Rogue One: Catalyst by James Luceno is one of the best new cannon novels.
Catalyst should be thought of as the opening crawl to RogueOne.
Catalyst is the story of how Galen Erso and his family are indoctrinated into the Empire’s war machine by their old acquaintance Orson Krennic. Krennic, tasked with building the primary weapon for the Celestial Power project (the Death Star).
Spoilers below. Or you can read one without spoilers.
Short Synopsis: Galen, obsessed with his research on the Kyber Crystals but morally against participating in war, is manipulated into developing the primary weapon for the Death Star. The grounding force of his wife Lyra and young daughter Jyn ultimately lead him to escape the grasp of Orson Krennic and his Imperial agents.
We’re introduced to the Erso’s right from the beginning. In an era that is marked by corruption and moral quagmires (the Prequel era), the Erso’s are an inspiration.
One theme throughout the book that I think is important to observe is that Galen Erso is not ideologically driven. Whereas characters such as Orson Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin are very ambitious and willing to undergo any suffering to accomplish their goals, Galen is pretty well incorruptible. This is different than most of the characters we’ve encountered in Star Wars. Everyone had ideological buttons.
A second theme of the book was the comparison of Galen’s character being comparable to that of the Kyber Crystal. It doesn’t readily give their insights, but if properly coerced, they will provide the power inside. It’s an elegant comparison that helps us to better understand the nature of the Kyber crystal outside the various technical descriptions.
Galen wouldn’t work for the Separatists when he was imprisoned separated from his pregnant wife on Vallt. He refused to work at the highest levels of the Republic during the war, preferring boredom than participating in a war machine. Contrast this behavior with, say, Lando or Boba Fett. We see these characters rather directly manipulated by various force – usually Vader and/or the Empire. But Galen doesn’t succumb to those types of manipulations.
Orson Krennic understands Galen’s nature, almost as well as Lyra Erso. Krennic is an expert at manipulation. But Galen proves to be his biggest challenge. It takes years of patient tending, but his insight into Galen’s nature serves to get him to do his bidding. He creates a lab for Galen that more closely resembles a prison. His family languishes while he thrives falling deeper into his research.
It is ultimately his family, Lyra and Jyn, who wake him up to his imprisonment and manipulation.
The result of this book is a heavy emotional attachment to these characters: The Erso’s, Krennic, and… Saw Gerrera. In this sense, it’s a great setup for Rogue One without giving any insight into what happens in Rogue One.
We get some great things
This book also addresses some additional questions about the Death Star: What role did Tarkin have? Why did it take so long to build while the second went seemingly faster?
We get some pretty direct answers: the Geonosians conspired to delay the project at the end (and following) the Clone Wars and the death of Poggle the Lesser. The political battle between Tarkin and Krennic created incentives to create delays. But mostly, Galen Erso’s work on Kyber Crystals were paramount to constructing the primary weapon systems and the station could not be completed without his direct involvement.
We’re also treated to more characterization of the Empire’s brutality. We see the environmental devastation of formerly protected worlds and intentional attack and destruction of innocent people – all to support the Death Star effort.
Saw Gerrera makes a fantastic appearance in this book. He plays an important role in the plot, helping one of the primary characters to engage the Empire in battle at Sentinel II. He also is the one who helps the Ersos escape the Empire on Coruscant and resettle them on the planet we see in the Rogue One trailers: Lah’mu.
Some things I didn’t like
I only didn’t like some stylistic issues with how the story is presented.
Most of the biggest moments of action take place “off screen”. There were a number of explosions and attacks by the Empire that would have been great to witness. But in this case, the stylistic choice was to let the knowing suspense linger. That’s fine, but we’re ultimately left with just a suspenseful thriller and not something that is action-oriented.
The story seems to bog down a in the middle chapters, a trade-off made to enable more back-story to be told. This is good as the time period – during the Clone Wars and the years post – is very interesting. But we get a lot of broad jumps in time that are a bit disorienting, but allow us to understand how our characters fit into this specific time period. Ultimately we are pushed from an action-oriented Star Wars story at the start to more of a drama where we are shown the lengths to which Orson Krennic goes to accomplish his goals. That’s cool too, but that’s what this book is. There’s no real mystery or intrigue. No particular revelation. Just a great dramatic novel with great characters with a great plot.
We get a few mentions of events that refer to various episodes of The Clone Wars that are always very exciting for Star Wars fans. More so, they serve as storyline guide posts that help to anchor where in the timeline certain events took place. Lost Stars does masterful job at this, going as far as giving a new perspective of some very well-known Star Wars moments (such as the destruction of the first Death Star and the Battle of Hoth). I would have been elated to get this type of detail in Catalyst, but Luceno did a great job nonetheless.
And lastly, the premise behind the environmental devastation in order to provide materials for the Death Star is a tad far-fetched. If our own Universe is at least somewhat representative of the Star Wars universe, there’s far more materials floating around as asteroids and lifeless planetoids. In our own solar system, there’s plenty of asteroids and small moons to glean materials and they’re probably more easily gained (Jupiter’s 4 largest moons are 5x the mass of Earth’s moon). That they were looking for specific, hard-to-find materials, it makes it more reasonable to a more scientific eye like mine.