Book Review: “Star Wars Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel”

In preparation for the December 2016 theatrical release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Del Rey has provided fans with a novel that successfully meets the anticipation felt during the long months before the premiere and prepares them for the film’s new approach to Star Wars storytelling. At first blush, Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by seasoned sci-fi author James Luceno is not an easy sell—there are no lightsabers, no Jedi, not even a mention of R2-D2, who previously has been in every single Star Wars related movie. But true fans of the franchise will quickly be drawn into a complex back story with twists, deception, and details familiar in a galaxy far, far away.

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Galen Erso is a genius engaged in the business of energy production. Happily stationed on a distant planet with his pregnant wife, Lyra, he is contracted by a large company to find solutions that will bring power and civilization to remote star systems. The ongoing Clone War that the Republic is fighting against Count Dooku and his Separatist Army guarantees that this peaceful research arrangement will not last. A change in government brings with it a change in political sympathies and the Erso family is thrown into prison, torn apart before the birth of their first child.

Fortunately for Galen, he has a friend that recognizes his talents and potential, one Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic. Krennic is an engineer by trade, but a power hungry climber by choice. Having met Erso years before, he stored Galen’s talents away in a mental file cabinet, knowing that one day he’d be able to exploit the scientist’s efforts to push forward his own military aspirations.

The story exists, and is driven, by the development of Galen’s life-long passion—a way to use crystals to enhance power creation, as in the electricity type of power. He believes that it will enable positive change in the galaxy. Krennic believes that it could be the core element for a new super weapon, one that would finally create the type of fear that the Empire needs in order to rule with total control.

Where Catalyst finds its magic is in the constant dance that Krennic and Erso share as Krennic lies to enlist Erso into the development of a weapon that Galen opposes, as Erso justifies his acquiescence to a seemingly sincere Krennic, while Lyra Erso is trying to cut in and take back the husband and altruistic scientist that she loves and adores. There are no real action scenes to be found in this novel, no lightsaber duels, only a few pages devoted to military actions against a foe that is basically powerless. The deception, the double-crossing, the gullibility of the actors…these are the compelling beats that had me turning the pages one after another.

I don’t believe that I am spoiling anything by saying this, but we know that the Death Star is looming heavily in the background of the Rogue One story, and its shadow is dark in this book as well. We all know what the Death Star is able to accomplish upon the occasion of its first full test against Alderaan, so reading this book is less a mystery—“Ooo! I wonder if Krennic is able to convince Erso to build the weapon?”—but more of a study of the seductive power of evil. What sort of circumstance allows a person to be seduced by darkness? What questions don’t we ask when we already know the answers, but don’t wish to be help accountable for having foreknowledge? Do we all seek to be deceived? How far down the path can we travel before it is too late to turn back?

Which also begs the question–why would a die-hard Star Wars fan want to read such book?

You can’t not read it! I’ll elaborate.

  • The Characters of Galen Erso and Orson Krennic—A movie cannot possibly begin to explain all the subtleties of character. Two hours just isn’t enough time. It is why most writers are avoiding film and targeting television—a ten episode season over three to five years gives them a wonderful garden for growing characters. A book, likewise, can also provide fertile soil to plant and grow a character. The relationship between Krennic and Erso is so complex and layered, you’d never be able to appreciate it just from seeing the film. In fact, you may have lots of questions after seeing Rogue One if you don’t first read Catalyst. That isn’t to say you won’t enjoy the film, but a die-hard fan will appreciate it even more after reading this engaging book. (Nerd cred: you’ll be able to answer so many questions that your non-reading friends will undoubtedly have)
  • Kyber Crystals!—What’s a kyber crystal? It’s only the main component to a Jedi’s lightsaber! And for decades on planet Earth, they have been a mystery, but Catalyst finally goes into very specific detail about what they are, where they come from, what they do…it’s the whole bag, baby! I’d even to as far as to say that they are definitely a character in the book.
  • Death Star Engineering—Ever wonder how big the Death Star really is? How they built it? Who built it? What sort of worker force was required to put it together? And the resources necessary to supply it? What about that crazy, planet busting laser beam? How does that work?
  • Imperial Manipulations—This may have been covered in past novels, but I really enjoyed the “peek behind the curtain” provided by Catalyst into the workings of the Empire. It’s dog-eat-dog there at the beginning of the Empire’s rule. When I was a kid, I thought Darth Vader was the head of it all. I never even thought Tarkin was that big of a deal, because Vader was so intimidating. But we all knew that Tarkin was pulling the strings on the Death Star…until it blew up. Then we learned about Emperor Palpatine, but really it still felt like the Death Star was the seat of Imperial power, not realizing that it really was centered in Corusant. Well, Catalyst exposes some of the tumult occurring as this new organization tries to quell the Separatists, establish “order” and step up to the plate as the biggest power in the galaxy.

Each of these qualifies the book as a must-read for a Force Fan. Luceno is a master of sci-fi and very successfully weaves a compelling story into the complex fabric of almost 40 year old franchise. Folks may be skeptical of Rogue One’s place in Star Wars continuity, for reasons already stated, but Luceno’s contribution to the canonical world of Star Wars easily carries its own weight, and much more—it has made me a giggling child who cannot wait for a new Star Wars movie.