Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Bloodline is unmissable. Her previous Star Wars book, the young adult novel Lost Stars, was thoroughly enjoyable, but Bloodline’s tense politics, vivid new characters, and perfectly characterized Leia make it feel as central to the Star Wars universe as one of the films. It’s a vital piece of connective tissue, a story that takes place at a key moment in the life of Leia Organa while reflecting on all she’s done—and giving us the rich backstory to the events we know are coming.
Almost 25 years after the defeat of the Empire, the New Republic is at a stalemate, the Senate divided between Centrists and Populists. The fractious government can’t agree on anything except that the other side is wrong. (Sound familiar?) At the dedication of a statue of Bail Organa, Leia watches the crowd, sharply observing the invisible divide between her political peers. She is the person we know—the temperamental, intuitive, impatient, sympathetic, brilliant woman we met in A New Hope, grown into adulthood with a huge weight on her shoulders. She’s done this for so long that when one of her smart young staffers asks what she wants to do, she answers honestly: She wants to quit.
But even Han is skeptical that she’ll throw in the political towel. When a Twi’lek emissary asks the Senate to investigate a cartel that’s endangering trade around his planet, Leia volunteers, thinking it will be her last useful task before she leaves politics for good. That plan changes when a royalty-obsessed Centrist senator, Lady Carise Sindian, suggests that with the Senate in a perpetual stalemate, what they need is a First Senator, a single leader with true authority.
The Populists think Leia is the only choice—but just imagine how this whole concept looks to a former leader of the Rebellion. It’s just what allowed the Empire to form: too much authority in the hands of one person. Both political factions have started to mythologize their history; one of the Centrists’ shining stars, Ransolm Casterfo, thinks the only real problem with the Empire was that it had the wrong Emperor.
Handsome, popular, and very fond of velvet cloaks, Ransolm joins Leia’s investigation to represent the Centrists, much to her chagrin. No one eyerolls in his general direction as often as Greer Sonnel, Leia’s extremely efficient right-hand woman. A former pilot, she clearly misses flying but won’t admit it—which makes her all the more interesting to Joph Seastriker, a young X-Wing pilot assigned to Leia’s team. You know the type: Impulsive, cheerfully confident, often having way more fun than he should be under the circumstances. His cautious opposite is Korr Sella, Leia’s 16-year-old intern, who is just starting to dip her toe in the cynicism of politics.
It’s hard to resist getting too attached to these new characters, even though practicality tells me not to. (Remember the Hosnian system.) They’re bright, endearing additions to the Star Wars universe, and an unabashed reminder that Star Wars is for everyone: you don’t have to age out, and you’re never too young to matter. (The galaxy continues to grow more inclusive as well; Joph mentions his moms, and many of the new human characters are described as having coppery, tan, or dark skin.) Leia, who never forgets just how young she was when she got into politics, trusts them as much as she does C-3PO (who’s as nervous as ever).
Bloodline is a political thriller with a strong emotional core and a handful of vivid action sequences, but what really makes Gray’s novel so strong, and makes it feel so important, is simple: Leia. This is the Leia I fell in love with as a kid, the one I wanted to be: unafraid to speak her mind, intensely capable of getting things done, liable to get herself in over her head and then back out again. Bloodline is the Leia book I didn’t know I really, really wanted. Its heroine is solidly in middle age, but no less badass for it. She’s prickly and passionate, angry and disappointed, more complicated than ever. It’s an absolute delight to have her perspective; she gets in her own way, sometimes, but she also gets a chance at something she never had before: understanding and compromise with someone from the other side.
In both this book and Lost Stars, Gray excels at illustrating the way the person you are is the result of the choices you make, not something determined by where you come from. Each of her characters faces a defining moment: to share a secret, or to keep it? To take a shot, or take your chances with a criminal? To trust a friend, or to give in to anger?
