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Concept art for Vernestra Rwoh, the lead character in Star Wars: The High Republic: Test of Courage
Concept art for Vernestra Rwoh, the lead character in Star Wars: The High Republic: Test of Courage
Image: Disney Lucasfilm Press

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Star Wars: The High Republic author Justina Ireland on a new era of Jedi

From the Jedi to the villains, the writer walks us through the galaxy’s newest chapter

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

This May, Lucasfilm delayed the rollout of Star Wars: The High Republic to January 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the story plans haven’t changed — read on for a massive preview of the launch title A Test of Courage.

On Feb. 24, Lucasfilm and Disney ushered in a new era of Star Wars. Dubbed “The High Republic,” the publishing initiative would encompass adult, middle-grade, and YA fiction, as well as comics, to tell an interconnected set of stories. Taking place 200 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, a Pax Romana period when the Jedi were at the top of their game, and one devastating event splinters them in every direction, The High Republic books are meant to feel like a cinematic event in their own right.

Lucasfilm and Disney tasked five authors — Cavan Scott, Claudia Gray, Daniel José Older, Charles Soule, and Justina Ireland — to work with the Lucasfilm Story Group and a team of concept artists to imagine this new world, and carve out canonized stories that were, for the first time in years (and arguably ever), removed from the movie trilogies. The first two books to emerge from the creative brain trust, Soule’s Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi and Ireland’s Star Wars: The High Republic: A Test of Courage, are set to debut at Star Wars Celebration in August and hit shelves at the tail end of the summer.

Though Lucasfilm is keeping anything resembling a spoiler under wraps, Polygon had the chance to sit down with Ireland, known for books like Dread Nation and Star Wars: Spark of the Resistance, to get a greater sense of The High Republic initiative, and what fans should expect from A Test of Courage. The book finds a young Jedi named Vernestra Rwoh escorting the son of an ambassador through a jungle moon and a fight for survival. But around the galaxy, a larger story unfolds — as they do. Ireland walked us through the conception of The High Republic, and what an uncharted blip on the Star Wars timeline meant for her own creative freedom.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Polygon: The mandate of The High Republic initiative was to do something new in the Star Wars universe. What did that mean to you when you started?

Justina Ireland: You always want to take it as big as you can, right? As big as possible. And I think when you’re talking about something like Star Wars that’s already pretty massive, you really have to ask, What haven’t we seen? What haven’t we talked about? And so it was really exciting for me to explore the past and the history of the stuff we’ve seen the films, what we know to be the lore now. We had the Expanded Universe, and a lot of that has gone away and people have been upset about that, but I do think it’s great to have the opportunity to say, OK, this is new ground, how do we interpret this time period? And have something that actually is going to feed into the modern canon as well. So we don’t have any conflicting storytelling.

I’m always interested in the past and what happened before to make things the way they are in the modern era. So to me Star Wars history is perfectly my jam. It is a complete Venn diagram of all things I want.

The Star Wars prequels ran into some difficulty connecting to the original trilogy, and I have to imagine there are lessons to learn from that. How did you and the team approach writing a prequel? Do the High Republic stories feel separated and walled off even while feeding into the history we know?

Working with a group of other writers who are all very cognizant of the grief a prequel brings with it was pretty great. But this is also completely separate, completely standalone. We’re not following that same Skywalker saga that we’ve been following for so very many years. We’re telling a whole new story. So I do think being able to break new ground, and go into like parts of galaxy that that fans and readers haven’t seen before, and to be able to do that with a book initiative — that’s pretty exciting.

I think the readers of Star Wars books tend to be a bit more ... excited about new things. I think there are casual fans who, you know, pop in and out of the fandom, and I think they pop in and out for the movies more than the books, so here’s hoping that they’ll come cross over with the books and hang out with us for awhile. But I think doing this as a book is pretty exciting because there’s no budget on books, right? You can make it as as bananas as you want to, and you don’t have to try to backdoor your way into some CGI. You can just write big setpieces.

So I do think whenever you start to go tell stories in in a fandom that’s already pretty crowded, and people have very strong opinions about it, you’re always kind of like, Well how do I do this? But then part of being the excited part of being a creator is to say, OK, let’s see how people react to this thing. Sometimes that’s very negatively and you’re like, Well, that was a bad decision.

