Wow, that was the most colossal understatement I've made in a long time. Here, let me be frank: the majority of retellings or companion novels are festering gobbets of sewage in comparison to their inspiration. On their own, they might be perfectly decent works, but many writers feel the need to stamp themselves all over the canon. Because they're more focused on their own ego and reputation, the believability of the book in relation to the original work goes completely down the toilet.
But Alexandra Bracken gets it. Her dad, whose hand I'd like to shake, instilled in her a love of all things Star Wars. She fleshes out the characters in a very believable way, and sticks to the original dialogue. And she passed the ultimate test.
Bracken's take on A New Hope closely follows the bildungsroman format of the actual movie, but she explores the complex emotions of the main characters in ways that kids understand. The characters do sound a little bit young, but if you want adult angst, read an adult Star Wars book.
The novel is divided into three equal sections: Leia, Han, and Luke. Some people have said that Luke got the short end of the stick because his was the last section. Um, hello? The movies are mostly driven by Luke and Luke figuring out who he is. Not that that's a bad thing, but we get far less information on Han and Leia's background than Luke. We know that Luke's father died during the Clone Wars, and that he was raised by his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru on Tatooine but aspires to be a pilot and go to the Academy like his friend Biggs. That's what the whooooole first part of the movie is about. So Bracken upends things and lets Leia do the talking first, since, after all, the opening shot of her ship, the Tantive IV, being pursued by a Star Destroyer is IT.
When your mother is the Queen of Alderaan and your father is a Galactic Senator, great things are expected of you. Great things like ... curtseying properly. And Speaking Like A Princess. And how to dress for state dinners. Leia Organa understands that, yes, as a princess, she should know these things, but what she really wants is to make a difference. She's ambitious: she wants to be a Galactic Senator like her father. And when she is elected, Leia is the youngest Senator to serve (remember, her real mom was older when she became a Senator, but she was a young queen)* and she takes her job very seriously. The rest of the Senate, including the creepy Emperor, treat her as the token female. Oh, sexism in space!
Leia's grand ideals of changing the galaxy for the better soon get beaten down by the pointless arguing of the Senate, and she looks for other ways to help people. Helloooooo, rebellion! And so begins her journey to steal the plans for the Death Star and bring them back to the Rebellion. That's where we enter the film, so to speak.
Bracken gives us a really interesting version of Darth Vader's boarding of the Tantive IV from Leia's point of view (in the film, we follow the droids). Not only is she scared, but she's overwhelmed with a sense of failure. It was her chance to prove that she could help the rebellion, and she failed. That really rounds out Leia's perfectionism and her biting wit: it's easier to cover up wounds with a sharp tongue than let people see you are hurting.
Next up is Han Solo. Scene: Mos Eisley Cantina. He's cocky as all get-out, sure, but he's scared too: he owes Jabba the Hutt a lot of money. And if things get really bad financially, he might even lose his beloved ship, the Millennium Falcon. Thankfully, Chewie scouts out some customers: an old man with a "sword" and an impetuous, green farm boy. After wrapping up the deal, Han feels lucky.
"Koona t'chuta Solo?" Greedo! At this point, I held my breath. Would Bracken show her true colors as a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan, or would she play to the "special edition" edits? I almost cheered when she reaffirmed what we all know, deep in our nerdy hearts: Han. Shot. First.
Han's story takes us to the moon of Yavin 4, where everyone is reunited with the Rebellion. He narrates the story of their capture by the Death Star and subsequent escape, which is cool, because in the film, we follow Luke and Leia. Bracken constantly shifts the reader's perspective of events they may already know very well and rounds out the story.
Finally, the narrative focuses on Luke as he trains with the Rebel fighters, being mentored by Wedge Antilles and reuniting with his old friend Biggs. The Death Star run wasn't quite as dramatic as the film, because we're seeing it solely from Luke's perspective. No Porkins. Poor Porkins.
The characters do read a bit young, but I think that's due to two factors: Bracken is writing for a middle-grade audience, so having internal cussing monologues or extreme violence just wouldn't work. Secondly, people tend to forget that the characters in IV, V, and VI are pretty young, still. Luke and Leia are around twenty, and Han is a bit older. If you think about it, not a lot of time has passed since the fall of the Old Republic in the Clone Wars. So Luke's petulance and Leia's nerves and Han's loneliness are all very real, believable emotions.
I'd like to bestow a medal on Alex Bracken for writing such a pitch-perfect Star Wars book for kids. Unfortunately, I don't have an ancient temple in which to hold the ceremony, nor am I a princess. But I'm a librarian, so I'm going to recommend this to as many kids as I can.
May the Force be with you. Always.