Star Wars is a space opera at its core, with the very essence of the saga being love hand-in-hand with tragedy—from Padmé and Anakin’s fall, to Leia’s loss of her very home and parents to protect the Rebellion she so believes in, to Luke’s acceptance of his father moments before his death. New York Times bestselling author Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars fits into Star Wars like a perfect puzzle piece, because it is in its very soul a story about star-crossed lovers who sit on the knife-edge of tragedy and chaos.
The novel takes its Young Adult fiction label in stride, expressing intense, raw emotions so often shown by youth. To think that YA fiction isn’t worth reading, that it can’t deliver a mature and engaging story like the best of them is utterly wrong and, in a way, devalues teenagers’ own maturity and tastes. Lost Stars is about younger characters, but like other great YA books such as the Harry Potter series it has an emotional depth that gives realism despite the massive starships and aliens races. Above all, Lost Stars tackles the complex struggles of morality, answering the question of how good people end up doing great evils under the Empire’s orders.
A driving factor of what makes Lost Stars so engrossing is the characters; each and every one has a personality that is unique and interesting, which Gray shows easily and without paragraphs of description. The prologue introduces the main characters, Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell, through brief glimpses into their lives as they age and grow closer, building them in such a way that by the first chapter it’s easy to feel as if you’ve known the characters for longer than a few pages.
Both Ciena and Thane are from the backwater planet of Jelucan, a planet which has a clear class divide between the poorer first-wave loyalists and the aristocratic second-wavers. While Ciena is from the former and Thane from the latter, the two bond over their love of flying and their shared dream to join the Imperial Academy. From the start the galaxy is against them: their families don’t trust the other, and the Empire is not one to breed teamwork and friendship.
There is one person who shows faith in the young Ciena and Thane, inspiring them to follow their dreams, and that is Tarkin. Seeing an encouraging—even warm—Tarkin interacting with children is jarring, and is just the first situation where different perspectives of characters and situations from the films are shown throughout the novel. The Empire may be quick to punish and inspire fear—that’s expected from it—and seeing a side that understands that positive reinforcement can also help to foster loyalty is something I personally found interesting.
Ciena Ree is perhaps the most enthralling character of the novel. Her strong moral code and her loyalty drive her to excel within the Empire, but she’s also loyal to another, which creates a compelling internal struggle whose outcome is impossible to predict. Thane Kyrell, on the other hand, has a distaste for authority because of familial abuse, and questions the Empire’s reign even as a child. That’s not to say he’s a fan of the Rebellion or the Republic, but he reaches a point where the evils of the Empire outweigh his dedication to duty. While Ciena was raised to put duty and her honour above all else, Thane was raised in a more a manipulative environment, with the only thing grounding him being Ciena herself—but can even she keep him from fighting oppression and devastation?
Though Ciena and Thane are obviously not big players when it comes to the core story of the films, they nonetheless manage to find themselves involved in events shown in the Original Trilogy, including the destruction of Alderaan and the first Death Star. Experiencing the galaxy through their eyes during happenings like these offers different views, and even new, unexpected emotional reactions to previously-experienced events. For example, Nash Windrider, a friend of Thane and Ciena’s, is an Alderaanian serving under the Empire when the first Death Star’s laser is used, and through him we get to see what that was like for an Alderaanian inside the Empire, in a place where showing grief could have one considered a traitor.
In the case of Nash, and of the other characters both primary and otherwise, the characterization is strong and consistent. Every action makes sense, every word of dialogue is in place. Even better, each of the female characters introduced, such as Ciena’s friends Jude Edison and Kendy Idele, is an entirely distinctive and non-stereotypical lady. Jude is intelligent and even a little socially awkward, while Kendy is expressive and outgoing. They, and the rest of the secondary and background cast, form a colourful world with an artistry similar to Stephen King.
What I enjoyed was that though the characters’ lives are wound up in the Empire’s rise and eventual fall, and while their lives are mostly out of their own control, they still feel like they have agency—that each and every choice a character made was their own to make, not a pre-determined plot device. This keeps the action of the novel exciting and unpredictable; the writing doesn’t fall into any stereotypical formulae. The entire novel begs the question of whether Ciena and Thane will somehow end up together despite the odds, or whether they’ll end with a Romeo and Juliet-esque finale.
This was the book I was most excited for out of the Journey to the Force Awakens lineup, both because of my love for YA fiction, and because I’m a sucker for emotional suffering. A bonus: there were no needless love triangles in Lost Stars, a trope that unfortunately features far too often in many YA romances. Of all the books in the new canon, this is my favourite so far. The characters, and their actions, will stick with me a long time, even while watching The Force Awakens (and yes, there are some amazing hints hidden among Lost Stars’ pages!)