Leia Before Episode VII: “Bloodline” Review

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Bloodline, written by Claudia Gray, is yet another of the novels trying to fill in the void between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Unlike for example Aftermath, Bloodline is set much closer to TFA in time and also in theme. “Where did the Resistance and the First Order come from and what happened to Leia between episodes VI and VII” could be more or less said to be the chief points of interest of the book.

The Plot

The protagonist of Bloodline is without any doubt princess Leia herself. There are other viewpoint characters besides her, including some senators, Leia’s young assistant and even younger hotshot pilot. Nonetheless, the story starts with Leia, ends with Leia, and follows Leia’s actions near the end of her several decades long career in the New Republic senate.

And New Republic and its future are the heart of the matter. We are some two decades after the Battle of Endor and six years before the events of The Force Awakens. The Senate is divided, we are getting the sense of deja vu from The Phantom Menace where it seems that democracy no longer works. While the Centrists in the Senate are aiming for more direct control, the Populists (including Leia) wish to give every planet more individual freedom, and the parties disagree and clash up to the point that nothing gets accomplished.

In the middle of this, the Senate gets a report of large-scale criminal network building up in fringe systems, a possible threat that could replace the former Hutt cartels. Princess Leia, wishing to take a break from the endless bickering, volunteers to investigate, partly to show the Senate that action is needed more than words, partly to just escape on a good old adventure. What she doesn’t expect is that an influential Centrist senator, Ransolm Casterfo, decides to join her mission. His presence provides a challenge for Leia in two chief ways: first, she needs to get along with him as a member of the opposite faction, second, she needs to deal with him as somebody who hasn’t experienced the Rebellion and holds somewhat naive views of how things actually worked under the Empire.

The relationship between Leia and senator Casterfo is actually crucial part of the plot and I have to say that it is masterfully written. I have to avoid spoilers, so I will say only this: when Casterfo was first presented, I expected him to fit into the trope of “an enemy turned into unexpected ally on first sight”. Leia indeed seemed to get that first impression, but only a couple of pages later Casterfo presented himself as an infuriating and possibly very dangerous type and it seemed Leia could strangle him on the spot. But Casterfo has self-reflection, too, and Leia’s opinion flip-flops again. And this kind of rollercoaster just continues. Leia isn’t the easiest person to get along with, either, and if I were to call the joint investigation led by her and Casterfo as an endeavour of a “dynamic duo”, then the word “dynamic” would get a completely new meaning here. And it is magnificent. If there is one reason to read Bloodline, it is the evolving and ever-changing relationship between Leia and Casterfo.

Cloak and Dagger

Bloodline features some amount of classic, old-fashioned Star Wars adventure, but there is also a lot of plotting and “senatory stuff” going on. In some ways, one could compare Bloodline to The Phantom Menace. First, in a way, Bloodline is to The Force Awakens what The Phantom Menace is to the original trilogy: you learn how things got from the peaceful state with messy politics into a full-scale war. Second, there is a thematic similarity, the mix of politics and something shady going on behind the scenes which the heroes have to tackle by running around with blasters and infiltrating places full of dangerous criminals.

If I were to make a diagram, I would say that about one-third of the story is a classic adventure, one-third deals with senatorial procedures and the political problems of the New Republic, and one-third is about various behind-the-scenes shady dealings and plotting which actually sets up the stage for the eventual rise of the factions we see in TFA: the First Order and the Resistance. I should hasten to add, however, that for most of the time, these are in no way explicit. The stage is being prepared slowly, piece by piece, and we only see the full picture once it is complete. The words “First Order” do appear in the book, but very, very late (and also in a fairly unexpected moment).

Connection to the Force Awakens

Bloodline has no Poe Dameron, no Rey or Finn or BB-8. A minor role is given to Korr Sella, Leia’s future advisor, who is briefly seen on the Senate balcony in TFA – a piece rather for fans seeking for details. The only major character present in the story is Leia, and even Han Solo appears only scarcely, mostly via holocalls. Luke is barely mentioned (off on Jedi business), as is little Ben. To be honest, I actually have no idea why the book’s title was chosen to be “Bloodline”. There is only one thing in the book it can refer to, but it is like naming Episode VI “The Ewok War”. If it were up to me, I would name the book “Twilight of the New Republic”, “Leia’s Last Stand” or something like that: that would sum up the contents more accurately.

