In 2021, Disney-Lucasfilm Press began releasing books as part of The High Republic campaign, a collection of stories set 200 years prior to the Star Wars prequel films. In this era, both the Republic and the Jedi that protect it are flourishing, but still face opposition and danger. The High Republic: A Test of Courage, a middle-grade novel by Justina Ireland, debuted on The High Republic novels’ first publication day.
A Test of Courage focuses on Vernestra Rwoh, a 16-year-old and the youngest-ever Jedi Knight after passing her trials a year earlier. She is tasked with “babysitting” Avon Starros, a sharp-witted preteen mechanic who loves to invent and build things. Her mother, Senator Starros, sends her daughter aboard the ship Steady Wing to keep her safe after Avon experiences a particularly traumatizing event back home.
After a disaster necessitates a quick escape, Vernestra and Avon join with Honesty, an ambassador’s son, a Jedi padawan named Imri Cantaros, and Avon’s protocol droid J-6. Together, they guide a maintenance shuttle to the jungle moon Wevo, populated by cute primates but boasting torrents of acid rain. To survive this uncompromising place, the group of five will have to problem-solve while also dealing with heavy grief, confusion, and the threat of the pirates who sabotaged the Steady Wing in the first place.
A Test of Courage might be a little slow for its intended audience of young Star Wars fans, particularly since much of the novel deals not with action but the internal states of characters struggling with their grief. The group’s four human characters play their shock and trauma on a loop, attempting to process it while working to make quick decisions in perilous circumstances. At times, it feels like not much is really happening, plot-wise – the novel takes a relatively simple path of escape on Steady Wing‘s shuttle to the trudge through Wevo’s landscape.
Vernestra is a conscientious leader, but she never quite comes into her own as a compelling protagonist. The book doesn’t address the difficulties inherent in allowing a teenager to become a Jedi Knight in the first place. Vernestra is still discovering who she is as a person; forcing such formal responsibilities upon her during the process of that discovery weakens her believability as a character. One of her best contributions to the novel is Vernestra’s function as the calming presence – the glue – holding the team together. But the spirited Avon often overshadows her. In fact, Avon gets some of the novel’s best lines and moments of action; her quick-wit allows her a dynamism missing from her Jedi guardian. Despite some issues with Vernestra, I still find myself hoping this series will expand her story.
The padawan Imri and the ambassador’s son Honesty act not unlike two moons circling a planet of rage and pain. Imri loses his Jedi master and Honesty his father in the ship attack, incurring far too much sudden grief for a 14-year-old and 12-year-old to handle alone. Faced with life-or-death decisions at nearly every turn, they orbit their own agonies, while Vernestra and Avon, who have lost less, try to make sense of the external obstacles. We learn that Imri is an empath who can sense the feelings of others, but it doesn’t take much ability to know he has an ally in Honesty. Together, they grapple with a strong desire for revenge – one that threatens to push Imri to the dark side
There’s been much conversation in fandom around the ways that the Jedi lifestyle causes younglings and padawans to suppress trauma rather than work through it. It’s a particularly common point in discussions of Anakin’s descent to the dark side. While the Jedi practice of meditation helps calm them, those who struggle with trauma, like Imri, can’t find the solace they need. One of A Test of Courage‘s strengths is delving into young people’s trauma, though the novel doesn’t fully critique the patterns that cause it.
Although the book tackles these themes head-on while allowing the children to explore a new environment, the writing never quite elevates to the level of the poetic, instead staying rooted in the children’s immediate experience without exploring their settings more. The stylistic constraints could be due to the book’s intended middle-grade audience, but they deprive even young readers of further vivid description. More of a push beyond line-by-line action and raw emotion could have helped the book feel even more lush without making it too dense.
For a middle-grade story, A Test of Courage is also grim at times. At one point, after Steady Wing‘s destruction and as the children are guiding the maintenance shuttle to safety, a character avoids looking out the window lest they see human remains floating through space. This is the reality of the situation these kids find themselves in, but moments like these might be startling to readers expecting a fun story rather than a deep-dive into trauma.
Collectively, the High Republic-era books have to do a daunting task: introduce a whole new set of characters untethered from pre-released visual media. While most Star Wars books center on already-beloved characters from the films and television series, The High Republic starts nearly from scratch. Although A Test of Courage might not be a perfect book, it brings in new elements while investigating themes familiar from the stories set in later times. It’s not clear whether the novel is a must-read for those seeking to follow the High Republic initiative, but it serves as a nice, focused corner of the Star Wars universe for kids and adults alike. And, because it facilitates important and honest considerations of children’s grief, the novel may serve as a comforting story for young readers facing similar trials. As an adult, I also felt invested in Imri’s and Honesty’s struggles living up to the resilience their master and father tried to instill in them. Being a kid is hard – especially in a galaxy far, far away where nearly every character faces high stakes.
“Through a simple, straightforward survival story, the middle-grade Star Wars book A Test of Courage considers themes of responsibility and grief in young people.”
Author: Justina Ireland