Black Star Renegades
by Michael Moreci
St. Martin's Press, 2018
Off to a running start, Michael Moreci's debut novel Black Star Renegades opens with young provincial nobody Luke Skywalker, whose backwater planet Tatooine is in the grip of the evil Empire. Despite Luke's humble origins, wise old Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi believes he's a figure chosen by destiny to wield an enormous power against the Empire. Ben Kenobi takes Skywalker into tutelage, but the two of them fall in with a group of rogues and scoundrels and droids, and their plans are almost derailed. Luke falls in love with a tough young woman who. . .
. . . at which point there would be heard the sound of black helicopters coming in low, bearing a small phalanx of Disney Studios lawyers to halt the plot recapitulation, seize and pulp all copies of Black Star Renegades, seize and pulp Michael Moreci just to be on the safe side, and conduct a pharmaceutical memory-wipe on everyone involved.
So we return, chastened, to Black Star Renegades, the story of provincial nobody Cade Sura, whose backwater planet of Kyssring is in the grip of the evil Praxis. Despite his humble origins, wise old Ser Jorken, a Master Rai, “defenders of galactic peace, spiritual warriors,” believes he's a figure chosen by destiny to wield an enormous power against the Praxis. Jorken takes Cade into tutelage, but the two of them fall in with a group of rogues and scoundrels and droids, and their plans are almost derailed. Cade falls in love with a tough young woman …
… at which point even them most devout space opera fan may start to wonder how much of a dommage it can be when homage ripens into fromage. Moreci has an excellent track record as a comic book writer for marquee titles like Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, and more tellingly, he's also written for Lucasfilm and StarWars.com. In other words, his credentials when it comes to both melodrama and space opera are beyond reproach, which makes the end result both deeply touching and deeply confusing. The book is touching because its affection for its, as it were, source material couldn't be plainer on every page. And the book is confusing because its smart young author surely knows although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's also the least inspired form of tribute.
Rather than restoring balance to the Force, Cade has a connection to a celestial MacGuffin called the Rokura that might tip the balance between good and evil in a galaxy ruled by the Praxis and its overlord Ga Halle and her various levels of underlings with cool names. Moreci dives in right away to his world-building, and his characters are as colorful as they are one-dimensional (a limitation particularly harmful when it comes to the doltish Cade, since he's on virtually every page). As might be expected from somebody who cut his narrative teeth writing comic books, Moreci's very effective at setting up action sequences and carrying them through. As his breakneck life in the broader galaxy quickly hardens him, Cade is at the heart of a good many of these action sequences:
Cade leapt at the assassin again, who was ready for his attack. He lunged with his blade forward, bearing his momentum into the movement – something Jorken had yelled at him many times never to do. The assassin sidestepped, but not before letting Cade's forward motion plow right into his shido's hilt. Cade heard the crunch of his nose and felt hot blood pour from his nostrils before he registered the pain blooming in his face. Wounded and off-balance, Cade expected the assassin to cut his feet out from under him, but he didn't. The huge, armored man stood his ground, waiting. Provoking Cade to attack again.
Black Star Renegades has plenty of plot twists and sudden revelations, most of which are telegraphed not by anything in the book but by literally everything in the Star Wars movies, all of which are so amply and doggedly echoed that even the most negligent of fans will enter every scene of the novel with an intense sense of familiarity. This might be typical of literary homages and thinly-disguised fan fiction, but the familiarity itself naturally raises the question of why anybody would read the book if they could re-watch the movies instead. And the question has only one answer: the homage must have something to recommend it on its own terms – character depth, narrative texture, some native wit, something. It's hard to see what Moreci's novel offers along any of these lines. Some variation of it would have made a rousing Star Wars novel – but a new franchise?
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.