I haven’t read too many Star Wars junior novels to date. A large reason for this is because the ones that I have read came across as extended interludes that have little to no bearing on the bigger picture. That’s why it was a huge surprise and thrill to read Justina Ireland’s new junior novel, Star Wars The High Republic: A Test of Courage, one of three books we were sent in Lucasfilm’s new publishing initiative. This is a book that has weight, great characters and is appropriate for both younger kids and core adult fans as well. If you want to dive into as much High Republic content as possible, don’t sleep on this one simply because it’s a junior novel.
Set 200 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, The High Republic is an era where the Jedi are at the height of their power. They are plentiful, prosperous and respected. It’s a golden age, so to speak, and the Jedi are akin to Arthur and his Knights. There are no Sith active right now, as they’re in hiding, so the Jedi really are “guardians of peace and justice”, to quote Kenobi and the opening statement of the initiative. There’s the odd pirate raid here and there, or perhaps an uprising on a planet there, but there’s no galaxy-wide conflict-at least not yet.
This particular novel follows Vernestra Rwoh as she begins her first major task as a newly appointed knight: babysitting an ambassador’s daughter aboard an impressive cruiser en route for the dedication of the Starlight Beacon. Vernestra is only 16-years-old and passed her Jedi trials not a year earlier, making her the youngest Knight in ages. While not overjoyed with her first big assignment, she’s still confident and content about her appointment considering her age. But the assignment isn’t so breezy as she initially thought it would be. The ship was sabotaged by the new villains of this initiative, the Nihil, and two young Jedi, a young inventor, and a protocol droid whose personality is being reprogrammed, escape on a sad excuse of a shuttle and take refuge on a jungle planet.
What’s great about The High Republic publishing initiative is how free it is from the constraints of the Skywalker saga. Being set 200 years before the core narrative, in an unexplored era (even the old EU didn’t dabble in this period of time), the writers really do have carte-blanche for telling an original story that doesn’t feel restricted in any way. So while Spark of the Resistance left me wanting more as a prequel to The Rise of Skywalker, Ireland gets to do a lot more with this new cast of characters.
While this is a junior novel, it by no means feels like a “kids book”. It’s not a terribly long book, I breezed through it quickly, but it’s chock-full of adventure and high stakes. The bombing sequence near the beginning of the book is not only a compelling inciting incident but has deep emotional consequences for our young heroes. The concept of fear, anger and revenge are present in this story and it’s interesting to see those effects latch onto characters who are so young. Likewise, the few members of the Nihil in this story are pretty vicious, but to get a better understanding of who they are, be sure to read Charles Soule’s novel, Light of the Jedi.
But none of this would matter if we didn’t care for the characters and thankfully we do. Since we’re confined to a small cast of characters, many of them get time to shine and grow. The standout of the cast is Avon Starros, a 12-year-old genius inventor with a lot of opinions about droids, the Jedi and the Force. Things could be grim and dangerous, but Avon is always making notes about her experiment, the droid J-6. Vernestra is also a standout in the story as a young Jedi prodigy who helps Avon become a little less rebellious and guides the padawan Imri in times of doubt. Despite her age, she feels much more grown-up and responsible and fans of unusual lightsabers will relish what she’s done to hers.
If there’s one thing that did take me out of the story a bit is making the character Avon a direct ancestor to Sana Starros. Considering we dialled the clock back 200 years from the events of the prequels, including a character who has a connection to the Marvel comics set during the time of the original trilogy makes this new era feel just a bit smaller. While she’s a brand new character, and an interesting one at that, I would have preferred her to have no connections to the core saga. It doesn’t change much, but once I made the connection, my first thought was “what are the odds?”. Likewise, there’s a character named “Honesty” and due to the nature of his name, sentences can be a bit awkward when they’re directly talking to him or about him. I feel this character could have used a bit more development as well.
Overall though, this is a fresh, fun and exciting new frontier for Star Wars to explore. Even though A Test of Courage is written at the junior level, I think casual and core fans would even appreciate the storytelling and depth found in this book, regardless if they’re kids or adults. If you plan on reading the entire High Republic series, I would start reading Light of the Jedi first, as it takes place just before the events of this book and dives more in-depth with The Emergences, something only mentioned in this book but never witnessed first-hand.
A Test of Courage will be available on January 5th, 2021. Also, there’s going to be a livestream event on January 4th on YouTube and starwars.com, where “fans can look forward to fresh insights into the characters and events of The High Republic, along with new announcements and reveals of what’s to come.”
Check out our review of Star Wars The High Republic: Light of the Jedi.
Check out our review of Star Wars The High Republic: Into the Dark.