(2017), Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant & John Jackson Miller,
Century, £20, hrdbk, 297pp, ISBN 978-1-780-89857-5
This features four short, standalone novellas set in the Star Wars universe in the casino city of Canto Bight which is a place where aliens are willing to risk everything to make their fortunes. The city is billed as “the greatest city of pleasures the galaxy has ever known” and features in the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi – no spoilers here, but suffice to say that some major characters from the movie pay the place a visit. Here, in a departure from the rebooted Star Wars series of books where we have had titles that feature on a pivotal character such as Tarkin, or Thrawn or Phasma; or there have been books that are about a group of people such as the Battlefront novels; here we have four novellas set in one place, and in the new Star Wars timeline this is set after Return of the Jedi and before The Force Awakens. Canto Bight is a place that Empire and rebellion have hardly touched, it is a places of dreams, for some.
It is an interesting departure because the novella format gives each author room to develop character and to build up a sense of place and use some of the locations like the neighbouring artificial sea fleetingly shown in the film. According to Rian Johnson who directed The Last Jedi, Canto Bight is the Star Wars equivalent of Monte Carlo or “a playground, basically for rich assholes” but in all four of these tales we see the seedier side of the city, away from the glitz and the glamour, but the rich and the powerful are always there in the background, seeking two things: more power and more riches.
The collection starts off with the shortest of the four tales, namely the ‘Rules of the Game’ by Saladin Ahmed, as an honest salesman called Kedpin Shoklop wins a trip to the city and falls into the clutches of a career criminal who plans to use him to carry out a murder. Shoklop is very much an innocent abroad in a tale where he is clearly out of his depth as his dream vacation goes pear-shaped in a story that starts out funny and turns frantically darker and is reminiscent in parts of the first Total Recall film and The Fifth Element.
Of all things to write a story about, it is a priceless bottle of wine that drives the tale in Mira Grant’s ‘The Wine in Dreams’, but it’s also about truth and lies, and the myths and legend that surround the city and also the thirst, not for wine, but for power and influence which are craved by practically everyone we encounter, but especially two strange identical twins who claim to be from another dimension.
‘Hear Nothing, See Nothing. Say Nothing’ is the third novella by Rae Carson and arguable the best of the bunch, or the second best after ‘The Wine in Dreams’ and involves popular masseur Lexo Sooger who falls foul of Big Sturg Ganna a prominent and influential councillor (and a whole lot of other darker things outside office hours), but Ganna is not to be denied and kidnaps Lexo’s human daughter, Lula who dreams of becoming a fathier jockey (those who have seen The Last Jedi will know what a fathier is). In order to get Lula back, Lexo must do deals with other devils.
Last of the four tales is ‘The Ride’ by John Jackson Miller which reminds me a lot of an old Damon Runyan story given the colourful characters and the way they interact in a story that tries hard to be funny, but humour is in the eye of the beholder, or the reader. Here, a gambler has a last chance to make a killing in a card game where the odds are stacked against him.
All in all we see the underbelly of Cano Bight, which like ‘Hotel California’ is a place some can never leave. Star Wars fans will enjoy this, as all of the novellas are split into chapters and rattle along, although – in my opinion – the best two stories are in the middle and the weakest are the two in first and last places. Had it had been up to me I would have rearranged things, but, who knows, perhaps we’ll see more location-based Star Wars books in the future. Cloud City, anyone? Or Otoh Gunga, the Gungan City?
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