There’s a reason why the original film was not titled Star Drama. Other than an odd combination of words, it just reeks of tedium. By its very nature, the word “wars” implies action, adventure, danger. It is those very qualities that are lacking in Catalyst, the prequel novel to the movie Rogue One.
Having said that, however, the novel is not without its good qualities. A healthy does of backstory is crammed into this 11-hour audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis, the fantastic actor who voices many of the current crop of Star Wars novels. But the listener has to understand that much of what happens in this book is, by definition, mere prelude to the events in the movie. And there’s not a lot of action. It’s like an episode of House of Cards in the Star Wars universe.
I purposefully didn’t read this book ahead of seeing the movie. I wanted as clean an experience as possible with the film. Now, having seen it twice, I dove into this book. Going in, I expected to get the backstories of all the major players in Rogue One. That’s not the case. The focus of the novel is solely on Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen in the movie), his wife, Lyra (Valene Kane ), and their mutual friend, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Only late in the story does Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera show up. Oh, Grand Moff Tarkin is present, but no one else. I was hoping for some background into the other characters, specifically Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, the mystic who is blind and one with the Force. Perhaps future books.
Perhaps the neatest thing author James Luceno accomplishes is put these characters in the context of the prequel movies, specifically Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. You saw those events from their points of view, not always knowing what we viewers know about the Jedi, the Emperor, and Darth Vader. We get a nice scene with the Ersos—Felicity Jones’s Jyn is a mere babe through most of this novel—fleeing Republic droids when Order 66 is instituted. The droids fall dead. The humans don’t know why, but they also don’t care since they’re still alive.
As a huge fan of Ben Mendelsohn, I enjoyed the many scenes with Krennic and his machinations and politics behind the scenes. I’ve just started House of Cards and I can already see a partial parallel. Mendelsohn is a terrific actor who could have been used more in the movie, so it was nice to learn more about his efforts to maintain the production of the Death Star—a term never used in the book—while trying to woo Galen into the Empire’s folds.
Another great part of the book is the discussion of the Kyber crystals. These are the minerals Jedis use to power their lightsabers. Those are small. The ones needed for the Death Star need to be quite a bit larger. Luceno’s discussions of Galen’s attempt to understand the crystals is good. Moreover, his wife, Lyra, respects the Jedis and their ways even though she isn’t a part of their order. It’s a good dip into the greater Star Wars mythology that I, before reading this book, didn’t know.
In the end, however, and boy do I hate to say this, Catalyst reads like a well-written Wookieepedia entry. The material is nice, the drama is real, but none of it amounts to a decent story, at least one that stands on its own. I know it’s not supposed to, so I’m about to embark on the audio of Rogue One itself. I’m wondering how much the two novels will tie into each other. At the very least, however, there will be action.