Review: Catalyst

In which I review Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, by James Luceno. 


My return to blogging was done with the idea that I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself, and I would only read books that I would read even if I wasn’t blogging. Well, right now I’ve kind of felt like reading Star Wars books. I’m sorry to my followers who don’t come here for this.

But to be honest, my blog is such a hodgepodge I’m honestly not entirely sure what any of you are here for. Maybe you’re all here for different things, and since I don’t know what those things are, it’s hard to target my posts to my audience. So I guess I’ll just write whatever hodgepodge posts I want to write. I have to hit the mark sometimes that way.

I really, really liked Rogue One. That’s probably due in a large part to the fact that I read the novelisation, which I really want to review soon, but my brother has my copy and is taking his sweet time about reading it. HURRY UP, KEEGAN! I NEED MY NOTES!!!

So, I decided to pick up Catalyst by James Luceno because I thought it would be interesting to get the background story of the Ersos and Krennic and all that. And I guess it was interesting in that way. Unfortunately, it just didn’t make a very compelling read for me.

Prepare for a Rant-y Review

Now, I try not to like things just because I’m a fan. Sometimes I do, because I mean, I am a fan, and I wouldn’t be a fan if I didn’t like the thing. That’s just what a fan is. And it’s highly doubtful anyone is going to pick up a copy of Catalyst without being a big fan of the rest of the Star Wars universe, including Rogue One. 

But even so, I think a book has an obligation to the reader to be objectively good. The fact that there will be fans who will read it no matter what is not an excuse for the failure to craft an engaging story. And I think a lot of fandoms have suffered lately because writers who started out having to prove themselves by being genuinely superb and outstanding end up becoming lazy, falling back on their massive following, who continue to consume whatever content they are given, regardless of merit. That has a lot to do with internet culture and other stuff I don’t feel like ranting about right now. So I won’t. Let’s move on.

I guess first I’ll talk about what I didn’t like, that way we can end on a positive note. This book dragged on and on. I was expecting one of those psychologically thought-provoking stories where a good, principled person is convinced to aid a terrible cause. At the very least, I was sure I’d get a very science-y science fiction that revealed a lot about the kyber crystals and the construction of the Death Star. Unfortunately, my expectations were disappointed.

There were some serious structural issues with this book. For one thing, there were a lot of perspectives going on, which I do like in a novel. (I mean, my favourite is Les Miserables, as you all know.) We got Galen’s perspective, Lyra’s perspective, Krennic’s perspective, Tarkin’s perspective (which was one of the most interesting. I picked up a copy of Tarkin, which is also written by Luceno, because he really has a great grasp of the character), a smuggler’s perspective, little Jyn’s perspective, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. There were so many. And that’s great. But all of that jumping around was a little dizzying at times. Especially because all of the characters had such a narrow view of what was going on. There wasn’t much suspense as a reader, because we got to see every perspective. Little, if any, big details were withheld from us. Everything was constantly revealed. At best, there was dramatic irony, as we knew more than any of the characters did. Which is great, I love dramatic irony. But it had a big job to do in this book, because it was the only technique used to create any kind of suspense.

See, you don’t get a good look at the Death Star being built because no one knows the full extent of it. And that’s a very intriguing concept, and a smart thing to do on the Empire’s part (it makes sense from a security standpoint not to give anyone too much detail), but I was surprised at how tired I got of seeing all the characters feeling around in the dark for the entire novel.

Going into this novel, I thought Galen Erso would be the most interesting character. I thought it was going to be one of those situations where he was convinced into going against his moral code to help with the Death Star. I wanted to see what types of arguments and manipulation could get someone as principled as he seemed to be to build something so terrible. As it turns out, he’s just incredibly naive and has no idea what’s going on for most of the book. How disappointing. And, while a lot of time is spent telling us that Galen is working on equations and scribbling notes, we don’t actually get to see very much of his kyber research, either. So there went my hope that this book would be really science-filled.

It took me a very, very long time to get through the middle of the book. It sagged and dragged. It took me a little over a week to read this very short novel because I kept having to force myself to pick it back up again.

“Why didn’t you just stop reading?” I hear one of you asking. The answer is simple: because I really wanted to like it! I kept waiting for it to get really good. And there were things about it I sincerely enjoyed. I am glad I finished it. But we’ll talk about that later.

The problem is that, rather than a proper story in its own right, this is just backstory for Rogue One. The only characters whose motivations seemed truly solidified and clear were Krennic and Tarkin. And Tarkin wasn’t even one of the main characters. He shows up occasionally, starting about halfway through.

Who was the protagonist in this book? What is the goal? What are the stakes, exactly? I shouldn’t be having to ask these questions after finishing a 330 page novel! I can tell you what this book is about: the genesis of the Death Star. But I couldn’t give you a plot diagram.

We know that Krennic is motivated by nothing but power. At every turn, he is asking for a promotion and fantasising about being given a world of his own to rule. At times it’s a bit over the top, actually. Because we are given so many scenes and interior monologue to establish this same thing, and it gets repetitive. I swear at one point he told Perry the Platypus that soon he would take over the entire Tri-State area with his Death Star-inator.

I’m really sorry but I’m not. 

