The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray is the first YA novel in the Star Wars: The High Republic multimedia series, which is set 200 years before Star Wars Episode I. Jedi Padawan Reath Silas may not be as Force-sensitive as his peers, but the young apprentice works hard to earn his mettle within the Jedi Order, determined to become one of its great scholars. His ideal routine of plunging into the Archives of the Jedi Temple on the planet Coruscant is stripped away, however, when his Master, Jora Malli, becomes the Jedi commander of Starlight Beacon, a space station on the Republic frontier in the Outer Rim territories of the galaxy.
Reath isn’t the adventurous type, but where his Master goes he must follow. Travelling to Starlight separately from her, with Jedi Masters Orla Jareni and Cohmac Vitus, and Jedi Knight Dez Rydan, he is struck with trouble sooner than expected. A disaster in Hyperspace forces their transport ship to seek refuge on a derelict space station, along with a number of other refugee spacecrafts. While the reason for the catastrophe eludes them, the station itself holds a dark secret: an overbearing presence of the Dark side of the Force that Reath and his fellow Jedi struggle to understand. If they’re not careful, a nightmarish scourge that has been dormant for eons could be released upon the galaxy.
Though I’ve also been reading some of the comics, the idea of The High Republic being a “multimedia project” was at the forefront of my mind the most while reading this novel. Published a little under a month after the inaugural novel, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, Into the Dark is not a sequel, but a story that runs parallel to the events of that first book. I have mixed feelings about the way this was pulled off, however, as Soule’s novel does so much to outline the Hyperspace disaster and the nature of the villains behind it, the Nihil, that I don’t think this novel matches. If you’ve read that book first, then it’s no problem, but I wouldn’t blame someone for feeling like they could start here. The book does seem like it’s meant to stand well enough on its own, and it does in other respects, but the stakes of the conflict at large don’t feel as fleshed out as they should be.
As a whole, I thought the plot of this novel was actually a lot weaker than I was hoping it’d be, especially compared to Gray’s other Star Wars books. Early on, as our Jedi characters and the crew of their transport ship, the Vessel, set foot on the derelict station, strangely populated by a multitude of plants in an arboretum and permeated with a mystical sense of dread, I thought this book might be telling a light horror novel, a genre uncommonly explored in the franchise. Though it did inspire some spooky feelings in spots, it was ultimately a rather straightforward romp that didn’t stray too far from series conventions.
Our characters leave the station after a series of tribulations and a fatal incident, learn more about the catastrophe that put them there in the first place, and then realize that they have made some grievous errors and must return. I found this to be unfortunately simple, as I was really hoping that they’d be dealing with an escalating crisis indirectly caused by the greater disaster. The back and forth was a little too meandering for me too. What I did like, mind you, was how much the trouble was caused by each Jedi’s own mistakes, specifically related to the Drengir, the plant-like beings they unwittingly release, believing they’re actually dispelling darkness. I really loved the idea of them encountering something they can recognize as Darkness, but not being able to properly understand it.
Unfortunately, I found the use of the Drengir themselves a little underwhelming, introduced in a way that felt oddly matter-of-fact. I would’ve expected some suspense or tension when building up to their reveal, but instead they unceremoniously ambush the pair of Jedi Masters at the first opportunity, while the group is split up, kickstarting the battle that serves as the story’s climax. The battle itself was an exciting series of events, but knowing that this is only the beginning of the conflict between the Jedi and the Drengir, they just didn’t inspire as much menace as I felt they should have. Their presence was only vaguely defined, and in communication the characters regard them as just another sapient species, despite the monstrous appearance I know they’re meant to have.
There’s also a subplot around the crew of the Vessel, who are transporting the Jedi, that was actually a lot more endearing than the stories around the secondary, non-Jedi characters usually are. Leox Gyasi, the ship’s captain, was amusingly eccentric without being overdone, playing well into drama when necessary but also serving as comic relief. His co-pilot, the young Affie Hollow was likable enough, if a little flat. She is the focus of the subplot, uncovering the shadier dealings of the guild they work for through clues on the station. While not the most interesting, this aspect of the story provided an appetizing morsel of class politics for this story about plant monsters and space marauders. The standout member of their crew was the navigator, Geode, who is a Vintian. Looking like nothing more than a large rock, the other crew members insist he’s alive and treat him as such. This running gag was perfectly subdued and I found it hysterical.
Despite the weaknesses of the plot, I came away from the this book really loving the characters. They were definitely among the novel’s strongest qualities. It’s still an ensemble cast, though Reath is given the greatest focus, but I loved how it examined the unique strengths and doubts of the Jedi characters. Master Orla has recently decided to become a Wayseeker, which is a Jedi who operates outside of the direction of the High Council, feeling that their rules restrict the ways the Force directs her, yet she struggles with the decision to go off on her own. Master Cohmac, who puts great value on logic and reason, actually struggles deeply with the restrictions Jedi dogma puts upon emotions it deems negative. How can it be wrong to mourn?
For Reath’s part, I really enjoyed the idea of a Jedi character that isn’t very talented. Never mind the protagonists of the film trilogies, each a prodigy in some way, most Jedi characters we meet are well-attuned to the Force already. I really enjoyed this look into the mind of someone who has to work harder than everybody else for less returns, leading him to want to become a scholar more than anything else. This also made me realize that this series has been making good on a trick that the prequel films completely missed: giving a nuanced look at the Jedi Order. We get this from Reath, Orla, and Cohmac, whose perspectives are each different from the sagely, brash, and/or swashbuckling warriors we’re used to. The idea of what a Jedi can be is just a little broader in my mind than it was before.
Into the Dark may stumble a little with its plot, which was more straightforward and typical than I was hoping, but it significantly made up for this with really strong character writing and world building. This new series has introduced me to a wealth of characters I’ve come to enjoy, but those featured here I’m especially looking forward to reading more about. The Drengir may not have been used to their fullest potential, but I love their concept: something strange and horrific, yet deeply connected to the Dark side, rather than the dark Jedi counterparts that the Sith represent. I hope they appear in more novels to come. I recommend checking this book out, though with the caveat that you should probably read Light of the Jedi first.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5