Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Star Wars – Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

I wasn’t all that happy with my last Star Wars book review (Revan), so I’m going to try something a little different this time around. The first part of this review (The Summary) will be geared towards the casual fan, those who have some interest in Star Wars, but don’t read all the books and just want to know if this book will appeal to you. This is probably where the majority of readers of this blog will be able to stop, as you’ll get my recommendation in that section. Then I’m going to go more in-depth with my review, which is really meant for the big Star Wars fans (for those who come to see my thoughts). I’ll be far more nit picky there, more spoilery of the story, and will hopefully feel better about my overall analysis of Darth Plagueis. So without further ado:

The Summary:

Who the heck is Darth Plagueis and why should you care? Well for those paying attention during Revenge of the Sith, he’s a Sith Lord that Palpatine/Sidious refers to when talking to Anakin just before his fatal decision to turn to the dark side. “The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise” in which we learn that a Sith may have learned how to use the Force to stave off death itself. In this novel, we learn that Darth Plagueis was Palpatine’s master, and we follow his apprenticeship up through the point where Palpatine becomes Supreme Chancellor of the Republic during The Phantom Menace.

The book is broken up into thirds. In the first section, Plagueis fulfills his destiny as a Sith and eliminates his own master. While he senses that the Sith goal of finally defeating the Jedi is close at hand, his own personal goal is to learn how to keep himself alive indefinitely in order to rule over this galaxy which will fall to the Dark Side. In order to do that he must learn to control the Midicholians within a person, to force them to do things that are unnatural. But he does also feel the need to continue the plan to destroy the Jedi, and his secret life as a Muun Banker allows him to use his finances to manipulate governments into conflict – including the planet of Naboo. It is there that he first meets young Palpatine, and eventually learns that he is a powerful Force user, taking him on as an apprentice.

The second part of the book skips ahead ten years, where Palpatine is now an aide to the Senator from Naboo. Palpatine begins to gather the people who will help him rise to power in the Republic around him, as he orders the death of his friend and mentor in order to rise to his seat in the Senate. Finally, in the third part of the book, the time is just before the opening of The Phantom Menace, where Plagueis and Palpatine’s plans are finally coalescing. But the best laid plans may yet be undone by the presence of one boy from the planet Tatooine.

Despite the title, this book is at least as much about Palpatine as it is about Plagueis, and if the idea of learning more about one of the most important characters in the Star Wars saga, then this book is for you. The other reason you may want to check out this book is if you’ve always wanted more detail around the political machinations that led to the opening of The Phantom Menace (the Trade Federation Blockade of Naboo) as well as hints at how the Republic is falling apart and why the Separatist movement comes about, igniting the Clone Wars. Just don’t expect an action-packed novel, nor any point of view other than that of Plagueis or Palpatine. Like the Bane books, this is told strictly from the point of view of the Sith, thought there are some appearances by some famous Jedi (like Qui-gon Jinn and Obi-wan Kenobi). There were times near the end of the book that I could tell there were other stories that have been written (which I haven’t read) that this book is referencing, but it shouldn’t cause too much of a problem for new readers (it didn’t for me). It’s not the purest example of a standard Star Wars novel (big action, larger than life heroes in derring-do situations), but it is a good read and a strong novel fulfilling its purpose of giving much more depth to these characters and the overriding story behind the movies and the TV show. If that sounds appealing to you, check out Darth Plagueis.

The Details:

This is in many ways the Holy Grail of books for Star Wars fans, filling in a very important part of the saga – sometimes answering questions you didn’t even know you had. James Luceno, well known as someone who an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, is the perfect author to write this book. He adds little tid-bits on every page that the really hard-core fans will catch, from references to the Celestials and Rakata to planets, events and characters from The Clone Wars TV series as well as layering in plenty of new information for fans to mull over.

