Inevitably, I’m going to compare this with Rebel Rising. Inevitably, it does far better. Also — no doubt equally inevitably — it sadly does not confirm anything about the nature of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe’s relationship. But it doesn’t deny anything either. Probably the best we can hope for from Disney’s Star Wars right now.
This is a book aimed at a slightly younger than young adult audience, and is interspersed with black and white illustrations of Chirrut and Baze with Very Serious expressions on. Despite the po-faced presentation, Rucka conveys the characters’ dry humour well; the finest moments are when the two of them are left to bicker and bounce off each other. Much of the book is simply scene-setting on Jedha, explaining how life in the Holy City deteriorates once the Empire takes an interest in the moon’s kyber crystals. A plot emerges subtly from the side-lines about three-quarters of the way through, tying together characters and details encountered earlier. It’s simply done, and it’s nicely done. Let’s be honest: few stories of the cast of Rogue One are going to be happy stories, and I did find myself fearing a different ending at some points. But Rucka lets our heroes get away with their sheer chutzpah, allowing us a glimpse of one hopeful moment in Jedha’s grim period of occupation.
It’s been pointed out in fandom already that what unites Rogue One, Rebel Rising and Guardians of the Whills is the presence of Saw Gerrera. Initially I felt like relying on Saw in Guardians of the Whills was something of a cop-out; aren’t there enough stories to tell of the Holy City that you could use original characters? But Rucka does a good job of showing how Gerrera’s actions affect life in the city, of how he manipulates those who are already fighting back in their own way, and how he will seek to turn any situation to his advantage. His Gerrera rings far more true to me than Revis’ — though she did have the more complex task of showing how he changed and his paranoia deepened — and Rucka paints him in plausible shades of grey in his private meeting with Baze. Baze and Chirrut’s reactions to Gerrera are muted and knowing, grimly accepting of what is necessary but also wary of Gerrera’s methods. As a direct lead-up to the situation as it is in Rogue One it’s a rich, detailed character study that works nicely as a complement to the film.
Original characters who are introduced include three women — none of whom are in Saw’s team, which is something I’m still pondering on. Killi, Kaya and Denic are supporting characters who are just rounded out enough to make an impression. Their individual personalities shine through the brief encounters we have with them and each one tells us something about the Holy City’s past and the difficulties of living in its present. No romance is foisted on the reader (*side-eyes Rebel Rising again*), but the respect between Baze and Chirrut and these women is palpable, and there’s real emotional heft in the siblings Kaya and Killi’s relationship.
As for Chirrut and Baze, well, we learn little more of their youth, but it seems to me that one could infer quite a bit from the final word of the novel in reference to them: ‘together’. They share a small room, Baze cooks, they drink tea that Baze hates, they snark and snipe affectionately, they worry for each other without it undermining the respect they have for each other, and they agree wordlessly on plenty.
Rucka hedges with regard to Chirrut’s Force abilities, allowing him some measure of Force-awareness, but backing it up with an echo box to help him navigate the city. It’s a compromise that works well; if he’d tried to convince me that Chirrut was in no way Force sensitive I’d have rolled my eyes out of my head. As I said in my post on re-watching Rogue One, the depiction of the Whills and of Jedha was one of the things I appreciated most about the story. It took the Force away from the Jedi, freeing it from their hierarchical system once more; Guardians of the Whills builds on this with interspersed ‘extracts’ from the sacred texts of the Guardians, hinting at all the different ways people have interpreted the Force. You don’t need to be a Jedi to be Force sensitive, and Chirrut’s persistence in developing his limited connection with it shows another side to interactions between the Force and its users. (I’m speaking here in ignorance of the animated series and most new EU novels, to be fair, but I’m still bitter about the prequels’ depictions of the Force and the Jedi).
If I have one regret about Guardians of the Whills it’s that Disney chose to aim it at such a young audience. And it feels churlish to regret this, but when we’re never going to get sequels to Rogue One it’s frustrating that all the prequels are aimed at teen audiences and younger. I’d love to read Rucka’s take on Chirrut and Baze’s youth, on life as a Guardian when that still meant something on Jedha: something with more depth and detail than you can fit in a book aimed at younger audiences. I mean, when I was the age this book is aimed at, I was discovering Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy for the first time. And I’m not saying Star Wars shouldn’t be marketed to kids — that’s how it all began, of course — but I’d like to see it complemented by some heftier works. Still waiting on that Tales from the Holy City, Disney. Come on, get to it.