Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: Lords of the Sith

With Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm has come the recent, somewhat controversial decision to wipe away the Star Wars Expanded Universe in order to make way for new product.  They had to do it to give themselves room to run with the movies, but the decision undoes a huge amount of prose and sequential art storytelling, much of it beloved, starting with Timothy Zahn’s Heirs of Empire trilogy and the long-time work of Dark Horse Comics.  Under Disney, Lucasfilm has been rebuilding its mythos around the original Star Wars movie trilogy, the part of the story starring Luke Skywalker and his friends in their fight against Darth Vader.  The vast majority of new Star Wars novels and all of the comics have therefore come from the period beginning with the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope and ending in the days immediately following Return of the Jedi and the Battle of Endor.  There are a few exceptions, however, and one of these is the prose novel Lords of the Sith by lawyer/novelist Paul S. Kemp.  Kemp is a favorite of mine from his Forgotten Realms work, so when I needed an audiobook to get me through the drive from Connecticut to DC and back for a recent football outing with a friend, I decided to give Lords of the Sith a listen.

Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
As the name implies, Lords of the Sith is a book about the relationship between Darth Vader and his master, Emperor Palpatine.  It picks up a handful of years after Anakin Skywalker is maimed on Mustafar, at a time when Vader’s apprenticeship to Palpatine is still new enough that each man is still occasionally afraid to turn his back on the other.  In a marketing sense, it serves to link the new TV show Rebels with the movie universe, particularly in that we see multiple callbacks to Revenge of the Sith, along with Cham Syndulla, father of Hera Syndulla, a character of Rebels.  
The story is straightforward but interesting.  It’s caper movie, followed by a chase.  Cham and the twi’lek resistance are trying to kill Vader and the Emperor as a way of striking a blow for the freedom of their people.  They want to show the Empire that occupying their planet Ryloth is more trouble than it’s worth.  According to the story, the twi’leks are long-time sufferers of outside oppression, first at the hands of the Trade Federation and later via the Empire.  The twi’lek resistance is therefore a kind of proto-movement that feeds into the eventual galaxy-wide Rebel Alliance.  At this point, however, the twi’leks are still on their own, though the very length of their struggle has allowed Cham, through careful planning and the deliberate hoarding of resources, to amass a vast array of rebel personnel and war material.
Despite the book’s focus on its twi’leks, it is the Sith plot line that animates most of the more interesting sections.  We open with Vader in meditation, trying to come to terms with his disfigurement at the hands of the Jedi and slowly coming to realize that this was his destiny all along.  He hates Obi Wan and the Jedi, hates what happened to his marriage and his nascent family, but at the same time, he realizes that it is this very hate that has made him powerful.  Without Obi Wan’s betrayal, Anakin Skywalker could not be Darth Vader, and Darth Vader is by far the more powerful persona.  In the words of Palpatine, “power is the point” of a Sith’s life.  Nevertheless, we slowly realize that there exist some doubts within Vader, that while he may hate the Jedi, he does not and cannot hate Padme.  He is all too aware of his own failings in regards to his marriage.  Since a Sith apprentice is loyal “until he isn’t”, this creates a certain tension between Vader and his master.  We know, of course, that Vader is not going to turn against the Emperor, but we don’t know why.  That’s the story that Kemp is telling.
With this in mind, my favorite parts of the book all revolve around the Emperor himself.  Sure, we see Palpatine use the Force and Force lightning, and occasionally he even uses his lightsaber, and all of this is strictly expected.  It’s clear by the book’s end that Palpatine he is at least Vader’s equal on the battlefield.  His superpower, though, is his ability to divine the future with the Force, and it’s this that makes him so fascinating.  Palpatine has a plan, and Vader knows it, but he doesn’t know what that plan is.  We don’t know what it is, either, save that it’s clear that Cham and the twi’lek resistance are doomed.  Vader’s humanity, whatever remains of it, is doomed as well.
Jonathan Davis narrates the audio version of this book, and he is magnificent.  In fact, the entire production is terrific, down to the driving music and the distinctive Star Wars sound effects.  This is easily the best-produced audiobook I’ve ever heard.  It’s not just a book, it’s a performance.
I’ll recommend Lords of the Sith to folks who like their lightsabers red and especially to folks who enjoyed Revenge of the Sith.  For the time being, this story is likely to be the only piece we have on Anakin and Padme, star-crossed lovers whose tale I really enjoyed and who--I hope--still someday find some solace in the galaxy far, far away.

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