Which Star Wars Novels Are Worth Reading?

When Disney took over the Star Wars franchise, they rebooted the novel line. The publication of A New Dawn in September 2014, not only saw the abandonment of the earlier “Expanded Universe,” but also a much tighter integration between the novels and new movies. This had the effect of making me interested in the novels to a degree I hadn’t before.

That said, these remain shared universe fiction, which has never had a reputation for literary merit. For the most part, that reputation holds . With one exception, none of the new Star Wars novels would be worth reading if they weren’t Star Wars–if you took the same characters, story, and prose, and put it all in an original universe. But they are Star Wars, and so some are worth reading for those of us who love the movies and want to know the events happening around them, who those background characters are, or what the major characters get up to when they aren’t on screen.

The question is, if you’re going to read Star Wars novels, which ones should you read? If you’re dedicated enough, you read them all, of course. But if your time is limited or your tastes not quite so focused, which ones are worth your time? Here’s my stab at answering.

Highly Recommended

Lost Stars

The first genuinely interesting novel in the new canon, and the first that’s an unquestionably recommended read. Star Wars: Lost Stars gives us a bit of new information on the post-Return of the Jedi era, mostly regarding the Battle of Jakku, but its good stuff comes in presenting a thoughtful, realistic look at the events of the original trilogy from an Imperial perspective. We get to see the Rebels as terrorists–“If we don’t rebuilt it, the terrorists will have won.”–and the Imperial rank and file as sympathetic true believers.

My only knock against the book is that as a YA novel, it shoehorns in largely uninteresting teenage drama and romance. But that’s easy enough to overlook when the rest contributes so much to a story I thought I already knew inside and out.

Battlefront: Twilight Company

The thing about Star Wars novels is that if you took away the Star Wars branding and set them in an original universe, we fans probably wouldn’t see much value in reading them. Top-shelf scifi they’re typically not. Battlefront: Twilight Company‘s a rare exception.

Not much new in terms of worldbuilding or secrets revealed, but this story of grunts fighting for the Rebellion is just so damn good, with compelling and adult characterization, meaningful emotion, and excellent, if a little workmanlike, prose. If you read just one of the novels in the new Star Wars cannon, make it this one. Though you run the risk, as happened to me, that Alexander Freed’s book will ruin a bit whatever else you read in the series, because it’s that much better than its peers.

Before the Awakening

Oh man, do I wish I’d read this before seeing The Force Awakens. A collection of three short stories set just before the events of the film, Before the Awakening answers a few of the most confusing things about Episode VII while not spoiling the introductions of Rey, Finn, and Poe. Rey’s story tells us why she’s such a good pilot if she spent her life landlocked on a single planet. Poe’s tells us what the Resistance is and its relationship to the New Republic. Finn’s… Okay, there’s not much in Finn’s. But it’s still good.

The book arrived from Amazon a few days before Episode VII’s premier and I held off reading it, fearing spoilers. That was a mistake. I would’ve enjoyed the movie more if I’d read this first.

Recommended With Reservations

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Tarkin

Okay, if a little unfocused. It fills in a good deal of Tarkin’s backstory, but I found it didn’t do much to change my sense of the character or make me appreciate him more. Lucino’s a decent enough writer, but there’s just not enough here to make reading the novel worth the extra time over just reading Tarkin’s entry in Wookieepedia.

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Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

Catalyst is a difficult novel to slot into this list. On the one hand, it’s pretty dull and largely plotless. On the other, having read it before seeing Rogue One, I’m convinced it make me enjoy that movie more than otherwise. Introducing Galen Erso and Orson Krennic, it strengthens the characters and relationship of both men, and so makes the events of Rogue One better resonate. Recommended for that, but not much else.

