The Summer of Star Wars has begun!!
The novel begins 35 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, when we see Darth Plagueis and his master, the Bith Darth Tenebrous on the world of Bal’demnic, examining a deposit of cortosis ore. Keen to exploit the natural resistance to lightsabers in the ore, as another step in the plan of the Sith to overthrow the Jedi, they are nevertheless forced to flee when an underground explosion is triggered. Plagueis uses the event to his advantage, and kills Tenebrous by hurling debris from the blast upon his master.
Plagueis escapes the planet by stowing away aboard a ship, killing the crew but taking a droid 11-4D back with him to his home planet of Muunilinst, where he goes about as Hego Damask, CEO of Damask Holdings. As Damask, he holds annual gatherings on the moon Sojourn, where he plays power-broker among the galaxy’s most powerful beings. On Sojourn, he learns that the company who provided Tenebrous with the information on the cortosis deposit, Subtext Mining, has links with Pax Teem, the Senator for Malastare. Representatives of Subtext tell him of a massive lode of plasma on the planet Naboo, which will prove particularly lucrative, in exchange for their lives.
Also on Sojourn, Plagueis is attacked by a dark acolyte known as Darth Venamis, who claims to have been sent by Tenebrous. Plagueis overpowers Venamis, and forces the other to poison himself. Plagueis then takes his comatose body for further experimentation into midi-chlorians and prolonging life. Learning of more potential acolytes, he hunts down each one and kills them.
On Naboo, Damask and the Trade Federation enter into a deal with Bon Tapalo to gain control over the plasma reserves in exchange for support with Tapalo’s election as King of Naboo. Plagueis learns of the potential for an ally in Palpatine, the son of one of the noble families who has defied his father and the isolationist politics of many on Naboo. Plagueis begins to court Palpatine as a potential apprentice, when he senses a great deal of ability in the way the young man is able to shield himself in the Force. Plagueis manipulates Palpatine into killing his entire family with the Force, and promptly takes him as his apprentice, naming him Darth Sidious.
Eleven years later, Palpatine has elevated himself to the position of ambassador for Naboo, and with the help of new allies Sate Pestage and Kinman Doriana, he is able to instigate the assassination of Naboo’s current senator, Vidar Kim. Meanwhile, Plagueis continues his experimentation in the Force, and makes contact with the clonemasters of Kamino, with the possibility of creating a cloned army of Yinchorr warriors. Attempting to increase his own knowledge of the Dark Side, Sidious visits Dathomir and there is given a Zabrak child as a gift – he sends the child to Mustafar to be trained as a weapon of the Dark Side.
At a secret ceremony to initiate Damask’s colleague Larsh Hill into the Order of the Canted Circle, Plagueis is ambushed by Maladian assassins and almost killed – only the arrival of Sate Pestage and Sidious allows the Muun to escape with his life. The assassination was orchestrated by Pax Teem, and so Sidious unleashes his fury on the Gran Senator, killing his entire entourage. Plagueis goes into a sort of retirement on Sojourn, forced to use a transpiratory mask in order to assist with his breathing. His escape makes him even more determined to conquer death, however. In his absence, it falls to Sidious to further the plans of the Sith.
Twenty years pass, and Palpatine is a well-respected Senator, remarkable for having never been involved in scandal or corruption. He continues to court the great and the good, and in secret he makes contact with Nute Gunray of the Trade Federation, promising him wealth and power in exchange for an alliance. When Sidious is able to elevate Gunray to the post of Viceroy in the Trade Federation, the Neimoidian becomes indebted to Sidious and so is easily persuaded to order the blockade and invasion of Naboo.
For years, Palpatine and Jedi Master Dooku had something of an acquaintance, which grows further when the latter’s disaffection with the Jedi Order increases. From Dooku, Palpatine learns of the existence of Anakin Skywalker, a child seemingly born from the Force itself, and both he and Plagueis become obsessed with learning more about him. Years previously, at roughly the same time Anakin was born, Sidious and Plagueis had performed a Sith ritual in an attempt to truly become masters over the Force, and Plagueis had sensed the Force acquiesce before his might – now, however, it seems that the Force has in fact fought back, producing the long-prophesied Chosen One who will restore balance to the Force.
Palpatine is able to manipulate Queen Amidala of Naboo to call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, precipitating the election of Palpatine and, as they had planned, the subsequent naming of Hego Damask as co-chancellor. On the eve of the vote, the two Sith celebrate their coming victory even as Amidala returns to Naboo in an unexpected move. Sidious is able to catch his master off-guard, however, and savagely uses the Force to cripple and then kill Plagueis. Despite his victory over his old master, however, Sidious feels oddly hollow – he later discovers that at the same time, Darth Maul had been killed on Naboo.
Soon after his election, Palpatine meets Dooku, who had left the Order following the death of his old apprentice, Qui-Gon Jinn. The two discuss a potential alliance in broad terms, as they both wish to tear down the Republic and replace it with something far greater. The book ends with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine meeting with Obi-Wan and Anakin in his office on Coruscant, thanking them personally once more for their involvement in liberating Naboo.