These choices have echoes in the rest of the Star Wars mythology, and Gray deftly weaves the threads that connect Bloodline to the bigger Star Wars universe. Politics are central to this story, but the bittersweet personal tone keeps it from ever getting wonky. Despite Leia’s intense sense of duty, her family is always on her mind: her relationship with Han, though mostly long distance, is loving and communicative, nothing like the broken pair we saw in The Force Awakens. She worries about Luke and Ben, wherever they are in the galaxy. And while people see her as her father’s daughter, she’s her mother’s as well. When Leia reflects on the ways she and her mother are alike, it’s a welcome reminder of who Padme was before Revenge of the Sith sidelined her into pearly nightgowns and a concerned frown.
Most of all, though, Leia is her own person. And through this story, we come to understand why our usually vibrant princess-turned-senator-turned-general is so tired, so drawn, by the time of The Force Awakens. It’s not just losing Ben. It’s not just that Luke’s missing, or that Han left. It’s that she was just about ready to quit fighting when a whole new enemy presented itself.
What does all this mean for the cinematic story so far? Well, quite a bit. Everything below is spoilers and speculation. If you don’t want to know anything, avert your eyes!
Bloodline‘s big reveal answers one important question, and the answer isn’t at all what I’d expected: Why is the Resistance, in The Force Awakens, so heartbreakingly small? Now we know: its leader is no longer Princess Leia, Bail Organa’s daughter, hero of the Rebellion; she is Leia, daughter of Darth Vader, politically disgraced and betrayed when her true father is revealed. We see nearly everyone reject her, and those who might’ve stood by her taken out of the equation. Very few will fight on her side. Gray does an excellent job of reminding us how awful Vader was; even Leia feels a degree of skepticism about his redemptive final moments. I’m not always convinced by I-hate-you-because-of-your-parents plotlines, but as far as those go, this is about as believable as can be. Vader’s shadow fell on so many people that almost no one can accept that his children are on their own path.
But there’s always hope, and here it comes in quiet scenes: Joph sizing up his fellow pilots. Leia in the hangar bar, taking a cup of hooch and watching the races just like everyone else. That little gesture earns her a certain amount of trust and goodwill. Leia’s staff are only going to be more important in the coming years, and I really hope some of them make it to the movies.
The book’s glimpse at the First Order is also surprising. It’s already forming behind the scenes, a tangle of criminals, Empire sympathizers, and Centrist funding. When one Centrist raises a fist while speaking in the Senate, it’s an innocuous enough gesture—but we know where that leads. A brief reference to an older member of the Hux family is a fodder for a dozen theories, and the hints about the Amaxine warriors are tantalizing: are they future stormtroopers? If the First Order has, at the time of The Force Awakens, been taking very young children for at least 15-20 years (based on Finn’s age), how much of its formation is still hidden? Where is Snoke in all of this?
And what about Luke, and young Ben Solo? They’re off exploring the galaxy somewhere, which surprised me: I’d thought that by this point in Ben’s life—he’s probably in his early twenties—Luke was already training a new generation of Jedi. Now it seems likely that Luke’s eventual gaggle of young Jedi is a direct response to the First Order being uncovered, in which case they would have only been training for a few years. It’s also likely that Ben’s turn to the dark side is spurred by the revelation that his parents kept such a huge family secret from him. Did he ever see his parents again once he learned about his grandfather? How long did he harbor that rage before the massacre we know happens?
I’m curious what the fallout is for Han, too. In Bloodline he’s mentoring young pilots; overseeing the Five Sabers, a piloting championship; and running a semi-legitimate business. Does he get blacklisted? Does he ditch all semblance of responsibility—and stop interacting with the younger generation—when Ben turns dark? We know that what happens with Ben makes him run from Leia, so maybe he just ran from everything. Gray is not shy about tugging your heartstrings when it comes to Han, but really, there’s affecting emotional depth to every one of Leia’s relationships: the way she misses Han; the sympathy she has for everything Luke has endured; the anger she has toward Vader; the way the loss of Alderaan is never far from her mind. It’s entirely clear why she might want to ditch it all, to quit politics and leave behind her responsibilities. And I kind of wished she could. But Anakin Skywalker’s kids still have work to do.
Bloodline is available now from Del Rey.