But I think people are going to be really excited by what they’re seeing, because we haven’t really seen the Jedi as being awesome. We’ve heard a lot about them being awesome, especially in A New Hope, but even in the prequels, Episodes 1 through 3, they’re kind of ... a little jerky, right? They’re kind of on their way down. So it’s gonna be exciting to see something that we haven’t seen before.

Concept art of Vernestra Rwoh, from Star Wars: The High Republic
Concept art of Vernestra Rwoh, the main character of Test of Courage
Image: Disney Lucasfilm Press

The Jedi are in an interesting spot in the Prequel Trilogy because they’re seen as noble and wise, but you’re right, they’re also their own worst enemies. So what does it mean that the Jedi are awesome during The High Republic?

I think a lot of what we’ve seen is the comparison to Camelot, whether that’s the Camelot of the King Arthur mythology or the Camelot of the 1960s. Those are both very interesting time periods to explore because even in Camelot there were problems. Even though we talk a lot about Camelot and John F. Kennedy, that was also the height of the Civil Rights movement, that’s when people are like, “We’ve been through a lot of the country.” There are people who are more equal than others. Even in the Camelot of King Arthur, you still have factions that were very unhappy with what was going on. So I do think, even in something that’s considered a time of peace and stability, there’s always going to be those factions who are unhappy whether it’s because of inequality, or if it’s because of a perceived slight, or whatever it happens to be.

It’s going to be exciting to see Jedi who are confident in their role in the galaxy and confident in the way that they know they’re doing the right thing. There’s that moment [in Phantom Menace] where Qui-Gon leaves Shmi enslaved and takes Anakan and everyone’s kind of like ... how can you be a great Jedi, a morally good force in the galaxy if you’re willing to turn a blind eye to some sort of injustice like that? And those are some of the questions I think a lot of us want to talk about in our storytelling — what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to do the right thing? How do you do that and weigh that against your vows and, and, and a larger calling. The books give us a little more leeway to do that storytelling, we get a little more nuance on the page then we would get necessarily in a minute of screen time. I’m looking forward to like delving into the questions and asking them myself and of the characters that I’m working with.

The High Republic has its origins in a throwaway line from A New Hope in which Obi-Wan references the Jedi’s history. Is The High Republic built on a similar amount of history? Will we feel where the Jedi have come from?

I’m always thinking back and bringing in small details when I’m storytelling. Our daily conversations are always referencing the past. Like I live in Maryland, and so you can’t drive down the highway without seeing a historical marker right. And it’s like “Here on this date, some general you’ve never heard of and his Confederate troops fought Union troops,” and it’s like, wow, that thing happened here, but now it’s just an Arby’s.

Time is kind of amorphous in the Star Wars galaxy. You can make a timeline, but there’s always new storytelling and [time is] always kind of hand-wavy. And we’ve had conversations about like, “What do you think would have been happening 100 years before this, or 200 years ago? What is the history of a place?” One of the things that was great about The Clone Wars [TV series] is that it did a lot of that building of places you hadn’t been in the galaxy and gave you a little bit of history. There was a lot of lore that was built from what was at first dismissed as a kids cartoon and ended up becoming like a huge piece of canon.

[Considering the Star Wars timeline] is like Ghostbusters, to bring in a different fandom. As long as you’re not crossing streams, everything’s probably going to be okay. And then if you do cross streams, you have to kind of explain that away. So everyone’s going to be aware as they’re building their stories. We’re extremely collaborative though. We talked to each other every day about stories.

The Star Wars High Republic story team of Justina Ireland, Cavan Scott, Daniel José Older, Charles Soule, Mike Siglain, and Claudia Gray
The High Republic story team (L to R): Justina Ireland, Cavan Scott, Daniel José Older, Charles Soule, Mike Siglain, and Claudia Gray
Photo: Disney Lucasfilm Press

Speaking of time, when does Test of Courage take place in relation to the other books? Charles’ Light of the Republic sounded like a core text that kicks things off.

It’s sort of the same time period. I think Charles’ book covers a longer time period than mine. I can tell you, in book time, my story is only like a couple of weeks. But as far as overall story time, it takes place in concert with Charles’ book. Everyone is kind of reeling from a an event. We don’t know what that is. So I guess it’s made everyone a little on edge.

