Author Delilah S. Dawson has at long last returned to the Star Wars universe, and in triumphant fashion! Her latest, “Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire”, is an all-new adventure featuring two of the breakout stars from her 2017 novel “Phasma”, and takes us to the edge of the galaxy, all the way to the mysterious and magical world of Batuu!
The story takes place on the rough streets, dangerous jungles, and Grindalid infested old ruins of Black Spire Outpost, which thanks to Disney’s new interactive theme park Galaxy’s Edge, I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about. This book serves as a prequel to the narrative the park employs and quite successfully gives you a strong sense of what you can expect when you visit the park for yourself. But don’t dismiss this novel as simply a handy character guide or park map to help visitors, no; this story stands on its own apart from that.
This is a story Batuuans will pass down from one generation to the next, telling those that either weren’t there or too young to remember, about that time when the First Order came to Black Spire Outpost, and a Resistance hero name Vi who fought them.
The plot is delightfully straightforward, as Resistance fighter Vi Moradi is dispositioned by General Organa to establish a new base on the Planet Batuu and hopefully, perhaps more importantly, recruit some locals to their cause.
You see, the bulk of the story takes place after the events in The Last Jedi, so the Resistance is scrambling, having suffered heavy losses at the hands of the First Order. They are in short supply of just about everything one would need to mount an effective campaign, but true to form, the one thing they are not short on is hope.
Black Spire Outpost (BSO) is the last outpost before the reaches of Wild Space, and up until now has managed to avoid the conflict by not being strategically exceptional or rich in resources. In other words, there’s been no reason for the First Order to go there, but that’s about to change.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Batuu or Black Spire Outpost in a Star Wars book, that honor went to Thrawn: Alliances and author Timothy Zahn, but that was set long ago in the timeline. It’s now 34 plus years later and the First Order, not the Empire, is about to cross paths with the ancient spires of Batuu.
So, if it’s not a question of if, then it’s a question of when, and that’s one of the main threads in Dawson’s newest novel “Phasma: Part 2” I’m obviously joking about the title, but the connections between that book and this one are loud, clear, and purposeful. And Dawson wears them proudly on her jacket breast like a Resistance insignia, the same way our ass-kicking protagonist wears hers.
This is going to sound like an insult, but it’s not, “Black Spire” is a very easy read. It breaks down storytelling to its simplest forms and gives us a no-nonsense linear approach to some very direct questions. Questions like, do you want to live, or do you want to die? Are you content being the oppressed, or do you want to fight for your freedom? How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to forgive?
These are weighty themes to be sure, but Dawson’s writing is on point, making the reader’s comprehension of these ruminations effortless and easily conjugated. I find her writing to be almost sleight of hand, where you’re enjoying the experience so much; you don’t even realize you’ve managed a moral edification. And the narrative fork in the road was something you didn’t even know was a hurdle until after you left it well behind. This makes the experience of reading her novel not only rewarding in real time, but also long after the fact.
“They can’t be scared of something they can’t yet imagine.”
So, the Resistance is in no position to be asking favors of anyone, especially from people who don’t see the First Order as anything other than an over-zealous police force. Having never experienced their true nature or viciousness, the people of Batuu don’t see the First Order as the existential threat Vi and her band of freedom fighters do. It’ll take some convincing on Vi’s part, but she’s determined and certainly up to the challenge.
This is where Delilah plays small-ball for the most part, cleverly disregarding the galaxy at-large and choosing to focus her story and dress it up in more myopic sensibilities. This style serves the story and characters very well and helps set it apart from the recent releases of incredibly dense heavier reads. Dare I say that “Black Spire” is kind of fun despite some of the darker tones?
Now, I’m not saying stakes aren’t present, or lives aren’t in danger, they are. But for the sake of this mission and the people involved, their concerns are the six inches in front of their faces and they live each moment one step at a time. Besides, maintaining the elusiveness of Batuu, keeping the universe at arm’s length makes sense entirely from a storytelling perspective.
The first chapter is spent bringing you up to speed and even recounting, in surprising detail, the events from “Phasma”, and after reading it I was a little perplexed. Dawson trims the fat making the two stories both succinct and distinct, but I couldn’t help but think that someone who hasn’t read “Phasma” doesn’t really need to now?
