This book has been on our radar since its announcement along with the other Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens books. Touted as a story about two childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of the Galactic Civil War, it was also teased as a romance book. Although it is one of the young adult/junior reader books this is no baby book. It’s a very sizeable read, probably close to the size of many of the novels. While I was able to knock out Smuggler’s Run, Weapon of a Jedi, and Moving Target pretty quickly, this one took some time.
We meet our characters Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree at the tender age of eight on their home planet of Jelucan–a rough, cold outer rim planet where there are very distinct social cultures. Thane is from a financially successful family that seems to have many domestic problems. His father’s abuse is rivaled only by his older brother’s bullying and his mother’s negligence. On the other side of the coin (credit?) Ciena lives in the valleys in a very traditional household. They could definitely be seen as poor by most galactic standards but their love for each other and strong values of tradition, love, and honor show that what they lack in material wealth, they definitely make up for in a fulfilling family life. Ciena also has a responsibility to live for her younger sister as well, who died after birth. Ciena wears a braided bracelet to symbolize that she carries her sister wherever she goes and must show her sister everything that she otherwise will never experience. Right away they offer two extreme sides of the inhabitants of not only this world but probably the entire galaxy, but they also have something in common: their dream of flight. Whether as an escape or simply a wish to expand their horizons, they both have an intense wish to become pilots. I love that right away the book paints both their contrasts and their commonalities so vividly and boldly. Also right away Tarkin’s cameo appearance is the first of many. I really loved the cameos in this book; they felt natural and definitely not forced or shoved in as petty fan service at all. Tarkin’s actions felt like genuine Tarkin, which with his recent appearances in The Clone Wars, Rebels, and Tarkin, show me that the synergy of the story group and Lucasfilm’s new canon is working very well. Also… Piett. Could’ve been any unnamed officer in the Empire but the fact that even Tarkin is name-dropping tells me somebody out there knows what I like.
The book moves through the main characters’ lives, showing us windows into what their youngling and adolescent lives are like. Ciena’s struggle with honor and loyalty to her family and their roots. Thane’s fathers’ and brother’s abuse, both physical and mental. Some of these issues are very powerful in how they are presented and I’m a bit surprised they are even addressed in a young adult book. It just goes to show that everyone that’s so worried about Disney baby-fying their new acquisitions can calm down.
The pair finishes boot camp and are both accepted into the Imperial academy at Coruscant. Finally escaping their respective Outer Rim prisons, they embark upon their lives. Academy life = dorm life and all the hijinks, roomates, and worries therein. The roommates are all wonderful plays on common tropes. Jude is the smarty pants, Kendy is the wild one, Nash is the jokester, and Ved is the hothead. While at the start you feel like you already know their parts in the story it’s fascinating where the story takes them. Academy life and adolescence are both where Ciena and Thane begin to notice each other and also where their lives begin to take them farther apart.
As they move on to Imperial service Ciena’s first post is as Lieutenant on the Star Destroyer Devastator. Thane becomes an elite pilot stationed at an all-too-familiar secret battle station. This is where some of the experiences of the characters begin to interact with the history we know. The Devastator is the Star Destroyer that captures Princess Leia Organa’s Tantive IV and Ciena is there. While bringing Darth Vader’s captive to the Death Star, Ciena has another chance encounter with Grand Moff Tarkin. Thane’s service on the Death Star is interrupted when he is sent on a scouting mission to Dantooine is search of a rebel base. Then Alderaan. I really like the profound effect that this event has on not on only our main characters but also some of the other characters we’ve come to know in this book. It’s such a cataclysmic event that its effects can’t be ignored or put to the side and I’m glad this book deals with reacting to it so powerfully. With the destruction of the Death Star following so soon I really love the confusion about the situation and the chaos that follows that. Thane is left in the dark, unable to reach his superiors and report the status of his mission; Ciena also loses contact with her chain of command. Their reunion on Dantooine is where they share their first kiss, and where we begin to see the growing divide between them.
As they witness the reality of war and the Empire, their different ideals result in steps toward their vastly different lives. Thane leaves the service, unable to assist in the atrocities that the Empire commits. Ciena’s honor demands she hold onto her oaths and so she continues, bound by her word. Ciena finds Thane and in what they believe is their last encounter…. well…. yeah.
This is where things get even more interesting. Thane finds his way to the Rebellion, joining up just before the battle of Hoth. Ciena serves on Executor with Admiral Ozzel. Her travels take her through an asteroid field and then to Bespin. Thane find himself flying with Corona Squadron. Ciena’s family troubles bring her back to Jelucan…. and it also brings Thane back.
This was a wonderful part in the story that really shows how much Thane not only cares for Ciena, but really shows how much he honored her way of life. It shows he not only loved her as a person but loved her so much he did his best to make himself worthy of her ideals. It’s a strange juxtaposition that almost makes Thane the Ciena that should have been.
An encounter in Hedalla in which they finally engage each other puts all of their ideals and loyalties to the test. It’s a heartbreaking scene that’s gripping to read. The emotions here are intense, not only from our main characters but also others we’ve grown to know.
Then Endor. It’s as if everything happens so fast the characters can barely keep up. From here to Jakku the story is a whirlwind of betrayal and loss. The characters’ growth and suffering are very vivid and work great to show the human reaction to the horrors of war.
The ending is a bit open ended, but not so much that it feels unfinished; it’s open-ended in that it leaves possibilities and questions. The characters’ experiences have taken them on such a harrowing journey that the ending leaves the reader feeling a bit hollow as well. Not hollow in an unfullfilled way at all, but hollow in that we’ve looked through their eyes for so long and seen everything that they’ve seen and now we are left in the aftermath (on purpose) of all of it, just like them.
This book is a fascinating in-depth look into the lives of two wonderfully developed characters. The effect of the war and their experiences is such a visceral thing to see through their eyes and the backdrop of the Galactic Civil War works wonders here. I find a lot of the content, themes, and ideas presented here to be quite mature, especially for a young adult book. The things like physical abuse, post-traumatic stress, love lost, and even suicidal thoughts are handled very well and in a very honest way. The closeness we feel towards the characters definitely makes their tragedies feel very real. Out of the Force Friday books this is the one that truly feels like the journey to The Force Awakens. If you’re trying to steer clear of Star Wars romance…. READ IT ANYWAY.