Except for Into the Dark, all The High Republic novels have begun with a Prologue that introduces the inciting incident that will ultimately get the Jedi involved. And more often than not, the Jedi have been the main characters of these adventures. Path of Deceit by Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland does something different. The inciting incident is the starting point for the mystery of The High Republic thus far, and the main characters are not the Jedi.
**MILD SPOILERS FOR PATH OF DECEIT**
Jedi Padawan Kevmo Zink and his Master, Zallah Macri, have just finished helping a town on the planet Tikae with a migration crisis when they are called to Hynestia to help find a stolen Force artifact.
Meanwhile, on Dalna, Evereni Marda Ro starts her day as a member of The Path of the Open Hand. Marda and her cousin Yana came to The Path as children, and the former buys into their purpose of liberating the Force. Now that Marda is of age, she longs to join the Children, a small group of members who go off-world to spread the message of The Path and liberate Force items (to which Yana belongs). Yana, more cynical, tells Marda that their leader, Mother, will never let her join them. Because their group does not liberate Force items, they steal them so The Path can sell them. And part of that profit is going towards constructing The Path’s flagship, the Gaze Electric.
Yana also has her motives and wants to eventually leave the group with her girlfriend, Kor, which presents a challenge (Kor is the daughter of one of the entrenched Elders).
When Kevmo and Zallah trace the stolen Rod of Seasons to Dalna and The Path, Kevmo meets Marda, and there is an instant connection. In YA novels that do not involve Jedi, we would call this love at first sight. Mardo gives Kevmo a gift from the Force, and Kevmo uses the Force in front of her, which angers Marda, who tells him the Force is not a tool. The two continue to discuss and challenge each other on the Force, and living beings should use it with encouragement from their respective sides but for different motivations. Zallah feels like The Path is a group of zealots but believes it is a learning experience for Kevmo to hear from others who see the Force differently. Mother thinks it might be good for Marda to win Kevmo over to their side and potentially remove them from suspicion. Yana feels that the Jedi’s presence on Dalna can only mean bad things and speeds up her exit strategy.
Meanwhile, a more significant threat to the Jedi is among Mother’s Force artifacts, slowly building tension and dread. Most of this story has a sense of dread hanging over it. In the middle of it is that Marda and Yana are Evereni, and their species is synonymous with deceit. The story is relatively simple, if not repetitive, in its messaging of nature versus nurture and how perception can quickly become a reality. Like Out of the Shadows and Midnight Horizon, most of the novel is flooded (secret pun) with character development. Unlike Midnight Horizon, which ends in a thrilling battle on Corellia, there is minimal action in Path of Deceit, just a reveal that should not be too shocking if you are familiar with the events of Phase One.
I am not sure this story was substantial enough for a novel, which is why there is a lot of repetition of dialogue and situations that act as exposition to justify decisions in the third act, particularly regarding character arcs. A better format for this would have been a multi-issue comic series like Trail of Shadows or Eye of the Storm. Given the content of all three, Path of Deceit would have fit perfectly in with those two, and if you only read the comics, you would have enough information to track with the inferences from Phase One.
Instead, we have this long setup for an antagonist to the Jedi for Phase Two. And clearly, the antagonists presented in the novel will be crucial to the whole of Phase, which is why I assume we are starting with a YA novel instead of an adult novel that might have a more bird’s eye view of the time. Most of the story is on Dalna, and we get some references to the state of the Outer Rim; however, the isolation is a part of this story for The Path and Dalna and other Outer Rim planets.
Path of Deceit has three main characters based on page time and character growth (and falls within the age group of protagonists in YA novels). Still, four characters get POV chapters: Marda, Kevmo, Yana, and Sunshine (Sunshine being the outlier), so we will start with these characters and work our way out to their periphery.
We spend the most time with Marda, the Evereni and true believer. Even though people view the few Evereni left as untrustworthy, most Path members seem to trust Marda. And Marda knows nothing about the history of Evereni (The High Republic: Eye of the Storm #1 shows their evolution of deception and selfishness that led to the decimation of their species). Her dedication to the young members (Littles) is similar to Yoda’s dedication to the Jedi Younglings. Marda is painted as very loving and motherly, but she has such a sense of righteousness that she sees the Jedi’s presence and learning about places like Jedha as opportunities to spread the message of The Path and less of a challenge to her beliefs.
Even as she and Kevmo become closer, she still sees him as a means to an end (including leaving Dalna with Yana). I think Marda cares for Kevmo, but there is also a sudden character turn in the third act because of those feelings, and the reader has to infer that her Evereni nature plays a part.
At the novel’s beginning, Marda is deceived by Mother, the Elders, and even her sister. But in the end, she accepts it, becoming complicit.
Her cousin Yana, however, knows why people do not trust Evereni and even remembers what happened when they were children. Through Yana, we get the tragic backstory of how they became orphans with The Path. Because she ties this trauma to her species, Yana is waiting for tragedy to strike. However, her relationship with Kor and Marda binds her to The Path. Yana is reluctant to ask to go with her knowing that both are true believers.
