Late last Friday, Disney made The Rise of Skwalker available for purchase on digital platforms a few days early, doing its part to combat and/or capitalize on social-distancing-induced boredom by giving fans the opportunity to throw more money at a mediocre movie that already earned more than a billion dollars at the global box office. For those who missed the movie in theaters (remember movies in theaters?) but can’t wait until it’s released on Disney’s streaming service—or, even more confounding, did see it in theaters and are still excited to spend more money on it—The Rise of Skywalker and its documentary extras are on sale in HD and SD for $19.99 and in 4K Ultra HD for $24.99, an offer almost as appealing as “You wanna buy some death sticks?”
For fans who weren’t pleased with the divisive final film in the Skywalker saga, the digital version of the release doesn’t sweeten the deal: This is the same film as the one released last December, not the rumored JJ Abrams cut or the movie that Colin Trevorrow might have made if Disney hadn’t dumped him. Fortunately, there is another [Rise of] Skywalker: The Rise of Skywalker novelization, written by Rae Carson and officially published on Tuesday (when the movie was originally due to drop).
The novelization’s cover advertises the book as an “EXPANDED EDITION,” and like all Star Wars novelizations, it does differ slightly from the theatrical release. Carson’s book seems to stray further from the film than most novelizations, though, largely because the rushed movie version left so much unexplained. Unlike the digital film release, the book contains several deleted scenes, as well as additional details that clarify, retcon, or—from a certain point of view—further muddy the movie’s events. It’s still essentially the same story, but the written version makes it more coherent (for the most part), if no more satisfying on a fundamental level.
After reading an advance copy, I’ve assembled the book’s most important revelations, some of which were previously alluded to in interviews with the moviemakers, the Rise of Skywalker Visual Dictionary, or Carson’s tweets. Many of my brain cells died to bring you this information.
Decrepit Palpatine Is the Original Emperor’s Spirit Inside a Clone Body
Prior to the release of The Rise of Skywalker movie, we speculated about how Palpatine could come back from his apparent demise on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. After the release of The Rise of Skywalker, we kept speculating about how he had returned, because the film didn’t make it completely clear. Rise of Skywalker editor Maryann Brandon divulged that some of Palpatine’s resurrection/survival story was cut from the film, but the novelization restores that missing material, devoting more time and attention to explaining how Palpy got from Endor to Exegol.
A lengthy italicized passage that begins on page 219 explains that as Palpatine plunged down the Death Star’s reactor shaft after his former apprentice hurled him like a midfielder making a throw-in, he “called on all the dark power of the Force to thrust his consciousness far, far away, to a secret place he had been preparing. His body was dead, an empty vessel, long before it found the bottom of the shaft, and his mind jolted to new awareness in a new body—a painful one, a temporary one.” The book goes on to explain that Palpatine had been preparing to body hop because he’d sensed that Darth Vader was wavering, but because Anakin turned on him earlier than anticipated, “The transfer was imperfect, and the cloned body wasn’t enough.”
This is similar to the sequence of events in the Dark Empire comics that first brought Palpy back to life, although in Dark Empire, the reborn Emperor’s clone bodies are young and vital. As The Rise of Skywalker tells it, Palpatine was trapped in “a broken, dying form,” which was better than being dead but still gross and smelly. (In the novel, Rey notices that Palpatine’s putrefying flesh emits the odor of rotting meat. These are the details we needed.)
When Kylo meets Palpatine, he recognizes the device that sustains him as an “Ommin harness,” the same mechanical spine that once sustained the eponymous Sith sorcerer (who hadn’t made the leap to current canon until now). He also spots some hardware from the Clone Wars that’s injecting life-preserving liquid into Palpatine via vials inserted into his neck. “Emperor Palpatine lived, after a fashion, and Kylo could feel in his very bones that this clone body sheltered the Emperor’s actual spirit,” Carson writes. “It was an imperfect vessel, though, unable to contain his immense power. It couldn’t last much longer.” At one point, Palpatine temporarily stops breathing until an attendant replaces a part and uses a syringe to restore his respiration.
The novel also settles one of the movie’s most squirm-inducing unknowns: Did someone have sex with Palpatine and bear his baby after he fried Mace Windu and developed a nasty case of Sith skin? According to the novelization, no (to the “bear his baby” part, at least). Because the clone body wasn’t up to code, the Sith Eternal—those unidentified figures scurrying around Exegol and cheering on the Sith succession ceremony—experimented with gene splicing and tissue transplants, creating “unnatural abominations” that they hoped would house Palpatine’s spirit. The novel calls them “strandcasts,” a Star Wars word for a bioengineered entity that also comes up in The Mandalorian.
