Learn the surprising -- and important -- connection between this Star Wars Rebels-era tale and The Force Awakens.
Warning! If you haven’t read The Secret Academy, stop! Spoilers await!
More than a year ago, I started mapping out the last book in the four-part Servants of the Empire series, which followed Zare Leonis’ quest to find his missing sister.
By the time I’d reached The Secret Academy, Zare and Merei Spanjaf had discovered Dhara had been kidnapped as part of a secret Imperial project targeting Force-sensitive youths. They knew she was being held on the planet Arkanis, and Zare -- undercover as an Imperial cadet -- had transferred there from Lothal. But he didn’t know that his transfer had been approved by the Inquisitor, who hoped to discover his connection to Ezra Bridger’s crew of rebels.
For The Secret Academy, I knew I wanted to bring back the crew of the Ghost, whom Zare and Merei had helped in Rebel in the Ranks. I knew Beck Ollet -- Zare and Merei’s friend who’d been arrested by stormtroopers in Edge of the Galaxy -- would reappear to play a pivotal role in the story. And of course I knew Zare would find Dhara.
I also had some settings, themes, and key scenes clear in my head. I wanted Arkanis -- a planet named but never seen in Legends -- to be a gloomy, perpetually wet world, with an academy set in a crumbling estate from a Gothic novel. I wanted to explore scent as a trigger for memory, and have that become important at a critical moment. I wanted a courtroom scene where Zare denounced the Empire with a point-by-point indictment of everything it had done to his family, to Lothal and to the galaxy.
And I wanted to shock the reader with a fun scene I’d imagined way back in the first book: Zare would finally get into the tower where Dhara was held, only to run into Beck, who’d been brainwashed and would immediately reveal Zare as a traitor.
That was supposed to happen at the end of the third book, Imperial Justice, but I wound up with too much story ahead of that moment and not enough after it. To preserve the cliffhanger, I broke up the narrative of The Secret Academy. I told Zare’s story up until his encounter with Beck, went back in time to tell Merei’s tale, then brought the two stories together.
Those elements didn’t add up to a 30,000-word novella, but they gave me the key parts of one. But as I wrote the treatment, I couldn’t make one plot point work.
I’d imagined that the Arkanis academy included a secret society of cadets selected by the school’s commandant. They’d meet in the mysterious tower where Zare knew Dhara was being held -- and where Beck was being brainwashed. That worked for multiple reasons. It fit the Gothic homage I wanted to write. It would advance a plot line from Imperial Justice: Zare would have to gain admission to the secret society, forcing him to decide how far he was willing to go to save his sister.
At the most basic level of storytelling, though, the Commandant’s Cadets were the way to get Zare into that tower, and I needed them to make the story work.
But why did this secret society exist? That’s where I was stuck. I didn’t want the cadets to be a generically evil pack of Imperial “cool kids,” but I couldn’t find a satisfying purpose for them. If their goal was something that never played a role in other Star Wars stories, readers would know it never came to fruition. And that would lower the story’s stakes.
So how’d I solve the problem? By getting lucky.
In November 2014, I went to Lucasfilm for initial meetings about DK’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Incredible Cross-Sections, which began with a synopsis of the movie accompanied by stills and concept art. (Yes, it was awesome!) My mind started churning somewhere between hearing about Finn’s origins and seeing a still of the rather young-looking General Hux. When our group met with the Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo, I blurted out an idea: What if the plan to raise children as stormtroopers began back in the Star Wars Rebels era, at the Imperial academy on Arkanis? What if it was the brainchild of Commandant Hux, father to The Force Awakens’ General Hux?
Pablo liked the idea, and ran it up the chain. I waited for someone to say no, trying not to think of all the reasons that might happen. When the answer came back yes, I wrote as quickly as I could and then prayed that there’d be no last-minute reversal.
Not all of my original idea survived. I’d imagined Zare catching sight of a red-haired baby in a hover-pram pushed by a sinister nanny droid, but that wound up feeling like a reference for a reference’s sake, which I’ve come to believe undermines storytelling instead of supporting it. (I kept the droid as DDM-38, the academy’s eyeless caretaker.) Connections between Star Wars stories are fun, and can include everything from character or creature cameos to retellings of the same events. I’m happy we were able to connect The Secret Academy with The Force Awakens. But more than that, I’m proud of a connection that I think exists for the right reasons.
Yes, the connection sparked conversation about The Secret Academy among readers hungry for The Force Awakens lore. That’s always a good thing in the book business -- even if I cringed at assumptions that Zare and Finn must be related.
But the connection also made sense within the Star Wars galaxy. During the Clone Wars, the elder Hux served alongside Jedi Knights and clones, two groups that trained warriors from birth. Hux saw the deficiencies of the Empire’s conscript and volunteer stormtroopers and imagined a radical reimaging of what the Jedi and clones had done. That program began in secret and was fulfilled by his son for the hermetic, fanatical First Order.
And from a storytelling standpoint, the connection filled the hole in The Secret Academy, turning a weakness into a strength. Now I knew why the Commandant’s Cadets existed, and that readers would see them as a real threat. What Zare witnessed on Arkanis seemed like a madman’s dream, but decades later it would be part of a grave new threat to the galaxy.
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Speaking of Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Incredible Cross-Sections, we’ve tweaked a couple of details about the Finalizer. Its weapons complement is now “more than 1,500 turbolasers and ion cannons” and its class is Battlecruiser. You’ll see those changes in future printings of the book.
Jason Fry is the author of The Clone Wars Episode Guide and more than 20 other Star Wars books and short stories. He is also the author of The Jupiter Pirates young-adult series.