Not Recommended

Aftermath

The first novel to give us a peek at events between Episodes VI and VII, Star Wars: Aftermath is mostly about dropping hints. It also suffers from a problem common to many of the new books. Namely, because big reveals must be saved for the movies, reveals in the novels are necessarily small. A such, Aftermath spends most of its time following a rather inconsequential story, though it does give a decent sense of what the galaxy looks like immediately following the Emperor’s death. Is it worth reading? Maybe. Though perhaps it would be better, if your interest is mostly in the state of the universe stuff, to just read the “Interludes” spread throughout the book, instead of the whole thing. Still, like BloodlineAftermath probably falls in the category of novels to read only if you’ve got nothing better. Otherwise, the Wookieepedia coverage is just as good.

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Aftermath: Life Debt

The second in the Aftermath trilogy, Aftermath: Life Debt is more of the same. We get to see the liberation of Kashyyyk, but it’s less interesting than it ought to be. We get to see the remnants of the Empire continue to sputter, intrigue, and seek to regain control. But, again, there’s not enough good here in terms of storytelling, characters or prose to make reading 400 pages worth it–unless you really liked Aftermath.

Bloodline

A grown up novel fro the author of the much better YA Star Wars: Lost StarsBloodline ploddingly tells a story that should’ve been better, given the importance of its premise. Episode VII begins with the new that Leia is no longer a senator but instead back in a military role leading “The Resistance” against the “First Order,” and this Resistance is somehow distinct from the Republic Navy. So what gives? That’s the story Bloodline sets out to tell. But it’s just not all that interesting when the events are all out on the table. And while the author handles the tragic love affair in Lost Stars with the necessary YA ham-handed starry-eyedness, when she’s writing adults engaged in what’s supposed to be political intrigue, she lacks the chops to make it at all convincing. Simply put, the book is boring and not worth the time. Better to just read about the events and characters online.

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A New Dawn

The novel that started it all doesn’t have a ton to offer, even for fans of Kaden and Hero from Star Wars Rebels, whose introductions it tells.

Here’s where they meet, in a story about an evil corporate overlord in cahoots with the Empire, and his plan to blow up an inhabited moon to speed up mining operations.

The book took me a while to get through because I just didn’t care much about what was happening. We don’t need to know how Kaen and Hera met, especially given how little both of them in A New Dawn remember their Rebels versions. This reads like it was written by someone who’d never seen the show.

Star Wars: Bloodline Isn’t Very Good, but It’s Star Wars, so That’s Okay

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Fans hold novels set in their favorite universes to a different standard than they would original works. At least, I assume they do, because if they don’t, people’s standards for quality fiction are even lower than I thought.

What I mean is, what passes for an “I’ll totally read this” book when it’s got “Star Wars” on the front and Star Wars characters and locations inside can get away with shoddier plotting, weaker dialog, and less polished prose. For me, at any rate.

If Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Bloodline hadn’t been Star Wars, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place, and I surely wouldn’t have finished it.

Not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. It’s just okay. But there are so many really great books out there I haven’t read that “just okay” isn’t enough place it above other titles in the reading pile. Except, again, that it’s Star Wars and covers events I want to know about, and has characters I want to spend more time with. So it gets a bit of a thumb on the scale.

Still, it could’ve been more. Alexander Freed’s Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company, the best book in the new canon, and by a country mile, managed the kind of nuanced and grown-up prose and characterization that makes Bloodline read like the work of a precocious high schooler.

Bloodline tells Leia’s story, as she slouches through a dull political career suddenly made livelier by uncovered secrets, unexpected betrayal, and a fall from grace. But the whole thing has a typically juvenile feel, like this is how an unworldly teenager thinks politics works or spying missions play out or adults talk to each other. There’s a lack of psychological plausibility, a lack of realistic emotional expression, and a lack of meaningful danger. And it’s all packaged in workmanlike prose that dulls the edge of whatever minor edge there may be.

Gray’s other Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, showed many of the same problems—though it was a good deal better than Bloodline. But that was intentionally pitched as a young adult book. Bloodline has the larger trim size and smaller type of a grown-up novel, yet it’s equally YA.

So, while not terrible, and certainly never outright boring, Bloodline gives little reason to actually read it, outside of that big Star Wars logo on the front. Which, I admit, for me, is reason enough.

