The Teenagers’ Guide To The Galaxy
Let’s get the thorn in my side out of the way: Young Adult novels. I’m not in the target audience for this novel, being a crisp 25 myself. I also don’t think I would’ve been in the target audience (14-21) at any point after my 14th Birthday, but if I develop that further I’ll come off as pretentious. So I won’t.
That said, this was not at all bad. I found it adequate, and I’ll tell you why below, but let’s get the cover pic out of the way first.
YA author Claudia Gray was handed the reigns to this Leia-coming-of-age story, and while that pesky tag had me anxious at first, I ended up enjoying the novel for what it was: a decent entry worthy of the Star Wars stamp, that will probably resonate more with younger people than it did with me, but one that had enough in it to keep me interested, if feeling a little underwhelmed by the end. The whole story revolves around Leia’s sixteenth Birthday, and her quest to prove she is worthy of the title of Heir of the Crown of Alderaan.
Side note: Star Wars still knows how to build its characters’ backstories and prove them worthy of their status, even if that status was established decades ago, and Gray is not afraid to have her lead learn by failing. This is refreshing. Back to the point:
Leia must undergo three challenges to prove that she is, indeed, capable of picking up the Alderaanian mantle once her parents step down from the role. Or the planet gets blown up and they get obliterated in the process, whichever comes first.
The challenges are of the body, the mind, and the heart, and she starts going at them more or less at the same time. Our beloved princess decides her challenge of the body will be fulfilled by climbing the highest mountain peak on Alderaan, that of the mind by starting her training in the ways of Galactic politics as a junior senator, and that of the heart by running relief missions to less fortunate worlds in the Galaxy.
This three-pronged approach is a good thing as it gives us three distinct action planes, interspersed with Leia more or less hanging around Alderaan and being a kid, or trying her best at graduating from that to angsty, frustrated teenage years, more like.
The festive, ceremony-centric start to the book’s proceedings is short and we get thrust into the thick of it all, with Leia leading her first relief mission and ending up going above and beyond the call of duty in it, pulling a fast one on the Empire-occupied world she visits I won’t spoil it since I found this opening mini-adventure very exciting to see unfold.
The following few hundred pages have Leia jump from pathfinding training alongside a pack of other youngsters (including Amilyn Holdo, but more on that later), joining her father in Senate meetings or taking part in her own junior ones, and spearheading various aid and relief operations as the needs arise. This is all set against the backdrop of the rise of the Rebellion, with her parents beginning to shy away from Leia and actively keeping her clear of more and more of their meetings and doings, something that Leia doesn’t understand at first and that takes a good part of the book for her and her parents (especially Bail) to work through.
It is made readily obvious that there is a great deal of love in the Organa family, and Leia finds her borderline shunning by Bail and Breha bothersome, even infuriating at times. It is slowly revealed that they are only trying to protect her from the evils of the greater world, and shield her from the risk she’d incur if she were to know more about her parents’ dealings.
But what kid/teen actually obeys their parents when told “No!” and “It’s for your own good!”?
The main set pieces of the book are a series of sequences where Leia keeps failing upwards. Repeatedly. What this means is that every time she makes a mistake and runs the risk of either putting herself or others in danger, she ends up either turning it around or enlisting aid with that objective, doing more good than harm in the long run.
And while she learns from her mistakes, she manages to push the envelope even further almost every time and keeps getting herself into sticky situations of all sorts: from discovering a document trail that can lead anyone to uncovering the existence of the Rebellion (still a well-kept secret at this point in time), to discovering the Rebel base her father is running on a remote planet we may have recently seen on screen (hint-hint), to effectively saving the entire Rebel Fleet from being discovered, and thus the lives of thousands of people.
She does all this by being inquisitive, and a genuinely curious child who will not keep away no matter the repeated NOs she gets. I can totally relate to that. As I’m sure my parents can to the other side of the argument.
Some interesting characters are brought to the fold along with great insight into Alderaanian life, Senate doings (which make SW politics genuinely exciting for a change), and other bits and pieces of world building that I think show dedication, love, and research into the titular character and the universe therein.