I love this book. It is so huge in terms of its scope, that despite that almost thousand word summary, I have barely done any justice to it at all. I’ve read this one before, of course, around the time my eldest daughter was born, and while the opportunities for reading were scarce back then, I remember being wholly drawn into the story. It succeeds in bringing together the story of Palpatine’s rise to the post of Supreme Chancellor, as well as covering his training as a Sith, while along the way hitting almost every single beat from the established lore around the Prequels. I think I was a bit disappointed when I first read it, when the story started to dance in and out of the plethora of other books that take place at this time – there’s plenty of “oh, you just missed him!” and “Plagueis was just out of shot in the Senate” etc, which does wear thin after a while. But there is equally a lot of “cut scenes” from, in particular, The Phantom Menace, where we see stuff that was taking place behind the scenes. As such, I think things are balanced out fairly well, so I can’t really complain. Plus the worst offender, as I seemed to recall it, wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered – the moment where Lorn Pavan delivers the holocron to Palpatine.
Of course, for all that the novel is a huge monster, I was still left wanting more. While the novel shows us the rise of both Sidious the Sith Lord and Palpatine the politician, most of the book is spent on the political side, with not a great deal spent with Sidious. There’s enough, for sure, but I think I would have preferred to get more of the lore of Sith training.
The famous “creation of Anakin” also happens off-screen, during one of the time jumps. That was a bit jarring, to me, as it was surely an event worth depicting? As it is, it is referenced a few times and the dots are joined when Anakin is brought to Coruscant. I did like that bit, at least – the frenzy of both Sith Lords amid all of their political manoeuvring as they discover the Force has created a being to potentially counteract their plans.
However, we do get a lot of Darth Plagueis, and a lot of Hego Damask – the first two-thirds of the book are just a delight, as we see the depth of the plans the Muun has hatched. His experiments with Yinchorri as a perfect army going awry, his courting Sifo-Dyas and the Kaminoans, the way that his plots almost cannibalise each other as he uses his position to back so many different beings, including Gardulla and Jabba, at times it can be difficult – and I think, reading it the first time when I was juggling new parent duties, a lot of this either didn’t sink in, or I wasn’t able to retain it in the same way, and so ended up missing out on some bits. With the full extent of the web laid out, though, it was just a joy to read through.
Throughout the book, Luceno is able to not only hit the necessary story beats that are perhaps required from a story in this time period, telling the story of the rise of Palpatine, but he also weaves so many references into the plot that it’s quite a joy, really. The political landscape is developed really quite beautifully as the story moves along, and we see how the impact of things like the growing presence of the Trade Federation, and the dominance of commercial interests achieved in the Senate through seating their client worlds. The way Luceno is able to take something like the line from the opening crawl of episode 1 about taxation of the Free Trade Zones, and spin it into an intelligent story that actually helps to set up the movie so perfectly – it’s something he’d done previously with Cloak of Deception, but I’ll never grow tired of reading this man’s work, as it all just dovetails so beautifully.
There is also the short story The Tenebrous Way that takes place between the first couple of chapters of the book. We see the death of Darth Tenebrous from his own point of view, and learn that he had in fact mastered the Sith technique of essence transfer, creating maxi-chlorians as a kind of retrovirus to contain his essence, and would use these to infect a nearby host. The idea being that he would infect the Chosen One, and become an immortal Sith, with the loss of any power of foresight as the price. However, he is forced to infect Plagueis to wait for the Chosen One, but soon realises that Plagueis never met the Chosen One before his own death, so removes his maxi-chlorians from Plagueis’ body and discovers his own mummified corpse – and realises that he has doomed himself to an eternal life of repetition.
It’s a cute little story that gives us perhaps more background than we ever needed. Darth Tenebrous and his maxi-chlorians are almost comical, although there is a moment of almost-pathos when he realises that he has actually failed, because Plagueis never met Anakin. One of those throwaway stories that doesn’t really add anything (although we do get a bit more of Plagueis’ master, and when are we otherwise going to learn more about him?) But it’s kinda fun, regardless.
Finally, we have the short story Restraint, also by Luceno. It’s a Darth Maul story that shows some of his time as a trainee on the planet Orsis, which is alluded to during the novel but never really fleshed-out. While one would hardly be missing much by not reading this, it’s always good to get a Maul story because they seem pretty scant, really. Maul is training with the Faleen combat expert Trezza, but others at the academy on Orsis grow sceptical of his abilities, even though Sidious has commanded his pupil to show restraint, particularly in his use of the dark side.
The Mandalorian mercenary Meltch has deduced Maul has a connection to Dathomir, and so tells Mother Talzin about him. The Nightsisters then attempt to abduct Maul, but the Zabrak simply believes this to be a test devised by Sidious. Meltch has double crossed the Nightsisters by then telling the Rattataki mercenary Kirske about it, and so he shows up hoping to capture some Nightsisters for the arena on his home world. It all ends with a bloodbath, as Sidious shows up to reclaim Maul, whom he then orders to kill everybody at the academy.
I think the story is most interesting for building up more of Maul’s character in the pre-Phantom Menace timeline. We get hints of it during the novel, but Maul is somewhat dissatisfied with his position, being kept in the dark by Sidious and unsure of why he is being trained, etc. In this short story, he outright asks his master “what am I to you?”, which I think is a great way of showing how different the nature of Sith apprenticeship is. Of course, part of this does seem to have stemmed also from the curious decision to have Darth Plagueis survive for so long – I guess it would be a different relationship if Sidious were the Master when training Maul, but as it stands, we find ourselves with a surfeit of Sith.
Not essential, of course, but it’s still nice to have these kinds of side-stories that add in just a little bit more to the overall story. I’d not read Restraint previously, and in fact was not aware of it until quite recently. There’s another Maul short story that I’ve recently discovered, also by Luceno, set during the events of Episode I, and I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s about.
Next up, however, we’ve got some graphic novels on the horizon!