Death Stars and Dinner Parties: A Recap of James Luceno’s Catalyst

Where do I begin with recapping Catalyst? It’s a great novel by James Luceno, one of my favorite Star Wars authors who also wrote some of my other Star Wars books – Tarkin in the new canon, and Labyrinth of Evil, Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, and Darth Plagueis to name a few of his fantastic Legends works. I can’t call this a genuine review; I’d simply gush too much about this book. So instead, I’ve decided to put together a recap with no-spoiler and spoiler sections in preparation for Rogue One: A Star Wars story, which comes to theaters December 16th.

First off, let’s talk Catalyst without spoiling anything. If you’ve yet to read or finish the book, I don’t want to ruin anything, so the spoiler section will be marked below. This novel brilliantly connects the Clone Wars to the beginnings of the Galactic Civil War era. Opening on the snowy planet Vallt, we meet Galen and Lyra Erso. Both husband and wife are accomplished and passionate scientists. Galen prefers the lab, and enjoys nothing more than getting completely engrossed in his work. In fact, he’s actually distraught and anxious when he cannot pursue his passion, which plays into some choices he makes later on. On the other hand Lyra prefers the land, getting outdoors and doing field research. She also helps transcribe Galen’s scribbles, formulas, and technical notes on his theories of energy enrichment. Someday he hopes to provide unlimited power to the galaxy.

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Not this kind of unlimited power. Image Credit: LucasFilm

The lab on Vallt is attacked by the Separatists and occupied, it’s leader removed and replaced by a puppet of Count Dooku’s confederacy. Wrongfully imprisoned on charges of sedition and espionage, Galen is removed both from his research and his loving, pregnant wife. For months he is unable to continue his research, and is only granted leave from the prison to visit Lyra when Jyn (protagonist of Rogue One) is born. Learning of the Erso’s plight, an old friend of Galen’s named Orson Krennic begins a plan to get the Republic back in control of Vallt, and get his dear friend out of prison.

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Ben  Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, Image Credit: LucasFilm

If you’ve heard that the story starts a tad slow and really picks up once Krennic shows up, I’d be inclined to agree. James Luceno writes villains very well, and Krennic is a man on a mission from the word go. Orson Krennic and Galen Erso go way back, and they’re actually revealed to be friends from a prestigious university group known as the Futures Program. Ever since those days, Krennic has been furthering his education regarding friend and foe alike, constantly scheming and using people to claw his way up the ladder of the Republic hierarchy. Eventually that ambition translates into rivalries within the Empire as he crosses paths with Mas Amedda (Palpatine’s Chagrian advisor from the Clone Wars) and Grand Moff Tarkin. I think this is the first time I’ve genuinely ‘loved to hate’ a villain.

Galen is continuously lied to and deceived by his friend Krennic, but is so lost in his scheming and manipulations that he doesn’t realize he’s being led astray until it’s too late. Thanks to Krennic he is free from prison, but that also makes him feel as though he is in Krennic’s debt. For a few years Galen and his family move from planet to planet, always at the behest of Krennic, moving from job to job until Galen finally takes a position within the Empire: Project Celestial Power, a project designed to provide unlimited renewable energy across the galaxy using the hidden potential of rare kyber crystals. These crystals, many of them ‘recovered’ from deceased Jedi, hold immeasurable power, and Galen has been trying to unlock their potential for good for years. Krennic, however, has other goals in mind as the Empire prepares to build the ultimate weapon.

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If you don’t want to read spoilers, don’t read any further. You have officially been warned!

I’m going to do a different kind of spoiler section instead of just recapping the entire book. I want to go through some points I thought the novel would touch upon, and how they were touched upon, not mentioned, or different than I expected.

When Krennic was introduced and he makes his plans for the mission to Vallt, I really thought we’d get to see the beginning of his Death Trooper squad. He refuses to be bossed around by clone troopers, and instead enlists his own private soldiers to accompany him and his hired pilot, Has Obbitt. When one of the soldiers, Matese, was named and given a backstory, I was certain that he’d be a Death Trooper commander in the movie. But he dies in an ‘industrial accident’ and neither the Death Troopers or Imperial Security Bureau are ever mentioned. I’m going to mention another spoiler here because I think it ties in specifically with this point. Krennic visits many worlds to oversee progress on the Death Star, but he never visits Scariff in the book. I think that up until he is likely promoted again in the movie, Scariff is beyond his security clearance. That being said, I think that clears up why he doesn’t show up at Scariff or have his cadre of black-armored troopers. Seeing him refuse clone soldiers does set up his taste for more specialized troopers however, and it’s in line with his thirst for power and status.

I mentioned Has Obbit a moment ago and he is one of my favorite characters in this book. He is a Dressellian smuggler contacted by Krennic and conned into doing a great deal of work for him. He has a great character arc, going from a simple-minded smuggler to a conman in his own right, outsmarting both Krennic and Tarkin and carving out a niche in their rivalry that allows him to play them against each other while they largely ignore him. Late in the novel, he gains the help of rebel extremist Saw Gerrerra to save the Erso family from certain doom on Coruscant. I really felt for Has when he was able to reverse backstab Krennic in the end. I won’t spoil how he does it, but it was a satisfying conclusion for the character and a well-deserved victory.

