interpersonal relationships. The tale of Catalyst feels complete, even though the ending is obvious from lightyears away, but as the saying goes, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” and that is truly what makes this novel such a great read, prequel status to Rogue One notwithstanding.
Starting just prior to the outbreak of the Clone Wars (Attack of the Clones) and ending only a few years after they end (Revenge of the Sith), Catalyst follows how the brilliant crystallologist Galen Erso, his equally resourceful wife Lyra Erso, and the ambitious Orson Krennic are involved with the Death Star project’s most important component: the superlaser itself. Removed from the war, Galen carries out research to synthesize kyber crystals (what Jedi use to power their lightsabers) so he can create cheap, renewable energy for planets throughout the galaxy while Lyra is the glue that holds his brilliant but flawed mind together. Orson Krennic is part of the design team of the Death Star, initially as a member of the Republic and later the Empire, and he sees his ticket to running the Death Star is being the one who finds the designer that’ll put the “weapon” in superweapon, which he believes is Galen and his work with the kybers. What follows is years of pushing and pulling, as Krennic shuffles pawns around the board to secure Galen’s loyalty and cooperation on building the weapon, which he has to delicately tackle due to Galen’s pacifism, principles, and Lyra’s spiritual yin to Galen’s technological yang plus her ever watchful eye on those who would exploit him.
That push and pull of Galen’s loyalties and continued work on capturing the energy from kybers is a long, winding, and very enjoyable journey Luceno takes readers on. His work on all the characters, even supporting ones like Has Obitt (a smuggler who gets roped into Krennic’s schemes with the Ersos) and Saw Gerrera (one of the best cameos/appearances of a side character in the book), manages to make them all immensely relatable and enjoyable to read. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering he managed to make Grand Moff Tarkin readable in his previous novel Tarkin, but very early on I found myself drawn to, rooting for, and engaged by all the principal actors, especially Lyra and Orson. Not that I didn’t like Galen at all, on the contrary he’s just as great a character as the other two, but how Lyra and Orson’s decisions and actions affect his beautiful mind are the more captivating parts of their intertwining tales. Orson attempts to keep Galen’s focus solely on his kyber research (so Orson can weaponize it) by trying to turn husband and wife against each other, using Galen’s fear of being complicit in creating a galaxy unsafe for his family by his inaction/failings in the research, and so much more. Lyra combats this at every turn, though not always aware it’s Orson pulling the strings, in ways such as trusting Galen to work out the logical conclusion by himself, providing her spiritual viewpoint on the kyber work, inspired by a deep reverence for the Force and the Jedi, and even by following up on and digging into various suspicions because she’s just as important, if not more so, to the Erso family’s safety than Galen believes he is. Her position as an expedition leader also leads to an interesting moment on a remote planet, showing how someone who can’t use the Force can still believe in and sense it, while showing her to be a capable person and a good indicator of how much of her personality contributes to Jyn’s rebellious and inquisitive nature.
Outside of some really strong character work, as anyone who’s read Luceno before, he tends to be responsible for/put in charge of/always willing to include tons of info-dumps. Sometimes it can be a slough wading through an info-dump, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the minutia and history surrounding the development of the Death Star from the waning days of the Republic and into the early beginnings of the Empire. Part of it was due to seeing it through Orson’s eyes, as his ambition and vision are both fascinatingly wicked, while another part was due to my interest in the topic, especially to see how such a giant undertaking was kept secret for so long despite obviously hundreds of millions of beings working on it to complete it. Some of my favorite details included the reveal of how Palpatine’s ability to play both sides allowed him to stir fear of the Separatists building a superweapon (via Dooku’s actions) to convince the Republic to start work on one of their own, how each section of the project was built under different arms of a secret weapons group with no one knowing the true purpose/intention for their work (and those who did figure it out were quickly silenced), and how at one point Orson got Poggle the Lessor to convince his Geonosian drones to commit themselves to working on the massive battle station (for a while, at least). Beyond the Death Star, Galen’s work and Lyra’s spiritual connection to a belief in the Force also yields intriguing morsels on kyber crystals, a subject not broached in such detail before. Learning more about how alive kybers truly seem to be, and how much the Jedi realized their dangerous potential if corrupted (like other living things can be), is just as entertaining as the DS details because it’s brought up by in such ways as Galen in his research or Lyra in moments where she looks to her spiritual beliefs to help her get through whatever trying time befalls her family. If you’ve been dying to know practically every detail there is regarding the earliest days of the Death Star or just what kyber crystals really are, Catalyst not only has the information you’re looking for, but the novel has it hidden within entertaining sections of character-driven story that make reading the newest details way more interesting than most info-dumps tend to be.
While learning how Saw Gerrera gets tied up with the Ersos, and why Jyn would come to him in Rogue One, was one of my favorite little surprises in Catalyst, the next best appearance was Tarkin’s role. However, my enjoyment of Tarkin’s role was less for what he does and more for how this novel establishes a feud between he and Orson, as Orson so desperately wants to run the Death Star while Tarkin feels he’s born for the position, while his parts are about jockeying pieces into position to set up Luceno’s previous work Tarkin (and to make it seem more plausible why Orson isn’t mentioned once in it). And as much as I enjoyed Has Obitt as a character, especially because he’s a smuggler with a growing conscious, his story ends like most of the plot in the novel: predictable to an extent (he even gets the girl in the end, for crying out loud). Another issue I had with the novel involves Orson’s ability to manipulate events to get what he wants, which initially I found to be one of the coolest facets of his character, but towards the end it was bordering on superpower ability that seemed less like his own doing and more like some omniscient being’s meddling (aka the writer just trying to get pieces together). In no way does it ruin the book, as his genius strategizing gets used against him rather thoroughly in the end, but it’ll be interesting to see how that ability plays out in the film.
