The following is a guest post by Sonja Natasha.
Though Star Wars The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark is described as a middle grade anthology, there are elements adult fans of Star Wars will appreciate.
All stories, save the last, are directly based on episodes from The Clone Wars, the animated series released in 2008. This allows an opportunity to add additional nuance and introspection to the characters as written by a diverse panel of authors.
For the uninitiated, The Clone Wars details what occurs in the galaxy between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It shows the complicated relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. The series introduces new characters, providing names to the numbered clones and affirming their personhood. Ahsoka Tano enters the narrative as Anakin’s unexpected padawan. Asajj Ventress is introduced as one of the main antagonists and Count Dooku’s secret apprentice.
This anthology graces us with many beloved characters. Themes of obedience, want, need, and identity thread its way through each of its stories, foreshadowing what is to come for those who are acquainted with the plots of additional series, movies, and novels. The idea of personhood–whether it is something to be preserved or tossed aside–is a main motif, appearing again and again from both the Light and the Dark. As with all anthologies, it is difficult to judge it as a whole when each individual story is uniquely different with their own different points of views.
“Sharing the Same Face” by Jason Fry and read by James Arnold Taylor. Three out of Five stars.
This retells one of the very first episodes in Clone Wars where Yoda and several clones are stranded when they attempt to secure an alliance with Toydaria. It did not seem that the story provided more depth and nuance to Yoda or the clones than its companion episode. Yes, Yoda muses on the nature of the clones, their need to obey, and listeners are left with Yoda’s brief glimpse of Order 66, but ultimately the short story fails to leave the shadow of “Ambush.” Taylor does an excellent job with the voice work.
“Dooku Captured” by Lou Anders and read by Corey Burton. Four out of Five stars.
The true delight of this story is Corey Burton’s voice work. The dripping disdain and scorn that Dooku has for everybody is clearly evidenced and is, essentially, 46 minutes of quintessential Dooku. The story’s conceit is that Dooku is recording a message to send to Darth Sidious, however, when he comments upon the anger he sensed in Anakin, Dooku chooses to delete the message instead. I appreciated the nod that Dooku already suspected that his master was preparing to replace him since treachery is the way of the Sith.
“Hostage Crisis” by Preeti Chhibber and read by Matt Lanter. Three out of Five stars.
This story revolves around the symbolism of Anakin giving Padmé his lightsaber, which he calls his life. The episode clearly shows the love and respect that Anakin has for Padmé, specifically when he sees her bravely standing up against a group of bounty hunters. Dialogue only does not always provide the space to hear what, exactly, Anakin feels for Padmé, and why he loves his wife so dearly. Stories provide that opportunity, and listening to those moments was this story’s highlight. That said, “Hostage Crisis” does not successfully step from its episode’s shadow, despite Lanter’s voice work.
“Pursuit of Peace” by Anne Ursu and read by Catherine Taber. Four out of Five stars.
“Pursuit of Peace” documents Padmé’s desire to end the war via a diplomatic solution, though she stands against a popular resolution to vote in favor of purchasing more clone troopers to continue fighting the war. Listeners share Padmé’s wonder at how so many could not see that senators pushed for decisions that would not only prolong the war–but enrich them at the expense of the people. Wouldn’t inconsistent access to electricity by the working class be an acceptable cost for the safety and freedom additional soldiers would supposedly provide?
This story seemed relevant for today’s political climate in the United States, even if not intentionally so. Padmé’s observation that investing in soldiers over the needs of the people can easily be seen as a mirror to fund the military at the cost of social programs and benefits. The idea goes a step further in context of the recent demonstrations calling for funds to be reprioritized into local communities instead of militarized domestic police forces.
I would never describe Star Wars as having an overt political message (it is, after all, the product of a capitalist society, and its purpose is to continue making money for the various business entities that happen to own it at any given time), but against the backdrop of the United States consistently being at war since I was a child, a global pandemic, and demonstrations speaking out in favor of funding communities over policing, the parallels in the story struck me a little stronger than they might have if I had read this story even a few months earlier.
However, the message falls flat when the narrative cannot even use the word to name the purchase of the clones, especially when there is story after story re-affirming their personhood in the face of everyone and everything that strives to take it away from them.
That name, of course, is slavery. It’s difficult to name such a thing, especially in a product meant for the mass consumption of a colonist people whose economic system was built on slavery, the aftermath of which is still in full effect today in the United States. Star Wars has always struggled to bring meaningful racial diversity to its cast of characters, despite an emphasis and focus on the clones’ personhood.
Taking this observation a step forward, if Star Wars consumers remember which community of people were specifically targeted by slavery in the United States’ real world history, more disappointment awaits them because Star Wars, despite dabbling in a particular horrific concept that still has real live consequences today, has not done well when it comes to the treatment of its Black characters.
It is not surprising, though of course disappointing, that Mace Windu does not have a story of his own in this anthology. This omission is made even more glaring by the social concepts the narrative itself touches upon, even if it is unintentional.
“The Shadow of Umbara” by Yoon Ha Lee and read by James Arnold Taylor. Three out of Five Stars
The Clone War episodes this short story retells is one of the most chilling arcs in the entire series. It focuses on clones, Rex and Fives primarily, and General Krell who treats them like ammunition for the canon of war. The theme of obedience and personhood runs strongly here, as Rex struggles to do as ordered and what is right by his men. The story also reveals one of the most tragic moments in the entirety of Star Wars canon, which I won’t spoil here. The construction of the story itself follows the path of its episodes closely. It does not fully step from their shadow, though I appreciated the narrative for articulating Rex’s internal thoughts of dismay.
