Author’s Notes: The Secret Academy, Pt. 1
WARNING: These notes will completely spoil Servants of the Empire: The Secret Academy. Haven’t read it? Stop and go here.
Part 1: Zare
Imperial Justice was torture to write, but The Secret Academy was actually fun! Final chapters are like that … if you’ve put in the work. I’d spent three books establishing the characters and their motivations, laid the groundwork for the themes I wanted to explore, and then layered in complications and reversals. The fourth book was the chance to make all that pay off, and I enjoyed doing it.
Rather than alternate chapters as I had in Imperial Justice, I split Zare Leonis’s and Merei Spanjaf’s stories and followed them one at a time, without intercuts. I’d considered doing that in Imperial Justice, rejected the idea, but now thought it made sense.
I had a dopey reason for doing that, and a smart one.
The dopey reason: I was still annoyed at not being able to end Imperial Justice with Zare running into Beck Ollet inside the tower – a cliffhanger that had made me cackle happily. Splitting Zare and Merei’s stories would give me a second chance at that moment.
The smart reason: Imperial Justice had separated Zare and Merei and concluded with Merei’s discovery that Zare’s transfer to Arkanis wasn’t a reward but part of the Inquisitor’s plan. Taking away the intercuts was a way for the reader to feel a little bit of that separation and anxiety.
One challenge in The Secret Academy was unexpected. Story Group sent back my outline for Books 3 and 4 with a note that by the time Zare got to Arkanis, the Inquisitor would be dead, killed off in Rebels’ Season 1 finale. That would certainly change my story! I scrunched the books’ timeline a bit and was able to get the Inquisitor and Zare to briefly overlap on Arkanis, but that was the most I could compress things.
So I leaned into it. I reasoned that the Inquisitor’s offstage demise fit with an idea I’d been playing with – that Zare, for all his bravery and determination, also gets a bit lucky. In Imperial Justice, Zare decides he won’t follow another immoral order even it means he’ll never find Dhara, and is saved from dismissal when Oleg’s warehouse raid goes awry. The Inquisitor’s death would be another bit of luck, as his plan is to return to Arkanis and break Zare. I don’t think that undercuts Zare or his quest – one thing I like about Zare is he isn’t a Jedi, a veteran commando or some kind of superhero. He needs a little luck; most heroes do.
One idea I continued from Imperial Justice was Zare’s “shadow story” – a not too different tale in which Dhara was never kidnapped and Zare remained the loyal young Imperial officer he’d assumed he’d become. Arkanis essentially resets Zare’s cadet career and the shadow story culminates with the training exercise on Sirpar. Those scenes are some of my favorite in the book – they show Zare as a young officer who improvises intelligently, drives himself and his troops to accomplish unlikely goals, and earns those troops’ loyalty and affection. He’s come a long way from the kid impatiently killing time at AppSci.
But as in Imperial Justice, Zare eventually has to ask himself what he isn’t willing to do to find Dhara. In the previous book, being ordered to take children into protective custody is his breaking point; in this one it’s being ordered to murder a fellow cadet.
No aspect of The Secret Academy attracted more interest than the revelation that Brendol Hux’s Commandant’s Cadets are forerunners of the First Order stormtroopers overseen by Brendol’s son Armitage. The funny thing, to me, was that the connection with The Force Awakens came late and was a lucky break.
I’d known since Edge of the Galaxy that Dhara was being held in a mysterious tower on Arkanis, that Zare would try to get inside, and that Beck’s unexpected reappearance would ruin everything. From a storytelling point of view, the Commandant’s Cadets were merely the mechanism that would get Zare into that tower at the right time for the hammer to come down.
But why did they exist? I was up against a problem that’s common in richly detailed fictional universes. I wanted the Cadets to have a purpose and be more than a generic bunch of Imperial “mean kids,” but if that purpose never affected any other Star Wars story, readers would know from the beginning that the Cadets had failed to achieve their goals.
In November 2014 I visited Lucasfilm for meetings about DK’s The Force Awakens – Incredible Cross-Sections and got a synopsis of the upcoming movie, accompanied by on-set photos. Finn’s origins reminded me of both clone troopers and the Jedi; a few minutes later, it struck me that General Hux was awfully young.
Somewhere between those two thoughts I saw an opportunity: what if the plan to raise children as stormtroopers dated back to the Rebels era, and came from Hux’s father?
Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo liked the idea and ran it up the chain. I braced myself for a reason the answer had to be “no.” When I got a “yes” instead, I wrote as fast as I could and then crossed my fingers.
The connection made sense within the Star Wars galaxy: the elder Hux had served alongside clones and Jedi during the Clone Wars, seen the deficiencies of the stormtroopers, and imagined a better way that drew on his wartime experience. That program began in secret and was taken up by his son to create the First Order’s soldiers.
It also solved my plot problem admirably and turned a weakness in The Secret Academy into a strength. Before the release of The Force Awakens the Hux connection would spur interest in the book; afterwards, new readers would see the Commandant’s Cadets as a real threat, because they’d know that Hux’s program had succeeded beyond his fondest dreams.
Notes on Part 1:
- The first scene was the original ending of Imperial Justice, but I decided I didn’t want to introduce a new planet that late, and preferred ending with Merei and Tepha wondering if they’d ever see Zare again. Moving it was an easy change, at least.
