With the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace coming up (surely you’re counting the days), ride-or-die Star Wars fans have been showing their love for the characters who debuted in that first and most maligned of the franchise prequels. Lucasfilm has been fanning the flames with bonbons including a panel discussion at this year’s Celebration convention and books like Queen’s Shadow, which finally gives Padmé an entire story to herself with no interference from Anakin.
Anakin is also absent from Claudia Gray’s Master & Apprentice, although the Force rumbles with intimations of his birth. Distinguished as the earliest novel in the current Star Wars canon timeline, it’s a lavish exposition of Qui-Gon Jinn’s backstory: why he’s not on the Jedi Council despite his accomplished status, why he’s such a mystical rogue, what it was like to be Count Dooku’s Padawan. As the title promises, Gray also probes the complex and weirdly intimate relationships between teachers and students in the Jedi Order.
Speaking of weirdly intimate, Master & Apprentice may mark the first appearance of the phrase “gettin’ laid” in the Star Wars canon. It’s uttered by Rael Averross, a maverick Jedi who’s been given the unusual assignment of serving as lord regent of the Pijali system, whose adolescent hereditary ruler Princess Fanry isn’t yet of age to take the throne. She’s chomping at the bit, noting on multiple occasions that teenagers on Naboo and Alderaan have plenty of political power.
Fanry’s coronation is now imminent. Upon ascension she plans to immediately sign a treaty turning Pijal into a democracy, but she and the treaty are under attack from opposition forces that have seemingly evolved from a performance art group (shades of Pussy Riot). Rael asks the Jedi Council to send his old friend Qui-Gon and the young apprentice Obi-Wan to help root out the protesters.
Gray — whose previous Star Wars books include Bloodline and Leia, Princess of Alderaan — is a deliberate plotter who likes dropping highly specific references to other corners of franchise lore. Like other books in the Disney canon, Master & Apprentice is full of Easter eggs for attentive aficionados.
It’s also a solid genre offering, with gratifyingly ample attention paid to the evolving relationship between Jinn and Kenobi. We know Obi-Wan will grow up to become the most reliably orthodox of Jedi Knights, while his master has a weakness for prophecies and visions and tends to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Gray plays up the tension, but ultimately explains why the Council considered the pair a suitable fit.
She also pulls back the cloak, so to speak, on the Jedi’s implausibly abstemious lifestyle. With the real-life Catholic priesthood increasingly revealed as a highly troubled brotherhood, it’s getting harder for fans to buy the idea of a celibate order of gods among men (or, more precisely, among “sentients,” the Star Wars term of art encompassing both humans and intelligent aliens). Gray doesn’t go too far down that road, but Master & Apprentice has as much frank talk about Jedi sex as you probably want or need.
For the benefit of readers who have concerns about overreaching authorities in galaxies not so long ago nor so far, far away, Gray engages questions of privacy and surveillance. Environmental degradation has been a central concern of recent Star Wars books, including this one: the grasping Czerka Corporation wants to plunder Pijal’s moon for minerals including an orange crystal characterized as “false kyber.” (For a deep dive into the specific properties and uses of true kyber, check out James Luceno’s excellent Catalyst.)
Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis isn’t as commanding as marquee Star Wars narrator Marc Thompson — but he’s also not as histrionic. When characters are straining or stressed, Thompson can sound like he’s giving himself a hernia; Davis is more even-keeled, while amply attending to the story’s shifting dynamics.
Narrating a Star Wars audiobook is not unlike putting on a one-person radio play, as the franchise’s elaborate productions prize uncanny imitations and freely apply voice effects as applicable. Davis has honed his Liam Neeson, speaking with the understated power of a leading Jedi at the height of the Republic. He nails Ewan McGregor’s Alec Guinness impression pretty well too, even when Obi-Wan is wordlessly screaming at the story’s climax. So uncivilized.