ew characters inspired more fervor and celebration after the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story than Qi’ra. Exquisitely portrayed by Game of Thrones star, Emilia Clarke, Qi’ra stole the spotlight every moment she graced the screen of Ron Howard’s 2018 film that chronicled the early years of the galaxy’s favorite scoundrel.
As a White Worm scrum rate turned Crimson Dawn lieutenant, Qi’ra fascinated audiences with her skills on the battlefield and her irresistible charm. Due to the film’s narrative structure focusing primarily on Han, however, Qi’ra’s transition from the merciless streets of Corellia to the sleek interiors of Dryden Vos’s First Light remained a mystery.
E.K. Johnston’s Crimson Climb chronicles Qi’ra’s rise to power within one of the galaxy’s most fearsome criminal syndicates by showcasing her unparalleled ability to survive no matter the cost. Although the larger narrative structure of Qi’ra’s machinations gets muddied in the face of numerous deceptions and side characters that don’t quite live up to their potential, the interplay between Qi’ra and Dryden Vos is satisfying enough to make Climb a worthy read for longtime fans of the one who didn’t get away.
Over the years, every book, movie, and series about criminal organizations has taught the same valuable lesson. There are no customary promotions for exemplary work, and there are no retirement parties that leave open positions.
There are those who rise, and there are those who fall.
Going into Crimson Climb, Qi’ra’s future as a successful lieutenant of Crimson Dawn is assured by her reappearance in Solo, but the specifics of her ascension are Johnston’s to create within the book's structure. Unsurprisingly, Qi’ra’s journey involves a healthy amount of backstabbing and deception, but unfortunately, the various twists and turns are not presented in a way that provides enough cohesion for the reader to follow to a satisfying conclusion.
When creating a story that revolves around secret alliances and reveals that the protagonist needs to discover, authors always want to be a step ahead of their audience in order to provide exciting reveals. This sort of structure can lead to moments of wondrous surprise as thrilling page turns can create moments of shock and awe that stick with readers for years afterward. While this intention can be seen in Johnston’s framework of Crimson Climb, the larger story often shows itself to be more confusing than intriguing as certain actions lose their impact, because they are too clouded in mystery for the reader to follow.
That being said, the interpersonal moments of the story are where Johnston truly shines. Fans of her previous work from Ahsoka to the Queen Trilogy will know the skill that Johnston employs in her intimate character moments, and when these scenes are employed to further Qi’ra’s growth, the story becomes much clearer.
Unfortunately, the continual confusion caused by an overly complicated series of deceptions and double talk doesn’t allow these sections to take center stage, and the cohesion of the plot never quite recovers.
Few characters have more distinctive voices in the Star Wars saga than Ahsoka and Padmé, and after her previous novels, E.K. Johnston has proven her mastery when it comes to creating realistic dialogue for the preexisting characters. Crimson Climb continues this tradition by providing scenes between Qi’ra and Dryden Vos that could have ripped directly from the screen.
Not only does the dialogue between these two ring true to the original script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, their mannerisms are also spot on to what fans would expect from the pair based on their shared history. Paul Bettany’s tones practically crawl off the page with every word Johnston writes for him, and his constant fluctuation between quiet authority and savage brutality fills every scene with remarkable tension.
Qi’ra’s reactions to Vos evolve throughout the book as she learns to play his game in a way that can only be described as mastery. Her eventual betrayal of his trust in Solo can easily be traced to her actions within Crimson Climb, and the interplay between the two is an undeniable highlight for the book.
While those two stars shine brilliantly every time they grace each others’ presence, the rest of the supporting cast is relegated to reside in their rather large shadows. Although Johnston fills out the ranks of Crimson Dawn with a number of compatriots, none of them make enough impact to separate themselves from the pact, and it can be relatively easy to confuse the names, species, and alliances of each new player in Vos’s game.
Because so much of the narrative of Crimson Climb focuses on Qi’ra’s assessment of her surroundings and rivals, the lack of memorability with these new faces make it difficult to follow her actions and motivations. However, the magnitude of Johnston’s skill when it comes to writing Qi’ra’s internal monologue as well as her showdowns with Vos are well worth the price of admission.
E.K. Johnston’s signature style has added fantastic context to the histories of Ahsoka and Padmé. With books that are as accessible as they are filled with beautiful character moments, Johnston has created narratives that showcase the histories and unique personas of an incredible amount of powerful women in the Star Wars universe, and she brings that same intention to the pages of Crimson Climb.
Her strengths in this book lie in the aforementioned scenes between Dryden Vos and Qi’ra as well as Qi’ra’s internal struggles and resolutions that help mold her into the pillar of strength we see in Solo. Johnston’s exquisite use of screen-accurate dialogue places these chapters among the best she’s written, but the lack of cohesion and clarity when it comes to the overall ascension narrative halt the entire book from reaching the previous heights of books like Ahsoka and Queen’s Peril.
Johnston’s predilection towards character-centric scenes will not be a surprise to previous fans of her work. Although the main crux of the story gets lost in the weeds, the final sequence of the book (no spoilers, of course) actually provides the strongest example of her abilities as a plot-centric writer. By ending the book on this high note, the maladies of the earlier pages almost fade away in deference to excitement with which Johnston fills the final chapters.
While Crimson Climb may not be the most well executed technical work of Johnston’s career as a writer, her continuous return to her strengths as a character writer alongside the exhilaration of the last few scenes definitely make a case for a continuation of Qi’ra’s story within Crimson Dawn.
Most of the time, we talk about the entertainment value in Star Wars books in terms of cinematic action that reminds us of the thrill of an opening night at the theater. While nothing compares to the sheer magnitude of John Williams music over an opening crawl, some of the best books attempt to capture that magic through thrilling starship battles or chaotic lightsaber duels.
While Crimson Climb can’t claim to harness that operatic power, its value as a piece of entertainment lies not only in the witty interplay between Dryden Vos and Qi’ra nor its climactic final mission. Instead, Climb harnesses the specific type of excitement that few franchises can provide as well as Star Wars: the potential for future storytelling.
After Charles Soule’s expansion of Qi’ra in the comics with War of the Bounty Hunters, Crimson Reign, and Hidden Empire, it was clear that her story was nowhere near finished when Solo ran its credits. Crimson Climb has further solidified that notion by not only adding some background to Qi’ra’s history, but also proving that there are so many more stories to tell between her, Dryden Vos, and Crimson Dawn’s mysterious (not so mysterious) benefactor.
The fact that Star Wars storytelling is continuous can be a burden at times. The lack of a firm ending to a saga can lessen stakes if not handled properly, but the way that Johnston finishes Crimson Climb proves that Qi’ra’s story does not need to suffer those same issues. By combining the groundwork laid in Solo with the expansion provided by Johnston’s pen, Qi’ra’s story is far from over, and the thrill of that idea is just as entertaining as any jump to hyperspace.
Crimson Climb welcomes back two of the most intriguing characters from Solo: A Star Wars Story as they participate in a continual battle of wits surrounding Qi’ra’s ascension within one of the galaxy’s most brutal syndicates. While the interplay between Qi’ra and Dryden Vos is a phenomenal highlight, the book’s narrative structure offers slightly more confusion than cohesion when it comes to the investigation of a leak within the organization. Nonetheless, the climactic mission puts Qi’ra in a position of more power than ever as she looks forward to the continuation of her story which leaves little doubt that she will only continue to climb.
Crimson Climb is available now wherever books are sold and on Audible!