Wartime complexities

Mike Chen’s Star Wars: Brotherhood is a story that meaningfully grows the franchise

Wartime complexities
Image: Andrew Liptak

One of the reasons for why Star Wars has held such lasting appeal is that it’s a big world that has the potential to hold a lot of different stories: romance, space opera, military SF, epic fantasy, and so forth. When all the right elements align — the right story, characters, author, writing style — you get stories that emerge out of the vast catalog of world building elements that are consequential to the larger story, but also relevant to the world we live in.

That’s the case with Mike Chen’s first foray into the franchise, Star Wars: Brotherhood. It’s a story that slips right into the cracks between some of the franchise’s biggest elements, but which not only advances the story forward in some meaningful ways, and expands the world in unexpected — and welcome directions.

In the years that bridged the releases of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Lucasfilm laid out an ambitious publishing program in collaboration with a bunch of partners: Cartoon Network, Del Rey, Dark Horse Comics, and others, playing out the story of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall in between those two films. Filling in those timeline gaps is something that the literary branch of the franchise has long been good at: what did all those characters get up to in those years? With the timeline wiped clean, Lucasfilm has been going back to refill those now empty spaces in the timeline.

A lot of that story’s been told, thanks to The Clone Wars animated series, which neatly covered much of the gap between the two films, but which doesn’t quite get all of it. That lent itself a bit of a discrepancy between the various projects: Anakin Skywalker goes from hothead Padawan to experienced Jedi Knight and buddy/partner to Obi-Wan Kenobi within the span of a couple of months, from which he grows and deepens as a character.

Filling in gaps for the sake of plugging holes is a meaningless exercise, and one reason why there’s a notable string of Star Wars novels that exist out there that aren’t generally recommended to anyone but a completist. But if you can thread the needle by recognizing how to get from point A to point B, the end result is a book that actually stands out on the bookshelf. With Brotherhood, Chen manages not only to do just that, but he managed to capture the voices of the characters so well that I couldn’t help but hear their voices while reading.

Brotherhood sits in the immediate moments after Attack of the Clones, following Obi-Wan and Anakin as they and the galaxy try to catch their breath in the aftermath, and figure out how to move forward. After a devastating terrorist attack on the planet Cato Neimoidia, the home world of the Trade Federation (the tokenized villains seen throughout the prequel trilogy) has the potential to sway the planet’s stated neutrality in the growing war. Sensing an opportunity, both sides send their emissaries to help investigate the bombing. The Jedi Council and Republic dispatches Obi-Wan, on the reasoning that a massive deployment of Clones and the Supreme Chancellor will be seen as too aggressive a move, while the Separatists send Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku’s Sith devious apprentice.

What results is a fast-paced high-wire act as Obi-Wan tries to steer clear of causing any repercussions, while Asajj has motivations of her own, hoping to manipulate some of the key investigators into turning against the Republic’s efforts. She’s got the upper hand here: anyone who’s seen the films knows that the entire war effort is an orchestrated affair, and this is just one way of pulling the right strings toward that effort. Obi-Wan’s mission goes wrong, but after making some of the right inroads and some help from Anakin, who brings himself in at the right moment, they’re able to keep the situation from spiraling too far out of control.

The book is a tightly-plotted affair: Chen deftly brings the characters from point to point in all the right ways: it feels very much like what I think of when I think “Star Wars” story, something not all books manage to accomplish. Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christiansen’s (as well as James Arnold Taylor and Matt Lanter’s voices rang true here, which really help sells the action. He spends some time revisiting some familiar faces, like various clone troopers, Dexter Jettster and Padmé Amidala, providing some additional depth and nuance to the caricatures that we saw them as in Attack of the Clones. That added depth is the real strength of these sorts of tie-in works: providing a sense of consequence to the world, that the character’s actions are more than just rote motions that advance the story forward a couple of inches to simply carry the audience from established moment to established moment in the story we already know.

Chen goes a bit beyond that, weaving together a story about the power of persuasion and how easy people can fall prey to disinformation by bad actors. While Obi-Wan’s on his mission, he ends up coming up against two Neimoidian soldiers: Ruug and Ketar. Ruug is her planet’s equivalent of a black-ops agent, someone who’s killed at the behest of her government countless times, and who ends up leading the investigation into the bombing on her end, while Ketar is a younger, inexperienced soldier who’s come up through the ranks under her guidance. While Ruug recognizes that she and Obi-Wan are essentially on opposing sides of the conflict, she decides to trust in him and his mission.

Ketar, however, is easy prey for Asajj’s manipulations. Chen plays up an interesting fall for the soldier, one that feels all too relevant while surveying the direction the discourse within the US has taken in the last decade. Asajj doesn’t exactly lie to Ketar: she gives him just enough information and nudges him to form his own decisions based on that reading of the situation. Over the course of the book, he goes from someone who’s skeptical of Obi-Wan to someone who’s fervently opposing him, to the point where he’s warped all out of shape to the point where he’s willing to plant bombs and incur civilian casualties to get reality to shape the worldview that he’s adopted.

For a number of years now, it feels as though Lucasfilm has been working to inject a bit more nuance into the Star Wars franchise. Rogue One (and from the looks of things, the upcoming Disney+ prequel series Andor) painted a picture of a morally-compromised Rebel Alliance that was willing to resort to extreme measures to win the war — a far cry from the morally-driven movement that would save the galaxy. Other books, like Christie Golden’s Battlefront tie-in Inferno Squadron and Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron books did much the same: showed that warfare is rarely a straight-forward, clear-cut, good-verses-evil fight that we sometimes see in the movies we watch. They’re gritty and complicated. This feels like an extension of that, as Chen shows that the galaxy didn’t quite split neatly into two halves of a whole: planets abstained from fighting, not wanting to take part for a variety of reasons, whether that was their species general disposition to risk/reward calculation, or for more ulterior motives, like trying to distance themselves from their past violent selves.

Ultimately, these conflicts come down to the decisions that individuals make with the information that they have before them. In an ideal world, one will take what they see and carefully consider it, weighing their actions against the eventual results. But as we’ve seen in the real world, it’s not difficult to muddy the waters, to complicate that picture or deliver just slices to people, and alter everything that happens after that.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the Clone Wars play out on TV, and we’ve seen what the end results were. What Brotherhood shows is the early moments, before Anakin Skywalker’s fall became inevitable, which further reinforces the tragedy that ultimately makes up the first two-thirds of the Skywalker Saga: a couple of different decisions in the right places, and the epic story would have played out much, much differently.