A middle-grade Star Wars book that has a lot of bite. Justina Ireland’s first entry in The High Republic era is a nice character study around tragic times for young citizens of the galaxy.
Switching from an adult novel, Light of the Jedi, to a middle-grade novel, A Test of Courage, was actually quite refreshing. While Light of the Jedi was packed with characters and various interconnected conflicts across the galaxy, A Test of Courage is a stripped-down look at four characters dealing with a tragic event and navigating their way through grief, understanding, and resolve.
There will be mild plot detail reveals but I will not be discussing spoilers.
The structure of the story is standard and linear but, like most Star Wars novels, includes a Prologue and Epilogue. We meet our main heroine, Vernestra Rhow, having just completed her Jedi trials to becoming the youngest Jedi Knight at 16. Her first mission is to escort a Republic Senator’s daughter, Avon Starros, from an outpost on the Outer Rim planet Dalna to the Starlight Beacon opening ceremony. Among the passengers on their luxury liner are Avon’s protocol droid J-6, Jedi Master Douglas Sunvale, his Padawan Imri Cantaros, Ambassador Weft from Dalnan Delegation, and his son, Honesty Weft. The Great Disaster from Light of the Jedi has already happened, resulting in closures of certain hyperspace routes and an alternate path that their liner, Steady Wing, must take to reach the Starlight Beacon. Disaster strikes Steady Wing mid-journey when bombs go off all over the ship and none of the escape pods are functional. Vernestra, Avon, Imri, and Honesty can escape…everyone else does not. Avon wants to figure out what happened and why, Imri and Honesty are dealing with the loss of their respective father figures, and Vernestra is just trying to keep everyone safe. They end up stranded on a jungle moon with dangerous weather and must find a way to make it off-world. For a middle-grade novel, the story itself is pretty compact, putting our characters quickly into action. Outside of the prologue and epilogue, we are with the main characters and spending some considerable time in their heads as they come to terms with what happened while focusing on finding a way to survive. There are three solid character conflicts in A Test of Courage (Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Person, and Person vs. Self) and they are all equally compelling within the framework of this particular narrative but also could carry into future storylines involving these characters.
We spend the most time in the novel with Vernestra, who is the youngest Jedi Knight in the Jedi Order and that brings a lot of curiosity around her with the other Jedi. She is, as Avon notes, super optimistic and overexerts herself occasionally in service but she is also more aware of her limits than we are used to seeing from a Jedi. While older readers might be rolling their eyes at a 16-year-old Jedi Knight, Vernestra does fall into the older end of the middle-grade heroine and it is nice to have a character that has the wisdom and insight of a Jedi Knight to balance out the other characters. Avon Starros, the 12-year-old daughter of a Senator, is a child genius who is always experimenting, asks a lot of questions (as logically-minded people tend to do), and has is laser-focused on getting a closer look at the kyber crystals from Vernestra and Imri’s lightsabers. She also is accompanied by her protocol droid, J-6, which she has experimented with and modified into self-actualization, providing some comic relief. And, if you read Star Wars Marvel comics, yes Sana Starros is a descendant of Avon (but that is more of an Easter egg). Avon is also blunt so her thoughts are often conveyed directly to the characters she is interacting with, which makes Honesty somewhat uneasy. While Vernestra, Avon, and Imri know each other well enough, Honesty is a complete stranger to the group until they are stranded together. When we first meet Honesty, he is arguing with his father about going on this trip to the Starlight Beacon. His father thinks it will be a great opportunity for him to meet influential people while Honesty just wants to stay on Dalna and complete his Metamorphosis (similar to Jedi trials for young Dalnans but connected to their desired career). Like Avon, he is also 12-years old but they are definitely positioned as opposites as Honesty tries to keep his emotions in check. Finally, while Vernestra is positioned as the main character in A Test of Courage, Imri’s arc is the heart of the novel. He struggles with elements of the force and is filled with insecurities. It doesn’t help that he compares his accomplishments to Vernestra, who is two years older than him but he has a good heart and is quite happy when we meet him early in the novel. That does change, given the events and his journey in the book might make him one of the most compelling Jedi so far in the High Republic era.
Is There A Star Wars Moment?
Yes…sort of. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a Star Wars Moment because it is not so much a scene but it’s an object. Vernestra’s lightsaber to be exact, has a unique feature and I am not sure how I feel about but it sounded cool in action and it did cause me to gape.
Favorite Thing in the Novel?
Imri and Honesty’s mirrored journeys dealing with losing a mentor: Imri with his Jedi Master and Honesty with his father. There is also an added layer that Jedi can sense each other’s feelings, and both boys are avoiding talking about how they feel out loud which makes for some engaging moments.
Least Favorite Thing in the Novel?
I didn’t mention them in the Characters section but there are antagonists in this story. They are two Nihil operatives, with whom we get their perspective in the Prologue so that we, the readers, know the ship was sabotage; however, they are written more as catalysts for the conflict, externally and internally, our heroes will face. Ireland chose to focus all the development on the hero characters, which makes for bland, one-dimensional villains. Although, there is a hint near the end of the novel of the threat the Nihil might be, particularly to this group of heroes in future content.
While Star Wars canon has some fantastic YA and adult novels, middle grade in canon is often lacking new original stories and is filled mostly with Junior retellings of film or television content or side stories of established characters. A Test of Courage allows young readers to read about characters from The High Republic that will appear in Justina Ireland’s YA Novel Out of the Shadows and build towards the larger story. For young at heart readers, it is a great character study of two young Jedi that will likely reflect the thoughts and feelings of more Jedi as we continue our journey through The High Republic.