It’s so close to being great.
Kenobi is a good book for anyone who has wondered what
average life on Tatooine would be like for Luke Skywalker and the
generation before him. It reveals much less about the titular hero,
though, and the very short segments focusing on Obi-Wan himself aren’t
the book’s strong points.We never really get to see his first-hand feelings about Anakin and the
Empire, except for some hidden guilt that remains hidden.
The novel has a decent cast of female characters. Two of them fall for Obi-Wan, which I didn't feel was necessary, but I grudgingly admit that hey, he's a tragic Ewan McGregor. It makes sense. The novel does pass the Bechdel Test and features two females with significant arcs, although both are ushered along by Obi-Wan. This is one case in which the focus of the story matched the name in the title.
Because I was expecting large chunks of the novel to be from Obi-Wan’s point of view, I found it difficult at first to engage with characters who weren’t him. Of course my expectations were no fault of the author’s, and Annileen and Orrin’s initial blandness contributed to what I felt was an appropriately dusty feeling for the boring planet Luke would later try so hard to escape. I couldn’t help but compare the Claim and its surroundings to my own home town and wonder how much of the speeder culture depicted in the book (mostly in one race day but also in some loving descriptions of the machines) was inspired by George Lucas’s (and the Skywalker boys’, and Palpatine’s) fondness for races.
I liked the true main character, Annileen Calwell, well enough. Although she inherited her store after her husband’s death, she’s just as enterprising and sun-worn as the men. The final fight contains a symbolic action about how exactly fear and other aspects of the dark side can lead to suffering, but it also contains two women working together to send an antagonist to a humiliating, creative defeat. Annilleen’s best friend is a Zeltron woman named Leelee, and although she wasn’t as involved as I would have liked, she helps Annileen pass the Bechdel Test, and including her any more would probably have disrupted the plot.
Miller’s dialogue is engaging and occasionally biting, especially between his original characters. When Obi-Wan tells Orrin Gault that he brought his own problems on himself, the whole scene shows how true that is. The transitions between chapters were varied – although I wish that wasn’t unusual in tie-in novels – and the Tusken Raider mythology was very interesting and worked as a framework for the warrior A’Yark’s story.
By the final fight, I was starting to realize how much I’d grown to care about the characters. They’re not especially valiant or noble, but the sense that they are average people who must now work to survive in the shadow of both Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan made for an effective, Western-style, desperate finale fight, complete with a posse and a pass.
Miller does a very good job of making the galaxy feel large – there aren’t too many references to places we know from A New Hope, and characters make sure to point out that there are multiple families with the name Kenobi, mimicking George Lucas’ half-joking assertion that Luke didn’t need his name changed because there are so many Skywalkers in the phone book.
In a galaxy where every cantina looks like Chalmun’s I was afraid that Miller would try for too many cute references to other parts of the saga, but in the end he did well. Star Wars’ tendency to over-explain things means that Ben’s krayt dragon call becomes one in a series of calls, the sarlacc, one in a series of sarlaccs. I admit that there’s a fine line between a reference that works well and one that feels cheap or repetitive: I can’t think of a hard-and-fast rule to tell the difference. Kenobi treads right on that line. Other movie references are forgotten in the last third of the book in deference to original material. Jabba’s presence is felt but the Hutt doesn’t appear in the corpulent flesh. Instead, the final fight contains references to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s emotions that the Jedi and the reader understands but the civilians do not. Anakin’s slaughter of Sand People does not pay off per se, but it does influence the story.
It’s that quietness of emotion that is also the novel’s weakness, though. Chronologically following on the heels of Revenge of the Sith and its blistering novelization, in Kenobi we see an Obi-Wan whose inner turmoil is hidden from the reader in everything except his meditations. I understand that making him as mysterious to the reader as he is to the characters is a legitimate strategy, and it creates some amusing scenes where Obi-Wan is clearly not as good at staying hidden as he is at being just mysterious enough that everyone notices he’s hiding. (More on Obi-Wan being bad at things later.)
We never really get to see his first-hand feelings about Anakin and the Empire, though, except for some hidden guilt that remains hidden. At many times in the book I wondered when Miller was going to rip the Band-Aid off the wound and just have Obi-Wan, alone, thinking back on what he had done. The sections in Obi-Wan’s own voice where he talks to Qui-Gon were enjoyable but too workaday, with phrases like “I hope it gets better this time” comparing his arrival on Tatooine from Anakin’s departure from it.
I love that Qui-Gon was included at all, and the Luke-Anakin comparison was actually one of my favorite things in the book when I got over how abrupt it was. But I was looking forward to a book that focused on a movie character after the enjoyable newcomers of Into the Void, and Kenobi doesn’t address what I thought were important questions: How does a man who’s never taken care of a baby before feel about doing that? How did Obi-Wan find his house? What’s it like to have to avoid using the Force in daily life when you’re used to having Jedi all around you?
All in all, I really wanted more about Obi-Wan’s inner life from a book called Kenobi. That doesn’t mean that the novel isn’t good – it has better writing than many tie-in novels and has complex, realistic characters like Orrin and Annileen who seem freed from Star Wars’ usual categorization of people into classes (smuggler, pirate, Rebel, etc..) It seemed to tip-toe around Obi-Wan, though, and I didn’t see the appeal in keeping him mysterious when we’ve had so many books and movie scenes from his point of view before. It’s his name on the cover, but only a fraction of the book is from his point of view.
Some spoilery final thoughts. The reveal that A’Yark is female is extraordinary – after long chapters from the Tusken’s point of view I never noticed that Miller never used pronouns, which is a feat unto itself. It’s a twist that reveals my own assumptions – that A’Yark was male. Of course that’s a sin that the characters commit too, and Miller must assume that readers will think that in order for the twist to work. Miller also specifies within the text that in Tusken culture, the women usually stay home and warriors go out, without any suggestions that A’Yark does both. The book then becomes about two mothers and, in a way, Obi-Wan’s childlessness without Anakin. (Annileen remarks that Obi-Wan talks liked he had experience raising teenagers.) So I really liked that A’Yark’s gender both didn’t matter to her role and contributed to the story.
I’m sending you to Alderaan. You’ll be safe there. For about 19 years. Good job, Obi-Wan.
A Tatooine native mentions a family of Kenobis not far from the Claim. This is definitely a long shot, but it made me wonder – is Obi-Wan actually from Tatooine?
Orrin is a crafty antagonist far more plausible in the real world than Sith or aliens, which made him especially memorable. Essentially a salesman and a politician, he starts off as blustery but loveable at first, growing increasingly villainous. By the end it all comes together nicely – Obi-Wan and Anakin, the Tuskens, and Orrin’s gradual slide into scoundreldom. (He’s practically the anti-Han.)