The latest addition to the Star Wars literary universe is Delilah S. Dawson’s Phasma, a look into the background of the First Order’s chrome-plated captain. And in addition to contributing to her legend, a closer peek at the First Order’s training programs and internal culture is also on display.
Plus, you get to find out why Phasma got to keep her name, and why she wanted that special issue armor.
[Light spoilers for Star Wars: Phasma and Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath]
One of the problems with Star Wars films is that the good guys (understandably) get more screen time and attention than the bad guys. And while there’s good reason for that, the complex inner workings of organizations like the Empire, the First Order, the Black Sun, and Hutt criminal rings demand more exploration. The First Order is particularly interesting as they are an authoritarian force built in secret, one that was formed by the recruiting and kidnapping of children, who are then brainwashed into an effective force.
If Phasma seems like an outlier in this system, that’s because she most certainly is. Originating from a hellish planet called Parnassos (presumably named after the mountain in Greece that was said in times past to be the home of arts and learning), her story is one of adaptation and ruthless cunning, of a woman who will do anything to ensure her own survival and advancement. It should makes fans nervous for what’s to come from her—the woman we learn about in this book is never going to forget that she was asked to sit in a trash compactor while Starkiller Base imploded around her. Finn should be very, very worried, and so should the Resistance.
But what is equally interesting is the way in which this book picks up where Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy left off and builds upon the First Order’s system. In Aftermath: Empire’s End, we learn that Palpatine’s former advisor Gallius Rax has been training abducted children to be killers and means to carry out his “Contingency” plan, destroying Jakku and fleeing to the Unknown Regions to create the Empire anew. He doesn’t make it, nor does he manage to destroy Jakku, but the Contingency is still put into effect with Admiral Sloane and Admiral Hux (the elder, Brendol) working together to create a new order. Hux is left in charge of the training program… but we still have quite a gap of time between Hux the Elder’s recruits and the program being run by his son Armitage in The Force Awakens.
One of the bridges to that gap comes in a shape of a figure like Phasma—a rare named trooper called Cardinal with his own suit of red armor. One of Brendol Hux’s first initiates (notably from Jakku), Cardinal is suspicious of Phasma’s origins and motives, and much of the novel is concerned with his attempts to get information on her from a Resistance spy named Vi Moradi. Cardinal was tasked with training the recruits that Hux brought into the system once he had proved himself a consummate soldier… until Phasma showed up and his job was altered to only train the recruits as children. Phasma was given the job of getting the older recruits battle-ready.
Cardinal has no idea where Phasma came from or why Brendol Hux decided to trust her. He also cannot figure out how the man died suddenly… before his place in the First Order was taken up by his son, Armitage Hux.
As a result, the book is about Phasma, but also gives readers a look into the evolution of the First Order, particularly where their leadership is concerned. From Aftermath to Phasma, we find a picture of revolving leadership that does not trust each other. There are clear alliances, officers who know how to work together, but it is likely far from what Emperor Palpatine envisioned when he entrusted the plan to Gallius Rax. Once we have a greater picture of where Leader Snoke lies in all of this, we can understand if the First Order is fractured down to the core, or if their leader does in fact hold some great sway over his subordinates that makes the difference.
But one thing is perfectly clear—the First Order genuinely does believe that any form of chaos will ruin the galaxy. And when you look back on Cardinal’s childhood on Jakku, the childhoods of recruits like him, it becomes easier to see why some of those First Order soldiers would see merit in their arguments. The fact that Phasma is capable of making this argument real for the people who fuel the First Order is essential to how believable the organization will be going forward. There are more questions to be answered (including when the Order starts pulling even younger recruits, as Finn cannot remember his family at all), but this is an important swath of paint to keep in mind as we creep toward the edge of the canvas.
The additions to the universe keep building out of the story map for the current Star Wars canon, but it would be remiss to avoid mentioning the new characters that Dawson has created, or the excellent framing device this narrative employs. Phasma is essentially a story told by a spy, a story being told her hopefully save her own life at the hands of one of the highest ranking troopers in the First Order. Both Vi and Cardinal are vibrant new additions and interesting people who fit in well alongside their film universe counterparts. Their fates are a part of Phasma’s journey as well, and wondering about where that journey will leave them makes it hard to stop turning pages.
Dawson also manages to introduce us to an entire society of people who live on Parnassus, and makes their history, and their survival, incredibly fascinating. It is clear why Phasma is desperate to leave her home, but it is not the fault of the people that she lives among—they’re merely another example of how denizens of this unimaginably vast universe can get left behind.
Perhaps the highest praise Star Wars: Phasma should receive is this—after reading this book, you’ll be desperate to see the chrome-plated trooper again. The Last Jedi can’t come soon enough.