“Rebel Rising” is a Star Wars novel that follows the story of young Jyn Erso. It is a “prequel” to Rogue One, showing Jyn growing up among Saw Gerrera’s partisans and presenting the events that led to her prison sentence under a fake name where we find her in the film.
“Rebel Rising” was marketed as a young adult novel, and it fits the expectations one would have for the genre. There is the young struggling heroine, her differences with the parental figures in her life, her first love, and gradual growth of her scepticism towards the universe around her. Of course, her disillusionment has to stop just before becoming complete nihilism: as we know from Rogue One, there is a spark of hope in Jyn that remains to be kindled one day.
This spark of hope is something the story makes sure to remind us of every once in a while. There are rather unsubtle moments of deep symbolism, such as when Jyn witnesses a cultural event on an alien planet and talks the story of a starbird rising from the ashes of a collapsed star.
The negative bit is that these references sometimes feel un-organically attached to the main story. It is as if Jyn, as written by Beth Revis, would have wanted to act differently and her story would have ended differently than how Disney needed it to be.
Who’s That Girl?
So what is Rebel Rising’s Jyn like? In short, a girl full of conflicts with good reasons to mistrust people. We follow the young heroine from her rescue in the ruins of her parents’ farm through several years of living and training with Saw Gerrera. Later we follow her as she gets separated from Saw, through her independent life and up to her imprisonment in the Wobani labour camp.
The last part – the scenes from the prison, closest to “the present” of Rogue One – is structurally interwoven with the rest of the story. This forms a very interesting narrative system that could have possibly been even better if there were more connection (parallels or relevant common themes) between the scenes “now” (in prison) and the longer story arcs “then” (Jyn’s childhood/teenage years) in-between.
Indeed one of the things I felt after finishing the book was that it lacked some consistency, or that it could have had a more polished structure. Different parts of the story felt both disconnected and unfinished.
Supporting Characters Just Passing By
For example, at one point Jyn lives on a rural planet. She learns a few skills and has her first romantic relationship – but the story fails to show how exactly these things contributed to building the Jyn we know now. Except in the very vague, generic way of “I have been through a lot”. But I would have liked to see the reason why the story spends time showing this specific setting and these specific people. Either there should have been more of the story, or it did not need to have been there at all. The time might have been spent on some different experience showing how exactly did Jyn shift from a little girl on the run to the defiant young lady in the film.
Something similar can be said about all the characters Jyn meets (perhaps with the exception of Saw Gerrera). They appear and disappear without leaving much of a memorable trace.
Jyn’s story features several themes that seem to be touched but never expanded to their full potential. Her character development also does not seem to proceed from point A to point B, but moves in circles – or rather in some strange tangled knots. Her flip-floppy attitude towards the Rebellion, towards the Empire (!), or to killing people does not leave the impression “this is a complex character whose opinions evolve (or at least change)”, but rather the impression that the author did not have a clear idea what Jyn’s opinions should be at all.
To use roleplaying language, Beth Revis’s Jyn comes off as a Chaotic Neutral character – which should be commended if it was intended because such a character is difficult to write. However, even if the character herself is chaotic, the narrative should not be.
The Dark Times
What the book manages to get across very well is the dark atmosphere of the Empire’s reign and the despair of those who suffer under it. And it does not do so by presenting the Empire as somehow metaphysically evil, but by presenting it as the grey machine that slowly grinds everyone in its path. Jyn’s experience, both while on her own and in prison, illustrates this well.
The book also spends quite some time showing the background of Saw Gerrera’s rebel cell. Given the overall atmosphere, it shows well why he would become the paranoid terrorist we know him to be. Paradoxically, Saw fans may enjoy the story even more than Jyn fans.
“Rebel Rising” is first and foremost a story for those who wish to know more about Jyn’s backstory. However, given the rather arbitrary set of events that make up its plot, it seems like that could be just one of many Jyn’s possible pasts. I did not find what I was looking for in the book: the specific, tangible explanation of why Jyn is the way she is.
This does not diminish the quality of the writing or the individual plotlines, especially Jyn’s part among Saw’s partisans or in the Wobani prison. The story presents a dark tragic story of a girl in a grey world. The downside is that it often could be any girl in any grey world: many a Star Wars fan or even Jyn fan may be disappointed.
Another thing a potential reader should consider is that “Rebel Rising” is a young adult novel with the run-of-the-mill YA elements. Even in terms of that genre, these elements represent some unfulfilled potential. Even as a YA novel, “Rebel Rising” could have expanded some of its more original elements at the expense of the run-of-the-mill ones. That, combined with the rest, makes it a novel that did not entirely live up to its potential.