The Internet is already flooded with Force Awakens reviews, so I thought I’d do something a little different, by contrasting the new Star Wars film with the book series that originally showed us what the “next generation” of Star Wars would be like. This is admittedly a little premature, since we haven’t seen VIII or IX yet, but I believe my arguments are fair.
Of course, there are SPOILERS for both The Force Awakens and New Jedi Order ahead. Read on at your own risk!
Let’s start with
The State of the Galaxy
New Jedi Order sets up the situation very quickly and very well. The New Republic controls most of the galaxy and there’s been peace for a long time. Minor political squabbles are flaring up, distracting from the real issue of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet massing for a galactic invasion. The Vong are situated outside the galaxy, but have agents working within the Republic, preparing their way. It’s something relatively easy to understand, despite following in the wake of other books.
I have no idea what on Tatooine’s going on in the galaxy in The Force Awakens. There’s a Resistance. And a Republic. And a First Order. How much power/territory does the First Order have? We don’t know. Are they a tiny speck compared to the vast Republic? Are they two equal powers in a cold war? We don’t know. Why does the Republic fight through the Resistance? Again, we don’t know.
For some reason, Abrams decided against showing any of the political backdrop to the Galaxy Far Far Away and it just doesn’t work. I can’t understand how much danger the heroes are in if I have no idea how powerful the villains are. Are they fighting Nazi Germany or North Korea? Things like this are important to say for basic story craft reasons.
When several planets are destroyed by the Starkiller weapon, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care. I know nothing about what these planets are, why they’re important, and how critical their loss is. We get none of this important information. It’s just an excuse for Abrams to recycle Alderaan and have a few pretty explosions.
With New Jedi Order, we know all this. The Republic is the dominant galactic power. There are other minor powers, like the Imperial Remnant and the Chiss Ascendancy. The Yuuzhan Vong have a massive extragalactic fleet, ready for invasion.
Here, New Jedi Order is frankly the clear victor, simply because The Force Awakens is irritatingly vague.
The Progression of the Characters
This is a little closer. Luke is mostly absent from The Force Awakens, merely being a figure of legend and mystery, but we see he seems to have moved to being a more mysterious, Obi-Wan/Yoda-type character, which New Jedi Order wouldn’t let him fully grow to be. Luke in New Jedi Order has, however, succeeded in founding his… well, his New Jedi Order. He’s now struggling with how to guide them as the order begins to fracture– in much more interesting ways than simply having students fall to the dark side. The guiding question behind New Jedi Order is “What should the Jedi be?” Luke doesn’t have all the answers, but he does his best to guide them. He’s also now married, while Force Awakens Luke appears to be a monk-like loner. Both are valid directions for the character, but I sort-of prefer the mysticism of the Force Awakens version. This is too close to call until get to Episode VIII, so I’ll call it a tie.
In both stories, Han Solo is a family man who reverts to his old loner ways, cutting himself off from Leia and the New Republic. In Force Awakens, we see his character only after this change, while in New Jedi Order, we get to see the change happen as he is struck by the sudden death of his best friend. Both Hans have surprisingly similar character journeys, although New Jedi Order Han’s doesn’t lead to his demise. Let’s call this one a tie, too, although New Jedi Order has the advantage of spending more time developing Han Solo.
Leia is, frankly, better in The Force Awakens, even though we don’t see that much of her. In New Jedi Order, her role is poorly-defined. She’s the former Chancellor of the New Republic, now with some vague diplomatic role. Her as the tough general leading the fight against the enemy in The Force Awakens was a much stronger direction for the character.
Chewbacca in The Force Awakens gets no progression at all. There are a couple good moments, but he ultimately remains a cypher. New Jedi Order, of course, famously kills him in the very first book. His death tells us far more than his scenes in The Force Awakens can. Chewbacca dies nobly and defiantly, giving his life for others. This is an easy win for New Jedi Order.
Lando Calrission is in New Jedi Order, so that means New Jedi Order wins. Seriously, Abrams. Lando is one of the main characters too. Leaving him out is foolish.
The New Generation
New Jedi Order has a vast number of characters, so to be fair I’ll just narrow this down to Anakin, Jacen, and Jaina Solo versus Rey, Finn, and Poe. The Force Awakens will now breathe a sigh of relief, because if I’d brought in Tahiri Veila, she would have dominated everything. Nothing beats Tahiri Veila. Other people drown in competition. She swims in it.
(If you got that joke, be my friend. Please.)
Jacen is the protagonist of New Jedi Order, although the series is a bit of an ensemble. He has a fantastic character journey, but I’m going to be fair and just focus on the beginning, since we don’t know where the new crowd will go in Episodes VIII and IX. Many people don’t like early Jacen, but I am not one of those people. He questions everything and struggles to find answers. He’s the philosopher, struggling to work out what it means to be a Jedi. Asking these questions turns out to ultimately be very relevant. What he lacks is confidence in himself, a confidence he needs to gain to be the hero the galaxy needs.
Anakin is the contrast to him. Where Jacen is uncertain, Anakin is confident. He knows what he is and what a Jedi is. He’s a lightsaber-weilding hero. To him, right and wrong are simple. He’s charismatic and brilliant, the natural next leader of the New Jedi Order. His shadow hangs over Jacen, even though Jacen is older. He has an answer to the series’s central question, but Jacen doesn’t think it’s the right one. Edge of Victory gives his character a lot of depth, but even in the earlier books, he works very well as Jacen’s opposite. He feels an enormous, crushing pressure to be a hero and live up to the legacy of his parents and uncle, a pressure that ultimately doesn’t end well for him…
(Jacen and Anakin were switched early in outline form, but I wish they’d stayed the way they were, since it was more consistent with their young reader books characterization to have Jacen as the rash action hero and Anakin as the thoughtful one afraid of his own dark side. You can look up the full details online, but it was basically an overreaction to a Lucas edict.)
