The gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens is vast in two different ways. In-universe, it’s a time period of approximately 30 years, and for Star Wars fans, it exists as a great mysterious gulf filled only with question marks concerning the lives and adventures of our heroes following the victory at Endor and the new adventure brought to us courtesy of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan. The number of books or other sources of information, such as Marvel’s comics, remain incredibly few, especially when compared to the mounds of Expanded Universe material relegated to ‘Legendary’ status by Disney. Even the material now released under the banner of official canon, much of it has actually been set in the time period of the Original Trilogy, not after. As a result, we actually know very little about Luke, Leia, Han, or Chewie, and so on, over the thirty year gulf, only what we could gleam from Marvel’s Shattered Empire and the information contained in The Force Awakens. Then we have our new set of heroes.
Virtually nothing exists to tell us about the background of Finn, Poe, or Rey, for example, and most likely, intentionally so. Why ruin the opportunity to use those backgrounds as elements of future storytelling in the next Star Wars films? Thankfully, while many questions will continue to linger, the Lucasfilm/Disney Powers that Be did decide to allow Greg Rucka to offer up three short stories in Before the Awakening. Do they shine a lot of light on our trio of heroes? Not exactly, but they do at least provide some background as to where our characters were prior to the events of the film.
As a Young Adult novel (a reading audience which a number of the new Expanded Universe books have been directed at – perhaps a consequence of their popular rise), Before the Awakening is written on a somewhat more simplified level than one’s average novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less entertaining or fascinating. The mark of a talented writer is being able to craft enjoyable fare at any level and target demographic of audience. Rucka achieves this goal with his three stories.
The first story concerns Finn, whom we never see referred to by his cinematic earned name. Instead, it is the story of FN-2187, and an exploration of what set this storm trooper apart from his peers. This falls into two areas, one his innate skill and talents as a soldier, which is at times almost compromised by two, his concern and empathy for others, particularly a squad mate known as Slip. Throughout the story, Slip is presented in a vulnerable and emphatic light. From all appearances, it would seem Slip is well along a journey which would result in his dismissal from the Stormtrooper corps. In short, he’s simply not very good at the job of killing New Republic soldiers and the only grace which enables his continued presence is Finn’s personal efforts. For as sympathetic as Slip appears to the reader, Rucka takes the time to remind us of the mentality Stormtroopers are intended to possess: service to the First Order at the expense of all others. Thus, when Slip later, without hesitation, shoots down civilian miners at a labor dispute, it’s surprising and brutal. Throughout the same experience, we learn that FN-2187/Finn struggled with accepting this element of being a Stormtrooper and thus, at the time of the attack on a small village on Jakku, was a Stormtrooper already somewhat horrified by the steps his government and military are willing to take on the road to victory and galactic domination.
His desertion in The Force Awakens, then, is based on a well established realization that he doesn’t belong. Additionally, this realization also accepts that everyone whom he considered a friend, was not quite the comrade he thought them to be, nor necessarily, possessors of values he supports. This provides a healthy dose of reassurance when we see him quite excitedly fight back against Stormtroopers in his escape and throughout the movie. Likewise, the story also provides some explanation for how he handily used a lightsaber for the first and second time – he’s simply a gifted warrior. Ultimately, it also explains why he wholeheartedly accepted a new name, detaching his identity to the one the First Order intended for him, and reattaching it to a future where he could become whomever he desired.
Our second story also speaks to desires, that being Rey, and also other scavengers on the sand swept landscapes of Jakku. The primary focus of the story, which reveals less of Rey’s background (understandably), revolves around the struggle of survival as a scavenger, and the efforts Rey goes toward restoring a wrecked space ship she discovers after a particularly bad sandstorm. Perhaps it’s a nod to how well The Force Awakens imparted who Rey was and what her character was like, but as a result, her story felt more like a reassertion of everything a viewer could contemplate and consider from Daisy Ridley’s time on the big screen. This isn’t a bad thing, not at all, as the story was quite enjoyable, but it covered ground already tread upon by the film; namely her isolation, her independence, and the simply rotten environment she chose to live in while waiting for the return of her family.
