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Book Review: Dark Lord by James Luceno

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What’s that, you say? You still can’t get enough of that masked Sith Lord, the former Anakin Skywalker? It wasn’t enough to watch him get his legs chopped off, see his wife die in childbirth, and hear him howl in anguish at his rebirth as an oversized droid? Well, fortunately for you, the cottage industry that is Star Wars is glad to give you another fix. Enter James Luceno, whose Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader purports to pick up where George Lucas’ cinematic finale left off.

Luceno characterizes the Vader/Anakin dichotomy as akin to two people inhabiting at least a portion of the same body (i.e., the same portion salvaged after his battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi on the molten hellhole of Mustafar). Vader, the new entity birthed by Anakin’s fall from grace into the dark side of the force, is ruthless in his pursuit of power (and, of course, his master’s wishes). To Vader, Anakin is indeed dead; at the very least he might as well be another person, whose life and actions are uniquely removed from Vader’s existence.

Consequently, it is no surprise that others likewise believe Anakin dead – indeed, many thought that he died on Coruscant during the brutal assault on the Jedi Temple. The Emperor never introduces Vader as Anakin; instead, Vader simply appears, a mysterious fusion of man and machine wielding the fearsome powers of the Sith. Since we already know that neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan ever make another run at Vader until Luke Skywaker has reached drinking age, however, Luceno has to come up with some characters we’ve never heard of before to serve as the foils for the dark side here.

The conclusion of Revenge of the Sith left the impression that the Emperor’s victory was essentially total and complete; the only Jedi that escaped his clutches were Kenobi and Yoda, each of whom slipped into hiding and awaited the second coming of Skywalker. The separatists had been crushed, and Palpatine was a dictator in all but name. But as with any war, whether largely pretend or not, in the aftermath of victory there is still plenty of “mopping up” to do. One can only assume that is especially true in a far-flung interstellar republic transitioning its way to a galactic empire.

Indeed, word of the Jedi Council’s efforts to oust the Supreme Chancellor and his swift retribution have not yet reached every outpost. On the distant planet Murkhana, Jedi Master Roan Shryne and Padawan Olee Starstone find that their attack on a separatist group is suddenly something else entirely. They manage to avoid death at the hands of the clone troopers directed to execute them when a number of them question their orders and refuse to implement them (the book suggests that this is a function of the troopers’ close proximity to the Jedi, which doesn’t make much sense given that the other troopers scattered across the galaxy seemingly had no qualms carrying out the same instructions in the climactic montage sequence in Revenge of the Sith).

Palpatine deploys his new stormtroopers, along with his most singular weapon – Vader – in an effort to firmly cement his mastery over the former republic. Vader hunts the escaped Jedi across the galaxy in a storyline that features the imperial assault on Chewbacca’s homeworld and the ultimate enslavement of the Wookies. While Luceno is admirably adept with the intricacies of Star Wars lingo, his narrative suffers from the fact that by and large we simply don’t care that much about these newly introduced Jedi. I mean, Obi-Wan couldn’t seal the deal with Anakin, and Yoda couldn’t take down the Emperor. What are these bit players going to be able to do against Anakin now that he’s really embraced the dark side, now that he’s more Vader than man?

The challenge of so many of the books that seek to fill in the cracks between the various movies in the Star Wars universe have an unenviable challenge before them: they have to justify themselves in the face of the sense that they are otherwise only worthy of consideration as narrative outtakes. Presumably, if the story were indeed that important, it might well have been part of the films themselves, right? In a larger sense, readers have to ask themselves whether it really matters how Vader spent the years between his resurrection and his reunion with Obi-Wan and ultimately his own son. Lest we forget, the first images of Vader from Star Wars (i.e., the otherwise titled Episode IV) are indicative of his status as the Emperor’s ultimate enforcer. Do we really need more images of Vader imposing himself upon the imperial military in largely the same fashion as he demonstrated his power to various generals and others in the early films?

Luceno strives to give the book the necessary emotional heft by exploring a bit of Vader’s psyche. Unfortunately, in an effort to make Vader more human (or more sympathetic) he also undercuts a bit the sense that the former Anakin Skywalker really had very little justification for choosing the course he did. Vader’s occasional maudlin sense of self-pity also doesn’t achieve much, although Luceno does spend a fair amount of time exploring what Vader might have felt about his new physique – he suggests that Vader might well have considered his new body a rather underwhelming technological achievement. More, we know that there will be little in the way of character “arc” here for Anakin; instead, we are given the largely futile adventures of a collection of characters with little connection to the main storyline of the films (okay, we do have Chewbacca, but no Han Solo to interpret for him).

To a degree, this affects the overall impact of the entire novel. There are plenty of interesting battle scenes and a few encounters between Vader and Palpatine are intriguing (much like the concert hall “seduction scene” between the two was probably the best scene in the three prequels), but the cast of erstwhile extras now playing the lead in the fight against the Sith are but pale shadows of the iconic creations Lucas fashioned. Recommended primarily for those who simply can’t get enough Vader.

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