I mentioned before about Luceno explaining away questions you didn’t know you had – for instance, all those various Dark Side users the Emperor seems to gather around him in the Expanded Universe. Between Mara Jade, Sedriss, Vader… that “Rule of Two” thing that meant so much to Bane seems more like guidelines than a code. Of course, the reason all these additional Dark Siders are around is because they were created before the prequels (and the Rule of Two was introduced), but Luceno comes up with a great way around the “problem” – Plagueis already recognized that the time was coming to a close for the Rule of Two, and he passed on that idea to his own apprentice.

At the same time, I felt there were some flaws to the book. The first section of the novel is a bit of a bore, it doesn’t really pick up until the introduction of Palpatine, and even then it only starts to really get good when he kills his own family and becomes Plagueis’ apprentice. The lack of action throughout the book is a bit of a letdown – it’s a shame that in the last third that we couldn’t have followed some of these missions that Maul went on – I suspect that would have added the action I was seeking. I’m sure that these are stories I haven’t read (in the short stories featuring Maul printed elsewhere, as well as the novels Shadow Hunter and Cloak of Deception) as opposed to Luceno just skipping over the “good stuff”, but the story could have used more punch either way. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Palpatine’s fighting abilities – to back up what we finally see from him in Revenge of the Sith, and that could have been used both during his training period (in the second part of the book) as well as in the third. I was hoping for a duel between him and the Jedi son (Ronhar Kim) of his mentor, the former Senator from Naboo – but it seems even this is told in a later story.

Another issue I had was Plagueis himself, he just wasn’t that fascinating to me, and ultimately he wore out his welcome a bit by the end. I was wondering where the hell the Darth Sidious I know was when Plagueis kept talking about being his co-Chancellor of the Republic and sticking around way after his time as Master should have been over. I had trouble believing Palpatine would suffer his Master as long as he did, and that they were still working together during the events of The Phantom Menace. I think it was a mistake to have Plagueis still be alive at that point – I would have thought the whole reason for Sidious to wonder if his master had achieved the impossible was when he meets Anakin and discovers how the boy was created by the Force. With Plagueis still alive, there’s no question he had nothing to do with the creation of the Chosen One.

Not that I disliked the way in which Anakin’s conception was dealt with – this book makes it fairly clear that it was the will of the Force itself, and not any one person, who created the child. In fact, it seems to be alluded to that the Force did it just as Plagueis and Palpatine achived what they believe was one of their first victories over the Jedi, tipping the balance of the Force to the Dark Side and obscuring the Jedi’s ability to see the future – as a kind of counter-balance to that event. I just think it shouldn’t have been made so obvious to Palpatine that that is what had happened – that question should have been one of the many reasons why he would ultimately choose to pursue Anakin as his apprentice.

I also question where the idea ever came about that Plagueis was supposed to be Palpatine’s Master came from (the way he speaks about it to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, it sounded more like an “old tale of the Sith” to me), but I’m sure that isn’t James Luceno’s fault, he’s just running with something that was already established elsewhere. But I don’t mean to harp only on the things I didn’t like as much about the book, the truth is I couldn’t put it down at times. You just get the sense through the whole thing that secrets you’ve been waiting for are going to be revealed, driving you to read that next page. I loved all the links to The Clone Wars, and the clarity it helped provide behind the creation of the Clone army and the connections between all the players.

I don’t think anyone but James Luceno could have written this book, anyone else would have made a complete mess out of it. The fact that it is such a gripping novel, that it stays together so well even as it tries to make sense of so many different plots, is entirely to his credit. Just as I felt after reading his books Labyrinth of Evil and Dark Lord, Luceno is at his best when writing in the prequel era of Star Wars, filling in these gaps and telling stories featuring these characters – I didn’t really care for much of anything I’d read in this era prior to his work, and I can only hope that he’ll get the chance to tell another story set during this time as well. But Darth Plagueis could also be seen as his Star Wars magnum opus, and it’s not a bad way to finish up should this be his last work in that Galaxy Far, Far Away.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Nice review. You do a good job of breaking it down for the simple and the super Star Wars fan. Maybe I'll pick it up.