The following is a spoiler-free review of the new Star Wars novel, Ronin.
On the “About the Author” page at the end of Ronin, the novel is described as, “…a Japanese reimagining of the Star Wars mythos…” That is exactly what Ronin delivers. Never before has the Star Wars universe been tipped on its side, shaken empty, and then refilled with brand new influences in such a fashion. In that approach arises a freedom gained by lifting the guardrails that have traditionally guided Star Wars authors for years now, and within that there is both beauty and danger inherent.
Ronin does not play by any of the standard Star Wars rules. The reader would best be served by scratching off the phrase “Star Wars” from the cover and going into this as if it were simply a science-fiction influenced story about a man and his robot companion. While author Emma Mieko Candon reuses certain elements from the Star Wars universe, they are wholly divorced from their typical associations and definitions. Candon uses this to leave the reader in equal measure familiar with what they write about while wholly disconnected from what those terms mean within the context of the story.
There are equal parts beauty and danger in this freedom. No Star Wars story has ever been so freed of the constraints that would typically hem in its author. (I can only imagine what Vector Prime would have been if R. A. Salvatore, one of the best fantasy writers of the age, could have had such limitations lifted as well.*) Candon is fearless in their reinterpretation of classic Star Wars elements by maintaining the things we know and love about such elements while applying them to a universe where they simply do not mean the same things anymore. By doing this, Candon’s non-Star Wars Star Wars is a fascinating mediation on identity, grief, and family that happens to have a lightsaber or two and an astromech droid with a hat, while being simultaneously steeped in Japanese culture and terminology, borrowing elements of Shinto religion, Kurosawa films (of course), and Edo-era ideals of honor-bound duty, loyalty to the shogun, and a life according to the blade.
Let’s be clear: the kind of freedom where an author can borrow lightly from the Star Wars universe and apply it to their own tale of Japanese-based warriors could go dangerously wrong. Ronin could have gone off the rails quickly and spiraled out of control by becoming a trite, simplistic, Shonen Jump-style, Dragonball Z-inspired slugfest where opposing Jedi and Sith users power up for forty pages and then shoot energy blasts at each other, destroying planets left and right. It could have been needlessly ponderous in the way characters sit and meditate for days and days at a time, perhaps staring at a plastic bag, floating through the wind.
But here, Candon knows where to rein things in before they go off the rails. While avoiding spoiling any of the events in the book, there are quintessential Star Wars moments here but done with their style each and every time. Yet, even while making sure that this is a Star Wars-tinted samurai tale, it undeniably belongs to the Star Wars pantheon.** There are spaceships and battles and sword fights and blasters. There are heroes and villains and side characters to love. There are even exotic locales and new planets to explore. And there is all sorts of bonkers Force things that we will certainly visit time and time again when we have need to discuss the way in which the Force behaves.
This no easy feat and is a testament to the author’s proficiency with writing itself, the very act by which they wield prose like a whip. A moment occurs late in the story where, like something out of Game of Thrones, truth is revealed but in a manner where if you are not paying close enough attention, you will miss it. Candon structures the prose in a way that, when revealed, the truth hits harder than anything else to that point. This majestic method of bringing the reader through the tale and then upending a certain element of the reader’s understanding was cause to stop, reread the paragraph, put it down, and reevaluate the entirety of the story.
One small element that supports the themes of Ronin pulls from a storytelling norm and Star Wars specialty. Each character’s name is important and the way in which the reader learns those names helps to inform us about that character in particular. Again, without giving away any of the game, some names come easier to the reader than others and the reader would do well to think about whose names are provided, whose are not, and why that may be. (I might suggest you study up on deadnaming*** before you open Ronin.)
If you enjoyed The Duel, you will love Ronin.**** We need to support this type of courageous exercise of letting Star Wars play with other kids out there. The playground of available influences by which to expand the scope and scale of Star Wars is wide and full of available playmates. Ronin indeed sets a high bar that will daunt whoever is tapped to helm the next out-of-the-box Star Wars. But Ronin establishes the principle that allowing these types of experimental, unhindered, innovative entries will only inspire others to write more, dream bigger, and birth more stories of identity, humanity, and family.
*Granted, Vector Prime is a great book but it feels very much gated by those kinds of constraints. The goal of Vector Prime was to setup and kick off the entire New Jedi Order series, a nineteen-book long adventure, and it did just fine. But when you stack that book up against this one, I think it is easy for the reader to imagine how much Salvatore did not have control over. It is much clearer that the goal for Ronin was for Candon to simply tell a great story attached to The Duel. Beyond that, without any further instruction from the publishing team at LucasFilm, Candon was given enough runway to fly. Salvatore, I think, based on what little information we have on it, was not given that same runway.
**We are avoiding the word “c*non” here because if we have to have that discourse again, Imma punch someone right in the face. Proverbially speaking.
***And, no, I am not linking that for concern for spoilers.
****If you didn’t enjoy The Duel, chances are you didn’t make it this far into the article anyway. So here’s a link to Trigun’s opening credits anyway for you faithful few who enjoy a good footnote like I do.