As Carson writes, “One genetic strandcast lived. Thrived, even. A not-quite-identical clone. His ‘son.’ But he was a useless, powerless failure. Palpatine could not even bear to look up on such disappointing ordinariness. The boy’s only worth would lay in continuing the bloodline through more natural methods.” That’s Rey’s father, whom Palpatine ordered Ochi the assassin to kill.
Knowing all of this doesn’t change the basic facts: Palpatine is back, Rey is his granddaughter, and he wants to turn her into the Empress of the Sith. But given the abruptness of the Emperor’s return, a little hand-holding helps. Even if, as the novel notes, one of Palpatine’s hands “had half rotted away.”
Yes, Finn is Force-Sensitive
The movie never quite comes clean about what Finn wants to tell Rey when our heroes are sinking in quicksand on Pasaana. Abrams hints that he’s Force-sensitive—on Exegol, he has a feeling that the Sith Fleet’s navigation beacon has transferred to Kylo’s flagship, and he seems to sense Rey’s “death” from afar—but the movie leaves the moment open to interpretation, and it would be reasonable for fans to conclude that Finn wants to confess that he has a crush.
The novelization is much more definitive. On Pasaana, Finn feels Kylo’s presence before his TIE fighter appears, and he senses the nature of the Knights of Ren. “Malevolence radiated from the dark figures in waves; Finn felt like he was choking on it,” Carson writes. She’s also explicit about what Finn feels on Exegol at the moment Rey loses her life force. “Something rent his very soul, and he staggered,” Carson says, adding, “She was gone. He had just begun to understand how her presence could weigh so strongly in his mind.” Earlier, on Ahch-To, Rey realizes that if Finn could touch the Force, he would be unturnable, like Leia.
In the movie, when Rey reunites with Finn and Poe after the Battle of Exegol, the three have a wordless hug. In the book, they have a short spoken exchange after the hug:
‘Rey,’ Finn whispered. ‘I’ve been meaning to telling you—’
‘I know,’ she said, thinking of the way his presence had become so bright in her mind.
‘We all know,’ Poe said.
So, yeah, case closed. As for what purpose it serves to have Finn be Force-sensitive? Well, you’re on your own there. An explanation for why Finn didn’t die all the times he came close to dying? A nod to The Last Jedi’s message that you don’t have to be famous (or infamous) to be Force-sensitive? A hint at a spin-off for Finn? (Assuming John Boyega hasn’t burned his bridges with Disney.) As Yoda once said, “Clouded, this boy’s future is.”
Rey and Ben Didn’t Have the Hots for Each Other?
Rey and Ben Solo smooched once in the movie, immediately after Ben revived Rey and immediately before Ben became one with the Force. This should have been the moment of triumph for Reylo shippers, but because Ben’s redemption and death were so sudden, even they were left feeling unfulfilled. The Rise of Skywalker novelization further downplays the idea of a romantic connection between the two Jedi/Sith scions. Here’s how Carson describes Ben’s reaction to the liplock: “His heart was full as Rey reached for his face, let her fingers linger against his cheek. And then, wonder of wonders, she learned forward and kissed him. A kiss of gratitude, acknowledgement of their connection, celebration that they’d found each other at last.”
That tracks with what Abrams has said about envisioning the Kylo–Ben-Rey relationship as more of a brother-sister bond than a sexual one. Maybe Force dyads can be complicated. But, like, why was the kiss on the mouth? And why is it so difficult to define the trilogy’s central relationship?
Rose Is Actually in the Book
Remember Rose Tico? The Resistance engineer from The Last Jedi who gets a whole 76 seconds of screen time in The Rise of Skywalker? She’s much more prominent in the novel (and apparently was more prominent in the film before footage was cut). She fixes the Falcon on Ajan Kloss, plays an integral role in repairing the rest of the ragtag Resistance fleet, adds defenses to the lander that attacks Kylo’s flagship, and joins the ground assault personally. She’s not as present on the page as Rey, Poe, or Finn, but she makes major contributions to the war effort, and when she isn’t in the spotlight, it’s because she’s busy being a badass elsewhere.
At the end of The Last Jedi, the Resistance sends a distress call from Crait, and none of its allies answer. It’s a low point for Leia, who almost loses hope. It’s also seemingly inconsistent with the massive response to Lando’s request for aid at the Battle of Exegol. Why would the galaxy fail to ride to the Resistance’s rescue at Crait, then show up en masse at Exegol to take on a resurrected Empire and an apparently impregnable Sith fleet?
Here’s how The Rise of Skywalker novelization justifies that dissonant response. “Thanks to some risky assignments led by Poe, Rey, Finn, and Snap,” Carson writes, “they’d learned that the First Order had been doggedly pursuing their sympathizers, restricting communications, cutting off supply lines, capturing or even assassinating allies. In short, no one had answered the call because very few had even heard it.” Later, the novel notes that “Leia and Poe had spent the ensuing months trying to reconnect with old allies and friends, reestablish communications, bolster their network of sympathizers and spies.”
