A new dawn rises.

Star Wars: The High Republic Is as Refreshing as It Is Familiar

A new dawn rises.
Image: Phil Noto/Lucasfilm

Adding something truly new to the canon of Star Wars media has to strike a delicate, daunting balance. Anything so vastly removed from what we know about the franchise—particularly the Skywalker saga—has to balance feeling worthy of being called new, while paradoxically still delivering that vague, yet tangible, feel of Star Wars. Its latest chapter, for the most part, successfully strikes that balance.

Star Wars: The High Republic is a transmedia setting built out of the work of a team of Lucasfilm’s storytelling group and authors that have touched many aspects of the current Disney era of the franchise’s literary canon. Announced back in February of this year for a summer release (before being pushed back to January 2021), it’s not truly a leap forward (or, chronologically speaking, backward) into what an entirely new Star Wars setting could feel like. After all, its distance from the movies, 200 years before the events of the prequel saga at the apex of the Jedi Order’s influence on the Galactic Republic, is far enough to tweak some things, but not really far enough for its customs, structures, locales, and even some characters to feel truly alien to us.

Across the five releases in the first wave—three books, aimed at a range of reader ages, and two ongoing comic series from Marvel and IDW—you will meet Jedi who act like the mystic warriors you’ve seen in almost every Star Wars film. They will swing lightsabers, and use the Force, and fly starships and starfighters that, while they might have different names and different design sensibilities, wouldn’t feel out of place compared to the action of The Phantom Menace or the adventures of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

In fact, although fully illustrated issues were not made available for review, early layouts and concepts provided from IDW’s Harvey Tolibao and Max Dunbar, and Marvel’s Ario Anindito, Mark Morales, and Ariana Maher, give The High Republic a sleek, almost art deco aesthetic that offers cleaner, sharper, and yet thoughtful connections to the stylization of the Republic we see in George Lucas’ movies. The titular Republic itself is not necessarily rooted in the recalcitrance and corruption glimpsed in the era of its downfall witnessed in the prequels—its body is much more optimistic and compassionate—but structurally, it offers the same kind of guiding systemic presence, and the same kind of cooperation, to the Jedi Order.

It’s here that The High Republic as a concept feels the “most” Star Wars-y, which is to its benefit as much as it is a seldom disappointment: none of the titles in this first wave go quite far enough in offering us something that feels entirely like we’ve never seen it in this metatext. That nebulous Star Wars feel that’s at times both vital to the franchise’s expansion and almost like a cage to stop it from truly thriving with a variety of storytelling tones and opportunities is masterfully woven throughout each entry.

Image for article titled Star Wars: The High Republic Is as Refreshing as It Is Familiar
Image: Ario Anindito/Marvel Comics

Something that is clear here in a way that isn’t with any other particular branch of Star Wars publishing right now is this sense of cohesion among the authors involved. That’s Charles Soule, Justina Ireland, and Claudia Gray on the three novels, Light of the Jedi, A Test of Courage, and Into the Dark, respectively, and Cavan Scott and Daniel José Older on the Star Wars: The High Republic and Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures. Characters intertwine, yes, but so does that ephemeral feel: these creatives came together to understand how to make stories that evoke Star Wars in an innate, intimate sense, and that consensus shines as bright in these stories as the Jedi heroes that dominate this wave of storytelling.

But that is only part of what these stories do. There is, in each of them, a sense of newness that persists even as they are cloaked in familiarity, like a living Force that binds them all. So how do they manage to bring refreshment to this latest era of storytelling in the galaxy far, far away? A diversity of perspective, one that adds texture to protagonist and antagonist alike.

While we have met a variety of Jedi across stories like The Clone Wars, the prequels, and then eventually the remnants of their kind in Luke, Leia, and Rey, even if there is a diversity in age and gender and species among them there is still a similar cohesion. The Jedi Council of the prequel era are all the same kinds of Jedi Master, distant, reserved, reverent. Our heroes like Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka might buck those trends at times, but they’re still at their core largely the same kinds of Jedi, bound by the same kind of rules and presentations. The Jedi we meet across The High Republic so far feel anything but. There is a diversity in not just species and gender, but fascinatingly, age. That part feels vital in making the large amounts of Jedi introduced in this initial wave offer different perspectives on everything, especially when it comes not to the older Knights and Masters, but the younglings of the Order.

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Image: Petur Antonsson/Disney-Lucasfilm Press

Young padawans, like Adventures’ Lula, bring with them a sense of earnest naivete that is contrasted in a still young but slightly older Jedi like Keeve Trennis in Marvel’s The High Republic. She feels like an adventurous, freewheeling, sometimes anti-authoritarian figure and reads like an actual teen who happens to be a Jedi Knight, instead of a Jedi Knight who happens to be a teen. They’re in turn contrasted by youthful voices like Into the Dark’s Reath Silas (who wants nothing more than to study instead of being on the Republic’s fringes at the heart of adventure) or A Test of Courage’s Vernestra Rwoh, an old, kind soul in the body of one of the Order’s youngest and most prolific Knights. That humanity and diversity of perspectives are leveraged in several of the stories to introduce important non-Jedi characters, providing not just a similar kind of varied insight to the Republic of this period and the people who exist within it, but also a contrast and grounding force for the mystical peacekeepers who dominate the casts.