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Saw’s cameo works brilliantly, and he doesn’t overstay his welcome in the novel. Image Credit: LucasFilm

Back to Krennic for a moment, I truly thought that his machinations would be the downfall of Galen and Lyra’s relationship. There is a tense scene in the novel where Krennic confronts Lyra, blaming her for Galen’s stress and distraction from his work on enriching the energy of kyber crystals. This comes after several instances where he has dinner and wine with the family, gets on their good side before trying to drive a stake between them. For a good chapter or two, I was worried that he would drive Lyra away and orchestrate some accident to get her out of the way. I’m happy to say that this didn’t play out as I expected, but will the movie use this easy cliche? Lyra survives the novel and after a heartfelt conversation about her fears for Galen and suspicions about Krennic, Galen finally sees the light. He sees that he has been tricked, manipulated, and forced down the wrong path by his former friend. His research is being weaponized, which sickens the pacifist Galen. For years he avoided choosing a side in the Clone Wars, and his unwitting participation in the construction of the Death Star’s main weapon fills him with guilt and grief. Before trying to organize an escape plan with Lyra, there’s another touching scene where he tries to reconnect with his young daughter Jyn, realizing he hasn’t been the father he should have set out to be from the start. This is going to set up an amazing relationship for them in the movie. None of it came off as cheesy or forced. It all felt gripping and real, and I hope that Galen is written in the movie exactly how he was in this novel.

 

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“Jyn – whatever I do, I do it to protect you. Do you understand?” Words of Galen Erso, made infinitely more powerful by this novel. Mads Mikkelsen as Galen Erso Image Credit: LucasFilm

Some speculated that Lyra Erso was a Jedi, or had some connection to the Order. Truth is, she doesn’t, not in the strictest sense. She is aware of the Force, connected to it in a spiritual way, and understands how their philosophies held the Republic together for generations. Galen takes a more secular view, but is never disdainful of her beliefs. I thought their might be a connection to Lor San Tekka, The Church of the Force, or perhaps a nod to Jedha, but if any of that is going to happen it will be in the film; there are no references to any of this in the book, but frankly it didn’t need them. Getting her perspective was enough for me, and her appreciation for nature and the kyber crystals was good character building for her. It’s worth noting that she also does not give Jyn her kyber crystal necklace in the novel, meaning that the necklace may be a parting gift after a terrible event in the film. Lyra survives the novel, but I’m fairly positive something awful is going to happen to her in the movie, and the necklace – and maybe a feeling in the Force surrounding it – is all Jyn will have left of her mother.

While we’re on the subject of the Force, it’s worth mentioning that no Force-wielders are present in the novel. Darth Vader is nowhere to be seen, and no Jedi are mentioned by name. The mysterious Temple of the Whills on Jedha will also be left a surprise to be discovered in the film, as will whatever Saw Gerrerra is doing there. Also not present are the new mercenary characters Moroff and Edrio Two-Tubes – but I can’t say that’s a seriously nitpick because weird mercenary characters really have no place in this novel. But I love the weird mercenary characters!

As I wrap this up, I’d like to mention possibly the biggest thing that will be saved for the film – the infamous thermal exhaust port. Galen Erso is an energy researcher, not an engineer like Krennic, so how the Death Star’s only weakness comes to be built is still a mystery. Is it truly a design flaw? Was it a last-minute addition to divert heat buildup from the weapon and it was in fact poorly planned all along? We don’t know yet. The last book to tackle this issue, the Legends novel Death Star by Michael Reeves, said it was exactly this, a stupid last-minute design change that had to be worked around during construction of another section within the Death Star. That novel is also a great read by another one of my favorite Star Wars authors, and if my memory serves me, it doesn’t cross too many wires that it couldn’t fit into your head canon somewhere.

All in all I give this novel a ten out of ten. It’s how tie-in novels should be written. It’s how villains and sympathetic characters should be written. If you’re looking for a book with blaster shootouts and space battles, this isn’t the book for you. But if you want to get to know a family wronged by the Empire and forced to escape and preserve their ideals and way of life, I can’t recommend it enough.

Last but not least, I wanted to include this scene. Pablo Hidalgo tweeted that we should all have this scene in mind when we watch Rogue One. Rumor has it that the empty chair in the room belongs to Krennic. I certainly hope not, but does he die in the film? Also, last but not least. . .least, there are a lot of rumors going around that there are nods to Star Wars Rebels characters in Rogue One. Check out the Death Star boardroom scene and the screenshot below to see what I’m talking about. In the photo you’ll notice some Hammerhead cruisers and a ship that looks an awful lot like the Ghost from behind.

P.S. I don’t own this video obviously

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Ghost and Hammerhead cruiser toward the middle/bottom. Image Credit: LucasFilm

Pick up Catalyst: A Rogue One novel at your favorite book store and see Rogue One in theaters this Friday, December 16th. Go see it a bunch of times and check back for a recap once I get out and see it! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my recap!

-David

 

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