The Bittersweet Abundance of Our New Star Wars Era

I was reading news about the casting of the new Han Solo movie and it struck me. As of December last year, we’ve fully entered an era of Star Wars abundance. An original Star Wars movies every year. Star Wars on television. Books and comics advancing the canon.

That’s good. Wonderful. We’re not just staring down the firehose new Star Wars, but what we’re getting is good. Lucas is out of the picture and the franchise is in the hands of people who grew up with it, love it, and–here’s where Lucas stumbled–understand why we all love it.

But I’ve got three kids, of ages where they’re just dipping their toes into what I hope will be a lifelong love affair with the franchise, and something about this abundance–irrationally perhaps–makes me a little sad. Because abundance means their relationship with Star Wars, assuming they get hooked, will be in important ways different from my own. Part of the magic of those movies, especially before the still-birthed prequels, was their scarcity. You got three films. That was it, really. (Because I’m not counting the inconsistent, high-gloss fan fiction of the Expanded Universe.)

It’s similar to how unlimited streaming changes the relationship to music. I grew up saving my allowance or tiny, part-time paychecks for an album, then buying it, and then listening to it over and over and over, because it’s what I had. This created a relationship to the music, a permanence of memory maybe, that won’t happen when you can listen to anything any time at zero marginal cost, and so wander more.

Part of my Star Wars experience is long term and frequent immersion in the original trilogy. Learning it inside and out. Memorizing it, basically. With a new movie every year, one or more TV shows, etc., that won’t happen. Which, even though the abundance is wonderful, also makes me a little sad. Will they have every line of every movie memorized? Of course not. Why would they?

Now is the best time ever to be a Star Wars fan. No doubt. But it’s a different kind of fandom, too. Abundance is awesome. But it’s not without effects. In the case of Star Wars, look with bittersweet anticipation on a future where my kids have so much of it that no single movie is a special and central as those original three were for me.

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What the Star Wars Prequels Did Right

They’re terrible movies. Let’s get that out of the way. But watching The Force Awakens again, and then again the divine Original Trilogy, I got this weird and unsettling flash of appreciation for something Lucas had done in those stillbirths of CGI and suffering actors and dialog usually confined to airport novels written by ex-advertising executives. He built a universe and showed it to us.

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This is a place people live.

Of course, he’d already done a bit of that with the Originals. We had an Empire and its Rebels. We had spectacular aliens and even more spectacular spaceships. But what we saw of it was only so much as needed to give the characters somewhere to be. Very little came off as existing without them. Luke’s farm sits like as movie set in the middle of nowhere. Alderaan is just a blue sphere until it’s not. Hoth’s a Rebel base and nothing else, and Dagobah is Yoda’s hut and a murky pond.

Not that we don’t get tastes. Tatooine in Episode IV has Jawas, a pass through Mos Eisley, and that wonderful cantina. Cloud City in Episode V features hallways with doors behind which people presumably live and earn a living. Jabba’s palace and Endor in Episode VI show denizens up to things unrelated to the struggle for a new Republic.

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But those are small. Just tastes. The prequels gave us the whole meal. Planets and citizens. Civilizations from screen corner to screen corner. We knew about this stuff, some of it, going in, because we could imagine it in the Originals’ lacuna and had been told about it in novels and comics and games. Still, the prequels widened, radically, the scope of Star Wars.

That’s what I missed from The Force Awakens. It’s a great movie, a return to form, a revitalization and a demonstration of faith on Disney’s part that they get it, that they’re fans, too. But it’s a return to form, too, in narrowing that scope. Again we’re in a universe of isolated sets, of points of light in otherwise wilderness. Even Maz’s castle seems to exist without neighbors. There are no cities in The Force Awakens, save for a single shot, and only two villages, if we can call Niima Outpost that, and if we count Lor’s tiny settlement, which we only witness dying and never living. The wide angles of the prequels have become tight.

