"Today is the end of the Republic. The end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder. At this very moment in a system far from here, the New Republic lies to the galaxy while secretly supporting the treachery of the loathsome Resistance. This fierce machine which you have built, upon which we stand will bring an end to the Senate, to their cherished fleet. All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!"
-General Hux, The Force Awakens
I love the First Order as baddies as this speech implies a rather interesting new galactic status quo. Who are the First Order? What do they want? Where did they come from? Who is the Resistance? What do they do? Where did they come from? How do both of these relate to the New Republic. A lot of this can be inferred but we really don't have a context for it all and I was hoping the new Star Wars Expanded Universe would fill it in.
It hasn't until now.
I was a big fan of Claudia Gray's Lost Stars (reviewed here) so was excited about this book. I felt she had an excellent ability to get inside character's heads and was interested in her take on Princess Leia. Honestly, I think this is probably the best Princess Leia book ever done. Leia has long been the most overlooked member of the Big Three and with the exception of her recent comic book series as well as Star Wars: Razor, she doesn't get much in the way of attention.
The premise is it's been twenty-years since the fall of the Galactic Empire. Unlike in the Legends universe, the Empire is nothing more than a story told to scare children now. While Leia and other politicians are venerated for their wartime service, they are considered increasingly irrelevant to the public at large. Worse, the New Republic which Leia fought so hard to preserve has become a gridlocked mess where the two sides of the political debate refuse to compromise on any subject.
Our plucky heroine has been worn down by fighting this uphill battle and wants to retire to be with her husband. Han is, I kid you not, an announcer for space races now. Leia is drawn back into the political arena, though, by the revelation of a massive criminal syndicate threatening the galaxy. Teaming up with an idealistic but naive Empire-loving Senator, a source of considerable disagreement to say the least, Leia discovers the syndicate is part of a grander conspiracy to create a new government that will revive the Empire in practice if not name. This also ends up to the revelation of Leia's greatest secret: her biological father's identity.
Bloodlines provides a lot of necessary context to The Force Awakens. We find out the First Order has been a conspiracy within the Republic for some time as well as the seeds which are laid for a complex relationship between it and the rest of the galaxy. We also find out how Leia has gone from being one of the most respected people in the galaxy to a virtual pariah leading another ragtag resistance.
Claudia Gray creates a complex political situation which is familiar enough to be understood by American readers. We've all been troubled by political gridlock in the past as well as a knowledge of two separate political parties at each others' throats. The addition of a secret Imperial conspiracy within one of them preparing an "evil plan" to take over reminded me more of Captain America: The Winter Soldier than anything resembling RL politics.
Those looking for insight into Supreme Leader Snoke, Ben Solo, or Luke will be disappointed as none of them make an appearance in this book. The biggest revelation is Ben Solo is still a Jedi Knight trainee six years before the events of The Force Awakens and isn't aware of his grandfather's identity. Given the Vader-worshiping idealism of Kylo Ren, it seems likely the discovery of this plays a big role in his fall to the Dark Side.
I like the set up for the First Order with the Centralists' politicians. While they're clearly the "bad" guys, Claudia Gray shows many of them are simply frustrated with the way the galaxy is run. They're catspaws for the First Order conspiracy which will eventually be created from the New Republic (rather than a pre-existing Imperial State).. This makes them more akin to the Prequel's Separatists than the Legends Imperial Remnant.
Claudia Gray has an excellent grasp of characters with all of her supporting cast being likable and interesting. The stand-out character, however, is Senator Casterfo who is an extremely nuanced personality. A labor camp survivor, he has a personal hatred for Darth Vader but believes the Empire is superior to the Republic in terms of government functionality. He is enamored of the TIE fighters, stormtroopers, and beauty of the Empire while missing the darker undercurrents within. The fact he's otherwise a nice guy and a political idealist makes him an interesting set of contradictions.
I'm also a big fan of Lady Carise who is a great character. A political gadfly and idealist, she's much more into the Empire's values than Senator Casterfo. These are just part of her identity, though, and not the whole of her belief system. Indeed, she's just as loyal to the principle of Core World nobility as she is the Centralist cause so this provides her a curious loyalty to Princess Leia.
Leia's portrayal is the best part of the book as we deal with her feelings regarding Alderaan, Darth Vader, Bail Organa, her brother, her Jedi potential, and other subjects which were covered only rarely in the Legends universe. Everything feels organic and believable for our favorite sci-fi heroine twenty-years later. I especially liked the in-joke Claudia Gray threw in with giving Leia the "Huttslayer" moniker, which is an alternative name among fans for the Slave Leia costume.
Not all of this fits together. According to this book, the earliest the First Order, as a government rather than a secret conspiracy at least, could come into existence is five years before the events of The Force Awakens. This doesn't fit with Finn's background of being raised from birth or the fanatical hatred the group holds for the New Republic. Still, as a secessionist movement, it certainly is more threatening than a hold-out remnant with outdated equipment.
Fans who want a shoot-em up, bang-bang adventure may be disappointed by a more cerebral take on the franchise. On the other hand, this is a great deal less boring than the Prequels politics as well as a good deal better-written. Those who enjoy political thrillers, conspiracy, and spy fiction (like me) will find this quite entertaining.