I hope that’s not the case because even though this story is about Vi and Archex, “Phasma” is a more than worthwhile entry into the Star Wars canon and this opening could dissuade someone from seeking it out.
“Bright suns, traveler…”
Dawson populates BSO with a variety of interesting characters who all treat strangers in general with a certain amount of civility, comparatively speaking. Even crime boss Blutopian Oga Garra, who owns the self-titled cantina and pretty much everything else, is tough but fair. With no government to speak of, that is none whatsoever, Oga is the de facto despot of the outpost and ALL business goes through her and her gang of miscreants.
So, it goes without saying that Oga plays a considerable role in this story. Piss her off and you’re in big trouble, play by her rules, and you might just gain a valuable ally. It’s a fine line with Oga, but two things she doesn’t tolerate are arrogance and being told what to do, which happen to be pastimes for most First Order officers. Luckily Vi’s not interested in either of those things, so when she’s thrust into Oga’s world, an uneasy bond forms between the two and they have an understanding or sorts, a mutual respect.
As Vi starts to acclimatize herself, she does manage to convince a few residents to join her cause, although not without stirring up some trouble of her own. It’s during this process we are introduced to some colourful characters to be sure and is in line with the Resistance recruitment policy we’ve come to know so well. If you hate the First Order, then there’s a place for you on the team.
BSO is the kind of place where lives intersect, the young and old, immoral and righteous, parochial and broad-minded. It’s perfectly suited for most anyone whether you’re into lost causes or rogue deviants and because it’s been mostly untouched for generations, has no real philosophical bureaucracy. In other words, it’s a perfect place for recruitment.
The team she eventually assembles is about as rag-tag as it gets but is a true representation of what makes the outpost so unique. There’s Bolin the stunted farmer, Ylena the scavenging dogmatist, Jade the drunken pirate, and Kriki, the tech savvy Chadra-Fan who has her own reasons for hating the First Order.
As things progress, we spend a little bit of time with the characters, each getting a chapter or two of their own, told from their POV. This helps establish not only how Vi is perceived from the populace’s perspective, but really drives home the themes of anti-establishment, bullying, oppression, and intolerance.
Kriki in particular is a real beauty of a character. She’s a slight, timid, kind-hearted Chadra-Fan, who with the help of Vi, really comes out of her fur, and in-turn carries some of the emotional load. She’s a one hundred percent entirely sympathetic character and you’ll embrace her as a friend almost immediately. In many ways, she’s the truest representation of the type of person the Resistance is fighting for, those who have big hearts and minds, just not the wherewithal to defend themselves.
We meet many more town folk, most of whom help Vi navigate this strange new world and its customs, she even gets a job at one point as a scrap collector, working for a devout Force acolyte named Savi. But while each new person she meets serves her purpose or helps propel the narrative, the two key relationships in this book are the ones she brought with her.
There’s no question, the two biggest contributions Dawson made to the Star Wars universe character wise was gifting us Resistance spy Vi “Starling” Moradi and First Order baddie turned goodie, Captain “Archex” Cardinal. Both standout in this story and are given plenty of room to stretch their permanently damaged legs.
Dawson knows these characters inside and out and is incredibly effective at telling their stories; I would have gladly read reams more on them. Their relationship, which is complicated to say the very least, is worthy of a much deeper exploration, but given the circumstances, this is probably the last time we’ll see them together.
Their relationship, both the good and ugly side of it, is at the heart of this little adventure as events from their past and present decisions forces them into an uneasy partnership. The effects of their last encounter are still very much in the ether, and it takes a bit of convincing on General Organa’s part for Vi to take on this babysitting assignment.
But ultimately in a peculiar sort of way, these two need each other at this point in their lives so they can successfully move on to the next phase of their existence. But for the here and now, they must learn to coexist and embrace this new dynamic if they hope to accomplish their short-term goals. We must never forget these two are connected in a way few would understand or even want to, and regardless of outcomes will always be linked in some symbiotic way.
As for Vi, it’s more than just a case of Stockholm syndrome as their scenes really show off her uncanny ability to empathize, she understands fully the complications behind decisions we make under great duress. And true to form, she’s even protective of Archex when she has every right not to be.