And then it’s clear that Tarkin really believes in the Empire and cares about its success. He also wouldn’t mind seeing Krennic crash and burn. So Krennic and Tarkin are antagonists for each other. There is a clear rivalry between them and they have conflicting goals. My question is: are they really antagonists for the good guys? Because are the good guys even protagonists?

Galen Erso was passive and I have no idea what his motivation was, or what the stakes were for him. I know the Empire can make him disappear or otherwise punish him if he doesn’t carry through with the research, but that doesn’t seem much of a threat, because he offers no resistance to doing the research, and doesn’t understand what the research is. There’s this small anxiety that he’ll be upset when he finds out they’re actually weaponising his research. I guess. It didn’t really worry me much. It just felt like, oh sad. Galen is about to learn that the world is a cynical place and no one cares about renewable energy as much as he does. Poor Galen. I don’t know. Maybe that’s mean, but as a reader, I just wasn’t made to care.

Lyra was an interesting character, and she seemed plenty motivated. By love, mostly. She loved and wanted to protect her daughter. She loved her husband and was concerned about what he had gotten himself into. She believed in the Force and admired the Jedi and didn’t want to see the kybers put to nefarious uses. So she spent a lot of time asking questions and sleuthing and having tense scenes with Krennic, and she was definitely more interesting than Galen. But ultimately, as much as Krennic threatened her, I never felt any anxiety? I felt like Krennic was a terrible person, but I never worried for the family. Probably because I had already seen Rogue One. And again, it wasn’t clear what her goal was. To find out the truth, I suppose. And then what?

I’m not saying that there weren’t stakes or that the characters didn’t have goals and motivations, I’m just saying they weren’t clear enough, and the antagonists were antagonising without the protagonists…protagonising? And it’s hard to even call them protagonists? Stuff just kept happening to them.

Maybe Krennic is actually the protagonist of this novel. That would make sense, since he’s the only one who took a truly active role.

The most interesting character was one that I never expected to be interesting. At first, I wrote him off as a discount Han Solo. I mean, he was a smuggler named Has. It was hardly subtle. But even though he was fairly peripheral to the plot (but actually, not knowing what the plot really is, I guess I can’t say that) he had the most interesting arc. I was actually rooting for him to do the right thing. I am proud of him, and he is my son. You did good, Has Obitt. Well done. (This should go in the positives section but I’m not moving it what are you gonna do about it?)

But otherwise, I just had this awareness the whole time that I would not be reading this at all if it was a standalone work and had nothing to do with Star WarsIt just isn’t compelling on its own. And that is never how a book should be.

Onto the Positive!

I felt like this helped me to connect with the characters a lot more. Galen and Lyra’s marriage, while it had its ups and downs, was a sweet and generally healthy relationship that I enjoyed reading about.

This book really made me care about the characters that we don’t see much of in Rogue One. You actually get a glimpse of Saw Gerrera being an awesome rebel rather than just a dramatic old man who likes to interrogate his prisoners with weird octopus things. You got to see what a great scientist Galen is (even though you don’t see much of his research, the respect that others have for him speaks volumes). You got to see Lyra as this strong individual who isn’t afraid to rebel. Who is not okay with being quiet and complacent in the face of something she knows is wrong.

In Rogue One, it’s clear that seeing her father’s message is what inspires Jyn to fight. But after reading Catalyst, I think the full picture is that her father’s message awakened in her the fire that she inherited from her mother. So that’s cool. Adds a lot of depth.

Highlight for Rogue One spoiler: I went and saw Rogue One for the fourth time after reading this novel, and I was surprised to find tears in my eyes when Lyra died. All those other times I’d seen it, I’d just thought “Aww. That’s too bad. Jyn saw her mother get shot.” It was just sad backstory for the central character. But not this time. This time, it was the death of a character I had read a book about and come to care about. That’s just one example of how it upped the impact of Rogue One for me. I think it was almost worth reading it just for that. End Spoiler.

Another thing I really liked is that philosophical theme that often comes up in science fiction: just because you can harness some great power, does that mean you should?

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Whether or not the full potential of the kyber crystals should be harnessed is a point of disagreement for Lyra and Galen. Galen believes the Jedi, perhaps even motivated by selfishness, kept the power of the kybers to themselves. Lyra believes that it was for good reason: to protect the galaxy from a power they weren’t able to handle. This theme is threaded subtly through, and becomes kind of an arc for Galen. And I really enjoyed that.

Overall Rating

I feel like how you rate this depends on how you view it. Seen as pure backstory for Rogue One, I would rate it a 4/5, because it did what it was supposed to do. It deepened my understanding and provided interesting information.

But as a novel, I would have to go with a 1.5/5. I hate to rate it so low, but there is no way I would have read this all the way through if I wasn’t a Rogue One fan. The plot was just too murky, the motivations and stakes weren’t clear enough, and ultimately it struggled to hold my attention.

And all that being said, I didn’t hate this book. And I haven’t given up on this author; I look forward to reading Tarkin. 

Also, a Note:

I’m almost done with my first Book Thief analysis post. I’ve not been working on posts much lately, and there’s a good reason for that. I’m working on a new novel that I’m very excited about and having tons of fun writing. So just in case you wonder what I’ve been up to, that’s what I’ve been up to.

Have a lovely day!

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