There will be minor spoilers for the book in this review.
A good 'Star Wars' novel will give you a raucous adventure that feels like it could fit perfectly in the 'Star Wars' universe. A great one will do that, but add meaning and shades of gray to what you know, or think you know, about the broader story and the films.
Claudia Gray's 'Star Wars: Bloodline' fits neatly in the latter category.
Set just six years before the events of "The Force Awakens," the landscape of the galaxy is nothing like you'd expect. There is no "General" Leia. There is no "Resistance." The First Order isn't even a whisper on the tongues of the players in the senate. Luke Skywalker is still gallivanting around the galaxy with his young apprentice, Ben Solo.
Things seem... good.
But it's 'Star Wars' and we should know better.
The book centers around Leia Organa, once again a senator in the galactic senate, a post she'd not held since Palpatine's dissolution of the senate. But she's tired of politics. She's tired of the political machinations and games. She just wants to retire and travel around the galaxy with her ship-racing husband, Han Solo.
As the galaxy was just prior to the Clone Wars, the galaxy is split into two factions teetering on the edge. One side wants a strong central government as the Old Republic was, with safeguards in place for preventing another Palpatine, and the other wants strong local control, to prevent even the hint of another Palpatine from coming.
Add to that whispers of unrest and criminal activity and situations, both political and of an action nature, that only Leia Organa can deal with. Along the way she meets new friends and allies, characters that I hope can stick around in the lore more (or wish they could have despite the ends they came to.)
Claudia Gray has a gift for finding nuance in the political in a way we haven't quite seen in "Star Wars" since the episodes of "The Clone Wars" that involve the Separatist Senate. And as great as I found those episodes, Gray does it here with an even better eye for making me understand the fictional, bitter partisanship. And she does it in a way that doesn't feel like it's speaking to American politics directly. Indirectly, of course, there are similarities because we are currently facing bitter partisanship, but I felt that Gray put the pros and cons of both sides into both sides in "Bloodline," but never once did I feel like I was the bad guy or the good guy for my real-world beliefs.
This in-universe political maneuvering (or at least the context of it) is something "The Force Awakens" sorely lacked. Seeing it now is exactly what I needed to better understand why the destruction of Hosnian Prime was so devastating to the future of the galaxy.
Now we know, and I love the way it was assembled.
Gray is also a deft hand at bringing emotion to situations in the most unlikely of ways. Even in the first chapter there are moments that made me teary-eyed. So much of it is built on the foundation of "The Force Awakens" and the inevitability of that future, but Gray could have no idea what was coming since her first draft was turned in before she'd seen the movie. (In an interview at Salt Lake Comic Con, Gray explained she did get to make a few modest tweaks after seeing the film, and it must have been clearly to the novel's benefit. You can listen to the interview here.) This is a testament to the job the story group is doing in shepherding all of the storytelling going on in the universe.
The book reads quickly. I couldn't turn pages fast enough. I would have read it in one sitting if I'd've had the time to do it, but as it was split it into two. But it's not quick in a way that makes you feel that it's sparse, quite the opposite. There is so much storytelling packed into every passage and Gray makes it feel like a breeze. At no point does it feel like a slog because the prose is so fluid and right.
Gray also seems to fundamentally understand this new version of Leia we're left with. She has capably connected the dots between the Leia we saw in "Return of the Jedi" and the Leia we saw in "The Force Awakens," and she does it at a major turning point in Leia's life. There is turmoil here, growing of character, and a lot of sadness to come, but Leia has never lost her spark.
Another fascinating aspect of the book is how you read and try to piece together the timeline of what's happening in the galaxy and when. Has Ben turned at this point? Is Rey already on Jakku? Has Luke disappeared? This book blows some major fan theories out of the water.
Luke hasn't quite disappeared. Ben hasn't turned, so far as Leia is aware. Rey is a cipher. No one knows her and she's not mentioned. This book felt like it was clear that Rey is probably not a Solo or Skywalker through any of the obvious routes, and Ben hasn't made his turn into Kylo. Kylo Ren, metaphorically speaking, is still a baby by the time we see him in "The Force Awakens." And if Rey's vision is to be believed, there's no way Ben could have turned and brought Rey to Jakku all at the same time.
That's what I love about the book. It brings the picture just slightly more into focus without giving us all the details. It allows us to speculate smarter, but not definitively.
My largest complaint about the book was where it ended. I felt there was one missing chapter. If you've read the book, you'll know how powerful an ending it would have been for Leia to receive a message back from her son with only two words: "I know." That's where I thought everything was heading and it would have touched everything across the Skywalker Saga and added a further foreboding to the classic line in "The Empire Strikes Back." I'm sure there must have been a story group reason for this not happening because it would have been the perfect capstone to this book.
Despite that, after reading 'Bloodline' and 'Lost Stars' (twice), I'm ready to add Claudia Gray to my list of favorite 'Star Wars' authors. That would put her alongside Timothy Zahn, Michael Stackpole, Aaron Allston, and others. It was emotional, well-written, exciting, and, more than anything, felt like "Star Wars."
This book deserves top marks. Read it immediately. I'm going to read it again as soon as possible.
"Star Wars: Bloodline" is available wherever books are sold.