Star Wars novels: Phase one

Star Wars was for a time much like Harry Potter for me: a highlight of my childhood but I left it at that. The prequels came out when I was in my teens, and I loved them. Prior to social media my friends and I weren’t aware we were supposed to hate them if we were “real fans” we simply enjoyed the fantasy. Staying up all night at slumber parties collectively writing Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fanfiction was standard. As mentioned at my Jupiter Ascending post we had no idea these stories weren’t made for us. We pulled what female characters we were given and ran with it. Looking back that may be why those interests didn’t follow me into adulthood, I simply wanted more of myself represented in these fantasy action films. The new trilogy delivered, and while Force Awakens sparked my interest once again, it was The Last Jedi that really pushed me full force back into Star Wars. That winter my friend Gwen and I shared the same level of interest and limited knowledge about the franchise: The Last Jedi brought us back to Star Wars in a way we wanted to explore more of. We heard great things about the canon novelizations, and read the two sequel books in a sort of accidental book club way, and before I knew it, we decided that a great way to learn more about the Star Wars universe would be to start at the top. The fandom as a whole isn’t the most inviting, and I personally wanted to learn about things without bias and commentary. Having someone to read along with has been immensely helpful, even though we live in different states we’re able to read each book simultaneously and discuss them afterward. We’ve learned so much already, noticed parallels within the three trilogies, theorized and speculated. It’s really been fun to get to know the Star Wars universe at our own pace, without judgement, because at it’s core it’s a fun fantasy with as much complexity as the real world around us. So if you’re interested in getting to know Star Wars better, want to go deeper into your favorite movie, or want to fill in some gaps between films, I hope you enjoy these as much as we have!

You can find a full list of the canon Star Wars books here, it even includes where the shows work in should you wish to add those.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Author: Terry Brooks

You know what really made The Phantom Menace for me? Padme’s costumes and Duel of the Fates. You know what this book doesn’t have? Padme’s Costumes and Duel of the fates. Looking back at the story it’s really not that bad, but I can’t help but remember that every time I sat down to read this book I fell asleep. We learn more of Padme as Queen, of young Anakin as a slave, and the dynamic of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. It’s much clearer how young Obi-Wan is in this novel, and how his character develops in the next two as a Jedi trained by Qui-Gon. I learned how the Sith came to be, a small but informative sideline at the beginning of the book that was much appreciated. Anakin’s inner dialogue sets the foundation for what he becomes, already obsessive with the safety of his mother (transferred later straight to Padme) and it’s so clear that he really is too old to begin training. The writing was underwhelming considering Terry Brooks is a renowned fantasy author, repetition and cringe worthy descriptions of Shmi  (“worn” is used more than once to describe her face) and I was glad the choice was made to change authors with each book, things would have gotten stale very quickly otherwise. If you’re going to read through the canon, start with this, and earn the gems to come.

“The Queen favored theatrical paint and ornate dress, cloaking herself in trappings and makeup disguised her true appearance while lending her an aura of both splendor and beauty.”

Epsisode II: Attack of the Clones

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Anakin and Padme can easily be credited with my interest in stories that revolve around a soul sucking kind of love, because from the get go, no good can come of this (in fact, literally all the bad comes from it). I think of this as Padme’s book, we learn so much about her that makes her fate that much more tragic. It’s her coming of age story, breaking off on her own, becoming senator, trying to change the course of history through politics while unknowingly on the verge of an unfathomable shift due to personal decisions. Padme and Anakin’s thoughts on one another add so much to the blossoming relationship, without it we’re left with nothing but forlorn glances and odd shifts in mood. The book adds substance to an otherwise shallow and hasty looking love story on screen, and my Jane Austen loving self is 100% here for it. The book also spends entire chapters and pages with her family, her parents are delightfully average and simple, and she has an older sister and two little nieces. Their home is about as close to an american suburbia on earth that I can imagine, and they spend time there along with Anakin before they travel to the lake. That scene revolves around Padme, but Anakin’s first experience being welcomed into a nuclear family is somewhat heart wrenching, one of those peeks into a life that could never be. The scene reads like any young woman bringing a friend to her family home only to be berated with questions about their relationship, teasing from her sister, and embarrassing family photos. The scene is familiar and perfect, perhaps too familiar to place in a fantasy space opera film, but personally I love seeing these legendary characters in such a normal element. The writing flows well, connecting one character’s story to the next,  opening with Luke’s future family on Tatooine, and following their tragic encounter that rips Shmi from her only peaceful chapter in life. Anakin’s experience with the death of his mother is often paralleled with Padme’s death, but seeing it on the page and reading his inner dialogue I would say his path is effected differently in each instance, and each woman has an opposite reaction to the Anakin they know.

