Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

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I so very much enjoyed the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. After watching it and 2015's Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I feel like the Star Wars cinematic universe is back on track. Star Wars has meant so much to me for as far back as I can remember. One of my earliest Christmas memories was toddling down the hallway the morning of December 25 in my footie pajamas, clutching my blue teddy bear (oh so cleverly named Blue Bear), and seeing the entire Star Wars action figure line standing on the coffee table in front of the Christmas Tree. Yes, my parents removed the figures from their original packaging. Nobody knew any better back then. In 1997, I was a university junior and I remember wearing my beloved Boba Fett shirt, standing in lines for hours with my friends outside the Cinedome in Orange, California to see the Special Edition releases, trembling with the same anticipation I imagine must have filled the movie-goers in 1977, 1980, and 1983 when the original trilogy of films were released in theaters. Such a fan was I that I immediately forgave the less popular updates to the films. So thrilled was I to be watching a Star Wars film IN THE THEATER, that I took no offense at the addition of Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley spaceport's docking bay 94 --that most wretched hive of scum and villainy. I think I actually enjoyed that scene because Boba Fett was in it.

Like many of us fans of the original trilogy, the prequels were a source of massive joy upon announcement, followed by crushing disappointment upon viewing. So we will not discuss that period of time further.

The Force Awakens and more so, in my opinion anyway, Rogue One brought the franchise back to the light in the most forceful of ways. To quench my thirst for more Star Wars, I read many of the expanded universe novels during my college and early adult years. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy and Michael Stackpole's Rogue Squadron series had kept me from spiraling into a pit of despair after --well, we said we would not discuss it. So after I saw and loved Rogue One and learned there was a novel that served as a prequel to it, I asked Santa Claus for a copy and she delivered! I read the book in eleven days, which is fast for a subvocalizer like me.

I had hoped the novel would be a Jyn Erso origin story --cuz I kinda fell in love with Felicity Jones during the film-- describing how she went from hiding in a cave as a small child at the beginning of Rogue One to ending up on the prison planet Wobani as a fully grown and defiant young woman. I wanted that gap filled. To my brief disappointment, I discovered that Catalyst is the story of the friendship and falling out of Galen Erso and Orson Krennic. Author James Luceno writes the story so well though that my disappointment was fleeting. Before too long, I found myself happy that I was learning about the relationship of these men in their younger years. At the beginning of Rogue One, they clearly have a history but their relationship is strained, contentious. What caused that tension? Catalyst answers that question. I know those characters so much better after reading this book. I even find Krennic a bit more sympathetic, blinded by ambition, but seeming to believe he is working toward the greater good, confident in his principles.

The story is heavy on talk, light on action. In that way, it is not very Star Wars-y, but this novel shows us that not all Star Wars stories require lightsaber battles and starfighter combat to be interesting. If you enjoyed Rogue One, if you enjoy Star Wars at all, then I highly recommend Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. If you enjoyed the film, read this book and then watch the film again to give the opening scene additional heft.

Star Wars is back and I feel like that little kid in footie pajamas again.

Caliban's War

Caliban’s War, the second of the planned six-volume The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, is fast-paced, high-caliber science fiction. With higher stakes, political intrigue spanning the Solar System, exciting ship-to-ship space battles, and a powerful monster of unknown origin, Caliban’s War is a sequel worthy of its outstanding predecessor, Leviathan Wakes.

The two-man writing team who make up the literary persona of James S. A. Corey maintained the successful narrative structure they established in book one with brief chapters of approximately ten pages each presented from the perspective of a series of alternating characters. The brevity of the chapters and the rotating perspectives give the novel a sensation of rapid and perpetual forward motion. It is a somewhat long novel at just five pages shy of six hundred, but I read it in two weeks, which is rather quick for a reader like me who tends to plod through books. This is one was hard to put down and succeeded in transporting me into its world so successfully that a couple of times a voice or a ringing phone would shake me from my reverie and leave me feeling disoriented for a few moments. That is the very definition of engrossing.

The cast list has increased since the first novel. Leviathan Wakes was centered on two main characters, Captain Holden and Detective Miller, with each chapter alternating between them, making the story a bit of a tennis match. Caliban’s War doubles the quantity of point-of-view characters which causes the alternating chapters to feel more like an impressive juggling act. I have read several books recently that use this narrative structure and I find it keeps the story moving. So many of the books I have read in the past have been told from a single character’s perspective so the recent string of multi-perspective stories I have experienced feels like the new hotness, though I know the method is as old as storytelling itself.

