Rebel in the Ranks and Building a Bigger Narrative

The story of Star Wars Rebels' Zare Leonis continues and deepens in a thrilling new novel.

The Servants of the Empire young-adult series is the story of Zare Leonis and his family, who came to Lothal as supporters of the Empire. In the first book, Edge of the Galaxy, Zare learned about leadership on his school’s grav-ball field while discovering the Empire wasn’t the force for good he’d grown up believing in. That book culminated with his sister Dhara’s disappearance from the Academy and Zare’s decision to follow her into Imperial service — but as a secret enemy of the Empire trying to find Dhara and save her.

In the second book, Rebel in the Ranks, we learn about Zare’s Academy life. The book includes the events of the Star Wars Rebels episode “Breaking Ranks,” but Rebel in the Ranks is much more than an adaptation. It’s a longer story — the events of the actual episode start on page 125 — and it’s told from a different point of view.

Which posed an interesting challenge as a writer.

For openers, “Breaking Ranks” is Ezra Bridger’s story, but Rebel in the Ranks is Zare’s. (If you haven’t watched “Breaking Ranks,” stop now — spoilers lie ahead.) So if Zare didn’t witness something at the Academy, I couldn’t show it in telling his part of the story. On the other hand, there was no reason I couldn’t keep the cameras rolling, so to speak, after a scene in the TV ended — or begin before that scene started.

This means you won’t see Ezra swipe Agent Kallus’s decoder from his office, or jump in surprise when Zare interrupts the theft. Instead, you see the scene from Zare’s perspective, as he follows the cadet he knows as Dev Morgan and gains some satisfaction from finally catching him off-guard. You’re not in the duct with Ezra when he overhears the Inquisitor’s plans for him and Jai Kell, but you do see something Disney XD viewers never saw — Zare confronting Ezra and demanding to know how he managed to levitate Kallus’s decoder off his desk, and why the Inquisitor wants him and Jai. (This discovery has enormous implications for Zare’s own quest.)

Those scenes were fun to write, but I was really excited about another scene “missing” from the episode — namely, the Inquisitor’s interrogation of Zare after Ezra and Jai make their getaway. I thought through how that scene would work, and realized that the key to it was Zare’s motivation. For reasons I think we all understand, Zare at first tries desperately to deflect the Inquisitor’s interest in him. But then he has a grim realization: The key to finding his sister is keeping the terrifying Imperial agent’s interest. Because… no, that would be telling.

Another challenge involved a time-honored storytelling technique: working backwards. A lot of favorite scenes in movies and books are actually the result of working backwards — it would be intense to wall up Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood in a tomb filled with snakes, but it would up the ante if snakes are the one thing that terrifies Indy. So earlier the audience needs to see… you get the idea.

In my case, the show’s writers had supplied the end point, and I needed to figure out the starting point. For instance, in “Breaking Ranks” Ezra’s clearly a new cadet, so how did he get there? (I decided he was a mid-year transfer, replacing a cadet who’d washed out — which let me tell a story that showed Zare struggling with reconciling loyalty to his fellow cadets with his opposition to the Empire.) And how did that order for Podracing parts get into the Imperial data network, anyway? That was an opportunity to flesh out a new piece of the story. The process of working backwards started before Rebel in the Ranks — Zare knows Ezra can’t take Kallus’s decoder out through the door of his office because Dhara told him about those security measures in Edge of the Galaxy.

The fact that I was telling Zare’s story also let me add both his motivations and plot complications into the book. In Edge of the Galaxy I’d established Merei Spanjaf as a skilled slicer, thinking that she’d help Zare search for clues about what had happened to Dhara. (As well as annoying Imperial agents with the occasional fake shipment notice.) So what if Merei needed Kallus’s decoder as well? Now Zare and Ezra had different reasons for needing the same device. That was interesting.

Merei had become one of my favorite characters in Edge of the Galaxy, with her role getting bigger as the story took shape. I was glad of that when I started writing Rebel in the Ranks, because I could switch back and forth between her part of the story and Zare’s, showing us very different aspects of life on Lothal. To help Zare, Merei must succeed in her own dangerous quest — namely, learning how to break into the Imperial data networks on Lothal.

By the way, if you ever doubt my commitment to Star Wars storytelling, I risked jail for this book. At one point while writing the Rebel in the Ranks story treatment I was sitting in the San Diego airport with my laptop, using Delta Air Lines’ Wi-Fi to research how hackers break into computer networks. As I was taking notes, I wondered what defense I would offer if the NSA appeared to drag me away, Dhara Leonis-style.

So, Mr. Fry, tell us that last part again. You say you’re writing a novel and one of the characters is a hacker? A Star Wars hacker? Sure you are.

I wouldn’t have believed me either. Fortunately, I got away with it. But did Merei? You’ll have to read Rebel in the Ranks to find out.