“If you follow your thoughts through to conclusion, they will take us to a place we cannot go…regardless of the way we feel about each other.”

Dark Desciple

Author: Christie Golden

I was not ready for this book. I bought quite a few all at once and didn’t bother reading the descriptions, I knew I’d read them all anyway so what’s the point? Therefore I knew nothing except it centers around one of my favorite characters, Asajj Ventress. I would recommend watching the Clone Wars series before reading this, though it’s not completely necessary. The show is for one thing, excellent, and another, sets the foundation for Asajj and to a lesser extent the other main character. The premise is that after much hesitation the Jedi Council decides the only way to end the war is for Count Dooku to die. And waiting for that to happen just isn’t an option. The mission is top secret, highly dangerous, and given to what I could only describe as the purest bad boy Jedi in the order, Quinlan Vos. Dooku is too powerful to take on single-handedly, so he has to find a way to team up with Dooku’s former sith apprentice, Asajj Ventress. She’s been through it and back, a former slave, Jedi Padawan, Sith apprentice, Nightsister, assassin, and now bounty hunter. She allies with a handful and trusts no one. The two have a dynamic that we’ve only seen on the big screen in the infamous “Throne Room” scene, the light and dark joining for a greater cause. And personal. The gift of a female author is much appreciated, and comes through at moments when I least expected. This book has parallels left and right, changed my mind about where I hope the sequels will go, and convinced me that Ventress is more connected with the force than any Jedi in her time could ever hope to be. She’s beyond their comprehension, and Obi-Wan comes to realize this and forms a great respect, whether they’re fighting the same side or opposite at any given moment. This book is by far my favorite, and completely broke my heart.

“After spending so much time in her company, he now understood why Kenobi held her in such respect, even though she had been the enemy. Was, still, an enemy. Sort of. Or was she? He mentally shook his head and refocused on the task at hand.”

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Author: Matthew Stover

As mentioned with Attack of the Clones, that was Padme’s book. This one is for Anakin and Obi-Wan. I had looked forward to this after the soul crushing novel that was Dark Disciple, knowing this story and the tragedies to come, I felt prepared for this easy read.

I finished it while sobbing on a plane.

The distressing realization that you’re in for more than you know comes before chapter one even starts. The introduction sets the scene for a kind of hope and optimism amid war that only the highly regarded Jedi, Anankin and Obi-Wan can give. They appear on the news as heroes, children play them in the schoolyard, they are known as closer than brothers and invincible as any heroes are. When all hope is lost, Anakin and Obi-Wan will save the day. It’s not clear in the movies that they are well known, much like Superman is in the DC world, but in the book it adds to the weight of what happens. Their dynamic is set from the start, jumping right into action as only they could. The author is an expert martial artist, and that knowledge adds an unexpectedly rich vein to the story. A writing technique I hadn’t encountered previously, he breaks from the storyline at times to give a moment to various characters. Descriptive of their current self, and an unobtrusive background of their past, I loved this flow of information. Anakin’s fall to Palpatine and the Dark Side is given sense rather than seeming like a sudden mood swing. His inner dialogue is utterly painful and tragic within itself, even without considering the consequences. Padme’s struggles and viewpoint is stressful, she’s trying to keep corruption out of the senate, hide a forbidden pregnancy, keep secrets from her secret husband, and act like everything is fine. Her onscreen portrayal supports this, she’s a woman trying to hold the world together while maintaining a calm exterior, that so often looks like weakness. Obi-Wan is, I am convinced, what every Jedi should aspire to be, a far cry from Episode I, and everything that Anakin needed. I felt his loss more than Padme’s, perhaps because she never had to see what Anakin became. If you’re to read only one prequel book, make it this one, the author masters a story that reads so much better than the film, as much as I love the movie, the book is a complex mastery of what Star Wars is about: Love, tragedy, war and peace, and an end that’s only the beginning.

“Anakin and Obi-Wan would never fight each other.

They couldn’t.

They’re a team. They’re THE team.

And both of them are sure they always will be.”