And whatever she sensed in Cardinal aboard the Absolution that made her drag his lifeless body to safety, her capacity to see a human being in the eyes of her torturer, her tormentor, is nothing short of a superpower. She understands as much as anyone, that the evil mechanism the First Order employs to rear soldiers and officers, turns otherwise good people into fiends, brutes, and beasts, often through no fault of their own.
Having been a product of that monster factory, Archex is a mess of a human both physically and emotionally. The guy is suffering from some serious PTSD and after a year’s worth of mandatory deprogramming on Cerea, which I would love to see explored, Organa feels it’s time for him to repay some of that life debt.
The moments leading up to this long-awaited reunion between Vi and Archex will leave you completely anxiety ridden as the questions begin to pile up in your head. What will he remember about their last encounter? Will he have any memory of wanting to be left for dead after his fight with Phasma? Will he thank Vi for saving his life? How much of the First Order encoding is still a part of him?
What we get is a confused, broken, and discouraged individual who, save for his life, has lost nearly everything and gained virtually nothing. Full credit to Vi, she instantly recognizes this and her ability to forgive this man for the systematic abuse he inflicted on her is extremely admirable, even inspiring. Because if there is one thing that a broken person has it’s compassion for other broken people.
It’s in these finer moments, and the book is filled with them, where Dawson really shines bright and her writing is exceptional. These personal, sometimes awkward, sometimes gut-wrenching flashes of genuine empathy that take place between Vi and Archex, are so profound and heartfelt, I’m selfishly wanting more, a lot more. This relationship is the beating heart of the book, Dawson knows it, and doesn’t shy away from it.
Very much a man without a purpose, Archex was left permanently scarred and physically handicapped from his fight with Captain Phasma, and he’s trying to rebrand himself and find a reason to go on. Who is he if not Captain Cardinal of the First Order? He’s a long way from that toy-making boy on Jakku and is afraid he’s seen too much horror to ever revert back.
This new life is a strange one for him, one that is full of bright colors, round corners, and permissiveness. And it’s taking time to shed his old skin, which as we know was that striking crimson Stormtrooper armour. But the First Order mental encoding runs deep and is something that will likely never loosen its grip fully and completely.
But, he’s doing as well as he can and while damaged in every way a person can be, seems entirely capable of change and willing to receive his penance. While he may not be fully indoctrinated into the Resistance way of life just yet, he’s most definitely done with the First Order and their malicious ways. But despite his abhorrence towards his former employer, some truths are simply inescapable, that he’s nowhere near the man he once was.
For her part, Vi is every bit the protagonist you’d expect her to be, strong, intelligent, persistent, and loyal. She’s a no-nonsense, tough as they come, resourceful individual who seems to have been born and bred for this line of work. She’s suffered losses, tremendous ones in fact, but that doesn’t make her unique in the Resistance rank and file, nor the Galaxy.
No, what makes her unique is her ability to see the good in others, an almost telepathic ability to sense that a person’s worth isn’t just who they claim to be, but who they are. And she’ll do whatever she can to help those people, even in the face of great danger or at her own personal expense. That’s called integrity, that’s called courage. Those are the traits we use to define our heroes, and make no mistake about it, Vi Moradi is a hero.
If this sounds familiar that’s because it is. This ability is what she has most in common with her General, and probably why Leia chose her for this mission to begin with. Leia sees a bit of herself in Vi and perhaps, had circumstances been different; she would be the one to take on this quest. But she’s needed elsewhere and knows full well that Vi is just as stubborn as she is, so this is more than just a recruitment mission, it’s a chance for Vi to find some much needed closure and heal old wounds.
What’s also interesting is that this mission gives Vi the opportunity to see how disconnected folks are and how they perceive not only the Resistance and the First Order, but Leia as well. And during a night out with her scrap mates, her friend Ylena, gives Vi a new perspective on her General and her Force abilities. I won’t ruin the moment by giving you my interpretation of it but it’s an interesting take on a life we already know so much about.
Of course, you can’t have a Star Wars story without a memorable droid and Dawson gives us a good one in Pook, a sassy, smart-mouthed PK-Ultra droid who laughably spends a good amount of time in pieces. With a boldness that makes Rogue One’s K-2SO look like C-3PO, Pook is arrogant and brash but follows orders, and proves to be incredibly versatile.
