Book Review – Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

Phasma

Phasma is a Star Wars novel by Delilah S. Dawson, published in 2017 as a part of the “Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi” series of books released in anticipation for Episode VIII. Despite this banner, the story is largely separate from the plot of that film. Resistance spy Vi Moradi has been captured and taken aboard the First Order Star Destroyer Absolution. She is kept in an interrogation room in the bowels of the ship, where a crimson-armoured stormtrooper—Captain Cardinal—keeps her secret from his superiors. He wants to learn everything Vi knows of his counterpart and rival, the mysterious Captain Phasma, who threatens his place of prominence in the First Order. Vi divulges to him Phasma’s elusive origins on the world of Parnassos, long left for dead by the galaxy at large, and the strange odyssey she took to join the ranks of the First Order. By the end of her story, however, Cardinal may have learned more than he bargained for.

A lot of the new canon Star Wars novels that I’ve read are more character driven; they take a pre-established character and shed some light on a period of their life that we haven’t seen. Having read a few of these, I was immediately pleased that Dawson chose to do something a little different with this type of story, the most striking being the narrative frame. A lot of what helps prop up Phasma as a character is her mystique, which would have been dispelled if an entire novel was told from her perspective. What we get here instead, thanks to this interrogation, is a third-hand account of Phasma’s origins rather than the usual first-person perspective in one of these books. We can trust that a lot of what we’re reading is more or less how things happened, but the fact that Vi embellishes is explicitly stated without getting specific, leaving us to wonder.

Conceptually, there’s a lot I really like about this tale told of Parnassos, Phasma’s home planet, and the journey she takes from her home among the Scyre folk to joining up with the First Order. In Star Wars, space-faring has been going on for millennia. Inevitably some places would have fallen apart or been forgotten by the galaxy at large, with remnants of technological marvels left behind. This is the state Parnassos is in, with Phasma belonging to a tribe known as the Scyre who struggle every day to survive in a world post-collapse. When First Order General Brendol Hux’s ship crashes planetside, his escape pod landing near the Scyre, Phasma and her most loyal warriors endeavour to return Hux and his troopers to their crashed ship with promises to be taken from this world and given a better life.

I really liked was how, gradually, we come to understand what Parnassos was like before its collapse and how that came about. There isn’t exactly a broader meaning explored, but it has a lot of corporate negligence is involved in a way that felt a little more “Science Fiction” than Star Wars usually gets, which I found refreshing. In a galaxy as fantastical as Star Wars its easy to take their technology for granted, but in many ways, it really wouldn’t take much more than a crashed ship in the wrong place for things to start falling apart.

Their journey takes them across many hostile landscapes unfamiliar to the Scyre folk, bringing them face-to-face with both natural horrors and dangerous peoples. These encounters bring about some genuinely horrific moments that I found quite effective without being uncharacteristically brutal for a Star Wars story. One of their party is injured and left behind for a time. The group sees her surrounded by starving people as they are forced to leave. When they return she is gone. We are spared reading exactly what has happened to her, but can infer enough to be disturbed by how desperate the people of this planet can be.

Though this story is conveyed by Vi, the perspective character is a young woman named Siv, one of Phasma’s Scyre warriors. While I did like how some of the traditions and values of their tribe were expressed through Siv, I also found her perspective a little aggravating. With every new experience and encounter she would doggedly reiterate how “this isn’t how things were done on the Scyre” to the point where it was much less fish-out-of-water and way more broken record. There are many things I came to understand about life on the Scyre fairly early on, but with each contrary experience Siv reminds the reader how they do things. This wasn’t dreadful, but it became tiresome nonetheless.

It’s unfortunate as well that Phasma doesn’t really change much over the course of the book either. From Siv’s perspective she changes, but at pretty much the outset we know that Phasma is ultimately out for herself and willing to do whatever it takes to survive. There were some moments that hinted at more complex emotions at play, but if she ever has a true crisis of conscience, we’re never privy to it. Siv is thrown off by what she sees as uncharacteristic behaviour, but we know she is being naïve in trusting Phasma anyway. Her arc is flat, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it all felt too much like a foregone conclusion.

What elevated the book for me, surprisingly, was what happened when Vi finished telling her stories. Captain Cardinal is ultimately left with troubling information and a crisis of faith in an institution he’s utterly indoctrinated by. I loved how he struggled to comes to terms with his place in the First Order and what its leadership had become (or always had been), while also foisting responsibility upon Phasma rather than completely grasping that he’s on the wrong side. Since he’s a character introduced in this book, I had no idea how his story would end. The story takes its time as he ruminates on what to do, building toward a gripping, climactic confrontation.

Final Thoughts

Phasma is a good Star Wars novel that gives a surprisingly exotic backstory to a one of the new trilogy’s most mysterious—and underused—new characters. The bulk of the story could be a little bogged down by repetition, but there was an enjoyable amount of world-building involved in the post-apocalyptic world of Parnassos that kept things interesting. The ultimate climax builds upon the foundation established in the backstory as well, giving it a surprisingly thrilling conclusion. I only wish that the majority of the novel had hooked me as much as the frame around it did.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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