As for Lando’s wildly successful recruitment efforts in the hours before the Battle of Exegol, the novel explains: “Beaumont and Connix had plotted a course that would take them past First Order jammers, where they would transmit a call for help at strategic coordinates. A few key figures, like the former Mon Calamari ambassador, would be contacted directly and given the special Calrissian touch, but mostly their goal was to jump, transmit, jump, transmit, over and over again until time ran out.”
Is it plausible that Lando could drum up support so fast for what seems like a suicide mission, despite the lack of assistance on Crait? Your mileage may vary, but at least the novelization attempts to square those contradictory developments.
Missing Character Moments
One particularly welcome aspect of the novelization is that it gives us some insight into what’s going on in our heroes’ heads. That’s partly a product of the contrast between a novel’s narration and a blockbuster’s less personal perspective, but it’s also because the book takes time to focus on characters instead of sprinting toward the climax.
When Rey discovers Ochi’s speeder on Pasaana, she can’t help but calculate that she could get three portions from the craft from Unkar Plutt on Jakku. When she visits Babu Frik’s workshop on Kijimi, she performs the same mental appraisal. Along similar lines, Rey berates herself for panicking instead of instinctively using the Force when she and her friends are stuck in quicksand on Pasaana. In the movie, that seems like a plot hole: Why wouldn’t she just use her powers to stop them from sinking? In the book, it’s clear it’s because she choked under the pressure. She’s young, inexperienced, and fairly recently removed from her solitary scavenger’s life. She’s also afraid of her own power. “If the son of Han and Leia can be turned,” she asks, “can’t any of us?” Those reminders of her vulnerability make her more relatable in the novel and highlights her bravery in confronting Palpatine.
The book also doubles down on Kylo’s darkness. Early on, Kylo beheads Boolio (the Resistance intermediary who transmits Hux’s message to Finn) and slams the bleeding head down on the table at a meeting of his military leaders. That meeting is in the movie, but not the execution. More shocking than that, Kylo Force-interrogates Chewie after the Wookiee is brought on board his Star Destroyer. As he tears Chewie’s knowledge of Rey’s mission out of his head, he sees Chewie’s memories of playing with a young Ben, who once called him “Uncle Chewie.” It’s a scene that leaves both Kylo and the reader nauseated, and it’s totally absent from the film. If it had made the movie, it might have made up for faking out the audience about Chewie’s death. Then again, it also makes Kylo seem more irredeemable, which would have made his face turn tough to swallow.
A few more non-movie moments that deepened my appreciation of characters featured in the film: Lando reentering the Falcon for the first time and flashing back to the many memories he’s made on the ship; Leia revealing that her body is still suffering from the aftereffects of her unplanned spacewalk in The Last Jedi; and Poe drawing on his history as a spice runner to lightspeed skip the Falcon, hotwire the speeders at the Festival of the Ancestors, and park the Falcon in a secret smuggler’s spot after escaping from Pasaana.
Other Loose Ends
- If you’re still wondering why the Force-attuned Rey was fooled into thinking she killed Chewie on Pasaana but later senses from afar that Chewie is alive when he and Kylo come to Kijimi, the novel offers an answer. On Kijimi, she didn’t sense Chewie directly; she sensed through her Force bond with Kylo that Kylo had recently interrogated the Wookiee, which led her to conclude that Chewie was still alive. I buy it.
- Rey turning out to be Palpatine’s granddaughter seemed inconsistent with Kylo telling her in The Last Jedi that her parents were nobodies. The novel retcons this by saying that Kylo made a mistake. He had “glimpsed her parents in a vision, a poor, frightened couple eking out a meager existence, surviving on the edge of desperation. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told her they were nothing, nobodies. But Force visions were filled with tricky truths and potential realities. Maybe he had missed something.” Yes, I’ll say.
- After the movie’s Battle of Exegol, Maz Kanata gives Han’s medal (which Leia was holding when she died) to Chewie. (Side note: The novelization doesn’t clarify whether the Han who appeared to Kylo/Ben was projected by Leia.) “Chewie, this is for you,” Maz says. The implication is that Leia may have bequeathed the medal to Chewie, partially making up for her failure to give Chewie his own medal after the Battle of Yavin. In the book, though, Maz adds another sentence after delivering her line from the film: “He’d want you to have it.” He’d want you to. In other words, Leia went to her grave (or wherever Force Ghosts go) still snubbing Chewie.
- If you’re wondering why Chewie doesn’t fly the Falcon full time after Han’s death, it’s because Solo’s longtime copilot offered the ship to Rey. Again: Give him his own medal.