Jaina is more pilot than Jedi. Of the Solo children, she’s the one to whom the least attention is paid in the beginning, gaining a lot more focus after Star By Star and heading into the finale. She’s the moderate in Anakin and Jane’s debate, the center of the spectrum. She does, however, strongly object to Jacen when he briefly becomes a pacifist and refuses to use the Force at all.
Rey, our new central hero, is hard to pin down. She’s very determined to wait for her family and her backstory makes her sympathetic. She’s very skilled with a lightsaber and the Force. Her willingness to help BB-8 and Finn mark her out as being kind, although she’s really thrown into the whole situation by accident (or by the Will of the Force.) Still, I didn’t feel like I had that much of a sense of who she was, though Daisy Ridley did a great job with the character.
Finn is my favorite of the new characters. He’s got the most interesting backstory as a Stormtrooper trying to run away from his past and problems, then coming to be a hero. His character journey was the clearest in the movie and I really like him.
Poe Dameron is fun in the lesser amount of time he’s on-screen. He’s definitely the third wheel in this trio. Still, we see bits of characterization in small things: the way he risks his own life to save the villagers, the way he immediately befriends Finn, how he lets Finn keep his jacket at the end. I definitely like Poe and really want to see more of him.
I’m inclined to give this one to New Jedi Order, but I really think it’s tough to call, going off just the early books (which, to be fair, I have to do). I like both trios. Anakin and Jacen’s contrast and character journeys gives New Jedi Order the edge for me, although there’s a few things I like better about The Force Awakens. It’s more racially-diverse, for starters, with one Hispanic and one Black character to contrast New Jedi Order‘s White trio. This ties into the issue of all three central characters being Solo children, which leads to a lack of diversity in backstory as well. All three are Jedi of sorts, though Jaina’s piloting and Anakin and Jacen’s conflict make them stand out from one another. I’m interested to see where the characters from The Force Awakens go, though Anakin, Jacen, and Jaina will always have a special place in my heart.
And if I’d included Tahiri, she’d be more interesting than any of the new movie characters. Or the old movie characters. Possibly every character ever.
I really like Tahiri, okay?
Okay, I’m done. Moving on.
The Big Death
Chewbacca’s death by moon in New Jedi Order is the perfect fulfillment of his character journey. He dies saving others, including his best friend’s son. It takes a character who really doesn’t add that much and uses his death to spur the arcs of the other characters. Han Solo is hurt to the point where he distances himself from his family and blames his own son, Anakin, because Anakin piloted the Falcon away when it was clear Chewie wouldn’t make it on board. Anakin also blames himself, leading to his recklessness and desire to save everyone.
Plus, that image of Chewbacca roaring at a moon as it speeds towards him is incredible. That’s how a character goes out.
Han Solo’s death isn’t awful, but it doesn’t do as much for the story. Rey barely knows him, so she’s just momentarily angry. Kylo Ren moves further to the dark side, but he was already there. His death also doesn’t help anyone. It’s just a tragedy, not a victory for the character as well.
New Jedi Order wins big time.
And this is where New Jedi Order demolishes The Force Awakens effortlessly. It’s honestly kind of embarrassing.
The Yuuzhan Vong are formidable, but they’re very different from the Empire. They’re invaders rather than occupiers. They don’t wave around red lightsabers or wear white armor. Overlord Shimmra and the over Vong elites are tough, warlord figures, contrasting with Palatine’s “evil wizard” role. (I’m not going to deal with the later twist, since it’s later and I’m trying to be fair by only contrasting early books because we only have one sequel trilogy film.)
Their organic technology gives them a great visual that really sets them apart from the Empire. Their religion and obsession with pain provide interesting cultural information, as does their caste system. Having them be cut-off from the Force provides both a practical challenge for the Jedi, who can’t sense them, and a moral challenge, as they – especially Jacen –try to puzzle out what this means, since the Force includes all life.
Then there’s Nom Anor: a wonderful, scheming, treacherous, monster. He’s very different from any of the Star Wars movie villains. He dominates every scene he has in any of the books. His utter self-interest makes him fun to watch/read about.
The First Order, however,is really just an inferior versions of the Empire. We have new Stormtroopers that look almost exactly the same. We have a mysterious holographic leader who does nothing to differentiate himself from Palpatine. We have a Nazi-esque military leader in charge of a weapon who does nothing to differentiate himself from Tarkin. And we have a black-clad, red-lightsaber user with a mask who has very little to make him any different from Darth Vader.
They’re pale reflections of the original villains, which is disappointing when we needed a new, clear vision for the Star Wars sequels. We got nothing new or exciting. Abrams really dropped the ball here.
I stand by my conviction that New Jedi Order is a far superior continuation of the Star Wars series. It doesn’t just coast on nostalgia. It challenges expectations and takes risks, boldly plotting a new heading for the series. Force Awakens is good, but just that. Good. It isn’t bold enough to be truly good and it ultimately does little to distinguish itself.
Do yourselves a favor and read New Jedi Order. While it’s still flawed, it’s a brilliant expansion of the Star Wars universe.
The novel Traitor alone is worth it. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Matt Stover is a genius with prose.
Upon reflection, my rating for The Force Awakens would be around 7.5/10.
I would also like to say that The Force Awakens is infinitely superior to Dark Nest Trilogy, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi.
Everything is better than Legacy of the Force.