If one were to show me the cover of this book, I would not be very impressed. In fact, I wasn’t. However, after deciding to give it a shot, the mistaken impression given by the cover was soon rectified. It may not be Shakespeare or even Timothy Zahn, but it is still a fairly entertaining and captivating read.
The cover picture of course has to allude to the style of the Star Wars Rebels animated series, because A New Dawn focuses on the first meeting between two of its main characters, namely the pilot Hera Syndulla and the reluctant ex-Jedi Kanan Jarrus. One thing I personally found very disappointing about Star Wars Rebels was the awfully stereotypical band of main characters. Mostly. In order of “interestingness”, I would line them up, starting from the lowest point: a Chewbacca replacement, an Artoo replacement, the main hero’s potential girlfriend, the destined orphan boy, the reluctant Jedi mentor, big gap, Hera Syndulla. Apart from her, sadly, most of the characters seemed to me fairly shallow at first sight, and at least so far also on the second. But if I ever wanted something to make me more invested, at least in Hera and Kanan, A New Dawn might be exactly the thing to do the job.
So what is the book like? In terms of Star Wars novels (including the old ones, no matter their current canonicity status), I would place it among the better half. Despite being derived from a fully Disney-like animated series, it tackles surprisingly heavy themes and is at times shockingly grim (one scene in particular is quite upsetting). John Jackson Miller’s approach to the story feels perhaps a bit more like a generic sci-fi novel than an actual Star Wars novel. Of all of the Star Wars stories, it reminded me of Matthew Stover’s ones, which almost breach the confines of Star Wars universe for me because of their grimness. It should be said however, that this comparison is still very much exaggerated – A New Dawn is much less dark, and not at all philosophically-heavy like Stover’s tales. A New Dawn is still an adventure and a lot of its grimness can be explained by the era it is set in: the time when the Empire is all-controlling and the common citizens are only pieces of the great machinery, and the prospect of any rebellion seems impossible. Nonetheless, it is not a “children’s” book in the usual sense. It is, however, clearly a book aimed at teenage and young adult audience (even though I think that doesn’t mean that Hera Syndulla’s depiction on the cover had to be unnecessarily and perhaps somewhat unfaithfully “postergirlized”).
Throughout most of the story, we are following Kanan, at that time a simple cargo-carrier pilot in the planetary system of Gorse and Cynda. The dark planet and its beautiful white moon are currently being used as a source of precious mineral required by the Empire’s hungry production machinery. As is to be expected, an Imperial inspection led by the ruthless Count Vidian brings trouble, thanks to other volatile elements represented by a scarred war veteran, a listening post officer and Hera, who is currently on a covert mission on the planet. Having been on the run and having denyed his Jedi past for most of his life, Kanan is forced by the circumstances to reevaluate his priorities – a process which is very slow and painful and not at all your classic “reluctant hero” cheap trick. Kanan seriously does not want to meddle in anything, and he is believable in that; he is not some Jedi who is just feigning disinterest and waiting to jump in and start saving innocents. In fact, his first motives to cooperate with Hera (all right, spoilers, who would have thought so, huh?) are awfully selfish and even later he almost doesn’t make it into the start of the Rebellion. If I hadn’t watched Rebels, I would probably have given up on him, just like Hera almost does.
The book’s plot is not that interesting, even though it must be said that everything is developing fairly unpredictably and that is really good. But what I consider the greatest bonus for the story are the characters. Aside from what I already said about Kanan and Hera, Gorse and Cynda are populated by a bunch of small people living their daily lives under the Empire, and all of them feel like real people and not just stereotypical cardboard characters. In this way, A New Dawn is perhaps the exact opposite of the animated series. The people have motivation, their own psychological problems (we have a former soldier with a serious case of post-war trauma), their fears and hopes (and this is not a cliché, but I mean it literally). Gender representation seems also very good to me (the ratio is basically 50-50, and the more important female characters include an Imperial captain, a Sullustan intelligence monitor, and a Besalisk boss of a mining company. Besalisk, for those unaware, is the big four-handed thing Obi-wan Kenobi met in a diner in Episode II).
Another thing I liked about the book was the setting. It is very much grey, but the dark Gorse and the white moon of Cynda descriptions have something poetic in them. And, in fact – and here I dare not insert my thoughts into the author’s plan, so please take this as a purely personal opinion – I had the feeling that there was some kind of symbolism in everything. Without doubts the author uses symbols – the three parts of the book are called “Ignition”, “Reaction” and “Detonation”, and if you read only a bit, you will know why. “A New Dawn” refers not only to the Rebellion or the Empire, but also to the cycle of Gorse and Cynda. And given how the planet and the moon are used as symbols many times throughout the book, I also like to think that, circling each other, they are sort of like Hera and Kenan, between whom the reader – yes – can see some romantic tension. And that is brilliantly written. I don’t know how you felt about Hera and Kenan in the series (if you have seen it); it seemed obvious that there had once been something between them, but it really wasn’t addressed further. A New Dawn shows their first meeting – and there is something, but it is by no means an obvious all-out romance. However, if the book does not at any point make you yell “in the name of all, kiss already!”, you are more cynical than Count Vidian.
So how to conclude this? If you have watched Star Wars Rebels and liked it, then obviously I suggest you read A New Dawn, as it greatly expands two of the characters from the show. If you have watched Star Wars Rebels and didn’t like it, then I might still suggest reading this, as it is better than the show, and you will have the advantage of already knowing the people in question. In fact, just like me, you may be the best audience. And most of all, if you feel like you want to have a reason to continue watching Star Wars Rebels, this might be it, because it should make you invested in the characters.