The Han Solo-esque Captain Holden returns to command the Rocinante and her crew. New to the series is Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine who exemplifies honor and courage, even as she wages an internal war with herself about where her loyalties should lie as a steady stream of new information pulls her in multiple directions. I loved this new character and the way Corey handled her.  It would have been so easy to make the badass marine the stereotypical masculine woman, but Corey ditches that nonsense and grants her moments of strength and vulnerability. She is reminiscent of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, only bigger and tougher. Praxidike Meng is an agricultural scientist searching for his daughter amid the chaos of a sudden shooting war that destroys his peaceful life. He is the everyman of the story, reacting with fear, confusion, impulse, and instinct. Chrisjen Avasarala is a high-powered politician who can move entire fleets with one call. As the situation seems to spiral out of control for Holden, Bobbie, and Prax, it is Avasarala’s job, from her opulent office on Earth, to right the ship, correct the course, and hopefully save millions of lives in the process. On the downward side of middle age, she is feisty, foul-mouthed, abrasive, and reminded me so much of a person with whom I used to work that I found myself laughing in recognition of her character. The disclaimer at the front of the novel, as in every novel, says similarities to real people are coincidental but boy-howdy, Corey grabbed this woman from my real life and stuffed her into their book. All of these people, including the supporting characters, are so well-written that I probably could have figured out who was speaking even without dialogue attribution.

Science fiction authors handle space travel in a variety of ways. You have the lightspeed/warpdrive travel of pulp science fiction where passengers are free to wander about the ship normally due to gravity-controlled environments. There are the hard SF novels that go into exhaustive depth on the science of what actual interplanetary –or farther—space travel would do to a human being’s physical and mental acuity. James S. A. Corey seems to take a slightly ‘middle of the road veering slightly more toward pulp because it is more fun’ approach. Space travel is hard on the body with the G-forces of exceptionally fast travel causing limbs to occasionally pop out of joint, blackouts and nausea. Crew and passengers must be strapped into crash couches to prevent them from violently bouncing around the interior of the ship and they certainly cannot pop down to the restaurant deck to have Whoopi Goldberg mix them up a cocktail. I enjoy Corey’s take on it. There is enough science in there to make it plausible, but they still allow themselves to tell a fun story.

Speaking of story, this one is pure fun. There are so many rugs pulled out from under so many feet, conflicts upon conflicts, it constantly feels like everything is falling apart. Watching these characters navigate the challenges into which Corey plunges them made me feel as I felt when I was a wide-eyed young boy watching Star Wars, holding my breath, gripping the edge of my chair, and uttering lightsaber hums.

If you are a fan of action-oriented science fiction, this series is for you. If you have not read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, definitely start there. And get comfortable because hours may pass without you realizing it.

Sleeping Giants

I heard about Sleeping Giants on Instagram. I discovered an entire community of fellow bibliophiles there two months ago and I found myself drawn to the platform much more than I ever had been before. Some of these people are talented and creative photographers. Even my best photos pale in comparison to what some of these folks post, but their photos inspire me to try new things. Participating in the #bookstagram community has been a wonderful experience, broadening my awareness of the literature around me and challenging me to find new and interesting ways to take photographs of books. That last bit is not something I ever thought I would say, let alone take part in. Taking pictures of books as a hobby? What? I have met several great people and we all share a love of books and reading and they have introduced me to several new authors and titles. I am grateful to them for that.

Instagram user @sumaiyya.books hosted a July read-along of Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel Sleeping Giants. I was unfamiliar with the author and the book, but I wanted to dig deeper into this new community I had discovered so I purchased the book and started reading. The novel begins with a standard narrative style and follows a young girl riding her bicycle. She falls through a hole in the ground and finds herself in a perfectly square hole. When her rescuers arrive, they look down and see the young girl sitting in the palm of a giant metal hand. From there, the rest of the novel is told through interview transcripts, audio logs, and news articles as a small and secret team of scientists and soldiers studies this mysterious hand of unknown origin.

In the beginning, I was disappointed by the structure of the novel. I worried that by experiencing the story through interview transcripts, I would miss out on what I hoped would be the kind of meaty passages that give science fiction its wonderful flavors and setting. However, the author found ways to provide those moments through his characters’ voices as they recount their experiences in their own words. After a few short chapters, I found I had been transported into the book’s world and I forgot I was reading interview transcripts. Neuvel does a great job of establishing clear voices for the handful of primary characters at the center of his tale, especially the Interviewer, a faceless entity who seems to be everywhere at once. It would have been so easy for the Interviewer to be flat and uninteresting, but I found myself more interested in him –I think it is a he— and his origin than any of the other characters, not that the others weren’t interesting as well. Perhaps I was simply drawn to the mystery. We always want what we cannot have.

I would like to specifically point out that this is the fifth book I have read in a row that includes a strong female character. I am of a generation who feels women are equal to men, I was raised by a strong woman, and I am married to a strong woman, so it is gratifying to see female characters who are not merely window dressing and damsels in distress. It may just be luck of the draw, but I would prefer to believe strong female characters are becoming the norm rather than the exception. This is a year where America might elect its first female President. Perhaps the celestial bodies are aligning. Perhaps it is kismet.

Sleeping Giants is great fun, a perfect summer science fiction book that found me just when I needed it. I am happy I decided to jump on board the Instagram read-along. I did not know prior to purchasing the book that it is book one of a series. I do not know how long Neuvel plans to continue the series (he says at least three books, but maybe more), but if book two is as fun as Sleeping Giants, I am in for the long haul.