Perhaps this was intentional, meant to remind of us A New Hope, as so much else does, or to keep us focus on fresh faces as a way to establish them in our consciousness the way Luke and Leia and Han are. The fresh worlds will come. But after the expanse of the prequels and then the Clone Wars TV show, The Force Awakens feels a little small.

The prequels feel big.

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The Meaninglessness of the Clone Wars

I can’t get into Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It’s sat in my Netflix queue for literally years, and I’ve only made it six episodes into season three, and most of that has come half an episode here, half an episode there. I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than two episodes at a time. The show completely fails to engage me.

I’ve been thinking about why that might be, given my enthusiasm for pretty much all things Star Wars. And it comes down to stakes. This is a show about a single, galactic conflict, and none of it matters. Not just because we know how it ends. I love Star Wars Rebels, and I know how that conflict ends. The Clone Wars are different. For one, because we know Palpatine’s basically in charge of both sides, the “war” is like watching one guy play chess against himself. No matter what happens, he wins, and so the individual conflicts within it aren’t part of something bigger.

But, second, even setting that aside, I don’t feel the weight of the non-secret stakes, either. With the Rebellion, you had an obviously evil empire oppressing people, and a band of freedom fighters fighting for, well, freedom. It mattered who won. But why is the Republic fighting the Clone Wars in the first place? Is it because its existence is threatened by an outside foe? No. It’s because a bunch of worlds, disatisfied with its rule, want to … leave. They don’t want to destroy the Republic or enslave its citizens. They don’t even want to enslave their citizens. They just want to do their own thing. And this is bad. So bad that the Republic needs to mobilize all its forces and fight a costly war to stop it. But … why? I know the writers think the war’s important. George Lucas thinks the war’s important. But that doesn’t mean it is important. It just isn’t. And the secret stuff doesn’t make it any more important, because of the whole “chess against himself” thing.

I’ll still probably finish the show. It may just take me another several years.

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did what it needed to. It restarted the franchise after Lucas’s disastrous prequel turn. It stamped Star Wars as Disney’s in the same way Iron Man did with Marvel. We weren’t just picking up where we left off, but rebooting a bit, too–and that’s fine. It’s what had to happen.

I enjoyed the movie immensely, and not just because I got to take my six year old daughter for her first experience of Star Wars on the big screen. (She loved it.)

What follows isn’t a composed review. I’ll need to see it a few more times for that. Instead, it’s more a random set of things that occurred to me during the movie and after. I’ve avoided spoilers, too.

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My daughter’s a Star Wars Rebels fan and her favorite character is Sabine. Still is. But Rey’s edging in. I never really understood how bad the movie business (and the publishing business and the television business) is at giving girls action heroes to root for until I had a daughter. Now I can’t escape it. It’s a constant struggle finding something to show her or read to her that has a female protagonist who isn’t a princess or school girl obsessed with boys or isn’t focused on teaching how to be nice or how to get along with friends.

Rey’s exactly what Star Wars needed. A girl who kicks ass and isn’t a princesses and–unlike Sabine–gets top billing. When we left the theater, Nora said, “I want to be Rey for Halloween.”

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I was always optimistic about this movie. Leading up to it, all the signs pointed in the right direction, and all the new Star Wars stuff Disney gave us was pretty damn good. Star Wars Rebels was easily the best new Star Wars on a screen since Return of the Jedi. The new comics capture the feel of the good Star Wars movies. It was clear Disney saw the Rebellion Era as the “default,” and would use it to inform the look and feel of future material.

And we were going to see a return to practical effects. Which goddamn did we need, after the bad (and not just dated) CGI of the prequels. For the most part, The Force Awakens succeeds here. The aliens in its version of the Cantina sequence look great.

But–and here’s my turn toward complaining–the large creature work failed. The creatures moved like stage productions, where you admire the artistry while still seeing clearly that it’s a few guys in a suit. None lived up to the standard Jabba set 30 years ago. You could watch the costumes crinkle around the knees, and the stilts inside as they walked. In fact, I’d say that both the big creatures (the one Rey runs across in the desert when she finds BB-8 and the one Finn shares a watering hole with) are far less convincing as living animals than, say, Jurassic Park two decades ago.