- I wanted Arkanis to be something new for Star Wars – a waterlogged world that I likened to what you’d find if you turned over a log. I also wanted the Academy and its surroundings to feel plucked out of a gloomy Gothic tale. A lot of things in The Secret Academy are pretty shameless goofs on a well-known Gothic novel and movie, in fact.
- it was a pain ensuring Zare’s cadet service fit the chronology of the first two Rebels seasons. The initial idea was that Rebel in the Ranks and Imperial Justice would cover a full academic year, with the top cadet earning a transfer to Arkanis for the next year. Chiron would back Zare, while Roddance supported Oleg. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with Zare and Merei over that second summer, and feared readers would get impatient that Zare wasn’t trying harder to rescue Dhara. Fortunately, Rebel in the Ranks had introduced the possibility of a midyear transfer – an offhand line that became critical once the Inquisitor’s death forced me to speed things up. But how to get Zare to Arkanis? The obvious answer was for Merei to slice a transfer into the system, but that struck me as a lazy, unconvincing solution. I got so lost in blind alleys that I missed the solution Story Group found: the transfer wasn’t a reward but an unexpected order from some Imperial. I realized that Imperial should be the Inquisitor: it was plausible, solved my chronology problem, let me have a confrontation with Zare on Arkanis and added to the story’s tension. Whew!
- Contrary to what’s stated here, the journey between Lothal and Arkanis isn’t a short one. That was my fault: I was working off the idea that Lothal was near Kessel, a bit of head-canon I’d gotten used to and so failed to vet. There was no reason to define that here; doing so led to an unforced error.
- Note that Colonel Julyan challenges Zare with a question about grav-ball and leadership, as Sergeant Currahee did in Rebel in the Ranks. In the earlier book Zare ducked the question; now he gives Julyan a thoughtful answer that reflects his experiences.
- Julyan’s lessons reference Legends material: Admiral Screed, General Romodi (before his appearance in Rogue One), the Order of the Terrible Glare and the Empire’s campaigns in the Western Reaches. Much of this was taken from The Essential Guide to Warfare and additional material written for it. It seemed ready-made for Julyan’s teaching and unlikely to confine future storytelling, so why not use it?
- I invented the diplopod as a mount for Sarco Plank in The Weapon of a Jedi, only to see my beastie get subbed out in favor of the happabore, appearing as an Easter egg for The Force Awakens. I liked the critters, so I put them aside for some future project. The Secret Academy gave me an opportunity not just to use the diplopod but also to kill one in a gross way.
- I liked the bit where the Inquisitor invites Zare to come out of the weather and into the shelter of a stasis projector. In that context politeness seems decidedly menacing.
- Scaparus Port was fun to write – equal parts Treasure Island and some gloomy town out of Cthulhu, what with its salt-encrusted gloom and fisherfolk missing limbs and scarred by sucker marks. Arkanis is just a nasty place.
- Scaparus was the right place to bring back the jogan fruit, or more specifically its scent, which makes Zare remember Beck Ollet’s orchards on Lothal. Scent unlocking memory is a theme throughout Servants of the Empire, working up to its critical role in the climax. Here, it’s a heartening renewal of the connection between Zare and Merei that suggests their break might not be final after all.
- I never explicitly stated it, so I’ll leave it to Wookieepedia to work out the canonicity, but Gesaral Beta is supposed to be the planet where it rains razors of glass on Ania Solo in Dark Horse’s Legacy series.
- I enjoyed writing the demented beach scene with Hux and the cadets debating how to raise nerfs. The sea monster is an homage to the great Jack Vance, who imagined a similar predator in Ports of Call. (If you’ve never read Vance, fix that posthaste!) Note that Zare’s reaction to the nerf’s death is quite different than the casual cruelty shown by the other cadets.
- Sirpar was another attempt at a new setting. Its heavier-than-standard gravity is noted in Legends depictions of the planet; I added making the light so intense that the cadets had to take precautions against it. Light would vary dramatically from planet to planet, another Jack Vance idea I didn’t recall seeing in Star Wars. I decided to try it and liked the results.
- Note that the accident set to befall Penn Zarang will be dismissed as a “slight weapons malfunction.” I’m all for little nods like that as long as they don’t interrupt the story or distract a casual reader.
- Perhaps emboldened by my success tying the Commandant’s Cadets to The Force Awakens, I looked for an even stronger connection. Might Anya Razar and Captain Phasma be one and the same? I decided that was a dumb idea and never proposed it, but did suggest a scene with DDM-38 pushing a red-haired baby in some kind of space pram. Lucasfilm shot that down, and rightly so – less was more. There’s awesome fan art out there of a baby Hux in the arms of his creepy nanny droid, though.
- My original treatment had Zare, Chiron and Roddance all transferred to Arkanis as part of the “valedictorian” storyline. When that idea got abandoned I decided we’d explored that triangle sufficiently on Lothal, but did need to bring Chiron back for the finale. I liked dropping him into the middle of Zare’s dilemma about the Commandant’s Cadets as a tempting but dangerous lifeline. That was also a bit of misdirection: since Chiron can get into Area Null, he’s a potential route to Dhara that would let Zare escape having to kill Penn.
- We’ll see Cass again in A New Hope, as an aide aboard the Death Star.
Next time: Speaking Bocce and the Case of the Missing Bounty Hunter.