Your previous Star Wars book Spark of the Resistance is a really rousing adventure with Rey, Rose, Poe, BB-8 and a few characters who never pop up anywhere else because, in the end, Expanded Universe books can’t leave a dent in the canon. Do you feel a new freedom writing within the world of The High Republic?

I think, in the fandom, there’s this perceived idea of Story Group as like the traffic cops of storytelling, but for me, it’s not true. They’ve always been more like an encyclopedia of storytelling, more like, “This is what the lore will tell you.” I always referred to them as like my pocket Yodas. They’re going to tell you, “OK, if you want to use this, this is how it would be phrased” and I for me, I’ve never had a problem with that. I like having someone on my side when it comes time for story. You have your editor, but then to have an extra group of people who want to see you succeed, and want to see you tell something that’s consistent with the rest of the world-building, for me, as an author, is really where I want to be, especially when I’m writing franchise work.

Starlight Beacon concept art - star wars high republic
Concept art of The Starlight Beacon, a key space station in the High Republic stories
Image: Disney Lucasfilm Press

For A Test of Courage, we came up with our own characters. Everything was done from scratch. I created characters for both Lando’s Luck and Spark of the Resistance, but this was the first time where all the characters that are on my page are characters that I came up with myself. Some of them are characters that you’ll see in other media that other creators on the initiative came up with. But I could also say: OK, who do I want to think about? Who are the people that populate this galaxy that should have a story told? OK, I have this person, like, what would their journey to the galaxy look like? What are the things they’re going to face? What are the questions and challenges that they’re going to have?

In YA, we always talk about [the theme of] where we fit into the world, or in this case, the galaxy. But for middle-grade, we always want to ask that question: Where do I fit into in my family? And so [in Test of Courage], I really wanted to tell tell a story about found family, and what it means to to belong in this great magnificent galaxy, and just be a kid. Be an average kid trying to live your life and maybe exciting things happen that you’re not ready for because you just want to be a kid. So Test of Courage is really about quintessential middle-grade storytelling, and bringing it into the Star Wars galaxy.

What are the stakes like in your book when you’re not not writing toward a new Star Wars movie?

If you’re a reader and you pick up a book, you don’t know who’s going to make it to the end of the book. Flat out, people could die. That’s going to happen. Because we don’t have to be precious, we don’t have to save anybody, we don’t have to be a small piece of a character arc. We can contain the entire character arc in that book. So I do think readers are going to feel that as they pick up these offerings and they see somebody they loved beginning the story maybe doesn’t make it. All of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, crap, what do I do now? Like I have to actually deal with that.” For me as a reader, when I know that that’s what the stakes are, that anybody could not make it to the next episode in a TV show or the next chapter in the book, I tend to cling to my favorites a little harder. And so I’m hoping that that helps readers like form a deeper connection, to really get to know these characters and give them a chance.

Tell us more about Vernestra Rwoh, the key character in your book and The High Republic. How old is she, considering she had to work in a middle-grade title?

Vernestra’s 16, so she’s probably on the older end for middle-grade — most of middle grade characters tend to be between like 12, 13, 14. But Vernestra has a challenge, in that she is a full Jedi. She’s very young: most 16-year-olds in the Jedi Order are padawans still. She took her testing early, so she’s a bit of a prodigy. She doesn’t know anybody else who is as young as she is so she kind of sticks out, and that gives her her own set of of sort of challenges to deal with. So how is she a Jedi Knight in this order that is being led by amazing Jedi? In her time period, of course they have the lore of the earlier Jedi, so she has that reference. So how does she fit into that space when she’s supposed to be acting like an adult for the most part, but she’s still, age-wise, a kid? It’s really that push pull of that for her. Like what does that mean for her to be a Jedi?

Star Wars: The High Republic concept art by Elisa Serio of Jedi temple attire
Concept art on display at the High Republic reveal event
Photo: Matt Patches/Polygon

What did you work with concept artists to develop for this world? That side of the initiative sounded unique.

We went back and forth a lot with concept artists. So we would just email back and forth with [Disney Publishing’s] Mike Siglain, who’s kind of our team coach. He would ask us to do little just character sketches — pretty similar to what you would do for art notes on covers of books.