Most of the comedic relief comes from Pook and he’ll be a hit with readers no doubt. But what surprised me the most was that he was responsible for the books most heartfelt and emotional beat in my opinion. Pook doesn’t suffer fools, and his respect and admiration aren’t easily accessible, and when he’s faced with acknowledging the loss of someone who managed to impress him, well, it’s poignant.
In the same token, every good story also needs a villain, and in this case it’s Lieutenant WulfGar Kath (CD-0828) and let me tell you, this guy’s a real piece of work. A First Order acolyte through and through, he’s got sadism and ambition coursing through his veins. And if not for a slight blemish on his record, which has a connection to this story, would likely have been a senior ranking officer at this point.
As it turns out there’s a bit of history between himself and Archex who Kath knew as CD-0922, and then later as Captain Cardinal. So, when General Hux assigns him the task of tracking down the Resistance spy known as “Starling”, he’s excited at the prospect of also killing his “old-friend”, the treacherous coward now known as Archex.
This drive, this ambition to not only impress his superiors, but to rid the galaxy of this “Resistance filth” pushes Kath past the brink of sanity and even normal sociopathic behaviour. He’s a living breathing example of everything Vi, and now to a certain extent Archex, rally against and despise about the First Order.
But the more immediate problem for Vi and her new recruits is that while Kath may be insane, he also happens to be intelligent and incredibly persistent. The latter being the biggest thorn in their side and greatly affects Vi’s short and long-term plans for Batuu. He’s disrupting her mojo to say the least and the last thing she needs is him bringing the might of the First Order down on Black Spire Outpost.
So, Vi and her new gang of freedom fighters must not only find a way of dealing with Kath, but also keep the First Order from turning their gunships on Batuu. Not an easy task to be sure, especially when you’re not entirely sure who you can trust. And that’s another issue Vi must deal with, who can she trust exactly in a town where a lot of people would sell her out for a few credits, and the rest have questionable moral values?
“You don’t need an enemy. You just need someone who’s more desperate for money than they are friends.”
In the end both sides suffer losses, as most do in conflict, and the citizens of Black Spire Outpost must finally come to terms with the fact that the First Order is real and they are a threat to their way of life. They can no longer afford the convenience of fence sitting and not choosing a side; those non-committal days are officially off the table for most of the Batuuans that live in the Spire.
But not all are convinced and Vi still has enemies and those willing to turn her over for the right amount of spira, something not likely to change anytime soon. She will never completely win over the hearts and minds of every citizen, but she’s got a core group of recruits and she’s made allies with some the of BSO’s more powerful locals. She’s off to a good start.
And because it’s Star Wars, look for deeper meaning in almost everything Vi comes across, even the mention of some gone but not forgotten old friends, artifacts, and far off places. While we don’t get too specific in the mystical side of things, it’s more anecdotal, and meant to be a comforting reminder that the Force and its acolytes aren’t necessarily regionally bound.
Some of the residents even have a fundamental understanding of the Force and its influence, and Vi even thinks she’s stumbled across a Force cult of some kind. But for the most part, it amounts to simply mythos as there are obviously no Jedi around. The closest thing to it is Vi’s temporary junk dealing boss Savi, who was friends with Lor San Tekka and knows of Luke Skywalker.
But being so far removed from the battlefield, many of these legends which are so clear to us, is that of fables, myths, and make-believe for many of the younger residents. The Force, Luke Skywalker, these aren’t tangible parts of history as they are bedtime stories for children or drunken yarns at Oga’s Cantina.
But because the outpost, and the ruins that surround it, are many generations old, there’s also a sense of nostalgia as the ancients who called these holy lands and temples home, still haunt the dark passageways according to lore. It’s a handy advantage that Vi can utilize, as these bogey men keep the locals away from the ruins and in turn, their new HQ. That and the Grindalids as well.
But it’s hard to not think about the fact that some of the galaxy’s most daring, evocative, and impactful Star Wars characters have all paid a visit to this far off otherworld. It’s a romantic notion indeed to consider past events that have occurred here, and the essence of certain characters still lingers in the streets, shops, and cantinas.
So, when the dust settles, what are we left with? What has Dawson delivered to us?
On one hand she’s crafted a thoughtful character piece that introduces us to a host of well devised characters and settings. She paints both an endearing portrait and grim reality of what life is like on Batuu and that for its denizens, conscientious objectivity is starting to run its course.