Maybe in the era of computer imagery for everything, large-scale practical creature effects is a lost art.

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Now the oddest thing about the movie, and something that bugged me from the opening scene. Nearly ever shot with people in it felt compressed. Like everything happening was in a small area in the middle of empty space. Especially when the action took place outside, I got a distinct impression of watching a filmed stage production. Everything felt crisp, and constructed, and right there in front of you, because, unlike with the prequels, it all was.

The original trilogy, this made come off as a lived in universe. The Force Awakens too frequently looked like a built universe. Almost as if it were a very high budget fan film.

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Which leads to my biggest complaint about the movie. As bad as they were, the prequels gave a strong sense of a universe. What we saw in the camera’s frame was but a piece of a much larger place, with events happening we weren’t being shown. It felt like stuff was happening off frame.

The Force Awakens (consciously?) returned to the style of A New Hope, with little indication that there was a universe out there. This worked for the first Star Wars. But I think it did because that movie oriented us. We could extrapolate from the little it gave us. There’s a galactic empire that controls basically everything. So what we’re not seeing is probably controlled by them. There’s a Rebellion that’s small and scrappy. What we see of it is close to all there is.

The Force Awakens plays the same game. Except, shouldn’t the roles be reversed? The Rebellion won and we’re told there’s a Republic now. But all we see of that Republic is a small and scrappy band of freedom fighters, with only a handful of X-Wings, and a single shot of people standing on a balcony in a city on an unknown world. The First Order, on the other hand, is supposed to be a remnant of the Empire, because we’re told it is. But what we see is a dominant organization with access to countless ships and soldiers, an organization that certainly appears to have near total control over the area of space the movie happens in. So while A New Hope showed us only a tiny portion of its universe, we had not trouble imagining the rest. The Force Awakens shows us only a tiny portion of its universe, but what we see conflicts with what we’re lead to believe about the rest.

I know the details will get filled in by novels and comics, but sitting in the theater, I found myself thinking more than once, “I don’t get this setting.”

Note: After writing this, I came across a post at Vox that helps clear things up quite a bit. Short version: The First Order is a sovereign nation outside the borders of the New Republic. The Republic is sponsoring and supplying an insurgency within the First Order’s territory. That’s the Resistance.

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I loved the color. No orange and teal. The effect was to make the movie feel older than it is, like a throwback. Which I’m sure was intentional. Though in ten years, it’ll make the movie feel more contemporary than contemporary movies now, as the orange and teal look will make those films look dated.

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The movie was too short. Important events–or important explanations for important events–were very clearly cut in post. I hope that someday we’ll get a Peter Jackson style extended cut, adding an hour or more of footage. It’ll be a better movie for it.

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Setting aside what I said about the confused world-building, I don’t mind at all the in medias res nature of the story. It enunciated the clean break from Lucas’s Star Wars. This is Disney’s franchise now. They’ll go good places with it.

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Yes, it repeated many of A New Hope’s story beats. Some worked, others didn’t, and still others could’ve been taken away entirely and not missed at all. This shared skeleton seems to be the biggest gripe people have with the new movie. But I guess it didn’t bother me. I took it as Disney building a new franchise out of the corpse of the old, and doing it by going back to where this all started. Star Wars has always been packed with repeated beats. The ones in The Force Awakens worked fine.

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I still can’t believe we’re going to get new Star Wars every Christmas.

Star Wars: Lost Stars – A terrific Star Wars story dragged down by unfortunate YA-ness

Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Lost Stars caps off my reading of the five novels in the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series. On the whole, they’ve been quite good—and much better than the old EU stuff. Part of that, I’m sure, is their canon-ness. These books—and I know this is silly—are about what actually happened in the Star Wars universe. The EU, on the other hand, always had a whiff of fan fiction.

Gray’s novel is, on the one hand, a terrific look at the events of the three movies (plus a few years more) from a different and fun direction. But, I really wish it hadn’t been YA. Or rather, I wish it hadn’t been YA romance.

