Released as part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series of media, Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is a standalone Young Adult Star Wars novel with a largely original cast of characters. It follows the lives of two childhood friends, Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree, starting when they are only children on the day their home planet of Jelucan is annexed by the Galactic Empire. Growing up with aspirations of joining the Imperial Academy and one day becoming pilots, the pair are inseparable as they work to achieve their dreams. But war looms on the horizon as rebel forces become more and more prominent, thrusting them into a conflict that forces them down opposing paths and challenges whether bonds of loyalty and love for each other can survive the ravages of war.
Setting a star-crossed-lovers story against the backdrop of the Galactic Civil War seen in the original Star Wars trilogy was a stellar idea. I was intrigued before I started reading, but quickly became engrossed. The beginnings of the novel are much more grounded, however, giving us a glimpse into the society of a less developed world. Ciena’s family is descended from the first wave of people that were exiled to the planet for remaining loyal to an overthrown monarch on another world, while Thane belongs to a higher-class family of second-wave settlers who arrived when industry had become more established. I really enjoyed the way Gray constructed these differences in social status for the characters, especially in the case of Ciena, whose culture instilled in her the importance of tradition, honour, and loyalty in the face of all adversity.
We spend a significant amount of time getting to know these characters in this humbler setting first, when their relationship is much more that of a close friendship than a romantic entanglement. This really helped lay the foundation for who they each are, especially as they go make their way into the Imperial Academy, which takes them off world, where they’re forced to grow and compete with one another to advance. What was most effective about this phase of the story was seeing how attractive the Empire could look to citizens not explicitly gripped by their more oppressive actions. As a knowing reader I can see where the Empire’s true, sinister nature shines through, but the characters at this time never come across as bafflingly blind to a truth right in front of them because their vantage point is the most idealistic.
Romance is not typically something I seek out in a novel, but I think Gray did a great job of making me invested in the relationship between these two. What aided most of all was having the pair on the same side for the early chapters, where a good will-they-won’t-they tension could build to a satisfying climax. Once their feelings for each other become an open thing is when things really start to kick off, as the events of the films begin disrupting their lives and where they stand in the conflict. I really liked that admitting their love for one another wasn’t something protracted throughout the book, but rather something satisfied and then painfully compromised. They love each other, but matters of principle end up keeping them at a distance.
The narrative alternates perspective between Thane and Ciena, offering great insight into their respective points of view. Making the latter’s perspecive in the story understandable, even sympathetic, was a challenge I think Gray pulled off really well. While Thane becomes disillusioned by the horrible things he witnesses, Ciena is shaken yet steadfast, her strong belief in honour keeping her tied to her oath of service to the Empire. This doesn’t stop her from recognizing certain wrongs, but she perhaps naively believes she can still do good in her position and that the order the Empire represents is better than the chaos its absence could bring. Sometimes I just wanted to scream at her to open her eyes and see sense, but people deathly hanging onto traditions and doing mental gymnastics to look the other way is a very real thing, so it never felt unrealistic. It actually made aspects of her side of the story a lot more tragic too, as the beliefs she has about the Empire gradually dissolve around her.
Having events tied so closely to what happens in the original films could be a little double-edged sometimes. On the one hand, the story is largely character driven, so having them interact with and react to these major set-piece moments was really compelling once I’d come to care deeply about them. Seeing people have time to dwell on the destruction of Alderaan by the first Death Star, for example, was really effective. However, at other points things read a bit too much like they were plodding along towards the next moment, with a lot of pining along the way. The characters don’t have a huge impact on most of the driving forces of the plot, and while I’m happy Gray didn’t try to make the pair secretly crucial to a lot of the goings-on in the films, it read too much like going through the motions sometimes. Despite this, there are story developments that hinge on the actions of the characters themselves too and I found them consistently satisfying, though they were a little fewer and further between than I might have liked.
Though marketed as a YA novel, I honestly think any fan of the franchise should check Lost Stars out. I think it would be an especially good entry point to the new expanded media. Basic knowledge of the movies is all you really need going in. It’s a wonderfully character driven story, giving a macro perspective from more everyday people on iconic events from the franchise that is only somewhat hindered by needing to be married to said events. Equally heartwarming and heart-wrenching, star-crossed lovers on opposing sides of the Galactic Civil War really was an inspired idea and it was executed almost perfectly.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5