 

 

 

 

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Agent Carter and women in post-war America

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Agent Carter was a short lived gift that should receive more respect than we give it. With the success of Mad Men, various networks tried and failed to get viewers interested in 20th century costume dramas, in rare form: set in America. America’s refusal to take interest in our own history through entertainment is unfortunate, because it’s just so easy. That’s why Agent Carter is a rare gem, though the general public didn’t seem to think so. The irony is, the show itself could apply it’s most beloved line to itself “I know my value, anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”

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The show’s first episode portrays Peggy sharing a New York apartment with another young professional woman, and their relationship is friendly, but not based in friendship. The foldout bed in the tiny studio apartment is used in shifts, the women likely found each other because they could work out a sleeping shift that would suit them both. This type of arrangement was hugely popular during WWII, in large cities and especially in cities that had factories and shipyards. These facilities usually operated 24 hours a day, so if you worked the day shift, you could sleep at night while your roommate was working the night shift. A single bed apartment for half the price. This continued in larger cities such as New York after the war, for people trying to make it in the city. One girl could work at a department store, the other at a nightclub, and they might pass each other somewhere in between.

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After Peggy moves from the apartment she is persuaded to apply at “The Griffith” a women’s only complex with strict rules and regulations, the most notable of which: no men past the lobby. These apartments were real, and very popular, though they often operated like large boarding houses, with meals provided. There were lots of options throughout New York history, you could find a boarding house/apartment in a building that only admitted people of your religion, race, marital status, gender, job, etc.

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The Griffith was likely based on The Barbizon, which opened in 1927 as the place for young professional women. 700 rooms for single women, and not a man in sight (above the first floor that is). But not just any woman could rent a room. You had to submit multiple letters of reference, and look, act, and dress like a proper young lady. I haven’t found reference to race, but I think it’s safe to assume that was a factor as well. Your parents could require you to sign in and out each day, and request a chaperone for outings. Stumble back to your room drunk at 1 am? You’ll get “a talking to”. No cooking in your room, in fact no electrical appliances at all. Your seams needed to be straight, your gloves clean, and your lipstick applied. Parents reluctant to release their daughters into the wild of the big city could take comfort in the mother figure who ran the place, accurately portrayed in the show as a no nonsense middle aged woman who seems to have eyes in the back of her head, and the girls virtue as top priority.

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Peggy’s roll in the workplace is so accurately portrayed. It’s largely forgotten that during WWII many American women experienced a kind of independence that wouldn’t be seen again in their lifetime. With most of the able bodied male population in service, women were mobilized for work, earning their own paycheck without question. There were military positions for women, mostly clerk work, and the other major option was factory work. It wasn’t just that it was open to female employees, but many even encouraged it with certain benefits. On site childcare was something that allowed working mothers to have consistency in a busy life, and some of the more organized shipyards even provided pre-made meals for women to take home at the end of their shift to feed their families.

Post-war, if the jobs stuck around, women were pushed out. Some simply got laid off, and some were stripped of the benefits they relied on so they were forced to quit. Removing the childcare some jobs provided was a popular one, pushing women away, and opening up jobs for men returning to the workforce. In the first episode Peggy’s roommate mentions

“They let ten girls go today”

“Did they say why?”

“Because ten more GIs got discharged. I had to show a guy from Canarsie how to use a rivet gun”

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Peggy herself is a fantastic representation of a woman landing a job in her related field, and finding it very different from her war era experiences. Peggy, even without my biased admiration, is obviously the “best man for the job” if you’ll excuse the irony. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter is not simply his sidekick after a time, she is already established in her own right before Steve Rogers even enters the picture. As we learn in the show, she entered into special operations from her job as a code-breaker, an admirable feat in itself. In the movie she’s important enough to be involved in the Super Soldier project, and throughout the film we see she places herself in danger in order to get the job done. Peggy Carter is highly regarded in wartime, with the best of men following her orders, whether she’s supposed to be giving them or not.

