While the post-traumatic fallout of Anakin Skywalker’s tragic turn to the ominous dark side will be at the forefront of Disney’s forthcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series, the heartbreak behind that inevitable fracturing of two prolific Jedi is further amplified by a wide array of emotional depth. in Mike Chen’s “Star Wars: Brotherhood” (Del Rey, 352 pp., ★★★★ out of four, out now).
Set between the events of the films “Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002) and “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005), “Brotherhood” is one of the best “Star Wars” novels to date, exploring the family-like bond between two of the central characters in the Skywalker Saga.
“Brotherhood” takes off right as the Clone Wars are beginning, with Skywalker and Kenobi at a crossroads in their evolving relationship as Skywalker grows from Padawan to Jedi Knight and Kenobi transitions from master to a fill-in member of the Jedi Council. Chen develops both characters in separate arcs before fully zeroing in on their bond. The overarching message of “Brotherhood” is relatable to many close relationships: individuals must grow on their own to blossom cohesively.
Exclusive exception:Mike Chen meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker in ‘Star Wars: Brotherhood’
A terror attack on the planet Cato Neimoidia catapults Kenobi on a mission that turns “Brotherhood” into a partial sci-fi mystery as the cerebral Jedi master unravels a conspiracy. Cato Neimoidia, a jewel of the Trade Federation, has remained neutral in the war — neither on the Separatists’ or Republic’s side — but the latest attack threatens that neutrality. Chen does an excellent job tying macro to micro, wisely using Neimoidian culture to unpack emotions tied to prejudice of being a cog in a machine, bringing a humanity to the Neimoidians who question their place and adding nuance through enjoyable characters like soldier Ruug Quarnom.
The novel’s greatest feat is portrayal of Skywalker, whom Kenobi described as “a good friend” in “Episode IV – A New Hope.” But fans haven’t gotten this elaborate of a portrayal to the good side of the future Darth Vader — until now. Anakin’s goodness is on full display here, from his raw connection from him to Padmé Amidala to his vulnerability from him talking about his mother from him in a teaching moment. It’s done in a refined way, especially from Kenobi’s point of view, that gets lost in the conflict-plotted movies, with his mission from him in the narrative to guide younglings in grasping the gravity of the war.
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There’s still internal conflict, of course, with Skywalker’s secret marriage to Padmé (while Kenobi’s sensing of their affection is cleverly executed so it doesn’t make him seem so unattuned now when re-watching “Episode III”). Whereas “The Clone Wars” series focuses on Anakin’s training of beloved character Ashoka Tano, Chen charts Skywalker’s ascent through a new character, Mill Alibeth, a young Force-user who finds herself overly empathic to effects of the war on people around her.
What’s most impressive about “Brotherhood” is how it vastly improves the often-maligned prequel era by implementing an emotional connectivity that two movies and seven seasons of the animated series only lightly tapped into.
While “Episode II” gets bogged down by the wooden romance between Anakin and Amidala and “Episode III” expedites the narrative to show Skywalker and Kenobi matured into close companions, “Brotherhood” fills in the emotional blanks and taps into moments of levity and brotherly sees it. Even more, it bolsters the timeline gaps between Episodes I and II — when Kenobi trained Skywalker but took on much more of a big brother role than a fatherly one after Qui-Gon Jinn died in his arms from him at the end of “The Phantom Menace.”
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Chen takes readers right into the heart of the duo’s “fire and ice” complexities that cause them to clash like brothers and grow to care for each other that way, too. He achieves this at the culmination by leaning on a key character in Jinn, asserting that Kenobi’s late master, who pleaded for him to train Skywalker, had faith in both Jedi to carve out great paths. That connective thread helps Kenobi accept Skywalker as an equal and end master-apprentice dynamic.
One challenge with some of these fill-in-the-narrative novels that tie together timelines is that there’s seemingly not enough real estate for new storytelling or for an author to flex his or her or their creativity. Chen’s “Star Wars” knowledge is interspersed throughout with ample call-backs and character appearances for die-hards (ahem, Asajj Ventress), but it more impressively finds a way to stand on its own. That’s largely because of the super focus on the relational dynamic and less of an emphasis on action. Chen zeroes in on a fascinatingly complex relationship, leveraging his “sci-fi with feels” skillset from previous standalone novels such as “Here and Now and Then” and “Light Years From Home.”
Much of the criticism of the final movie of the Skywalker series, “Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019), argued that writers didn’t take many chances and played it safe while trying to tie together nine films. Thankfully, Chen doesn’t get too wrapped up into tying together loose ends and instead makes “Brotherhood” feel vastly original with age-old characters.