I was a fan of the Star Wars expanded universe. I got as excited for getting new Star Wars galleys as I did getting a new China Mieville, George R.R. Martin, or Steven Erikson ARC, and Timothy Zahn’s core 5 books in the EU, the Thrawn Trilogy and following duology, are among my favorite chapters of Star Wars history PERIOD from any medium. Even the most enthusiastic fan of Star Wars and the work Del Rey has done with the license, however, will admit there have been lows to go along with highs, many of them seem universally agreed upon, and many others are personal gems or dislikes that make the conversation that much more interesting.
I think it helpful to know where people stand or stood on former works, so with that in mind, along with the Zahn contributions, I really enjoyed Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry was one of the few stories that occurred within the timeline of the first three films that was really great. I’ve enjoyed Matthew Stover’s contributions and thought his novelization of Revenge of the Sith had all the heart and execution that the film lacked, and I enjoyed most of the installments of the Legacy of the Force series — I support all variations of Jason no matter from how long ago, or how far the galaxy, I love Jacen Solo.
None of that matters anymore though, at best we are left with a paused excitement to see if our favorites find a new home in the new canon. For the sake of clarity, as far as released novels go at this moment the only books that now count as official are A New Dawn, Tarkin, Heir to the Jedi, and now Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith. Before reading the latest one, I haven’t really liked any of what has come out thus for, for reasons I won’t get into here, though I did offer brief thoughts on James Luceno’s Tarkin earlier this year.
I’m familiar with the work of Paul S. Kemp, enough so that when he got the Star Wars gig I chatted with him about it back in 2008 and with Dark Lords of the Sith I finally got to the stage in reading where I could get excited about what may and even what didn’t occur because I felt the premise was solid enough for me to venture that far. I said solid enough because I think even Kemp would agree that when stepping back there is some flimsy ground here that I think we more or less allow to happen because of something Kemp recently said. Star Wars destroys cynicism. But not absolutely.
I want to warn people now, I don’t waste my time writing previews, this is a review, don’t read this if you plan on reading the book. This is not a pointer, this is the finish line. The idea that Palpatine, Master of the Darkside and Galactic Emperor, would allow to occur what occurs in this novel, and he did exactly like that, to teach Vader a personal lesson and to find a traitor is hard to believe. I had somewhat of a similar issue when I read Tarkin, when Palpatine sent his two top guys to join a really bad buddy cop movie when you know… you got an army or armies of goons to handle this stuff? Because Empire? That Kemp knows how to hide it, tying it into film parallels of Anakin we know does not change that. There are two thoughts that save this very fundamental issue for me. One, the political reality occurring on Ryloth that involved the direct intervention of the two most prominent and important individuals in the Empire, not to mention the loss of an Imperial Star Destroyer, serves as a great reason why one would want to build a Deathstar. Fear of this Battle Station. While sure, I guess you can send a fleet of Star Destroyers just about anywhere and get what you need to get done done, we have to remember that the Force is a lot like Dany’s dragons in Game of Thrones — they are weapons of mass destruction. This is why you would want a Tarkin with dedicated resources on such a project so something like this does not have to occur again. While Palpatine gained almost ultimate secular power, the Sith have other concerns. Remember, Vader initially joined to stop death. It’s only ironic that he would become one of the galaxy’s most notorious killers. Oddly enough, it also proved the opposite: Vader’s point that the force is where its at, not in a technological terror. Second, throughout the novel Kemp describes Palpatine laughing and I couldn’t figure out why other than he knows it’s kind of an iconic sound we all know. Sheev was having a hoot. This was going back to Kemp’s roots, a literal sword and sorcery buddy dungeon crawl.
And away went cynicism.
The gist of the story is simple: the spark of a rebellion against the empire on Ryloth gets an opportunity to strike a blow against the Empire when for some reason Palpatine and Vader will be at one place at one time in a troublespot of the Empire.
Even while loving much of the old EU output something has been occurring for years. Something I’ve called the pussification of Darth Vader. Kemp does away with that in Lords of the Sith. Vader is a full blown badass, choking people while in other starships, stepping on fools, destroying indigenous species and, people, hide the women and children already — there’s a trend. What I like the most about what Kemp does is something very simple but is expressed in a manner that makes portions of this novel feel new in terms of how danger moves — he depicts Vader as fast. Incredibly fast. Through no fault of our own our vision of Vader can be one of a measured force. He strolls into Ice planet bases, he doesn’t even jog to get through the blast doors in a New Hope after killing Ben, he tells Han to have seat etc etc. Vader isn’t in a rush. Everyone is on his time. Now, don’t get me wrong that’s all badass AF, but we also have this image of a pre-low ground having Anakin who was a blur. Kemps shows us … good luck running away from Darth Vader. He’s not just this monolithic presence, the guy is a vergence in the force.
