So, in the lead-up to each new episodic Star Wars film, a series of books come out that are branded as a “journey” to that film. Each is tangentially related to the film and includes clues about the characters and events we’ll eventually see on screen. In the run up to The Force Awakens, we got Aftermath, Lost Stars, and a few junior novels.
This year, piggybacking on the excitement surrounding The Last Jedi, we’ve gotten Phasma, Leia: Princess of Alderaan, The Legends of Luke Skywalker, and now Canto Bight. Even though the books are all somewhat related to The Last Jedi, none outright includes spoilers or includes specific scenes from the film. And they all exist at different places along the “essential reading” spectrum.
So, what is Canto Bight? As a book, it’s a collection of four novellas from four authors that each takes place in and around a casino city very reminiscent of Las Vegas . . . if Vegas had aliens. As a location, Canto Bight is that casino city on the desert planet of Cantonica. It’s a place of excess and indulgence. It’s a “city of dreams, city of schemes, city of nightmares.” It’s an escape from the First Order, the Resistance, and the political turmoil engulfing the rest of the galaxy.
In short, it’s a place I think we could all use right about now.
“Canto Bight is not only a destination for gamblers. There are a thousand pleasures to be had here, a million opportunities for decadence or deprivation. But it cannot be denied that most who come seeking the shining city do so because they yearn for the roll of the dice, for the turn of the cards. They follow the lady across the stars, and when she opens her arms to pick their pockets, they laugh from the sheer delight of her presence.”
Each of the four stories in Canto Bight focuses on one of the residents of or visitors to the city. All are down on their luck and desperately looking for a miracle. And in a place like Canto Bight, a miracle is just a roll of the dice away.
Saladin Ahmed’s “Rules of the Game” and Rae Carson’s “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing” are the clear highlights here. In the former, Ahmed introduces us to Vaporator Salesbeing of the Year Kedpin Shoklop, who has won an all-expenses-paid trip to Canto Bight. And if, by the end of the story, you’ve haven’t been totally taken in and charmed by Shoklop’s wide-eyed innocence, then you might want to check your pulse. In short, his dream vacation turns into a waking nightmare. And even though the odds are constantly against him, he’s pretty much the perfect underdog. He stole my heart more than those porgs did, that’s for sure.
Carson’s story starts out slow but quickly becomes an edge-of-your-seat revenge caper spearheaded by yet another lovable underdog. Lexo Sooger leads a simple life as a masseuse to the galaxy until he gets tangled up in power plays among Cantonica’s elite and is forced to employ his “special set of skills” (that would make Liam Neeson proud) just in order to survive and protect his family.
“Your dimension is not a peaceful place. It’s a wonder you’ve discovered horticulture, with as much time as you spend stabbing one another in the back.”
John Jackson Miller’s “The Ride” takes us inside the casino proper as we follow a day in the life of Kaljach Sonmi (Kal to his friends). Except this might be the LAST day in his life. Kal owes a lot of money to the city’s presiding gangster, and he needs to see unfathomable odds turn in his favor in order to make that kind of money. Luckily, he runs into a trio of brothers who seem to make their own luck, and Kal risks it all to ride on their coattails for an evening.
“The Ride” also features an entirely new game called zinbiddle, which is incredibly – and intentionally – convoluted and complicated. Old-school Star Wars fans will appreciate that the game was first mentioned in West End Games’ Riders of the Maelstrom, a supplement book to the original Star Wars RPG. John Jackson Miller is nothing if not devoted to deep cuts from Star Wars fandom. (Listen to my conversation with Miller here.)
The fourth story in the book – “The Wine in Dreams” by Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire) – was the weakest, in my opinion. The story features Derla Pidys, a sommelier who buys and sells wine from across the galaxy. Though we get glimpses of backroom deals that skirt legality, two fantastic new characters in the Grammus Sisters, and a satisfyingly sweet comeuppance, the pace of the story just felt off, and I was left feeling like this was the weakest link of Canto Bight.
Taken as a whole (and they do overlap and combine to tell a cohesive narrative), the four stories reveal four distinct layers of Canto Bight: tourism, gray-market trading and commerce, indentured service to the city’s elite, and the city’s purpose for being: gambling. Plus fathier racing, Canto Bight’s version of horse racing. There are lots and lots of fathiers.
As I said, each story features characters from the lower end of Canto Bight’s social ladder. These are underdogs, fighting for scraps and struggling against those in power.
But they’re also incredibly removed from the major events of the Star Wars films. You can count on one hand the number of times Jedi, the First Order, or the Resistance are mentioned. The people and events that drive the films are barely an afterthought to the events that play out in Canto Bight.
“People come to Canto Bight so as not to have to think about all that. . . . When there’s so much bad going on, it helps to know that there’s a place where none of that matters.”
Canto Bight is a paradise. A dirty, dangerous paradise where you might die, but a paradise nonetheless. Until the First Order and Resistance arrive to destroy it all. Because you know they will.
Look, I’m not going to lie to you. Canto Bight is not essential reading, but it is a fun read. Two of the four stories are worth the price of admission alone, and all four of them combined do a great job of worldbuilding Cantonica and fleshing out a new Star Wars location. And if there’s one thing Star Wars fans love to analyze and obsess over, it’s locations full of aliens — see also Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba’s Palace, and Maz Kanata’s Castle.
Welcome to Canto Bight. Remember to tip your waitress.