So we got to do that with our characters, but we also had to do that with the aesthetics of the time period. One of the things that everybody on the Higher Republic initiative likes to talk about is that all the ships and everything in Star Wars are dingy and old and broken down, because that’s what happens when you’re at war for like 30 years. You don’t get chance to fix things! And so, one of the things that we talked about was what our aesthetics would be. And we started talking about like that golden age sci-fi like the ’50s and ’60s and the sleek lines of a shiny spaceship. If this is a time of great peace, then we’re going to meet the Republic and inventors and the people who populate the world and who are building new cool stuff.

That was one of the things that was really exciting was to be able to design. If you look at the [Jedi], they’re not wearing the utilitarian monk’s robes that we see in Episode 1, they are wearing nice outfits, cream color, which does not lend itself to getting dirty! They’re out there being their own fancy selves. And so I do think that was exciting to be able to say, This is what we know about Star Wars, let’s change that a little bit. As readers come to the books and then they read the different, different offerings, they’re going to get different pieces of those worlds. So Test of Courage exists in a far sector of the galaxy. Many of the other books are going to be closer to inside the the inner rim and what we know now is the outer rim, and like you’re going to get to see parts of the galaxy and storytelling that they haven’t seen before.

How did you get to play with the villains you’ve created for the High Republic world?

The villains have always been sort of large scale, like the First Order or the Empire, and so that lends itself to large storytelling. It’s really hard to have like these very personal stories when the stakes are, you know, the freedom of the galaxy, right? I’m sad today, but the galaxy is at stake!

star wars: the high republic marvel comic cover featuring two members of the villainous nihil clan
The Nihil on the cover of Marvel’s High Republic book
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd./Marvel Comics

But with the Nihil, who are these Space Pirates, marauders, and are kind of just wreaking havoc in different parts of the galaxy, you do have a chance to encapsulate smaller storytelling. Sometimes the the point of the story is just survival. Or sometimes the point of the story is: How is this one character going to react to this very enclosed event? The Nihil obviously are bad. They’re pirates — pirates are bad. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean are not great. So what does that mean? How bad are they? They’re going to be the worst. These are characters who just don’t care. And their motto is “if you can’t take it with you, we can take it from you.”

And so I do think you’re going to see moments ... it’s not necessarily this battle for the light side of the forest versus the dark said before, it’s literally survival, and it’s literally “How do we survive in a world where people are going to show up and basically fuck shit up?” That lends itself to different types of storytelling. Readers are going to feel that. There will be those their conversations of what it means to be a Jedi, and what is the light side, what is the force, and how does one connect to that in that greater sense of the galaxy, but at the end of the day, it’s literally going be like, “These are the bad guys, and we need to fight them, and we need to fight them because they are bad.” People are going to get to see some really cool “oh shit” moments with these characters.

Do you have a favorite side of Star Wars that you were eager to funnel into Test of Courage? Were you looking to right space battles, lightsaber fights, droid panic attacks...

It’s just all fucking cool, dude. It’s Star Wars. It’s such a big thing! Someone’s like, “Do you want to be able to shoot lasers or have a magic plasma sword?” I’m like, “Yes, both.” There’s nothing about Star Wars that isn’t cool. Even the things you end up not liking, it’s still set in space!

For example: podraces. I remember when Episode 1 came out, everyone was very angry about the podracing scenes. They’re like, “What’s the point of that?” It’s just fucking cool. It’s a kid racing things that make no damn sense. They don’t look like they should work just based on what we know of physics and science, right? But it’s just fucking cool. And I think there’s something to be said for shit that’s just cool. You get concept art, and they’re like, “Which one do you want?” And I’m kind of like, “I don’t care. They’re all cool.” Like there are no bad answers. It’s like going out to eat Mexican food. There are no bad answers at a Mexican restaurant. Star Wars is like the fandom equivalent of Mexican food, which is also my personal favorite food, so I guess if you like Chinese food that could be a substitute. Or burgers. The only bad burger is the one that gives you food poisoning, but you’re like “It gave me food poisoning, but it was a pretty okay burger.” I liked it. There’s no bad. I wish there was because it would make my life easier.

Does podracing exist in the High Republic?

I hope so. It has to! But, no, spoiler, there’s no podracing [in my book]. Now I have a goal for the next book.

Do you see Test of Courage as the beginning of a series following Vernestra?

I know nothing except I’m always ready to write the next Star Wars book. I am ready. I have a schedule that I will clear for another Star Wars book. Yeah, there are a few things that I am as excited about as writing Star Wars books.

Star Wars: The High Republic: A Test of Courage is now available for pre-order.

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