This is basically the YJK reread Natalie and Emily have been waiting to get to. For so many reasons. Mostly for the fact that it goes nowhere anyone would expect a kid’s novel to go, particularly not a Star Wars one. Some real s*** happens in this book.
As titles go, nothing really screams Star Wars more than “lightsabers.” I mean, maybe just “Jedi” or “Vader,” but “lightsabers” is a pretty good move. And since getting your own lightsaber is one of the biggest steps on the road to Jedi Knighthood, you know that this is going to be pretty important. So are you ready for the Serious Issues to get tackled in this series? Because we’re going there.
Luke tells the kiddies that the threat of the Shadow Academy is enough for him to accelerate their training—it’s time for them to build their lightsabers. Tenel Ka in particular does not feel ready for the challenge; she believes that she must become a physically imposing enough warrior to earn the right, so while her friends begin construction, she hones herself through training exercises.
Because her friends are so far ahead of her, she rushes to complete her lightsaber. Its components are a rancor tooth from her mother’s home world of Dathomir, and volcanic crystals. Unfortunately, those crystals are imperfect, something that Tenel Ka realizes and ultimately overlooks. Her lightsaber functions well enough in their first exercises, and she shows an impressive aptitude with the weapon.
Luke has brought the students through several types of exercises, and now wants them to begin dueling. He pairs up Jacen with Tenel Ka. It’s no secret that Jacen has a big old crush on the girl, and he tries to unbalance her with banter, but she’s not having it. The components of her lightsaber begin to fail, but she says nothing. Then the lightsaber shorts out, and Jacen’s blade slices through Tenel Ka’s arm, cutting it off above the elbow. The faulty lightsaber explodes in her severed hand, making certain that reattachment is impossible.
She is rushed home to receive medical treatment, but not on Dathomir—on her father’s home world of Hapes. It’s at this point that Tenel Ka’s friends learn the truth about her heritage from Luke; she is the daughter of Prince Isolder and Teneniel Djo, a princess of the Hapan Cluster. She never told her friends because she has no desire to rule, and did not want her friends to judge her by that position. Luke sends the troop over to spend time with Tenel Ka because he knows that her grandmother, Queen Mother Ta’a Chume, is against her becoming a Jedi, and will probably use this opportunity to try and put an end to her training.
Ta’a Chume does her best, but ends up pushing Tenel Ka further from the path. Chume begins by attempting to fit her granddaughter for an arm replacement. Not only does the princess refuse a temporary robotic arm, but she also goes against a permanent replacement as well, deciding to use her abilities in the Force to strengthen herself and make up for the loss. She spends time with her friends, finally getting a chance to talk to Jacen after the accident. They both try to apologize and mend their relationship.
There is an attempt of Ta’a Chume’s life suddenly, so the kids are sent to a special island in the middle of the ocean for a vacation and better safety. It soon becomes clear that trouble has followed the kids, and that Chume’s ambassador is making a bid for the throne by trying to take out her family. They get the woman arrested and all is well. Tenel Ka tells her grandmother that she is continuing her training at the Academy. She builds a new lightsaber out of crystals from her Hapan tiara (making it one of the most expensive lightsabers in the galaxy) and a second rancor tooth, melding her two heritages. She and Jacen fight another duel that goes flawlessly.
I would like to begin by pointing out something that I find extremely relevant to the Star Wars universe; for how incredibly dangerous the lightsaber is—as either a weapon or a tool—we practically never address that level of danger at any point of the narrative. This is partly due to the fact that Republic Era Jedi have been training toward receiving this weapon since infancy; even if they do get their lightsabers a couple years ahead of the twins and their pals here, they are far more prepared to handle the responsibility.
With that in mind, the first time Luke picks one of these babies up, it’s a miracle he doesn’t put his own eye out. No one really spends time addressing the fact that, as a close combat weapon, lightsabers are far more destructive than any solid equivalent. They require very little force to use unless they are clashing against other lightsabers (or trying to melt through heavy metal doors), which completely alters their deadliness as a weapon. That being said, the idea of handing that sort of weapon over to anyone under voting age frequently seems ludicrous. But… that’s the nature of the beast.