The secondary characters work. There might be one too many rebels that don’t differentiate themselves enough to recall on demand but everyone, Imperial and rebel, has a reason for doing what they are doing and you buy it. There were stakes and they were personal. Stakes for everyone except the two supposedly being trapped. I don’t really keep up with chatter but I gathered there was a lot of talk about Moff Mors. I don’t even now what it was about, but I’m a grown person and I go outside so the LGBT aspect was not something that moved me strongly. I didn’t even pause and the only thing concerned me that this was a character that was going to get lost until Kemp saved her toward the end of the novel through a co-sign by none other than the Emperor himself. I guess whatever accident befell her better half was at the hands of the Rebels, as Palaptine seems to have no doubts about his Moff’s loyalty and, at least to me, his statement came off as that there might have been history between the two. I understand that Palpatine would have knowledge of all of his Moffs, but he seems to know her current faults and seems little more than amused by them. The presence of a LGBT character is sure to draw discussion but what interests me is how Kemp uses her. She’s a vet, she’s not what one would think when hearing of such a character being employed in a franchise like this, she’s no young sexpot used to tantalize and tease some male lead. She’s a slacker vet in government service in unofficial self-imposed semi-retirement. You see that there was probably once a capable woman here who has let her self go. There had been rumors that Delian (Mors) will be a character we see in the films, like Rogue One, (as she would be pretty old by the time Force Awakens occurs) so I was looking forward to reading about her, but what this book does is make you want to know more about her early or later career. The message I like though is that even this crusty old white male murdering tyrant douchebag like Palpatine has very few qualms with allowing a gay governor in his service, even one he says he doesn’t have a high opinion of, so what is your beef?
The futility of the rebellion was striking. It took years of a well organized rebel cell’s combined resources on their home turf with incredible and widespread inside (Imperial) help to take down a single Star Destroyer and kill a couple of royal guards.
The thought that was going through my mind while reading this was “Spark of Rebellion”, the title of the Star Wars Rebels premiere episode. The novel was building up to be a spark of rebellion but I think what it ended up doing was molding somebody who will one day do that. Graduation was actually the test. Steel poised to strike a fatal blow missed but perhaps became true steel. On many occasions I felt that Kemp wanted to play with the idea of freedom fighters and terrorists, and the difference between the two, but each time I felt the thought an intrusion. I just don’t think anyone in this position would consider themselves a terrorist. Vader killed a school full of kids by hand for no apparent reason other than to mirror what he did to the Sand people. Oh, he does that again here too. Anyone moving against him is okay. There is no real moral ambiguity there for the reader. What I think the prequels did was remove the tragedy of a character and just made him magnificently stupid if you want to dig too deep. I always thought the difference between him and a Thrawn were quite apparent. Zahn put a smart person back in command which is one of the reason why I think that worked as a foil, even as bastardised C’baoth ran around being dumb, a lot like Vader. I thought Zahn did that on purpose.
I mentioned this was a dungeon crawl and that’s what it became when Palpatine, Vader, and two Guardsmen were trapped in cavern with some form of giant insectoid colony. Once again Vader killed a queen. There are others things I liked, Kemp remembered to add that while Vader is a controversial figure within the imperial hierarchy, the Stormtroopers are loyal to him. This matches everything we know about him, he’s a warrior, he was a general of the Republic and led by example, up front. Of course soldiers would rally to him. There are two instances when you feel like Vader is in his natural state. One is when leading troops, and second is when he is piloting a starfighter. Everywhere else his life sustaining armor is a weight on him and feels out of place. There’s also an unsaid moment when Vader and Palpatine run into a young Twi’lek girl alone in the forest, and like an artist knowing when to spot their blacks, Kemp trusts us in this space. We know what Vader is thinking. We know what Anakin is thinking. Unwritten and unsaid, we all speak this language.
Clone Wars fans will notice Cham Syndulla in these pages, giving Lords of the Sith some Rebels ties by blood, as he’s Hera father. In an entertainment world that MARVEL has taken over both in dollars and extending and cross pollinating its brand across mediums, we were expecting this, though still enjoy it.
For myself, I got to a point in the novel where I thought something was going to happen, that something had to happen, and seemed so destined I was caught off guard when it didn’t. It was a moment of author and reader being off tune for a single note, possibly the one that makes the song. I was waiting for this payoff that in my head I convinced myself had to happen: one of the royal guard that got off the Star Destroyer with Vader and Palpatine had to be named Grodin Pierce, right? I thought it had to be coming and I wanted it because, as I noted above, I love the Zahn stuff and it would seem to have been a perfect fit knowing what we know of Tierce’s devotion to the Emperor, and the display he would have saw on this adventure, would seem the perfect inspiration for such loyalty. Because I was hoping for that singular note, that cherry on top that allows you to leave a book, regardless of loving or hating it, with that single instance that makes you want to run out and share about it to other fans. It’s what books can do, it’s their power, and when it didn’t happen, it felt like a missed opportunity to me. To someone else who is just picking up a Star Wars novel because awesome teaser trailer they missed nothing. Their comfort does nothing for me.
As it is, Lords of the Sith, a novel of rebellion, was the first new canon Star Wars novel I didn’t come away from actively disliking. While it felt at times too set piece staged in terms of scene reliant (the star destroyer/the planet/the caverns/the village) making me at times miss the more naturally tense and stronger moments of dialogue and inner monologue occurring off the main stages, like the communications between Mors and Belkor, or the the latter’s communication with the rebels. While I think having a book titled Lords of the Sith and featuring Palpatine and Vader has its obvious advantages, an obvious factory sheen of badassery that more or less is realized by Kemp, I think that if you are of a like mind as me where I feel comfortable viewing these two as understood powers it never had the crazy potential of seeing something unexpected, ala a display like Starkiller with Star Destroyer (man, I’m starting to think these things aren’t very safe). In my campaign these two are almost NPC’s and like nukes their power exists and impresses almost equally when they are dormant and not in use. While among the coolest toys to play with, they come with some expectation, and I think Kemp was able to make a day of it and put them back in their toy box better than what they were before. I’m not sure if I was hearing John Williams while reading Lords of the Sith but for the first time in the new canon novels I feel like we may be in the same universe, which made me happy because it’s been missed.
- originally published 4/24/2015