While my review of Darth Plagueis has only been seen by myself and my editors due its being held in reserve for my temporarily delayed chronological look at the Star Wars (Legends) universe, I find it no less worth referencing as I dig into its spiritual successor. The review, written in 2013, starts by discussing “the singularly named Palpatine” and ends with contemplating a sequel book, jokingly named Tyrannous. It's worth acknowledging these things because Tarkin is both a novel that addresses Palpatine's singular name and functions as a sequel to Darth Plagueis.
It's not a perfect sequel, of course: the default mode of being for the Emperor being in the shadows, even if fans such as myself are always clamoring for more of an inside look – but it does the job as closely as can be expected. In this vein, there are even scenes of the Emperor and Vader that the titular character is completely unaware of; these are included, it would seem, for the sake of fans of Luceno's previous novel.
Starting with this review, my look at Star Wars media is going to have manifold purposes. As always, I do my best review the material both with a look at the established Star Wars timeline and the real-world events surrounding the publication. Starting with Tarkin, however, I have two independent Star Wars universes to look at: the original universe spawned from the films in 1970s (and more seriously, in the early 1990s) and the rebooted universe, which is establishing a new timeline with an alternate take on a universe that can produce the seven theatrical films (as of January 2015 and discounting the two films not released Stateside) and the two most recent televised spin-offs.
Before I look at Tarkin compared to what came before, though, what is Tarkin? As I said before, it is in many ways the successor to Darth Plagueis. While Wilhuff Tarkin does not have Force powers and lives only as long as a regular human, the novel nonetheless does its best to tell the same type of story about Tarkin that Plagueis does about Palpatine. Palpatine takes Plagueis's place as a form of mentor character, although in this case he is neither the only nor a point of view character. His role in Tarkin's story is similar to his role in Skywalker's, providing guidance and encouragement to nudge him into the direction of future Imperial leadership over time.
With Wilhuff being an adult before he meets Palpatine, there is much more room for his own story. The story is split up three ways: the present-day story, set in what was once – or may still be – known as the Dark Times, approximately five years following the Battle of Coruscant; the origin story, featuring Tarkin's childhood training on Eriadu; and the interim story, featuring the details of how he made his way from Eriadu to Sector Moff. This third story receives the least attention, given just enough to get from Point A to Point B, although given that distinction it could certainly have included less of worth than it did.
The narrative focus – the story featuring stakes beyond those of character development and inspirations – is the modern-day story, featuring a mission in which Tarkin works alongside Darth Vader. The novel reveals that this is a turning point for both Tarkin and the project he oversees: the Death Star.
I was a big fan of Plagueis, with the exception of preferring more in-depth stories over the “movie adaptation” style in which the novel is written. That is not to say that I dislike movie adaptations or Darth Plagueis, only that in attempting to be understood by the widest audience possible, the total amount of content in the novel tends to be diluted. This means that the chance for a miss is severely diminished, but equally diminished are the chances to be the next great space opera epic. Like its author, Tarkin shares its tone and quality with Plagueis, certainly doing a good job of providing the definitive origin story of a key character in the new continuity.
Which is what this is. In the reboot canon, seven films, two television shows, two comic series and two novels define what is and what isn't. Of these, Tarkin has appeared in two films and one television show. Tarkin begins Wilhuff Tarkin's story well before The Clone Wars and ends it in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, telling a complete story about how a young noble from an Outer Rim planet went on to become the man that would one day unilaterally destroy a Core world (which must have been cathartic for him), and doing it fairly successfully. The novel includes many references to The Clone Wars, with it being the primary source of canon in this universe (and in any other, at this relatively early point in Tarkin's career). The novel also includes heavy references to Sheev Palpatine's past in Darth Plagueis, doing its level best to bring the events of Darth Sidious's training into the rebooted canon.
As for the Star Wars Legacy universe, this is a fairly easy choice in that most of the sources overlap and it would be very difficult to contradict established continuity without contradicting The Clone Wars. One of the ways in which Luceno could have done so would be to establish a first name other than “Wilhuff” for the Grand Moff, and it is telling that such a decisive break was not made.
Tarkin is a novel that lives up to James Luceno's reputation as one of the premiere writers of Star Wars media, and it makes me optimistic for the revitalized future of the Star Wars franchise. This might not be the best novel for those who cannot root for Imperials, even in dire circumstances, but I do believe that most fans of Star Wars will find Tarkin to be more than worth it.