In another more obvious way, she’s accomplished what Lucasfilm is setting out to do, and that’s give us a vivid depiction of the sights, sounds, and smells that we can expect at Black Spire Outpost, whenever you should find yourself at Galaxy’s Edge. This is certainly exciting from a fan’s perspective, the thought of visiting a world you’ve only just read about, that’s the stuff of dreams, but ultimately for me not vitally important.
Combined with Zoraida Cňrdova’s “A Crash of Fate”, the pairing really paints a detailed picture of what life is like at the Black Spire Outpost without ever having to go there. The two share many of same landmarks, characters, and locales such as Oga’s Cantina, Tuggs Grub, and the Trilon Wishing Tree.
And depending on your reading habits and rituals, it might be worth noting that “A Crash of Fate” takes place months after this novel on the timeline. But having read both, I can say with confidence that it’s not entirely vital that you read one before the other. As long as you understand that in Cňrdova’s book, the locals have become somewhat accustomed to seeing First Order troops mulling around and understand where they came from.
And don’t concern yourself with the fact that Galaxy’s Edge mere existence serves as some sort of gigantic spoiler for this novel. The only thing you’ll learn there is that the First Order didn’t reduce Black Spire Outpost to ashes and commit genocide. No, there’s plenty going on in this book that will keep you tuned in, and enough at stake that you’ll feel the weight of its emotional nuances, which I believe, was Dawson’s true mandate.
Finally, and to me the most critical aspect, she’s provided some resolution to her previous work, “Phasma”. It’s clear to anyone who follows Dawson on social media or has met her that she was quite eager to continue the story of Vi Moradi and Captain Cardinal, and in Black Spire she’s done that to great success. Being given the gift of added time with these characters feels like a luxury this franchise doesn’t always allow, and I’m thrilled to death for Dawson, that she was given the opportunity to do just that.
Her idolatry of Vi is clear, precise, and warranted, and I wouldn’t stand for someone referring to her as a “female Poe Dameron”, she’s too strong a character for that. Ultimately, whether it was intentional or not, Dawson has crafted an all-timer in Moradi, a hero who serves as a binding agent for morality and unity between the people of Batuu. She acts without expectation of reward or praise and truly believes heroism can manifest itself in just about anyone willing to take that leap of faith.
Likewise, for Archex, she’s conjured up a man so broken spiritually that his extreme physical struggle in many ways serves as a welcome distraction from his internal one. Aside from defection, which we’ve seen depicted before, to lose faith in your own ability to contribute, to lose hope that you no longer have a part to play, that’s tough stuff he's dealing with. And as the First Order poison slowly secretes itself and oozes out of his pores, we start to get a less opaque, much clearer idea of who Archex truly is. We finally begin to understand what Vi saw in him aboard the Absolution, that underneath the unforgiving blood-red armor, was truly a life worth saving.
It took Vi Moradi to ignite this self-effacement in him, accepting that his life was valuable only when it was worth something to someone as exceptional as her. This causes a gradual but definite change in Archex, and while he keeps a stiff upper lip for the most part, he occasionally experiences moments of profound rawness.
These are complex and demanding themes that Dawson has, and seemingly without much effort, compounded in to two very special characters. She’s constructed them to function so well as a unit, that it seems impossible to picture them not involved in each other’s life in some way.
Sometimes broken people feel as if they will never fully heal, and it’s this damage that provides a close connection between these two, it’s this damage that is relatable. Both of them feel a deep empathy for what the other is experiencing as far as pain and desolation is concerned, and knows how it feels to have issues that no one else seems to understand. Yes, Vi and Archex will need each other until the day they don’t, and even then who knows what scars will remain.
Bottom line is that Dawson has crafted a fun and thrilling tale, populated with colorful characters and meaningful moments that clearly separate it from Galaxy’s Edge and Phasma, yet connects to them in a way I think most will find very attractive. Perhaps in a vacuum this tale may seem parochial, but rest assured the journey you'll go on and it's characters, are the furthest thing from it.
And for those daring enough to dig even a little deeper still and venture into the acroamatic darkness, you’ll find magic in those ruins, I know I did.
“May the Spires Keep You”
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