“Bane’s Story” by Tom Angleberger and read by Corey Burton. Three out of Five Stars
As with “Dooku Captured,” this story’s primary triumph comes from Burton’s rendition of Bane’s internal dialogue. That said, it didn’t provide a lot of additional insight or nuance to Bane or the episodes on which the story is based. Bane is a great antagonist character in his own right, but I am not certain how I would have felt about this story if I had read it as opposed to listening to its audio version.
“The Lost Nightsister” by Zoraida Córdova and read by Nika Futterman. Five out of Five Stars
Asajj Ventress is one of my favorite characters, and I’ve always appreciated Futterman’s portrayal of her. Being able to listen to Futterman give voice to Asajj’s internal conflict that exists between the lines is this story’s triumph. Córdova masterfully peels back Asajj at her most vulnerable while also providing texture to the location in which the story exists. Tatooine from Asajj’s perspective is gold, and Córdova anchors the listener to the story’s settings while maintaining Asajj’s voice.
Returning themes of aching abandonment come back in full force as Asajj is reminded over and over of Dooku’s betrayal and the affirmation of her sisterhood with the Dothomir witches until Dooku stripped that from her too. The episode and story both are about Asajj navigating that despair and re-affirming herself, but Córdova provides so much more, and crafts Asajj from part time antagonist to a three dimensional protagonist of her own life.
“Dark Vengeance” by Rebecca Roanhorse and read by Sam Witwer. Five out of Five Stars
I remember first watching Clone Wars and realizing they were preparing to bring Darth Maul back. Sure he had been a great villain–will anyone forget his first appearance in Phantom Menace? The sheer force of malevolent will he radiated with every moment until Obi-Wan finally achieved the upper hand, split him in two with his lightsaber, and watched him fall to his supposed death? Could a character come back from that?
And then they did bring Maul back as portrayed by Sam Witwer, and it was an experience. In the series, Maul is allowed to voice his wants (terrible as they may be) and needs. Witwer provides Maul with a nuance and vulnerability that lack of time and space denied him in the Phantom Menace, and Roanhorse successfully brings all the raw energy and emotion into a truly masterful monologue.
Undercurrents of rage tremble in Maul’s voice, and sometimes an aching hurt, as when he tells how he had been left behind as so much trash, or that Obi-Wan was responsible for stealing his path of greatness.
Listeners, of course, will know that Darth Sidious never intended to keep Maul around, just as he never intended to keep Dooku, just as he never intended to keep Anakin. This knowledge that Maul does not have underscores the grief over a life that never would have been even if he had not met Obi-Wan Kenobi.
It is so satisfying that this story follows Asajj’s. They both mourn futures they believe taken from them, families taken from them. Like Asajj, Maul determines to craft his own destiny, even if it’s not something he would have chosen for himself.
“Almost a Jedi” by Sarah Beth Durst and read by Olivia Hack. Four out of Five Stars.
Katooni’s story is another that touches on motifs of identity. Throughout the narrative, her admiration of Ahsoka Tano is made tangible, and she yearns to be like her, and until Katooni reaches her turning point, she feels that is unlikely to happen. It also gives assurance to young people, who are still in the middle of their growing up, under immense pressure from the various expectations placed upon them, that perfection isn’t the ultimate goal. It is okay to be almost good enough. I think that is a message that can never be told too frequently, because it’s so easy to forget amidst everything else going on in our day to day lives. Even adults need to be reminded, sometimes.
“Kenobi’s Shadow” by Greg Van Eekhout and read by James Arnold Taylor. Four out of Five Stars.
The theme of obedience again appears as Obi-Wan, messaged by the Duchess Satine, decides to go to Mandalore and assist her even though the Jedi Council does not authorize the mission. The listener is given insight to Obi Wan’s inner turmoil, that perhaps he is not as confident and charming as he may appear to be, made even more real and vulnerable by Taylor’s narration.The exhaustion that Obi-Wan feels because of the war, because of Maul, comes to the forefront as Obi-Wan struggles with the Dark Side in a way that would have been impossible to portray on the small screen.
“Bug” by E. Anne Convery and read by Catherine Taber. Five out of Five Stars.
“Bug” is the only story that is not forced to stay close to an origin episode. Yes, it takes place against the backdrop of “Massacre,” but Convery is afforded freedom and liberation to create a new character with desires outside the setting of the Clone War.
This is a fairy tale within the Star Wars universe. Star Wars, gallivanting about as science fiction with its spaceships and hyperdrives, is actually fantasy, and Bug’s story highlights the genre. It’s made easy with Dothomir witches and spells and parents who force her to sweep night and day like a Cinderella all their own. Listeners won’t spend a lot of time with characters already established within the canon, but their time with Bug is well spent, and I would not mind seeing more of her in the future.
The story centers around a communication tower, appropriate though not in an overhanded way, since so many of these stories are about giving voice to characters and intentions that a scripted dialogue simply cannot. As with most fairy tales, ideas regarding identity, obedience, and an affirmation of personhood re-appear, and “Bug” becomes a neat bow on the anthology as a whole by encapsulating the themes that came before it.
Overall, Star Wars The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark did a nice job providing additional insight and nuance to characters in a galaxy we already know and love. Listen to it today since it was released on August 25th.