Book Review: Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller
This was a book I was looking forward to reading. Obi-Wan Kenobi has always been my favorite character, right from that moment when he comes staggering over the rocks in A New Hope. The prequel trilogy, and later The Clone Wars, fleshed his character out even further. Still, I wondered about his exile on Tatooine. What was it like? How did it change him from warrior to guardian to adviser? In some ways, Miller answers that here, and in some ways he doesn’t.
At its core, this book really isn’t a sci-fi novel at all; it’s a western. Even if Miller hadn’t said as much in his notes, the tropes are hard to miss. Kenobi is the drifter. Orrin Gault is the powerful landowner with thuggish kids, who has the town (such as it is) under his apparently benevolent thumb. Annileen Calwell plays the part of a tough pioneer woman, making something of herself in a harsh environment. There’s even a threat from the natives–in this case, the Tusken Raiders. The characters are poured into these molds with such aplomb that a reader could be excused for not noticing. Indeed, the blend of genres may be Miller’s greatest feat in this book.
For old-time Star Wars fans, the most interesting narrative aspect is that much of the story is told through the barrel-visioned eyes of a Sandperson, the warrior leader A’Yark. As the story begins, the tribe is going through a tough time. Ever since a massacre several years before the book’s opening, the Tusken Raiders have been steadily losing confidence and numbers. A’Yark is trying to rally the people, and comes to believe that Kenobi may be of use in that cause. Although the voice in these chapters seemed stiff and stilted at first, by the novel’s end, there is ample room for the reader to feel real sympathy and understanding. Such thoughtful treatment of a Sandperson is unique in my experience of the Star Wars universe. Indeed, the species has always been so one-dimensional that Anakin’s slaughter of them in Attack of the Clones lacked any sort of emotional impact. Miller has given these monstrous people depth and complexity, which merits further study as it relates to the treatment of “the other” in literature.
For their parts, Annileen Calwell and Orrin Gault are wonderful characters as well. Feeling very much like they stepped from a John Ford film, they are tough and dedicated to the ideals of home and family in the punishing Tatooine landscape. They’ve been bound together for years, both as pillars of the community, and by the memory of Annileen’s late husband, who was Orrin’s best friend. As the story unspools, however, cracks in their relationship begin to show and then widen. Much of this division (although not all) is caused by the appearance of Ben Kenobi. So much of the story revolves around the Annileen-Orrin dynamic that their points of view dominate vast stretches of the book. In and of itself this isn’t a problem; they are well written, interesting characters. The result, however, is that it leaves very little room for Kenobi himself.
In this, I think Miller failed to meet expectations. Kenobi is so often absent from the pages that I have to question the wisdom of naming the book after him. Granted, I (and a lot of other people) might not have picked it up with a different title, but that doesn’t change the story’s nature. This novel isn’t really about Obi-Wan. There are several diary-style “meditations” in which he tries to communicate with Qui-Gon Jinn, and some discussion of his internal struggle to adapt to his new life as a passive observer. If I set my fandom to one side for a moment, though, I have to admit that these sections are among the novel’s weakest. They do little to develop Kenobi’s character and even less to move the story forward. The latter fact is because, in total, this story is about the people of Tatooine, not the exiled Jedi who can’t become one of them.
I really did enjoy this book, and felt like Miller took me on an excellent, curiously different ride through Star Wars. That said, I think it’s important for a reader to go into this novel with both eyes open. The book’s redeeming qualities are such that I wasn’t too let down by the lack of Kenobi’s centrality, but I can see how others would feel that way.