"Two there should be; no more, no less.
One to embody power, the other to crave it."
– Darth Bane
Of all the Star Wars fiction that Lucasfilm cranks out like sausage, the only books that hold any appeal for me are the ones involving major characters from the Star Wars movies...particularly Episodes IV through VI (otherwise known as "The Good Ones").
Sorry...I just can't get fired up about a Sith Lord from 7,000 years ago or the solo adventures of marginal characters like X-Wing pilot Wedge Antilles. If I'm going to take the time to read a Star Wars novel, it's gotta focus on what I've termed "The Core Characters" (you know who they are). Further raising the bar, I gravitate toward Core Character stories that take place within the time frame of the six Star Wars movies, preferrably immediately before or after a specific film. For example, I'd much rather read Timothy Zahn's new Allegiance novel (taking place immediately after Star Wars IV: A New Hope) than his Thrawn Trilogy (which took place five years after Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi). True, both settings feature many of the same Core Characters, but the ones tied closer to the movies just seem more relevant....at least to me.
Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader easily fulfills both criteria, since it not only features Darth Vader (my favorite of the Core Characters), but also takes place immediately following the events of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. In other words, a no-brainer book purchase....and the perfect book for my plane ride to and from San Diego.
Written by experienced Star Wars author James Luceno, Dark Lord delves into the mind of Anakin Skywalker as he comes to grips with his new existence as a cyborg and his complex relationship with his master Darth Sidious, a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine. By the way, I have plenty of plot details ahead, so consider yourself officially Spoiler Warned!
The story opens as Emperor Palpatine issues Order 66, the secret directive for his clone forces to execute the Jedi Knights. Miraculously, a handful of the Jedi escape and begin searching for more of their fallen order. Lead by Jedi Master Roan Shryne, the fates of the remaining Jedi become intertwined with Darth Vader's, as the novice Sith Lord methodically hunts them down...all the while tapping into the immense power of the Dark Side. Anakin first appears as a tortured soul trapped in an iron prison...
Already he had experienced moments of claustrophobia – moments of desperation to be rid of the suit, to emerge from the shell. He needed to build, or have built, a chamber in which he could feel human again...
All in all, he thought: This is not living.
...who then slowly undergoes a fascinating, final transformation into Darth Vader...now fully embracing his newfound power, confidence, and ambition:
Just as Sidious promised, he was now married to the order of the Sith, and needed no other companion than the dark side of the Force. He embraced all that he had done to bring balance to the Force, by dismantling the corrupt Republic and toppling the Jedi, and he reveled in his power. It could all be his, anything he wished. He needed only the determination to take it, at whatever cost to those who stood in his way.
Equally fascinating is the exploration of the twisted world of the Sith, as embodied by the riveting Darth Sidious. As Luceno pries open his ruthless theology, he does a masterful job of evoking the "voice" and oily charisma of actor Ian McDiarmid's unforgettable performances.
Though Vader's story is the obvious "gravitational center" of Dark Lord, the minor characters were still interesting enough to hold my attention. Roan Shryne's struggle between preserving the remnants of the Jedi or fleeing for deep cover is compelling, as is the genuine terror felt by Senator Bail Organa as he shields the infant Leia from Palpatine's gaze. I also appreciated the well-staged (and logical) cameos by Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Obi Wan Kenobi...all of which seemed to fit nicely within the story without feeling like the pointless "name dropping" indulgences these things often are.
Through it all, the monumental fallout from Revenge of the Sith (which was never satisfyingly dealt with in the movie) is addressed on many points, such as the impact of the Jedi's instant extinction, the sense of panic among the leaders of the nascent Rebellion, and the curiosity and fear generated by Darth Vader's sudden appearance on the galactic stage. Yet Luceno never gets carried away with the socio-political backdrop, as many science fiction "world builders" often do. As it should, the "macro" story of Dark Lord reinforces and amplifies the "micro" stories of individuals, instead of engulfing them. Put another way, Luceno provides enough detail for us to care what's going on around the characters without getting distracted by it.
Rest assured, in addition to the interpersonal and political stuff, there's also plenty of action...including a couple of excitng lightsaber duels (what would a Star Wars story be without a lightsaber duel?) and a full-scale planetary invasion...so as you can see, Dark Lord covers all the bases when it comes to a great summer read.
Is it high art?
Of course not...when has Star Wars ever been about high art? However, it is a welcome opportunity to finally get behind Vader's mask and explore complexities of the character the movies largely failed to convey (due to the dreadful writing/directing of George Lucas and the drama camp acting of Hayden Christiansen )...making Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader essential reading for fellow fans of the "core" Star Wars mythos.