I’ll admit that I was initially skeptical of Kenobi. Obi-Wan’s early days on Tatooine have been well documented: Dark Lord, Last of the Jedi, Life and Legend of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Legacy comic series, and the Last One Standing short story. (No, not that one, the other one.) Why revisit the same set of events yet again?
Kenobi hits up many of the tropes of the classic Western, with Ben as the stranger with a secret. He becomes the subject of curiosity for the small community near the Pika Oasis, particularly Annileen Calwell, the saloon/shopkeeper with a heart of gold and Orrin Gault, a moisture farmer eager to rope Kenobi into supporting his Settler’s Call protection racket against the Tuskens. The Tuskens themselves are led by A’Yark, whose conflict with Gault is not all that it seems.
Star Wars has been evoking the Western since the first film, but Kenobi is especially effective at presenting it through the lens of the galaxy far, far away. One of my favorite scenes has Annileen firing off a rifle to keep overeager customers from swarming a Jawa sandcrawler--a classic Western moment set against an instantly recognizable Star Wars set piece. There are plenty of typically Western action scenes—shootouts, stampedes, and runaway quadrupeds. But it’s not just surface action in Kenobi; Miller brings in the classic Western themes of riches, revenge, and relationships.
The characters populating the Pika Oasis are colorful and well developed. Annileen’s son Jabe and Orrin’s story arcs are an effective microcosm of the galactic events of Revenge of the Sith, allowing Ben to reflect on the recent, tragic events that have brought him to Tatooine. The antagonist is not a one dimensional villain—Miller chooses the to play up the shades-of-gray Western morality rather than the white hats/black hats angle to great effect. Those familiar with Miller’s past works know that he is particularly good at bringing strong female characters to life, and Kenobi is no exception. Annileen is believable both as a mother and as a strong soul who has managed to survive and thrive on Tatooine for decades, and she’s not the only one to be found within the novel’s pages.
I don’t think any recent novel has so effectively captured the character of Ben Kenobi as Miller does here. He’s a deeply conflicted man who is fundamentally good, yet capable of deception and morally questionable choices. I don’t quite buy his extended meditation monologues to Qui-Gon (though one of them does lead to a hilarious scene addressing Ben’s questionable retention of his surname), but Miller has a masterful command of the character’s voice when addressing other characters—usually short, pointed, wise, and evasive. There are Ben lines in this book as good as any in A New Hope.
Jackson one-ups stories like Legacy, Old Wounds, and Last of the Jedi by keeping the action Tatooine-centric. The conflicts grow out of characters based on Tatooine, not the return of old faces from beyond. At the same time, though, Jackson ties the events of the Legacy and Republic comics into the plot, and even applies some much needed retcons, some of which have been over thirty years in coming. Nearly all of these are good, though the explanation for Ben’s elderly appearance is rather clumsy. It's perhaps a bridge too far.
Kenobi has a well paced plot and enjoyable, distinctive, original characters, both of which are far from common in the world of Star Wars books. Because it is so true to the character and so close to the films, it’s easily accessible to fans unfamiliar with the Expanded Universe—it’s an easy recommendation to any fan of Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was once a skeptic when it came to this book, but I’m a believer now: Kenobi trumps Scoundrels as the best Star Wars novel of the year.