Still, even though there is no direct connection to the characters of The Force Awakens, there is connection on the more general level. The planets (Hosnian Prime, the seat of the Senate at the time of its destruction in TFA), the First Order, the mood of the New Republic’s inhabitants. The fact that the young generation doesn’t remember the wars with the Empire and does not know how to deal with emerging threats. Bloodline feels like an actual bridge, THE bridge between the old trilogy and the newest film trilogy.

How Faithful Is It?

Bloodline feels both more Star Wars and less Star Wars than The Force Awakens. Less in the sense that TFA is much closer to a classic Star Wars adventure: a kid from a desert fights her way through a horde of stormtroopers… More in the sense that TFA does very little to explain how these kids in the desert fit into the big Galaxy and how do they relate to the Galaxy Far, Far Away in which, as we know, Death Star(s) have been blown up and the Empire was defeated. Bloodline is for those who were confused how did the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance come to be, and what happened to the New Republic that it got itself into such a mess. It does not explain everything, but it explains nearly everything. In any case, it explains enough so that now you can say: okay, this finally makes sense.

Most of all, it shows (generally) familiar setting (even though none of the planets we visit are “classic” Star Wars planets): this is the Galaxy we know, it has a Senate, people talk about the Rebellion and what became of it, governments build monuments to Bail Organa and shady dealers trade in Imperial memorabilia. And then there are criminal bosses, familiar and unfamiliar alien races, speeder chases and everything that belongs to a classic Star Wars adventure.

It also helps that the book is well-written, and the original film characters (namely Leia, Han and C-3PO) are portrayed fairly faithfully (always the greatest challenge for any writer). Leia is somewhere between her young self and her TFA-self, even though I would say she seems at times both a bit more carefree and a bit less confrontational than I would expect her to be. That isn’t to say she isn’t snarky, she just seems to be so in a bit different way than in all the films. Generally, however, there is nothing to complain about. Claudia Gray, one of the new names in the Star Wars literature, can certainly be commended for what she has shown to us.

Good, How Good?

I must say that when I opened the book, I had very low expectations. The first chapter, indeed the very first paragraphs including a senatorial speech were full of pathos which seemed to foreshadow the tone of the book and I did not like it. But then everything changed when the Fire… I mean, when senator Casterfo appeared; and when Leia’s rollercoaster-relationship with him started. If you get invested in that story, or in the senatorial investigation, or in the various behind-the-scene political plotting, you are going to enjoy the book. Give it some forty pages and by that time, you should be hooked enough to finish it in a really short time. If you don’t become invested by then, then maybe Bloodline isn’t for you.

The characters of Bloodline, both major and minor ones, are each likeable in their own way (even those who are fairly disgusting have something that is intriguing about them, be it personality traits or the way they style themselves). The “young generation” (basically Leia’s entourage) are nice or fun, but thankfully, they are not the main focus, otherwise the plot might just turn into the classic “rash kids are going on an adventure”. The way it stands, they just add the right amount of spice to the plot. Minor characters of various senators (Leia’s friends Varish Vicly and Tai-Lin Garr and the uptight lady Carise Sindian) are interesting enough as well and they provide us with different viewpoints existing among the New Republic’s citizens. I know I have already talked about senator Casterfo a lot, but I believe his character is the most originally written and the combination of his political views (opposite to Leia’s), relative youth and lack of “real world” experience and at the same time reasonable mind make for an excellent mix. Fun trivia: he was originally present in the early drafts of The Force Awakens script, and Claudia Gray picked him up so that at least part of him could be preserved.

Overall, I think Bloodline is one of the better novels the new Star Wars chronology has to offer, and it is worth giving it a shot, if nothing else.