As I’ve mentioned, this set against the backdrop of the final years before A New Hope, a time that I personally feel would be the most interesting in the current SW mythos to explore further.
A blossoming Rebellion whose members are keeping quiet underneath all the Imperial menace and Palpatine’s iron grip over the Galaxy, bold-faced lies and half-truths being paraded in front of people like Wilhuff Tarkin… The inter-character discussions, set-pieces, relationships and implications thereof are to die for and I found them to be the best parts of the book, definitely overshadowing the action parts, even though there were enough of those to balance things out. But there were some drawbacks to it all, as will be evident by the final score this gets…
Amilyn. Holdo. The Oh-My-Why bit of this novel.
There’s a simple way I found to characterise this feeble attempt at the “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage: discount Luna Lovegood. Twice the cringe, half the laughs. I wish I were joking.
Amilyn is portrayed as the airhead to Leia’s almost sleuth-like logic and pursuit of goals. She is more into the spiritual side of things (it’s even been said she may be Force Sensitive which I’m not going to rant about here because I’m amassing more material for a full-on rage-fest) and manages to draw Leia into the SW equivalent of yoga at one point.
There’s also the fact that her hair changes colours all the time and her clothing is always something that people gawk at and not without reason. She’s the oddball. The standout. The one that hides a kind heart behind an exterior that makes you say “poodoo”.
And I hate her to bits since she has no arc, only becoming a simple tag-along for Leia in a few of her various dangerous missions and intrepid adventures.
I wish I could say more about her, but she’s only there for limited amounts of time that, sadly, amounted to nothing of note to me. Leia eventually warms up to and starts seeing a different side of her, learning a bit from the experience, and that’s about it. At least seven of the films in this saga can do without the knowledge that Holdo was ever a thing.
And the eighth could do without her being a thing altogether, but I digress...
A better use of narrative inspiration are a couple of Leia’s squadmates in the pathfinding class, namely a Coruscanti boy by the name of Chassellon Stevis who ends up learning the wrong of his arrogant ways during their time together, Lieutenant Ress Batten, a pilot with which Leia becomes closely acquainted, and Kier Domadi, Leia’s first love-interest.
The latter was described by the author as the anti-Han, and that is entirely true with Kier being the embodiment of class, tact, loyalty, logical reasoning, and patience, with even Leia’s mother (jokingly) noting at one point that first loves are meant in her view to be more on the scoundrel spectrum than Kier.
Gray’s particular use of the word scoundrel there was a nice touch that I thoroughly enjoyed, although the love story itself is obvious from the get-go and not at all spectacular.
Image by Magali Villeneuve.
Another sore spot that the book left me with was describing too many of Leia’s thought processes and feelings in “behind the scenes” looks that happened as she left a certain meeting or event. These are welcome in their narrative role of describing more of the characters’ motivations, naturally, but I felt Gray went into a lot of minutiae and repeatedly underlined things and feelings we’d long since been made aware Leia had or was going through.
Between that and her losing the beats to actually describe certain new elements she brought to the lore (it took me about half a book to realise pulmonodes were actually lung-replacements and not glowing bits of necklace-style jewelry, and I’m usually not that thick when it comes to getting what things are) and getting a little on the heavy-handed with driving some of the more sentimental scenes home (especially with them being very similar to one another) I couldn’t enjoy the whole experience to the fullest I may have years ago, and I only have this stance to judge the book from.
Nonetheless, everything about this screams Leia, and even in her formative years there are flashes of the Princess we’ve all known and loved for decades. Alongside the amazing timeline positioning itself, vivid cast of side characters, short bursts of Tarkin, varied planets and locales, blasts from the past (hello, Panaka!) and the slow but constant setting up of the Rebellion itself that permeated close to half the book by my estimates, this is definitely worth a read as long as you don’t set yourself up for the most complex of experiences.
Most of us know what comes to pass when getting into this, and that’s fine, there’s no reinventing the wheel, just adequate happenstances within an existing framework - something that the current leadership of Lucasfilm/Disney seems to be doing quite well as opposed to when they’re left entirely to their own narrative devices…
The Gung-Ho Geeks rate this a nostalgic 7.5 Tantive IVs out of 10: