When I picked up “Phasma”, I don’t know what I expected, but never would it have been this: a book that could easily have been a stand-alone dark fantasy novel.
“Phasma” presents the past of the First Order’s iconic trooper in an unusual way. It is a strange mixture of 1001 Arabian Nights and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi, or maybe fantasy. The story isn’t, as one might expect, a recount of one of her First Order missions. It presents us Phasma’s character, and for that, we travel into her past, to her primitive home planet, before she joined the First Order.
The entire story is framed in the Star Wars present: a Resistance spy, Vi Moradi, is captured by one of the First Order’s officers, known as the Cardinal. Cardinal wants one thing from the spy: the information on his rival, Phasma. “Who is the elusive chrome trooper with no past?”, the Cardinal asks, as we do. And, just like the legendary Shahrazad, Vi Moradi keeps herself alive throughout the interrogation by telling Phasma’s story from the beginning.
Narrating the story of a character who has a dozen lines in the course of two films while making their personality both interesting AND in line with the portrayal on-screen is a task nearly impossible. Yet somehow, the writer Delilah S. Dawson has managed to do just that.
Delilah S. Dawson has contributed to the Star Wars canon before via the short story “The Perfect Weapon”, showing the past of the mercenary Bazine Natal. It seems to me that Delilah S. Dawson is on a good track to become the official writer of backstories for tough-as-nails female villains. “Phasma” also shows signs of her iconic writing style – most of her own books are in the realm of dark fantasy, and like I said, at times “Phasma” reads like a dark fantasy.
The Backwater Setting
Phasma’s homeworld, Parnassos, is a primitive backwater. Literally. Her tribe’s bleak life of survival on hostile rocks on the shores of ever-rising black sea is painted in strokes so evocative that you can almost smell brine from the pages.
The worldbuilding is amazing, and I am saying it as a worldbuilder at heart, who is usually very critical of others’ worldbuilding. Parnassos really comes alive and it is a realistic, working setting. The only part to criticise are some of the names. Even though naming some of the tribespeople Siv or Balder goes nicely with the feel of “primitive, barbaric islanders”, it is still a bit lame. At least in case of Balder, the author could have used some alternative spelling (but preferably a different name altogether. Even though I appreciate the name is given to a Dug – the species that Sebulba is – which already makes it much more random).
A Gallery Of Memorable Personalities
Most people might start reading “Phasma” with the hope to see the trooper’s background within the First Order. Well, that is there and also isn’t there. Majority of the story takes place outside the First Order. But through the story of Cardinal, we learn – indirectly – a lot more about the First Order than, I daresay, we did from all other sources so far.
Delilah S. Dawson manages all this without even using almost any of the film characters. Young General Hux appears in the last part of the book, when I didn’t even expect him to show up anymore. Those few chapters, however, tell more even about him than the films themselves do. On the other hand, his father, Brendol Hux, is an important character throughout most of the book – it is him who crash-lands on Phasma’s homeworld and thanks to him, she joins the First Order.
It should be noted that ultimately all the characters in the tale and their personalities are interesting and you start to care about them – even those like the Cardinal, who starts from zero. Character-building is definitely one of Delilah S. Dawson’s strengths. She does with you the same thing Vi Moradi does to the Cardinal: she makes you interested in the story and the characters by denying you a straightforward answer to what you came to collect. And by the end, you realise you have learned much more than you would have otherwise, and gotten much more plastic picture of the situation.
The best thing about the whole book is that if you think about Phasma in the films, it 100% fits with the person described by the book. Suddenly, she is a living, breathing character and her actions make perfect sense. Let’s face it: what do you make of a masked soldier who orders her troops to open fire on civilians, reprimands Finn and calls him traitor, but who also allows him to blow up the First Order’s superweapon as trade for her life? Delilah S. Dawson has proved that she’s the writer who can do just that.
There are things to criticise about the book as well, of course. Mostly, it is the atmosphere, which can at times seem too dark for the Star Wars universe. There are also unnecessarily gruesome scenes at times, starting with Vi Moradi’s torture. Phasma’s world features cannibalism, strange sicknesses and macabre pictures of death in the desert. It makes sense in the setting, and the author’s writing delivers it in a sensible and artistic manner. Still, I am not sure if it was all necessary.
Overall, “Phasma” was a blast. To be honest, I had very low expectations for it, also based on some first-hand reviews – but after reading it, I have no idea what those reviewers had been complaining about. It has a gripping story, amazing setting and character building taken to such a level that one can only applaud.
If there is anything to say against “Phasma”, maybe it is that it isn’t really Star Wars. For most part, the story is a dark fantasy set in a random world. And despite the fact that we have a precedent in Star Wars canon with the likes of Matthew Stover, all the grim and macabre elements don’t really feel like Star Wars, either.
But the different atmosphere can be as much of a boon as burden. What remains true is the fact that “Phasma” worth reading, either as background to the new film trilogy, or even as a stand-alone story of several interesting characters.