“They both fell quiet once more, and as they flew through the unrelenting blackness of space, the only sound came from the droid as she continued humming to herself. Honesty looked around and realized he was indeed having an adventure.
And he did not like it one bit.” This is where the fun begins.
Earlier this month, readers were introduced to Star Wars: The High Republic with the oddly troubled Light of the Jedi. Between awkward prose and an unfocused plot, a potentially compelling story was squandered. Thankfully, Justina Ireland’s Star Wars: A Test of Courage is here to present a concise, sharply written, setting-establishing, and even sometimes daring novel for younger readers. Courage proves an apt title, from the themes explored to Ireland’s willingness to put good storytelling before gratuitous franchise-building.
Fortunately, reading Light of the Jedi first is not required for garnering story context. Ireland deftly summarizes the key details of the Great Disaster in roughly two paragraphs’ worth of exposition spread organically across dialogue. That’s something you’ll note in general as A Test of Courage flows effortlessly from point to point without skipping a beat. In fact, I read most of the story in a single sitting, barely noticing the time fly by.
The journey of teenage Jedi Knight Vernestra, the young inventor girl named Avon that she’s assigned to guard, and the friends they make along the way is a surprisingly unflinching tale. While still very PG in presentation, a surprising amount of characters are blatantly, clearly killed off part way through the book. While the inevitable sabotage of the starliner Steady Wing is foreshadowed straight away, it still strikes without warning, bolstered by palpable terror and heroism by the book’s young leads. Ireland bounds from set piece moments to periods of breathing room with precision timing, guiding her young heroes from one near-death struggle to another.
Rather than overloading A Test of Courage with plot, Ireland wisely leans into her cast’s unique personalities, exploring how they both stand alone and work together as a team to solve each new problem presented. You do get the sense that, like Light, Courage is having to establish characters for future books, but it feels far more organic. Vern is instantly likable, in many ways coming across as what Avar Kriss was intended to be — steadfast, inspiring, but human (well, technically Mirialan) and with room to grow into a core heroine of the High Republic. Avon Starros, an ancestor for Sana Starros from the Galactic Civil War comics, is equally welcome as a science-minded tween. Vern and Avon’s sisterly chemistry is immediate, each pushing the other’s buttons in just the right way.
Of their other companions, Avon’s bodyguard droid J-6 is a curious addition, as there’s not a ton of payoff for Avon freeing the droid from protocols in order to enable it to have more of a personality. Avon herself is surprisingly given the lion’s share of tangible backstory, alongside Honesty, the son of a representative for a planet on the verge of integrating with the Republic. We don’t get much for Vern other than that she was a skillful student from a young age, achieving knighthood a year ago at 15 – an exceptional rarity. However, out of all of them, the weak link is Imri.
Imri as a character is fine, if a bit one-note. He and Honesty have the most to grieve after the Steady Wing is blown to pieces, and Ireland uses this brilliantly to explore themes of spirituality, not to mention both religious and secular forms of mourning from optimistic and pessimistic points of view. That’s significant given how leery most modern Star Wars has been of exploring its setting from a religious perspective. We experience how Vern draws upon her faith in the Force for strength in such an unprecedented situation — and Imri’s struggle to keep that faith. The problem is that Imri’s more bitter sentiment isn’t explored in much depth. His abilities as an empath emerge once in the entire book as well, and it’s used as an excuse for him to make a foolish decision that doesn’t quite feel earned.
There’s also a bit about Vern’s lightsaber that leads to a brief, wildly jarring exposition dump on alternative weapons wielded by Force-sensitives. It goes to the point of implying that the type of weapon a Jedi wields defines their moral alignment — which has never really been a thing besides the color of one’s saber in the past. While I appreciate the effort given to highlight cultures outside the Jedi Order, it’s all abrupt and awkward where the rest of the book isn’t, and it all revolves around Imri’s growing temper.
Fortunately, while Imri himself is fairly one-note for much of the journey, how characters respond around him is great. In the end, he’s at least an effective foil for the rest of the cast to bounce off of, and by the story’s end, there’s definite potential for him to improve with future stories. “You cannot judge yourself by others, Imri. You can only judge yourself by your own efforts.” Hopefully he takes his master’s lessons to heart, in time.
Though it’s clear the story is written for readers ages 8-12, Ireland takes that as a challenge to expect more and respect the intelligence of her readers. There’s been more than a few all-ages media projects that have dismissed criticisms of quality with, “It’s for kids,” and it’s refreshing to finally see the new Expanded Universe rise above this with a creator willing to treat kids seriously. There’s a strong use of vocabulary and meaningful messages that are sure to enrich young readers’ minds, and none of it feels forced. The teams behind Star Wars Rebels and Resistance could learn something from Ireland.
Characters are portrayed like people, not obviously puppeted mouthpieces for morality plays. Even the villains, however brief their presence may be, are integrated into the experience so that you firmly understand their motivations and goals. Actions and the world are depicted with slick prose that focuses on whatever is most relevant in the moment, with a handful of mid-book illustrations to depict key points of action. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s executed marvelously. Ireland’s priority is always a well-told story rather than trying to awe or surprise you with elements swinging for the fences, and A Test of Courage is all the better for it. The seeds of potential here can grow into something bigger later.
The story here is perfectly enjoyable on its own, even if you’ve never engaged with Star Wars before. The chain of events is simple, yet believable, finding pathos in that simplicity over employing blatant homages. Whenever there is an in-universe nod, it’s subtle and brief. Nothing gets in the way of achieving Star Wars: A Test of Courage’s core narrative goals — and at this point, that’s incredibly refreshing to see in a new piece of Star Wars media. If more stories from the High Republic follow in Courage’s stead, then maybe there’s hope after all for the new setting.