In the story, Rey discovers a small freighter, which represents the next best thing to a gold strike in terms of the rations and supplies it will earn her from Jakku’s resident scrap baron, Unkar. It’s a process of months and one that eventually is noticed by two other scavengers, Devi and Strunk. These two end up helping her find the necessary parts to get the ship up and running, and to jump to the conclusion, also end up stealing the ship to escape the miserable life of Jakku. To Rey’s credit, she finds little to fault in the pair that betrayed her, understanding and accepting their actions. Instead, Rey realizes that they had simply done what she had always desired to do, but refused to allow herself to do over her belief that she needed her family. Or perhaps, accepting the fact that Maz Kanata told her, no one was returning to Jakku for her. Other tidbits, provided a little bit of background hinted at in the film, such as explaining how she learned to fly – she found an old flight simulator and practiced upon it for days upon days upon days (there isn’t much to do on Jakku). Rey’s story is poignant and tragic, in contrast to the final story of the book.
Poe Dameron, the only hero in the book with a last name, has a story that truly offers something of a background. This might be because Poe was originally intended to die after the first act of The Force Awakens, or because some parts of his past had already been released. Our knowledge of Poe’s past actually extends to Shattered Empire, a four issue limited series released in the fall of 2015, which was one of the first sources of information for our new post-Battle of Endor universe. This was also written by Greg Rucka, which might provide an idea as to why Poe’s background is much more shaped than our other two heroes. Shattered Empire followed the adventures of Poe’s parents, Shara Bey and Kes Dameron, the former an A-wing pilot for the Rebellion and the latter, a commando and member of the Rebellion’s ground forces. It concludes with Shara and Kes retiring to a small place on Yavin IV with Poe (and also a special Jedi tree sapling, but that’s another story).
For fans of Shara Bey, Poe’s story begins sadly with the revealing that she had died when Poe was only nine years old. When taking in the information from Shattered Empire, that Poe had been conceived following the Battle of Yavin, and was likely already about four when they had settled on Yavin IV, it means that Shara only had approximately five years more to live following that retirement. Before she died, however, she imparted to her son the love of flying, a passion that eventually lead to Poe’s enlistment in the New Republic Navy. It’s in his capacity as the captain of a X-wing squadron in which we find him at the start of the story and after a surprise attack by the First Order on a merchant ship, the steps which lead him to the Resistance.
One of the questions left in the air for viewers of The Force Awakens was the disconnect between the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order. We obviously can tell the First Order, as the Galactic Empire 2.0, is the bad guy, but why isn’t the government which had been founded from the Rebellion more concerned with their activities? While there’s more to it than follows, one reason explained in Poe’s story is that the First Order has successfully turned and infiltrated members of the new Republic Senate, who in turn, do everything they can to steer the Senate’s attention away from the growing threat the First Order poses. Among the casualties of these activities is none other than our General Leia Organa, who has been reduced to an alarmist at best and a warmonger at worse. None the less, it’s General Organa who intervenes in Poe’s life, after the dashing X-wing pilot takes an unauthorized visit into neutral space, only to discover a flagrant violation of the concords between the New Republic and the First Order. This draws him into Leia’s orbit and she recruits him to join the Resistance.
After his recruitment, Poe is sent on a mission to capture a space yacht belonging to an alleged First Order agent. It’s a success, and the databanks on the yacht reveal an important piece of information. An old ally of the Republic, Lor San Tekka, has information leading to the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Poe’s story ends with him leaving for Jakku, and well, that’s where our cinematic story begins. Poe’s story weaves in star fighter battles with the undertones of a Republic being undermined, mislead, and ultimately setup for destruction by an enemy believed to be nothing but a shell of a threat. In terms of giving us background to the universe existing at the time of The Force Awakens, it provides the most satisfactory answers, even if those answers remain more vague than preferred.
Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka is a fun quick read, providing glimpses into the mostly immediate pasts of our three heroes from the movie. Is it a must read for the casual fan? No, but then, they will undoubtedly benefit from it when their more avid fan friends do devour its contents and can provide more context for the characters and events of The Force Awakens. For those who do read it, they will gain more insight into both and the pleasure that always accompanies well told adventures in the Star Wars universe.