It’s tough to say if any Star Wars novel is really essential these days. With the full attention of the franchise moved back to movies, and the books firmly placed back in a supporting role, does one really need to read a book like James Luceno’s Catalyst? The answer here is a firm maybe: It entirely depends on your focus within the franchise.
I haven’t seen Rogue One yet (obviously) but my thinking right now is probably not. With Catalyst it’s entirely up to you, your interests, and your focus on the franchise. I still say the only Star Wars novel of the new canon one really needs to read is Bloodline, if only because it sheds some much-need light on the era between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens – but then again, that era is my particular interest. Your mileage may vary.
Catalyst begins during The Clone Wars era, and ends an unspecified number of years before Rogue One (and thus A New Hope.) It focuses on the Erso family (Galen, Lyra and their daughter Jyn) and Orson Krennic, as Krennic manipulates Galen into contributing to what will eventually become the Death Star’s planet-destroying laser. Galen is a pacifist, more interesting in using kyber crystals (the very same used in lightsabers) to provide renewable energy than weaponry.
As an infodump and basic backstory, the book works just fine. Luceno has always been one of the Expanded Universe’s more dependable authors, providing fans with something middle-of-the-road readable and Wookieepedia with lots of facts. But as a character piece, the book falls short. Krennic is the most fully-fleshed out character by far, but still feels very stock villain here. We get a sense of Galen and Lyra, but they don’t come alive as characters. Jyn and the book’s biggest original character, Has Obitt, are basically just there because they need to be.
Lyra particularly seems like a wasted opportunity. We know that Galen and Jyn will have their parts to play in the film, and no doubt plenty of screentime. And while we know Lyra appears – we’ve seen her in the trailers – her role may very well be limited. Catalyst may be our best shot to get to know her. And while the character does get some things to do, there’s no spark there.
One of the more interesting – and frightfully relevant – parts of the book is that it does give us an impression of how civilians saw the end of the Clone War and the rise of the Empire. If you’re intrigued about his this first intertrilogy era goes for folks who aren’t already on the fringes of the Rebellion, you could certainly do worse.
So again? Do you need to read it? Right this moment, I would consider two things: Your interest in this particular era and your previous reaction to Luceno’s Star Wars work. (If you’re a big fan of him, no doubt you don’t need my advice and have probably already finished the book, but hey: One never knows.)
But there is a third factor, and that’s Rogue One itself. Does the film adequately present that Galen and Krennic have an extensive history? Or will fans be confused? Is it necessary for one to have this background? That’s rarely been the case in the past – I saw much of the backlash regarding The Force Awakens more a reaction to the heavy tell-not-show environment of the prequel era (and The Clone Wars in particular) than anything else. So my gut instinct is that Catalyst simply details in the wide strokes presented in the film. In any case, we’ll find out.
But for a fan in the here and now? Well, it’s up to you. Luceno is, as always, bland but serviceable enough. There are certainly worse Star Wars books out there, but overall Catalyst doesn’t strike me as anything special.