When Disney relaunched the Star Wars franchise with 2015's The Force Awakens, they introduced us to a very different version of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. In the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, the New Republic had crumbled and a dark force known as the First Order had risen to prominence. Leia had dedicated herself to leading a new Resistance, Luke had fled into hiding, and Han had returned to his old criminal career. How had the galaxy changed so much?
Those secrets are currently being drip-fed to us, revealed little by little in novels and comics. Many have tended to be quite derivative, revealing very little that's truly original; you've had a strong sense that the key reveals were being held back for The Force Awakens, and the upcoming Star Wars 8. That approach makes sense from a financial viewpoint, but I freely confess that — from the perspective of a fan of books as well as films — it's frequently been a source of real frustration for me. Bantam's old Star Wars novels introduced me to the old Extended Universe, and I'm used to the idea of Star Wars books being filled with personal drama, character conflict, and more than a smattering of galactic war. In general, the newer books and comics just haven't quite scratched my itch.
Then came Bloodline.
What Is Bloodline?
Bloodline is an original novel written by Claudia Gray. Best known for her Young Adult paranormal fiction, Gray is a skilled writer with an ability to make every character — even the most ruthless and villainous of them — completely three-dimensional. Gray was approached with a tight deadline when she had other commitments, but the offer of getting to write a political novel starring Leia Organa Solo was one she couldn't turn down.
As always, Gray surrounds us with powerful original characters who add real depth to the universe. We're introduced to Leia's political allies and enemies; we meet criminal warlords; and we even get to see the birth of the First Order...
The Shadow of Darth Vader
I think the greatest achievement Bloodline makes is to thoroughly ground galactic events in the shadow of Darth Vader. The secret of her father's identity has been kept for so long that Leia doesn't even think about it any more. Her only memories of her father are of his torturing her on the Death Star, and then making her watch the destruction of her homeworld. He's a thing of nightmares to her, and she's simply dismissed her biological relationship to him as not worth considering.
But we've all seen it before in politics: the higher you rise, the more dangerous a single mistake can be. Keeping her identity secret — even from her friends — is a dangerous weakness, one that is exploited against Leia at a key moment in galactic history. It destroys an already fractious political alliance, and prepares the scene for the schism that will become the First Order. Considering how scant information has been in the run up to Star Wars 8, our first glimpses at the birth of the First Order are deeply significant.
That's a wonderful touch. Darth Vader's influence was a palpable one in The Force Awakens, particularly for Kylo Ren — who has become obsessed with his grandfather. Bloodline broadens that influence, though, turning Vader's identity into a powerful weapon that literally fractures the galaxy. At the time this secret is revealed, Ben Solo doesn't even know that his grandfather is Darth Vader. No doubt the horrific revelation, with political shockwaves reverberating across the galaxy, is the reason he becomes obsessed with Vader. That one tragic secret — that Leia is Vader's daughter — undermines everything.
One single scene hints at a greater impact. Fearful of the idea that Leia's twin, Luke, is Vader's son, the Senate begin discussing the Jedi as well. You can see where this will lead: can Luke be trusted to rebuild the Jedi Order? After all, he's the son of Darth Vader...
It's brilliant. In a single narrative twist, Claudia Gray makes perfect sense of almost everything we see in The Fore Awakens.
This Isn't Just A Political Novel
As much as this charts the fall of Leia's political career, Bloodline is actually an action novel. Leia's last actions as a senator are to work against a criminal conspiracy that, though she doesn't know it, will become the First Order. As Claudia Gray observes:
"Although this is a political book, I think what came out of it is her turning away from politics a little bit. This is the origin of General Leia in a lot of ways. And she’s going back where she once belonged. That was sort of the most fun, was seeing her really getting out in the field, back into action, and realizing not only is she really good at that, but it’s energizing to her, in a way that politics has unfortunately ceased to be due to gridlock. That was the most fun: How much can I get a blaster in her hand? One of my first thoughts was “she’s got to blow stuff up.” I wanted to get her in action, and I got to do that."
Claudia Gray is right in her interpretation of Leia. Carrie Fisher's Leia was of the blueprints for the confident, sassy science-fiction superhero. She's very much a feminist icon, in that she's a woman who takes charge, proving herself the equal to any man. That's what made the 'Slave Leia' outfit so irritating in Return of the Jedi; suddenly, even Leia is being objectified!
Bloodline actually revisits that controversy. Leia's enemies remember her time as a slave, but not as a sex symbol; they remember her as a Huttslayer. In a beautiful act of subversion, Claudia Gray reminds us that it wasn't Luke who killed Jabba the Hutt — it was Leia. As critic Vorn Marlowe puts it, Leia "strangles Jabba the Hutt with the literal chains of the patriarchy". Bloodline reminds us to look beyond the tacky outfit, and to celebrate the fierce warrior who wore it.
So Bloodline is about Leia abandoning politics once again. She returns to the front lines, using all her guile to undermine another criminal empire and unearth a conspiracy that runs to the heart of the Senate. That done, she senses the threat of the First Order, and begins to gather old allies and new friends to her side in order to form the Resistance. More saddening, though, is that in her decision you see the first hint that her relationship with Han is going to fail. They love one another, but she is too devoted to duty, and he simply can't settle down.
As true as their love may be, their marriage isn't strong, because each lives in a separate sphere; Leia's decision to form the Resistance means that they'll never have a chance. As a fan of both characters, that's a heartbreaking truth, but one that makes perfect sense — and ties in easily to their relationship in The Force Awakens.
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If there's any one Star Wars novel fans need to read, it's Bloodline. To date, the other Star Wars books and comics have largely been side-stories, offering vague hints at what may be, but rarely fulfilling their promise. Bloodline is different. Bloodline gives us everything: the character beats, the sweeping narrative that will overwhelm a galaxy once again, and a clear sense of direction to The Force Awakens. It's a must-read for any Star Wars fan.
What do you think of Bloodline? Let me know in the comments! Meanwhile, if you want to more swatting up on the Star Wars universe, check out our narrative timeline of all the cannon events — condensed into handy video form!