Yana also remains in The Path for different reasons than Marda and has deceived herself that it is for revenge, not for the new-found power she has within the membership, despite her background. People finally respect her, not because they fear her Evereni nature but because they believe she is a vessel for something greater. And this is a result of her own deceit.
I am so used to the Jedi being the focal point of the High Republic that it took me a third of the book to realize Kevmo was more of a supporting character for Marda’s journey. Kevmo represents the antithesis of Marda and her views of the Force, but he is also someone who is more open-minded (even more than his Jedi Master). He begins to feel slight shame when he has to use the Force in front of Marda, who ultimately forgives him because it saves the lives of a member family. Much like Marda, Kevmo leans into his emotions and is empathetic with a natural curiosity partly encouraged by Zallah. It’s this curiosity that draws him to Marda and inspires Marda to want to leave Dalna and spread the message of The Path to places like Jedha. And Kevmo believes that there is a reason he and Marda met, that they are helping each other find their place in the Force. But Kevmo still is devoted to the Jedi Order, which ultimately puts him in direct conflict with Marda and the Path. For most of the novel, you are rooting for Kevmo to pull Marda away from this cult. But this is not his story, and he is not the hero.
The other POV perspective in Path of Deceit is by the Pathfinder Radicaz “Sunshine” Dobbs, starting with the Prologue. Sunshine is the one that brings Mother a giant egg-like orb that seems to be alive. It is not a mystery what is in this orb, but we also learn that Sunshine has a secret path to the planet from which this orb originated, a planet that we have gotten a glimpse at in Eye of the Storm #2. So while it might initially feel out of place that Sunshine is the other POV, his infatuation with Mother (who he calls Elecia) sets off a chain of events that affects every character in this novel and will have implications throughout the rest of The High Republic era.
Let’s move on to Mother/Elecia since she has been in the background of my character list. She is The Path figurehead and leader, along with the Elders, and a self-proclaimed prophet who claims to have Force visions. Like the introduction of Marchion Ro, we know nothing of Elecia’s background or how she came to The Path. Also, a mystery is her endgame.
She knows more about the creature in her orb than she lets on and how to control it. And, while she sells some of the Force artifacts the Children steal, she also has kept some, and most have dark side energy. Elecia is also very good at reading people, including Yana, and manipulates her and Marda. She has an internal power struggle with the Elder Herald, Kor’s father, who does not like Yana but allies himself with her to undermine Mother. We do not spend much time with Herald, but he is another power player in The Path moving forward. Mother’s power within the group weakens at the novel’s end, but she has a plan that includes Sunshine and Jedha and will be a formidable antagonist for the Jedi Order.
I was disappointed that Jedi Master Zallah Macri had a minor role in this novel, and the bulk of her relationship with her Padawan, Kevmo, was established initially. It was a missed opportunity to get the perspective of a Soikan Jedi. The Soikan have their own troubled history with a brutal war that we learn from the stories revolving around Velko Jahen in Star Wars Insider stories (soon to be published in Star Wars The High Republic: Starlight Stories). Zallah’s cool demeanor, compared to Kevmo’s struggle to contain his emotions, is a nice Master/Padawan dynamic with what we do get. Zallah admits that Kevmo reminds her that sometimes it is ok to surrender yourself completely to the Force.
The High Republic YA novels have done a great job fleshing out their characters (sometimes at the expense of pacing). Gratton and Ireland still set the stage well enough for the characters who survive to be critical players in the stories to come.
Phase One established Dalna as an important location in the High Republic era, and we continue to learn more about the planet. One key differentiator is that it does not have an indigenous species and is inhabited solely by migrants. The weather patterns have also not been tracked, which would benefit the farming community greatly. We know that a tragic event called The Night of Sorrow takes place on Dalna involving the Jedi and, given the warm treatment of Kevmo and Zallah, that has not happened yet. The ending suggests more Jedi will be coming to Dalna, so the events in the novel have likely set the stage for that battle.
The Path of the Open Hand, mentioned previously, makes its official appearance in canon here. The Force cult was founded on Dalna by Sarchar Rold a century ago, and Rold was originally a member of the Guardians of the Whills. Jedha will be the setting of many Phase Two stories, so we might also learn more about Rold’s history and connection to the Whills.
Regarding the connection with Phase One, it is clear that a faction of The Path will become the Nihil, and one of those leaders will be Marda or Yana. It is no coincidence that their surname is Ro. One is a direct ancestor of Marchion Ro, and the book does a great job presenting the case for either Evereni. Speaking of Marda, she says to Kevmo that “the Force is only itself. Life. Light. Everything that connects us.” The wording is similar to the High Republic’s mantra, For Light and Life, in Phase One, so curious if there will be a connecting tissue as Phase Two progresses.
Launching Phase Two with a YA novel with a character-driven story was a choice by The High Republic team and the kind of decision that will sense as the Phase unfolds.
However, as an individual story, while not the most thrilling, it is a good window into different philosophies of the Force and insight into how opportunists can corrupt institutions that might have started with pure intentions. And that can apply to The Path of the Open Hand and the Jedi Order.