I was in an abusive relationship when I was a teenager. It was years ago by now, but of course, there are still things that trigger flashbacks or set me off into a stupor for several nightmare riddled days. I never would have thought that listening to a new Star Wars audiobook, as I do every release day, would be one of those triggers.
Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, by Delilah S. Dawson, is a great book. It is simultaneously a sequel to Dawson’s excellent Phasma from 2017, a tie-in with the new Star War’s: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars-themed land now open at Disney Parks, and part of buildup towards The Rise of Skywalker. It takes a lot to successfully balance multiple layers of tie-in while also telling a thrilling stand-alone story, and Dawson does this magnificently. Black Spire is also a deep, complex story about two very broken people.
Black Spire picks up right where Phasma left off, which is just before the events of The Force Awakens. Vi Moradi, one of General Organa’s most trusted Resistance spies, has just returned from a mission gone awry. In tow is a prisoner, Captain Cardinal, an exceptionally high-ranking First Order commander who, while not a formal defector, was turned by Vi during her own captivity and tortured by him aboard his Star Destroyer. After some amount of time passes and Vi has recuperated to some degree, the General has new orders for her nobody is going to like. Vi is to set up a new Resistance outpost on the middle-of-nowhere planet Batuu, and Captain Cardinal, now deprogrammed and going by his birth name, Archex, is to be her second in command.
I read Phasma. I knew Captain Cardinal was surely going to return in Black Spire reformed. I was even excited about it. I love when bad guys in Star Wars realize the error of their ways and turn. Agent Kallus become one of my favorite characters in Star Wars: Rebels after he joined the rebellion. Yet, when our beloved princess and trusted general Leia Organa told Vi that she had to get on a ship, pick up her abuser, and work with him alone on a foreign planet, I was flung into complete distress.
For the first few instants, I was only able to consider Vi’s emotions. Dawson writes them quite clearly: she’s terrified and angry, but also perfectly able to swallow all of her feelings, as we all must do against our will, to fulfill her trusted commanding officer’s orders. Quickly, my disposition dissolved. Leia began describing the relationship Vi and Archex needed to form as one where “she needed him,” and where “he needed her” in turn. Words straight out of the abuse playbook.
I know Leia, and Dawson by extension most likely did not intend to provide this allusion. Nonetheless, this was my breaking point. All I could do was pause my audiobook as endless pontification commenced over how I would react if I were forced to work with my abuser. What would even happen if I passed them on the street? I could do nothing but drown in the cycle of recollection and imagination that Dawson inadvertently triggered. I had nightmares about my abuser during the next two nights. While those have stopped, and I promise I’m doing okay now, continuing the rest of the book (I was only on the first chapter) was laborious.
I didn’t only want to finish the book because I am a Star Wars canon completionist and felt too invested to stop, I also needed to know how Vi and Archex’s relationship was going to pan out. I had formed massive assumptions in my head about it. I know, foremost, that everything was going to work out in the end. Everything always does for the heroes in Star Wars, that’s basically the whole point. I had two huge fears though: that Black Spire would not dive deeply enough into the terrible psyche of the main characters’ relationship, and that they would fall in love.
Spoilers for Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire below the image
The latter fear was quickly quashed, thank goodness. Most Star Wars canon novels involve romantic relationships, so my fear was founded, beyond the paranoia that compliments the anxiety the book already induced beyond its normal stasis. Fortunately, Dawson seemed to know this was an expectation many readers would have and dealt with it the most satisfying way.
On a night when Vi and Archex were starting to get particularly close, and Archex was really starting to soften up around her, she gave him a friendly physical gesture and he tried to kiss her. Vi skillfully dodged his advance and graciously took the opportunity to explain to him that the chemical release caused by physical contact is a normal and great thing, but it should not be conflated for romantic interest, and nor should her friendliness. In a really positive display of humility, Archex made it clear that he understood and was genuinely apologetic. Dawson also subtly explained that Vi did not ever feel sexual attraction towards another being, something I really admire in her characterization. I don’t think I have ever heard of such a thing in a piece of popular fiction before.