Speaking of that, Catalyst‘s connections to Rogue One aren’t as precise or immediate as one normally associates tie-in material to be, instead setting up and exploring relationships important to the characters of the upcoming film. Whether you need to read the book before the film will entirely be up to you, but I believe it’ll do little to affect your viewing experience either way, as events are far enough removed and the film will be filling in some of the things you’d gain from reading the book early anyways. That Catalyst is so character-driven makes it an engaging read I highly recommend, even with a dearth of action (which I don’t mind but could be a buzzkill for some readers), and it’ll only deepen your understanding and appreciation for characters in film if you’re so inclined to dive into it prior to watching it.
Here are a few other things:
- Jyn only gets one POV section and instantly I wished Luceno had more in the novel if only because her saying “…hooperspace…” is the damn cutest thing ever. But despite her being too young to be a primary part in the novel, that is what Rogue One is for, she is still important to events within Catalyst due to how Galen, Lyra, and Orson react to situations when she’s involved.
- Lyra’s position as an expedition leader also leads to an interesting moment on a remote planet, showing how someone who can’t use the Force can still believe in and sense it, while also revealing her to be a capable person and a good indicator of how much of her personality contributes to Jyn’s rebellious and inquisitive nature.
- Those interested in learning when and how construction of the Death Star moves from Geonosis won’t find that detail here, but both Star Wars Rebels and the Darth Vader comic have teased that eventually happening (it was still there by the time of Tarkin, which is set after Catalyst and at least 10 years before Rebels).
- The novel weaves in and out of events depicted in The Clone Wars: though initially I was thrown off by the Death Star project being above Geonosis back in the Republic days due to there being a whole second invasion of Geonosis arc in the show, but obviously it happens after that’s successful. Lots of interconnectivity going on and it’s all still going smoothly as far as I can tell.
- Luceno loves to shadow-canon or bring in parts from his previous works, without abandon sometimes it seems, though it’s always entertainingly done. My favorite reference in this book is the canonization of the Ryn! Back in the New Jedi Order days, following Chewbacca’s death (damn moon), Han finds himself on an adventure with Droma, a member of a nomadic, gypsy like species known as the Ryn. I really liked the character and the species so I’m excited to see them back again, even if it was a mere cameo.
- Each chapter has a title and my favorite has to be Chapter 13’s, “Kyber Crystal Persuasion,” which I took to be a reference to Breaking Bad, the critically acclaimed show where the main character is a genius who works with crystals (crystal meth, that is) in an effort to provide and protect his family (sounds like Galen to me), as the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was featured in the series finale. Also the fact that Walter White goes into hiding for awhile, though is pulled back into his work and the world he left behind one last time, fits with Galen’s eventual story in Rogue One. I wonder how intentional Luceno meant that to be. Speaking of references, this one can only be considered shadow canon, but the planet Hypori makes an appearance and there’s a mention of a team of Jedi ambushed there early in the war, which was a scene in the 2003-2005 Clone Wars animated series from Genndy Tartakovsky. It was the first introduction of General Grievous and is still a tense, beautifully choreographed battle well-worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already. There’s no mention of the Jedi being ambused by Grievous in Catalyst, but I have no doubt it was a fun Easter Egg to that show (which I still enjoy to this day).
- Speaking of Luceno, he’s interviewed over at the official SW site about crafting the tale of Catalyst and how it’s more of a companion piece of the movie, since it simply sets up potential plot points for the film to explore due to it ending many years before the film starts.
- The archaeological dig on Alpinn, which is where Orson sends Lyra and Jyn away in an attempt to influence Galen more/keep them from distracting him, really sounded like a great place for Doctor Aphra to go check out! Or I just automatically think Aphra when I see/hear the word archaeological in Star Wars these days.
- Interesting in more kyber crystal information already available? The YA novel Ahsoka reveals an interesting tidbit about why dark side users always seem to have red ones and how Ahsoka’s became white, which makes even more sense after reading Catalyst. Star Wars Rebels included a mission by the Ghost crew in S1 to intercept a shipment of a giant kyber. And lastly the unproduced The Clone Wars arc, “Crystal Crisis” involves Anakin and Obi-Wan chasing down a giant kyber to prevent the Separatists from getting it (and it contains several scenes where the kyber’s destructive power is unleashed).
- Interested in checking out some excerpts before diving in? The first one released involves a scene with Lyra and Galen getting picked up by Krennic (video autoplays at link, fyi), with a baby Jyn in tow (early in the novel). The second teases Galen’s work on the kybers and how it’s been consuming his focus (and I found out after reading the novel that this excerpt comes within the last couple of chapters!).
Reading the classic comic series Y: The Last Man this summer really taught me the lesson of how the journey truly can be more important or enjoyable than the ending, which made it easier for me to realize Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel‘s ending being within sight the moment you pick up the novel matters little next to the excellent, character-driven journey James Luceno takes readers on to get there.
+ Galen (for his beautiful mind) and Lyra (for her spiritual leanings) Erso…plus Jyn, too
+ Orson Krennic’s devious ambition and ability to strategize many moves ahead
+ Thorough and entertaining reveals for both Death Star’s beginnings and kyber crystal minutia
+ Even side characters shine…
– …though they end up being just as predictable as the rest of the story is
– Krennic is a little too good at manipulating events
CANON NOVEL REVIEWS:
Aftermath | Aftermath: Life Debt
Battlefront: Twilight Company
Lords of the Sith
A New Dawn
Heir to the Jedi
CANON YOUNG ADULT NOVEL REVIEWS:
Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure
Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo & Chewbacca Adventure
The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
Before the Awakening