Orla Jareni and Cohmac Vitus were walking toward each other, gazes locked, half smiles on their faces. “Now, see, I could’ve sworn,” Orla said, “that I once heard you say you’d never return to that patch of the galaxy again.” “It doesn’t matter how far we run, or in what direction,” Master Cohmac replied. “In the end, we always come back to the beginning.” True words, though not always for the best reasons.
The High Republic has had a rocky road so far. Star Wars: Light of the Jedi, to put it delicately, had a significant number of issues. Then Star Wars: A Test of Courage was better in every single way, showing that maybe, just maybe, the High Republic has a chance to be more than just a very elaborate cash-in. Now here we are with Star Wars: Into the Dark, which somehow is the perfect opposite to both of these — a really awkward story that manages to be readable purely by virtue of its characters.
Characters and dialogue are where author Claudia Gray flourishes, sprinkling in organic exchanges at every turn. It’s incredibly rare to find a character dynamic unexplored among the cast, who vary wildly with a bookish nerd, a grieving Jedi Master, his errant colleague on the verge of leaving the Jedi Order, a stoner smuggler, a sentient rock, and the rough-and-tumble heiress to a shipping company. They all have immediate charisma and the potential for intriguing development — save for one.
Reath Silas is technically the lead of Into the Dark, but it’s difficult to view him as such. Billed as a male Hermione Granger, Reath regularly wavers between being a Gary Stu or an ironically foolish know-it-all. He misses the obvious metaphor in a basic philosophical lesson, which undercuts the implication he’s a learned student. Plus, he’s easily the least mature Jedi character out of the entire High Republic, despite being two years older than Vernestra in A Test of Courage. Out of everyone present, he faces the fewest consequences, grows the least, and just isn’t that interesting when compared to his compatriots.
Other characters are more engaging. Affie’s whole world comes undone, and she has to rebuild it effectively from scratch. Orla and Cohmac explore the boundaries of the Jedi doctrine in fascinating ways, raising questions about decisive action, repressing emotions, and the dangerous course the Jedi could hurtle down if they don’t evolve. Leox is a static comic foil who frankly one-ups Han Solo. Geode, a living rock with no spoken lines, manages to have a personality. That’s kind of incredible. In the end, they more than make up for every time you want to shout, “Oh, just shut up, Reath!” as do the array of supporting characters.
What’s going to make or break Into the Dark for you is whether or not that’s enough. If you can focus solely on the characters and emotions at the heart of the story, then you’ll enjoy the ride. However, if you’re expecting a tightly wound plot with grounded twists, let alone stakes that feel all that tangible, you may be disappointed. Into the Dark can be pretty messy.
Into the Dark pauses in the middle of the story for a few chapters just to get its characters up to speed on other events and details that could’ve been incorporated more organically. The passage of time in the narrative is rather unpredictable, sometimes taking leaps before slowing down considerably. Without spoilers, the story’s big twist is one of the weirdest ‘80s horror homages I could imagine being jammed into Star Wars. Credit where it’s due, the amount of retro horror references run wide — everything from Little Shop of Horrors to, seemingly, Critters 4 and Chopping Mall of all things. The major conflict is resolved rather too conveniently as well, rejecting the prospect of any greater conflict down the road.
It’s not that the action and downbeats are poorly written — Gray’s prose is fantastic. It’s the structural skeleton that’s a tad misshapen. Much like with Light of the Jedi, most of these issues feel like they should’ve been resolved in editing. There’s clearly a lot of love put into this book. Out of all the new timeline authors I’ve read, Gray might be the first who’s used multiple in-universe terms correctly, even “glow rod” — that’s a flashlight, for the record.
The only other major issue comes down to the book’s attempts at LGBTQ+ representation. Gray’s made a point to vary her novels’ casts in the past, and while I appreciate that, the result here is a very mixed bag. On one hand, in an extended flashback sequence spanning multiple chapters, a queen is established as having a woman consort, and it’s all handled gracefully. No big deal, just a part of the world.
But then we’re informed that the main reason Affie was paired with Leox as her mentor / partner for the Byne Guild is because he’s asexual. The moment is incredibly out of left field, both othering an otherwise great ace character and insinuating that apparently everyone else in Star Wars is so horny that they couldn’t be trusted to keep their hands off a 17-year-old girl.
There’s another moment where a different teenage girl is almost violently abducted. Jedi celibacy also receives an odd amount of attention, the idea of which is not only canonically incorrect, but also centers around Reath, the other 17-year-old cast member. It’s all a bit perplexing because while it’s great to see someone acknowledge that, yes, people have sex in Star Wars and this can be talked about, it’s executed so poorly.
I know there will be some folks complaining about this from both directions, but the fact of the matter is this — there’s nothing wrong with Leox being ace. I can also see how Gray might’ve thought addressing such tensions in pubescents might be prescient. However, the implementation is far from elegant. Given Disney’s overall hesitance on LGBTQ+ representation, let alone sexual themes of any kind in Star Wars, I hope that this is merely a hiccup on the way to better inclusivity. Regardless, while it may be poorly executed, you can always opt to breeze past these scenes.
I’d love to go deeper on certain developments in the story, but many of them are so heavily tied into spoilers that it’s hard to touch on them. The Nihil do eventually make an appearance, though they’re used as such basic fodder that their distinguishing characteristics don’t factor into the narrative at all. The station that the majority of the story plays out across is fascinating, full of dangerous plant life and caretaker droids. Gray also has fun playing with the Force and how her heroes engage with it. Where many portray them as little more than gallant knights, she dips into naturalism, wicca, and other spiritual traditions through the lens of Star Wars. One gets the impression that Gray would like to develop these ideas further, but what’s present is solid and expands the possibility of what it means to wield the Force.
Overall, Star Wars: Into the Dark is infinitely more consumable than Light of the Jedi, but it’s never as tight as A Test of Courage. If you can look past some more eyebrow-raising choices and an incredibly campy third act, it’s a fine read. Gray’s prose breezes through every high and low, despite the plot’s problems. While never quite reaching its full potential, rather like its lead Reath Silas, one can derive some great dialogue and supernatural goings-on within its pages.