If The Last Jedi is the Star Wars feast we’ve been waiting for all year, Canto Bight is an odd appetizer platter, an array of tidbits that you might find unnecessary—or you might find appealingly curious.
Why do we get a whole book centered on Canto Bight, of all the Star Wars locations? The casino city was teased in Vanity Fair this summer, when Rian Johnson described it as “a playground, basically, for rich assholes.” One glittering city on the desert planet of Cantonica, it sits next to a giant manmade sea and is largely a resort city for the wealthy and glitzy. It’s so fancy, it has rare Alderaanian trees—or what people claim are Alderaanian trees. This city has its own mythology, as Mira Grant (the pen name of Seanan McGuire) explains in “The Wine in Dreams”:
It began, as most beautiful things do, with money, with ambition, and with deceit. “Come to Canto Bight, the greatest city of pleasures the galaxy has ever known,” they cried, and if they lied in the beginning, the ones who carry the cry now are telling the complete and utter truth. They crafted reality out of story.
Or did they? We see a lot less wealth and privilege in these stories than you might expect. The whole place is corrupt as all hell, which is part of the point of Canto Bight (will Finn, who’s not exactly the worldliest of characters, get in over his head here? Signs point to yes). But the other point of Canto Bight is a reminder that not everyone in the galaxy is part of the Resistance or the First Order—at least not yet. (The book is set before The Force Awakens; an introductory page indicates it’s one of the few safe places remaining.) Plenty of people are still going about their varied days, from galaxy-traveling sommeliers to kids mucking out stalls at the racetrack. All that glamour requires a lot of employees, and while no one is from Canto Bight (or so the story goes) a lot of people are stuck there. Some simply can’t afford to leave, and some are in a worse situation: in debt to the councilor/criminal Big Sturg Ganna.
Ganna’s presence is minor in some of these stories, but it peaks in Rae Carson’s “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing,” which follows the in-demand masseur Lexo Sooger during a very bad day. When he turns down a job offer of sorts from Big Sturg Ganna, the consequences are worse than he expected: Ganna kidnaps his adopted human daughter, Lula, who hopes to grow up to be a fathier jockey. (The fathiers are the third nifty new species to appear in Last Jedi trailers; in the latest international spot, the space horses race through one of Canto Bight’s casinos.)
Lula and Lexo are the most clearly sympathetic characters in Canto Bight, and even they can’t exist outside the corruption that drives the city’s wealth, and its contrived, vital mythology. Trying to get Lula back from Ganna leads Lexo to the Contessa Alissyndrex delga Cantonica Provincion, who draws the straightest connection to the looming galactic conflict when she requests a hit on a certain arms dealer.
“He’s playing both sides, you see. Selling to both the First Order and the Resistance.”
Lexo gave her a withering look. “Everyone in Canto Bight plays both sides.”
“Yes, but he is gauche about it.”
All the stories loop back to money: how easily it’s lost and gained; how swiftly it trades hands in Canto Bight, and how much it shapes a person’s future. But it’s not until Carson’s story that we get a peek at how the rich assholes on this glitzy playground might directly affect the central Star Wars tale.
Follow the money, and follow the story—or the idea behind the story. If there’s another through-line in these four stories, its the way the truth of Canto Bight differs from the story told about it. Kedpin Shoklop, the naive mark in Saladin Ahmed’s “Rules of the Game,” doesn’t know enough of the truth of Canto Bight to protect himself from the city’s predators; he believes in the narrative the city sells, almost to a fault. The card player in John Jackson Miller’s “The Ride” believes in the game, but is willfully oblivious to the reality of who’s funding his playing.
Some people are better at understanding the story they’re in: Derla Pidys, the sommelier in “The Wine of Dreams,” knows what a story does to a bottle of wine: heightens its value, transforming it from a beverage into a tale. She understands how the story you tell, or believe, about a thing can be more important than the thing itself.
This last idea is what makes “The Wine of Dreams” the most compelling of these four novellas. Star Wars is built on mythology, on stories told within and about this universe. The Jedi, at this point, are just a story—one mentioned here only in passing. The fight between the First Order and the Resistance is a distant story, too, though one quite profitable in certain quarters. Grant’s characters understand the use of narrative—especially the Grammus Sisters, the most delightful creatures to appear in this odd book.
Indistinguishable twins, Parallela and Rhomby Grammus claim to be from another dimension, and their story precedes them. Derla meets with them to discuss their famed wine, an invaluable beverage—but what the sisters want out of this exchange is something else entirely. They manipulate, they control, they push buttons and shape stories; they are a wonder of planning and myth-making, and getting in their way is a very unwise choice. I would love to see them turn up in a film.
I’m not holding my breath on that last count (on the other hand, Derla and the Contessa are both clearly visible in the Vanity Fair spread). Canto Bight is a tricky place, and this is a tricky book, part diversion and part depth, part galactic glamour and part Cantonican class conflict. It feels both like a nested set of Easter eggs for completists (the reference to a now-ruined old civilization on the planet is such a tease!), and like a reminder of how big the galaxy really is—and how small one wealthy city can be.
Canto Bight is available from Del Rey.