On that front as well, perhaps The High Republic’s greatest success so far here is that this doesn’t just mean suitably aged protagonists for each audience these stories are being targeted toward. It means that each figure brings with them an alternate perspective on the Force, the Order, their place in it, and the world around them. They don’t feel like a singular, amorphous whole, but human and varied in ways that make you want to keep seeing their stories as the setting progresses. These Jedi are allowed to be intimate (not in that way, necessarily) with the people around them, to laugh and love and be sincerely open, an earnestness that is reflected in their beliefs about why they serve the Republic and want to help the peoples of the galaxy. They might dress, use the Force, and swing those lightsabers similarly, but there is a depth and texture to the Jedi of this era that doesn’t just make it feel like this really is them at their highest high, but provides an optimistic and necessary contrast to the Jedi that have come before them.

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Image: Pascalo Blanche and Gonzalo Kenny/Lucasfilm

All this variety and these deft considerations of character are, fascinatingly, also leveraged in turn for The High Republic’s antagonists. Unlike the Skywalker Saga, there is no singular “evil” our Jedi have to confront across these stories, no Empire or even lingering shadow of the Dark Side (at least, not yet, if the recent announcement of the Disney+ series The Acolyte, set in the twilight of this new setting, is anything to go by). There are factions, however, like the Nihil, a loosely organized structure of pirate clans that do not want the Jedi or the Republic expanding into their home territories. Those areas are currently on the fringes of the Republic’s diplomatic reach, and they play a major role across several of these releases. While they are the most traditional Star Wars threat The High Republic has—forming the main antagonistic force throughout this first wave of stories—even then, they in turn benefit from the nuanced diversity of perspectives and age groups and characterizations the Jedi do, rendering them at times believable foes rather than some nondescriptly evil mass.

They are not the sole antagonist. There’s another alternative faction too that the groundwork is laid for here, most notably in Claudia Gray’s Into the Dark: the mysterious sentient plant hivemind called the Drengir, that utilize the lack of that diversified internal perspective to present a truly alien threat to the Jedi, spiritually and martially. Both of these factions simultaneously are made clear by the time you’re done with these first few stories to become much more emergent threats as The High Republic continues, but there’s something fascinating and welcome about how they both (particularly the Nihil), even at this stage, already feel more than just faceless evils to get battled and blasted.

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Image: Jama Jurabaev/Del Rey

Perhaps even more refreshingly than that is, in some of these stories and moments, we get to experience Star Wars that is not defined by combative, overarching conflict. The Jedi you meet across these books and comics are just as likely to be rescuing civilians from wildlife gone rampant or natural disasters as they are “fighting the baddies,” if you will. Arguably the greatest “villain” in these opening stories is not a tangible force like the Nihil or the Drengir, but a more fascinatingly existential one: a hyperspace disaster eventually known as the Emergence that forms the key threat in Soule’s Light of the Jedi.

When debris from exploding starships traveling across newly charted hyperspace routes exits faster-than-light travel and turns into deadly, random meteor strikes laying waste to millions of people anywhere and at any point in the galaxy, the Jedi and the Republic are confronted with a foe that can’t be defeated by a mind trick or a wave of a laser sword. They’re forced to be medics, disaster relief experts, peacekeepers in the truest sense of that ideal. It is a rare moment where Star Wars offers its heroes a chance to raise up not in arms, but to extend a hand of compassion to the peoples of its universe.

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Image: Joseph Meehan/Del Rey

That, ultimately, is the core of why even at its most familiar moments, there is a promise in this first wave of Star Wars: The High Republic stories to deliver something that adds texture to the kinds of conflicts and perspectives the franchise can orbit around. War is in the name, it is the lifeblood of the franchise. Plus, as a far-flung prequel, we know how this period of the franchise ultimately ends, that this height predicates a cataclysmic fall—the light of these varied, diverse, warm, and endearing Jedi will one day dim. But for now, they are so boldly luminescent and lighting the way to a period of Star Wars stories that captures why we love this franchise in the first place while they refreshingly enrich it.


Star Wars: The High Republic begins with the release of Light of the Jedi and A Test of Courage on January 5, 2021, with Marvel’s Star Wars: The High Republic #1 on January 6, 2021. Into the Dark and IDW’s Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures #1 will release on February 2, 2021, and February 3, 2021, respectively. Advanced preview copies of all of the above titles were provided for this review.


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DISCUSSION

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InefficientAndMiserable

I don’t understand the strategy here. There is little chance of Disney building a large fan base with books and comics nowadays. The animated series’ had a hard enough time staying afloat and they are packed full of known characters and references. Pretty sure the High Republic won’t last longer than 2021/22.