The Young Jedi Knights Reread is onto the second book—Shadow Academy! AKA, where the story probably should have really started, but you know how it is. This is where we get an important reintroduction to some characters from the Expanded Universe and an idea of where this first arc is going.
Emily and Natalie are back to tell you all about Nightsisters, turning to the Dark Side, and questionable business practices! So let’s dive on in (there’s a GemDiver station, so we were kind of making a pun there) to the next installment!
Jacen, Jaina, and Lowie are touring Lando’s GemDiver station when they’re kidnapped. Luke runs off to rescue them, but not before Tenel Ka insists on joining him.
The kidnapped trio find themselves on their way to the “Shadow Academy,” a cloaked training ground for a new generation of Sith. They were taken by a Nightsister of Dathomir, Tamith Kai, but she’s not the big head honcho on campus. That would be Brakiss, a former student of Luke’s. For those who don’t remember this guy… it’s not exactly surprising that you wouldn’t. He emerged, fully formed, in the EU novel The New Rebellion regardless of the fact that he’d never been mentioned before. Luke had agreed to train him, knowing that Brakiss had a history where the Dark Side was concerned. Though Luke tried to help him, it did no good, and Brakiss ran from the Jedi. Now he’s ended up here, Headmaster of his own academy that will serve the Second Imperium. (Worst name. I mean, they’re hard pressed for options, but they could have gone for flashier with fewer syllables.)
Luke and Tenel Ka do some great detective work, heading to meet Lando’s broker for the GemDiver station, since it’s clear that the only way anyone could have broken into the station would be to use the gems themselves to drill through the hull. (Better or best Catch-22?) They do indeed find out that Lando’s broker is shady and sold the gems to a Nightsister. Luke and Tenel Ka make a beeline for Dathomir.
Brakiss and Tamith Kai work hard on turning the three new recruits to the Dark Side. Brakiss has the twins and he pits them against each other using holoprojectors that make them look like Darth Vader to one another. Tamith Kai tries overstimulation on Lowie, subjecting him to high temperatures, sonic sounds, cold water, and bright lights. Lowie does do some smashing and is given back Em Teedee, who has been reprogrammed to spout Imperial propaganda at him. That hits the hard reset button for Lowie, and there’s no way he’s turning to the Dark Side after that. Brakiss is hoping that by giving Jacen his own lightsaber (which Jacen has always wanted desperately) he’ll win the kid over, but the twins aren’t really having it. Qorl (the crashed TIE pilot who is of course there and for some reason allowed to give his opinion even though he would have been little more than a grunt in the Empire’s day), thinks that these kids are more trouble than they’re worth at this point.
Meanwhile, Luke and Tenel Ka have talked to some Nightsisters, pretending that they want in on the new order. (How does no one recognize Luke, at this point in his life?) They get on a shuttle called the Shadow Piercer to be taken to the academy. Once there, they land, pick up and kiddies, and make a break for it. Brakiss and Co let them go, agreeing with Qorl about their troublesomeness. Back at the Praxeum on Yavin 4, Lowie and Jaina start refitting the Shadow Piercer for their very own. (They need their own Falcon for adventuring, right?) Jacen tells his Uncle Luke that he realizes he’s not ready for his own lightsaber after those experiences at the Shadow Academy. But Luke worries that with a new generation of Dark Side users on the way, his nephew may not have a choice….
I’m sorry, I just feel the need to get this out of the way—LANDO IF YOU EVER DID ANYTHING ABOVE BOARD THESE THINGS WOULDN’T HAPPEN. I mean, I’m surprised that Han and Leia were just like “sure kids, drop by to see Uncle Lando” ever in the first place. Lando never has nice friends or good business ventures. The fact that Lando is not always being held hostage for bad practices is a mystery to me. Don’t go visit Lando, kids.
So we get an introduction to two main baddies for the series, one which we’ve seen already. It’s actually nice to see Brakiss get more to do in this series because he was so shorthanded in The New Rebellion. Problem is, in that book they did attempt to play him as a character with more nuance. Here he’s kind of like Hethrir in The Crystal Star. Evil to be evil. The only thing we can really say for Brakiss is that he has a certain amount of charm, which is something I was glad to see put to use for a character who uses the Dark Side. Yes, it’s frightening and grotesque, but evil can also be attractive. That the reason why it’s tempting.
Tamith Kai is another character who really deserves more than she gets. In fact, they later handle a similar character in her position better for the prequels—Asajj Ventress has the same function, but is given more depth. (Tamith Kai wins for Best Hair, though, I suppose. Check out that cover.) Still, bringing back the Nightsisters, which hadn’t been done since The Courtship of Princess Leia, was a welcome ploy. And the foreshadowing for Tenel Ka is honestly very clever. She’s got the best poker face about the whole thing.