This is, I’ll admit, the first YA “boy-and-girl-fall-for-each-other-and-run-into-troubles” book I’ve read. Though I take it that genre’s kind of a thing among a pretty big set of readers. (Twilight and all the other supernatural romances fall into this category, I guess?) But, so far as I can tell, what it meant in practice is that we got basically a war story with a bunch of teen drama and teen romance shoehorned in, both of which were at best boring.

And, while the events of the novel were a ton of fun to read about, the two main characters, Thane and Ciena, were so totally flat, so totally without interesting features, that I didn’t care a jot about their budding love or tortured loyalties. Maybe that’s a romance thing. That you want the readers to be able to imagine themselves as one of the two leads, as so you have to make them sort of empty vessels and totally non-threatening, so there’s nothing where the reader’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to imagine myself as thatguy or girl.” For someone who didn’t find the drama/romance compelling, though, the flatness leaves the characters feeling, well, flat.

But, anyway, that aside, I quite enjoyed Lost Stars. Seeing how Imperials reacted to things like the destruction of Alderaan and then of the first Death Star was pretty neat. As was the Battle of Jakku.

I just wish it hadn’t been a novel about kids acting and talking like really bland kids.

Nobody Likes the Star Wars Prequels and Disney Knows It

One of the striking features of what Disney’s done so far with Star Wars since they took over is the near complete abandoning of the prequel era as not only the default era—as it has been for years—but even as coequal with the Original Trilogy.

Disney appears to recognize what Star Wars fans long have, but Lucas never did: the prequels were failures not just as films and as stories, but as collections of characters and as world-building as well. For people who love Star Wars, the prequels just aren’t Star Wars. Not really, not deep down. And the characters who populate them aren’t interesting enough to carry the franchise—even acknowledging that the Clone Wars wasn’t terrible.

Which is why it’s so freshening to see Disney say—with the new films, with the comics, and the books, and Star Wars Rebels—“We hear you, we get it, too. Star Wars is the Rebellion Era and always has been.”

Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars Rebels feels like Star Wars. It looks like Star Wars. And it’s a whole lot more fun than The Clone Wars.

Which isn’t even really The Clone Wars’s fault. Very nearly everything about the prequels was terrible. And so the show got dragged down by having to be about Anakin and Obi-Wan—who Lucas, over three movies, had developed into utter dullness. It was burdened by those silly battle droids, who never felt like a threat—and didn’t even have the good sense to look cool while being non-threatening, like the stormtroopers managed so well. And it suffered from the banality of the clones themselves, carbon copies with all the personality that phrase implies. The Clone Wars did the best it could with what it had, but what it had was terrible.

Star Wars Rebels, on the other hand, gets to riff off the original trilogy. That means it’s Star Wars through and through. An Empire that feels dangerous. Glistening stormtroopers and lots of TIE Fighters. Jedi who come off as mysteriously powerful instead of dime-a-dozen cartoons. It’s about a band of misfits and outsiders struggling against impossible odds, not a bunch of cardboard cutouts from the heights of power (Jedi council members, queens, senators) blowing up an enemy that never seems to have a purpose and is lead by villains as clueless as their droids. The crew of the Ghost would fit right in at the Mos Eisley cantina.

I admit not expecting to enjoy it. The previews of Rebels didn’t inspire confidence, with a tone more approaching Lego Star Wars than A New Hope. But fortunately, Rebels isn’t much like its previews. Nor does it confirm the fears of many that it would, as a result of the Disney connection, be “for kids.” I mean, of course Rebels is for kids. But then so was A New Hope. But Rebels doesn’t come off as juvenile. The plot has decent depth, and so do the characters. About the only way to see is as “for kids” in a negative sense is if you insist on your Star Wars being as grim and dark as the final act of Revenge of the Sith.

So, yeah, this new show’s pretty good. If Star Wars Rebels represents what we can expect from Disney, then we can expect pretty good things.