Kenobi by John Jackson Miller – Book Review (Bellarius)
Returning to the galaxy of Star Wars once more, Bellarius gives a few thoughts on Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.
“An entertaining Wild West installment shedding light on one unseen part of the universe.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
Much like Angel of Fire, Kenobi is a book which becomes infinitely more entertaining once you realise what the author is attempting. Taking stylistic elements and genre conventions of Wild West tales, Miller shows elements of the universe in a very different light. While Star Wars tales have always retained certain basic elements of the Wild West, especially in scoundrels like Han Solo and Tatooine itself, the novel wholeheartedly embraces it.
Set only a short time following the events of Revenge of the Sith, the novel’s opening sees Kenobi returning to Tatooine with Luke. Handing over the infant to his aunt and uncle, the Jedi then attempts to enter exile far off, isolated from all others. However, after so many years in service to justice, the Jedi can hardly ignore calls for help. Especially when lives are at stake.
You’ll soon be able to see the Western tropes not long after starting the book. There’s a landlord with too much power, a streak of avarice and a spoiled, cruel offspring, Kenobi is a stranger new to the town with a desire for justice, there’s a decent family trying to make a living in a harsh wasteland, there’s Tusken raiders besieging farms, and things are becoming more complicated with every passing day. Most of the analogues fit together surprisingly well, and once you fully realise just how closely the book is trying to make itself into a sci-fi western, it generates its own kind of charm. Sure it might be a little cliched at times or delve a little too deeply into certain tropes, but that’s what everything Star Wars does, and it tends to do it well. In many respects it’s handled in a Firefly manner, blending together it and science fiction extremely close together, far better than anyone would have guessed.
The plot itself is fairly straight forwards and has most of the turns you would expect, but it does throw a few spanners into the works and keeps the reader interested with new ideas. We have a very rare chance to have a Tusken as a viewpoint character (one with even a shout-out to the often overlooked Sharad Hett no less) and it does provide an interesting look into their society. They may be savage in their nature, but the book doesn’t present them without any kind of code, religion or form of morality. The novel thankfully does more than enough to distance them from Native Americans early on (and any of the negative connotations which might be carried from having them as villains), and it proves to be a great source of lore.
The battles and action scenes in question remain a solid addition to the novel, especially surrounding how Kenobi deals with so many problems. Having to now hide his identity as a Jedi, he can’t so freely use the force or draw his lightsaber as he once did, and a very early scene shows him realising this. The books provides no shortage of inventive ways for him to use his abilities without fully revealing himself and the action without him remains solid throughout. The posse tasked with defending the moisture farms are effectively armed civilians trying to keep the peace, usually defending against the Tuskens. This provides an oddly different flavour for the fights with them being often far more hectic and less focused than with military stories, and even in comparison to the Tusken. It doesn’t skimp on the combat itself but it helps to give a better impression on their nature.
More impressive than this way of handling the combat however is the setting. Tatooine is a desert world, lifeless and mostly featureless, yet Miller keeps finding ways to keep it vibrantly alive. The towns themselves are a melting pot of scum, criminals and the downtrodden, each with their own problems and issues – all of which serves to help focus upon the civilized characters. In the far desert away from it, the book often turns its focus towards the Tuskens, placing emphasis upon their spiritual beliefs and experiences to help bring the desert to life.
Now, all this is good but the story does suffer from a few distinct problems which may well put people off, and that’s surrounding its supposed protagonist. Despite the title and front cover, Kenobi himself isn’t the chief focus here. While the story does significantly focus upon him, it’s not to the same degree as is advertised. Entire chapters can go by with no mention of him and the novel doesn’t do nearly enough to explore events just prior to it. We never really see the slow impact of Kenobi truly realising how many of his comrades are dead, that the Clone Wars were ultimately for nothing and that the Sith have ultimately won.
It’s certainly an interesting piece to see him adjusting to his exile, but it never really stops long enough to address the emotional baggage he is no doubt carrying. The few times it is really addressed are journals and attempts to communicate with Qui-Gon, but these feel truly out of place. These are written in the manner of letters, but they way they are delivered fails to make sense if this was someone trying to directly contact or speak with another person through the Force.
The other characters unfortunately don’t fill out their roles quite so well. While they’re suitable for the story itself and provide plenty of colourful instances, far more memorable characters have been written in these situations and they never really feel as if they grow beyond their role in the story. You’re more likely to remember each by their actions or behaviour rather than their names, and they really do prove to be forgettable before the end. This makes the story far less engaging than it should be, and really holds back the story from excelling to the level of other works.
As a whole, Kenobi is okay as a book but it’s not all that outstanding. You’ll certainly find plenty to keep you going here, but it’s really not as great as one would hope. Definitely get this if you like the idea of a Star Wars Wild West tale with Obi-Wan as a key character, but don’t consider it to be essential reading for this setting.
Still, of course none of this matters because the Expanded Universe no longer matters. Because JJ Abrams hates anything he cannot utterly control.