- The novelization makes space for a few Easter Eggs that are missing or easily overlooked in the movie. The most fan service-y addition is the roll call of recognizable Resistance ships when the cavalry arrives at Exegol, which includes the Ghost from Rebels, the Fireball and pilot Kazuda Xiono from Resistance, Zay Versio from Battlefront II, Alphabet Two from the Alphabet Squadron trilogy, and Anodyne Two, named in honor of the Anodyne from The Last Jedi. Anyone who’s anyone in the Star Wars Expanded Universe was at Exegol.
- Speaking of Exegol, the novelization confirms that the Tantive IV and Nien Nunb were lost in the battle. The movie shows the ship sparking and plummeting toward the ground during Palpatine’s Force lightning display, but it cuts away before it explodes or hits the ground. Just like Admiral Ackbar, Nien Nunb dies without fanfare. Star Wars stays speciesist.
- The book equivocates about whether Jannah is Lando’s daughter, but the First Order did kidnap his daughter when she was two. After meeting Jannah, he resolves to help her and other conscripted former First Order troopers find their families. I smell a spin-off.
- Tyce and D’Acy, the Resistance pilot and commander, respectively, who kiss for a split second on screen in The Rise of Skywalker, are married. In the book, they kiss twice, for two split seconds.
- Luke’s lightsaber was destroyed during Rey’s clash with Kylo in The Last Jedi, but it’s intact again in The Rise of Skywalker. The novelization explains that Rey repaired it, with help from the Jedi texts she appropriated from Ahch-To. That knowledge and experience help her craft her own saber at the end.
- Rey also learns her Force healing technique from those salvaged texts. “Page-turners they were not,” Yoda told Luke, but Rey was paying pretty close attention.
- The novelization is useful for establishing how characters got from place to place, even though it sometimes made sense for those scenes to be excised from the film. Zorii and Babu fled from Kijimi in a Y-wing Zorii had hidden; Zorii knew to get going because she overheard Kylo’s instructions to tear the town apart. The novelization also expands on the scene that starts the movie (which the movie doesn’t specify is set on Mustafar). After laying waste to the local cultists as he does on screen, Kylo confronts a spider-like symbiotic creature called the Eye of Webbish Bog, which Darth Vader entrusted with his wayfinder. Again, it wasn’t vital to include that confrontation in the film, but without it, the scene seemed oddly devoid of context.
- The book also includes the message Palpatine broadcast from Egexol, which was in Fortnite but wasn’t in the movie, even though it was referenced in the opening crawl: “At last the work of generations is complete. The great error is corrected. The day of victory is at hand. The day of revenge. The day of the Sith.”
- The Knights of Ren were always operatives of Palpatine; like Snoke, they were manipulating him from the start. “The Knights of Ren had never been his,” Ben realizes on Exegol. “They had belonged to the Emperor all along. A final betrayal.” This is actually sort of sad.
- Like the Knights of Ren, Allegiant General Pryde has been in league with Palpy all along, and he oversaw the construction of the Sith fleet from afar. “Behold, the fruit of your labor,” Palpatine tells Pryde during one of their secret hologram chats, sending the General an image of Exegol’s surface as the massive Star Destroyers lift off. Pryde gazes with, well, pride, at “the Sith fleet that was his life’s work, hidden no more.” It’s sort of strange that the highest-ranking officer in the First Order (and the Emperor’s right-hand man) wasn’t in the first two movies of the trilogy. Then again, neither was the Emperor.
- My favorite tidbit in the book: Hux hates Kylo’s hair. “Hux distrusted masks on principle, but he was glad for Ren’s because it spared him the indignant assault of the Supreme Leader’s hair. A good leader led by example, and Ren’s hair was the furthest thing from regulation. … When Hux finally took his rightful place as Supreme Leader, the first thing he’d do was make Ren cut off his hair.” I’m sad we never got to see this visual.
For all its fresh morsels of information, The Rise of Skywalker novelization fails to fix the lack of originality that plagued the last act in the trilogy. “Leia and Rey were different, the last remnants of a dead Order, and together, they would carve a new path,” Carson writes. But there’s nothing new about resisting the temptation to strike Palpatine down.
At the end of the book, Poe questions why he should be confident that this time, Palpatine and his Empire are actually dead. The Rebels were just a small group, Finn explains; what they achieved was incredible, but it wasn’t built to last. “We’re not just one small group,” a smiling Poe says, ignoring the fact that the Resistance was exactly that for almost the entire trilogy. “The Resistance is a million people, a thousand places.” Finn picks up the thread. “General Leia united a whole galaxy,” he says. “This time, it’s for real.” If you say, so, Finn. At least until Disney needs a sequel.