This all occurred fairly early in Black Spire though. After screaming at my phone “don’t you dare fall in love” and having it obey me, I was still left fearful about how their relationship would pan out. I craved satisfaction out of their relationship. I knew from the first moment I returned to the book after it caused my episode that I was just projecting a need for closure that no number of hours in therapy could ever provide. Nonetheless, I kept listening to January Lavoy masterfully read to me the tale as Delilah S. Dawson had written it.
At some point, it dawned on me that Vi was not the only one trapped with their abuser. Archex was too. Archex was forced to confront his abuser too, the First Order. The First Order basically kidnapped him as a child; brainwashed, drugged, and physically harmed him for decades; and had him train countless other abducted and brainwashed children to become ruthless killers and tyrants. His abuse was different from the abuse that Vi suffered at his hands, but everybody’s story is different and equally valid.
It is excruciatingly difficult to recognize the validity of other people’s experiences when they are also perpetrators. Believe me, I know this very well. Archex did terrible, terrible things. He did some of the worst of them directly to Vi herself. It would be utterly minimized to say that Archex was “just” doling out what he was taught and that it was “just” the only way he knew how to act. I used to say that about my abuser too. There may not be a correct answer to how abusers or bullies or criminals of any kind should be contextualized. I don’t want to prescribe any solution or twist my personal choice to forgive my abuser with how others should manage their own recovery. Simply, doing bad things is not excusable, even if sometimes it can be forgivable.
Both Vi and Archex eventually got to have closure. Vi ended up really deeply caring for Archex as a friend and partner. She trusted him with her life and completely seemed to forgive him for the person he had been. Frankly, he deserved it and if Vi, the person who suffered directly from his abuse, can forgive him and trust him, as can I. I’m still a sucker for defectors in Star Wars, after all. Archex also got to achieve closure by completely and utterly sticking it to the First Order. He sacrificed himself to save his friends and his newfound family in the Resistance. He killed the First Order unit that was torturing him and the people he cared about and got to put a major kink in General Hux’s plans. I absolutely cried when Archex died.
The only person who did not get any closure by the end of Black Spire was me. Throughout the whole book, I kept seeing myself in both Vi and Archex. Vi was constantly trying to just keep pushing forward and not let her past with Captain Cardinal and the First Order rehabilitate her. Archex was constantly questioning himself, his existence, and his past with the First Order. He knew deep down that it was not his fault that his water was drugged to keep him docile and that he was programmed like a droid to regurgitate First Order propaganda from the first moment Brendal Hux took him away as a child. Yet, he could never help but question whether perhaps he could have seen the writing on the wall sooner. I completely relate to both sides. Archex’s wavering faith set me off into my own ruminations over whether I had ever truly been in an abusive relationship or if I was just constantly imagining the whole thing. Vi’s behavior was trying to coax me into ignoring it all and just trying to press on with my life.
There was never any huge, climactic moment where one character or the other directly confronted their abuse in raw, unobscured words. I don’t honestly know why I ever thought there would be, other than the aforementioned projection. Real-life doesn’t work like that, so why should a galaxy far, far away? What Black Spire has done for me, after letting the flashbacks and nightmare subside, is provide me the periodic reminder I always need that I can’t just expect the solutions to my mental health challenges to come to me on their own.
There’s nothing fair about what I, Vi, or Archex went through. The two of them had the option to walk away from the Resistance at any time they wanted, according to Leia. Nobody was required to be there. Just like I was under no obligation to keep reading a book that had the potential to set back years worth of progress recovering from my abuse. But, like every Star Wars hero ever, I held on to irrational hope and it panned out in the end. I’m not cured of my experience with an abusive relationship from reading Black Spire. I am just reminded that what I experience was real and that ignoring it is futile. However I choose to move forward with my life and my acceptance of the past is up to me, I just have to make a choice; hopefully, I will choose the strength Vi and Archex had in facing their abuses.
Black Spire is available now.