I've decided to, cautiously, begin reading novels from the New Star Wars Expanded universe. One of the obvious places to begin is the light-novel lead-ups to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is a short novel (240 pages) containing three short-stories about the protagonists of the film. It chronicles the adventures of Finn, Poe Dameron, and Rey before Kylo Ren changes their lives forever. Is it any good?
Before the Awakening is hampered by the fact two out of the three characters have never had any adventures before in their lives. You could do several novels about Han Solo from his appearance in the original Star Wars because the character is a man who has seen and done everything before meeting Obi-Wan in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Finn and Rey are characters who are deliberately out of their comfort zone by doing something amazing. It's like the adventures of Anakin Skywalker before The Phantom Menace.
Not much to do there.
Instead, the best reason to read this novel is the background for the First Order and the Resistance. We get insight into how the First Order trains stormtroopers, what their values are, and how they perceive their conflict with the New Republic. We also get an insight into how the Resistance operates, what its goals are, and what kind of shape the Republic is in. Rey's story, by contrast, mostly just tells us how she learned how to become a pilot.
Finn's Story chronicles his training as a stormtrooper and his relationship with his fellow Imperial. Finn is an ace in terms of shooting, leadership, and achieving all of his objectives but is crippled by a factor the First Order has overlooked: his empathy. Finn all but stops missions to make sure no one is left behind and covers for the weakest members of his squadron. This alienates him from his other squadmates and is meant to be a sign that he's a better person than the others.
Ironically, I took an alternate character interpretation of events as his drill sergeant (Captain Phasma for those who want to see more of her) points out he's weakening himself as well as his unit by his actions. I actually agree with her as the weakest of his squadron, Slips, is not going to become a better soldier if he's not allowed to stand on his own two feet. I think Greg Rucka wasn't going for that, though, but it made perfect sense to me. Finn comes off as woefully naive about the consequences of his actions rather than inherently good. They're going into combat situations and need to all be tough to make sure they survive.
Just my .02.
Rey's story is the weakest of the group but still enjoyable. Rey and her closest friends on Jakku find a mostly-intact freighter (one from the now-defunct West End Games RPG) which they proceed to repair. Rey is only thinking of the potential food supply she can get from turning it over but her friends are very clearly thinking about leaving Jakku on their own. The idea she wants to stay and doesn't want to go out into the stars like Luke Skywalker never occurs to her. For Rey, Jakku is the place her parents left her and where she wants to wait for them. It's a heartbreaking story even if its ending is one I saw coming from a mile away.
Poe's story is the tale of a New Republic pilot growing increasingly disillusioned with the constant and flagrant treaty violations of the First Order. They aren't engaged in open warfare against the Republic but they are involved in piracy, kidnapping, and other activities designed to increase their power. Disobeying orders, he proceeds to go on a self-granted mission to take pictures of an Imperial staging point that shows they have a new kind of Star Destroyer. Impressed, General Organa (a.k.a Princess Leia) recruits him for a secret mission to kidnap a traitorous New Republic Senator.
I like the political situation set up by this short story. The First Order is clearly up to something but is viewed as an impoverished and backward nation on the verge of collapse like North Korea (when they're actually like modernized China). The Resistance justifies its existence by the fact it is against such a treacherous foe but they're actually engaged in every bit as duplicitous and illegal activity as the First Order. The fact they kidnap a Senator and label him a traitor because of his First Order sympathies illustrates its zeal which ultimately culminates in the First Order deciding to go to war.
Not that it wouldn't have anyway.
Is this an absolute must-have? No, not really. The information about the factions in The Force Awakens is good but nothing which couldn't be inferred. Also, the characters are kind of prevented from having any further adventures. Finn and Poe's story lead directly to the movie and that's a shame. Still, it's good for a read, I think, if a bit overpriced.