Here we have a very potent lesson. Both Jacen and Tenel Ka make mistakes, but it is ultimately Tenel Ka’s decision to rush through her process that causes the failure. That being said, there is no way Jacen won’t come out of this feeling responsible. As a kid, it’s tormenting to realize this is going to put a real damper on their relationship in a way that a teenaged spat never would. If you are ten, you are invested in this fourteen-year-old romance, and this ruins everything. It is about as soap opera as you can get, and you love it.
But never mind that. Let’s get to the real gritty stuff here. Like the fact that we are given a character who is suddenly confronted with a permanent disability, but choses to overcome that disability with person internal strength. She has the money and privilege to overcome it by a much easier route, and makes the choice not to do so. I remember reading this the first time, being floored by that as a child. When Tenel Ka tells her grandmother that yes, Luke Skywalker may have replaced his own hand, but she had to make her own path, I almost burst into tears. A choice that fearless was not what I had been expecting. And it gives the events of the novel real and lasting consequences, in a galaxy where the loss of a limb is capable of being repaired in the blink of an eye. Tenel Ka has to deal with the repercussions of that choice every day from there on in, and it does affect her path, just as she knows it will.
This was a gutsy choice. In fact, it’s one of the most gutsy choices ever made in a Star Wars novel. Discussing disability as it exists in this universe, respecting Tenel Ka’s choices—all of her choices—are precisely what this narrative is all about. The first few books are light and fun fare by comparison. This is real. Sure, she’s a magical warrior princess with access to unthinkable wealth and station, but this is the path Tenel Ka ekes out for herself. And it is far more interesting than a flirtation with the Dark Side any day of the week.
A lot of SFF series aimed at and starring teenagers do a clumsy job of matching sci-fi/supernatural analogs to the awkwardness of adolescence. (Remember how campy season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, for this exact reason.) But the YJK books manage to bridge that divide and present a pretty accurate take on what it’s like to grow up as a teenager in the EU: first with #3 The Lost Ones and Zekk struggling to measure up to the rich, Force-sensitive Solos; and now, as Tenel Ka and Jacen grapple with their already-ambiguous relationship changing three times over in the space of one adventure.
We know now that Jacen and Tenel Ka encounter perhaps even more insurmountable barriers than a lightsaber accident (torn apart by war and duty, a love child, Jacen becoming Darth Caedus) on the way to something resembling love. But back when we were reading YJK for the first time, none of that was canon. Instead, this accident, brought about by a certain measure of arrogance and carelessness on both sides, was an odd mix of cringeworthy and devastating. We’ve all been tactless teenagers who unintentionally offended a friend in that shaky period when we’re all navigating our identities and the wrong wording comes off as unforgivable. Lightsabers extrapolates that out to the macro level with a life-changing accident brought about by—as it probably initially seems to Jacen—a moment of weakness and distraction brought about by misguided flirting. It’s enough to discourage fraternizing altogether at the Jedi Academy. The fact that they’re able to start mending their relationship is a huge relief for readers who have lived through similar micro-conflicts.
But it’s not just Jacen’s fault; the book makes sure to take Tenel Ka to task for not affording the proper attention to her lightsaber-building process. Those who read The Courtship of Princess Leia understand how the young princess got a double dose of arrogance from her parents Isolder and Teneniel Djo. She’s not just someone that this accident happened to: She lost her arm because she’d gotten used to doing things half-assed. Just as she prioritized her cooler, warrior-woman Dathomir heritage over the obligations and class awkwardness of being a Hapan princess, she didn’t take the time to craft her saber because she was overcompensating with her training. And now that she is literally operating at half-mast, she has to draw on the same attitudes that crippled her.
I admire the YJK books for not taking the easy way out when it comes to issues of crafting your identity during your formative years. As Emily said, Tenel Ka is a magical warrior princess, and that’s as far as Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta could’ve taken it. But instead, they have her navigate the tricky middle space between those two polarized identities, and the culture clash therein. One of the most important lessons in the book is that, after she’s outed as a princess and after she decides to live with her disability, she could have become an entirely different person. But by the time she returns to Yavin 4 and uses the crystals from her Hapan crown to power her new lightsaber (cue Natalie tearing up), she’s still Tenel Ka. Only now, she’s even more secure in the shifting contradictions in her identity.
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.