What this does for fans is multilayered. First, it made a number of fans sad, because the Expanded Universe has now not happened in the Star Wars galaxy. Lucasfilm's hope is that this will be mitigated by the new opportunities it affords. Second, it allows for a blank slate, which was necessary for the new films and to establish an improved eye on continuity. Third, it opens the door for new fans who want to know where to start and might be overwhelmed by glancing at a collector's bookshelf.
Of course, with such an approach, it was important for the new Star Wars canon novels to begin with a strong performance. What follows will be first a spoiler-free review of A New Dawn, complete with a grading and my reasoning behind it. I have read the vast majority of the previous Expanded Universe and have bought into Star Wars storytelling since childhood, so I hope that you will find my reasons to be well informed and considered. I will follow that with a warning for spoilers and then get into a more detailed discussion. I will try to keep this format for future Star Wars reviews as well.
A New Dawn focuses on two of the stars of the Disney XD show Star Wars Rebels. This is the story of how Kanan, an ex-Jedi who has been hiding his Force abilities since Order 66, met Hera, a Twi'lek woman fully invested in a yet-developing rebellion against the Empire. Hera is searching for information from a secret informant. Kanan is jumping from one odd-job employment to the next, currently flying a loadlifter for a mining company. Additional characters include Count Vidian, an efficiency expert for the Empire; Rae Sloane, an Imperial captain serving her first interim command under Vidian; Skelly, a miner who has perhaps worked in the heat more than was good for him; and Zaluna, a Sullustan woman in charge of spying on everyone and everything via HoloNet in order to gather information for the Empire.
This novel takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, about 10 years before the Battle of Yavin and 5 years before Rebels begins. John Jackson Miller is a student of history, especially Russian history, and he weaves storylines of both the current political climate and his Russian history into this novel. Certainly the climate of a paranoid Empire operating on a backworld, unimportant planet that exports a mineral used only for turbolaser batteries is compelling when paired with the range of characters caught in the mix.
The book has a slow build that reminds me of Kenobi, Miller's previous novel. That was western in feel, and this is structured similarly. If the first half of the book feels dry, do not put this book down. The climax is at the finale here, and everything points to that final destination. With that said, there was plenty to hold my interest throughout this novel. As I read I was constantly worrying that they would do too much; neither the Rebellion nor the Empire should be quite as powerful as we see them 10 years later in A New Hope. Those worries were unnecessary, however, as the story works within its setting, allowing its scope of danger without escaping its context.
The characters are good as well. The original characters for this book are well thought through and behave reasonably. Hera and Kanan provide depth to their television characters, especially Kanan, although Hera's backstory is still shadowy here. We do not learn much about her other than how she behaves in certain situations and some of her motivation.
Overall, I would give this book a B+. This is a solid start to the brand-new canon. My complaints are that the climax is a little cartoonish and that we don't learn enough about Hera (although I believe this is because they are saving her backstory for suspense in Rebels). Also, I can understand complaints about the slow build or that none of the movie characters appear in this book, but I don't personally buy into those. I think the plot and characters were well written and sensical. The finale is suitably epic despite my complaint, and this book has substance. I enjoyed myself reading this quite a bit.
Now, a couple of notes for those who have read the book or do not care about spoilers.
1) Zaluna's end is possibly my favorite single idea within this book. She has turned so much from her life, where she used to watch people, that she is literally blind. In real life this would be terrible, and I would never root for someone to suffer an impairment, but in Star Wars, they can give you optical implants so you can see again. Zaluna chooses not to have this done because she's seen enough. It's poetic and absolutely perfect.
2) Skelly's end, on the other hand, was over the top. How he survived that fall is more remarkable than anything else. This guy should have died long before he blew up Vidian.
3) Speaking of Vidian, I did not see the twist with his backstory coming. It was so different from other twists I've seen in this type of work. There were some really political things, reminiscent of the prequel trilogy, happening here, and it was so clever that it added greatly to the character motivations.
4) Not a spoiler, but Vanessa Marshall, the voice actor for Hera, read this book to understand more of Hera and has publicly praised John Jackson Miller for his work. She's a fan, and that's awesome to see.
5) I have seen some complaints that Kanan has a lit lightsaber on the cover but does not actually use the weapon during the book. Personally, covers do not factor into my enjoyment of the book because I basically ignore them. That said, I thought it was wise to have Kanan not use the lightsaber. It was an active disuse, because he thought about it. Even his use of the Force, which was more subtle, was only when he was in dire straits. He's not the character he will be when Rebels starts, and I think this adds greatly to my appreciation for the character. For more on him, Marvel is publishing a Kanan comic series that has been excellent so far.
Of course, my opinion does not matter nearly as much as everyone else's. If you've read the book, want to comment on the points I've raised or should have raised, or if you'd like to discuss anything else about it, please leave a comment below.