I have to say, I really love that Luke and Tenel Ka get to go on this trip together. In part it’s because this series sometimes make the mistake of ignoring Luke. Frankly, most of the books about training Jedi make the point of ignoring Luke, which is one of the biggest problems with the EU in general. We want to know, as Star Wars fans, how Luke is going to handle the rebuilt Jedi Order. What dilemmas he will face, what changes he will make. But normally we watch him sort of sit back and meditate while everyone proceeds to screw up the universe, and it just seems so hand-of-the-plot all the time. So having him instantly jump into a ship and take Tenel Ka along to rescue his family is really wonderful. More importantly, it feels like the Luke that we know from the films.
Of course, Jacen’s comments to Luke about not being ready for a lightsaber are a chilling setup for what’s to come in these books, and more importantly what’s to come in the EU. You have to wonder if this was always Jacen’s problem from the beginning, simply not being ready for the responsibilities placed on him. If Luke had run his Order like the old one, his niece and nephews would have been properly training from toddler-hood, and Jacen may not have been so daunted by the tasks ahead. But then, perhaps Jacen just wasn’t built to handle the strain, and this was always in his future.
There’s a term that originated in fanfiction but applies to all kinds of reading: bulletproof kinks—tropes that you’ll read any story for, regardless of its quality. One of my bulletproof kinks is a character turning evil. So you know that 10-year-old Natalie was psyched to pick up Shadow Academy, in which one of Luke’s former students and a spiky-shouldered Nightsister attempt the impossible* and try to turn Jacen and Jaina to the dark side.
(*It really did seem impossible, back then, to envision one or both of the Solo twins ever succumbing to the path of fear and anger. And yet, The New Jedi Order dealt out dark side heel turns like Tamith Kai gives out free lightsabers in this book. So, this reread included a considerable amount of dramatic irony.)
Whereas I spent all of Heirs of the Force scoffing at the high stakes that I knew wouldn’t come through, I read Shadow Academy on the edge of my seat. As a kid, turning to the dark side seemed such a permanent concept; I feared losing these characters I identified with to a world I couldn’t fathom. That said, I remembered more about Jacen’s path than Jaina’s in this book, which could tie into what Emily said in the last recap about Jacen being a truly unique character. With Jaina being a pretty clear blend of Han and Leia, neither of whom were ever truly tempted by the dark side, after a certain point I felt fairly secure that she wouldn’t be budged. But Jacen was a whole different animal: Every outburst of his made me flinch, because I couldn’t predict which would seal his fate. I have since realized that I was a very tense reader as a kid.
The one thing that made me groan in annoyance was having the twins duel each other, each believing the other was Darth Vader. Not to gloss over the fact that they probably had plenty of angst about their evil grandfather—but we saw this in The Empire Strikes Back and in the Junior Jedi Knights series. And if anyone owns that angst, it’s Anakin Solo in the latter. Vader doesn’t need to be shorthand for family skeletons in the closet… mostly because there’s no way people don’t already know about him. I would’ve liked to see Jacen and Jaina’s insecurities holoprojected into something else.
Which is not to ignore Lowie’s trauma in this story. Not being the main character, he didn’t get such a nuanced tutorial of the dark side—Tamith Kai just blasted him with ice-cold water, strobe lights, and unbearable screeching. Oh, and a brainwashed Em TeeDee—who, despite being, as Emily brilliantly put it, “Threepio as a fanny pack,” was still one of Lowie’s closest companions—which has gotta hurt. That’s dark, man. I remember an Animorphs book that I read a few years later, in 1999, in which Tobias was similarly tortured by a Controller to break him down. It’s surprising—and, honestly, impressive—that kids’ books weren’t pulling punches when it came to depicting psychological torture.
As for the rescue plot: To be honest, at first I was annoyed that, for the second time in a row, Tenel Ka had “missed out” on getting kidnapped and being part of the A-plot. But on the reread, I realized that a) this only makes her more badass for not stumbling into yet another trap, and b) she had to be part of a great narrative callback. Putting Tenel Ka and Luke on Dathomir brought back all my delightful feels about The Courtship of Princess Leia, perhaps my favorite EU book (mostly because it’s the first one I read). Even on my first read of Shadow Academy, I giggled at seeing Luke accompany the daughter of the Nightsister who once knocked him over the head with a rancor bone and claimed him for her husband. I also realized that setting up Tenel Ka’s warrior heritage—the one the twins actually know about—is a keen setup for YJK #4 Lightsabers, which brings in all the Hapan business. And, you know, some other dark, irreversible stuff.
YJK was always going to flirt with a darker tone, the way the twins tread the thin line between light and dark in Shadow Academy. I’m glad it happened so early in the series, so we could get the momentum going for some real stakes.
Emily Asher-Perrin wants everyone to really think for a moment about just how horrifying a propaganda-spouting protocol droid would be, and then get back to her. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.
Natalie Zutter is the editor of all things geek over at Bookish. She is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has also appeared on Ology and Crushable. You can find her commenting on pop culture on Twitter.