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Her roll at the SSR is a different story. She show opens in such a way that leads us to believe she’s still kicking ass and taking names. The shot of her symbolic strut down the sidewalks of New York, in a sea of faceless men in suits, sets us up for a show where Peggy Carter is a clear stand out. We know she co-founded S.H.I.E.L.D, so obviously she doesn’t just stop her career and play house the rest of her life. The jolt of reality comes when she enters the office. A meeting is called, and she’s told to cover the phones while everyone else is in the meeting. She’s called “darling” and “sweetheart” in professional situations. She takes lunch orders, and gets coffee. It’s implied throughout the beginning of show that not only do her co-workers not know she has hand to hand combat and weapons skills, but they try to shield her from the uglier side of the job and violent interrogations. At one point when she voices her informed opinion, she’s told “The war is over, let the professionals decide who’s worth going after.” despite the fact that she too is a professional. The attitude towards women is clear: you had your fun, now go on and let the men work.

Her time with the famed Captain America is turned into nothing more than a fleeting affair with a celebrity, not helped by the popular radio show portraying her as a helpless bimbo. Her relationship with Steve is referred to as a nothing more than a “liaison”. Peggy uses the public view of femininity to her advantage, playing the flirt, the dumb secretary, the assertive nag, the damsel in distress. The world she previously inhabited called for her strong personality, but now few seem to know how to handle that, so she often must resort to playing the part she’s expected to in order to progress. At one point a co-worker says point blank “You’re a woman, no man will ever consider you an equal.” Whatever thoughts ran through Peggy’s head, it’s safe to say Steve Rogers and his unwavering admiration for her and her work was unavoidable.

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In one scene a coded note is being argued over in the office, with two coworkers, her boss, and a professional code breaker. Not until Peggy weighs in is the note decoded, her time at Bletchly overlooked just like the rest of her work. It leads to the next scene where Peggy has to prove her knowledge and experience to go back into the field for a mission. No other agent is questioned, but Peggy has to convince her superiors to let her go. There her fellow agents are introduced to Peggy’s world as she’s known it, where she is not only equal to the revered “Howling Commandos” but the agents learn that the phrase “Do as Peggy says” is the most likely way to assure the job gets done. And it even shows up again in the second season.

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Would Peggy have risked a charge of treason to aid her friend if her job had utilized her to her full potential? Were she respected and able to advance in her career, her skills recognized and rewarded, would she put it all on the line for an illegal assignment? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear in the show that whenever she has a doubt of her unorthodox mission, the professional world around her reminds her just how valuable she is to them. Which is not.

How many women’s stories of that era have been lost to the same conditions as Peggy’s? Incredible women who were pushed aside after the war because of gender or race? Countless women who had challenging and important rolls during the war that have been forgotten, because the post-war era made it difficult or impossible to continue as they were. Pulled from potential careers and independence and essentially forced to return to the way of life that was seeking a husband for financial security. We see Peggy fighting back in a way that is so applicable to issues today no matter who you are or what you’re trying to achieve. In Captain America: Civil War, Sharon Carter quotes her aunt Peggy at her funeral:

“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.” This comes at a critical point for Steve Rogers, and sticks. Even after death Peggy Carter influences those who valued her.

Because when the rest of us ask “What would Captain America do?” Captain America asks “What would Peggy do?”

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{screenshot source}

 

Jupiter Ascending

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My love for this movie knows no bounds. It’s kind of indescribable??? Amazingly this story is not based on a comic book, young adult novel, cartoon, or is a reboot of something that came out 20 years ago. It’s the brainchild of the Wachowski sisters and their worldbuidling talents, where family drama is taken to new heights and the fate of earth is treated like an estate inheritance.

Mila Kunis plays an average young woman who is going through the motions of life and dreams too often of a better one. She’s thrown into an intergalactic royal sibling rivalry, where she’s not just in the middle of it, she’s the cause of it. A cast of characters guide her through the story, most notably a human/canine hybrid with space rollerblades played by Channing Tatum.

This sounds like a kind of fanfic fueled story my friends and I would have jotted down in a composition book in 6th grade, and that’s exactly why I’m obsessed with it. Our little clique spent slumber parties watching Lord of The Rings and Star Wars endlessly, neither of which catered to teenage girls, but we didn’t care or realize, it was all great fantasy. To have a sci-fi film that actually centered around a young woman would’ve been spectacular, and now more than ever I realize how important that is. After years of envying male heroes there’s finally one in a modern space odyssey that’s both real and spectacular.

Visually it’s a feast, with costume changes for dinner and the space DMV, and massive space ships against starry backdrops. There’s a few Sense8 actors as supporting characters, and even an Oscar winner as the primary villain.

So here are some of my favorite shots from Jupiter Ascending, my dream come true.

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