It’s that time, already! I seem to be on something of a writing streak at the moment, as WordPress tells me this is my 13-day streak for publishing blogs! I’ve already looked at some of the comics from the early prequel era during this time, but today it’s time for the big one! The prequel era has got a lot of good stuff taking place, and while many people have re-evaluated the movies recently in light of the fact that the sequel trilogy hadn’t lived up to their expectations, I have always rather enjoyed my time in this era. I suppose part of that is due to the fact that I was growing up, to some extent, with these films – I was 14 when The Phantom Menace hit theatres, so there is an element of nostalgia for me, and remembering simpler times in my life when the movies were coming out.
Among the films, the comics and the novels that litter the era of the prequel trilogy, there are many stories that stand out, for me, head and shoulders above the other stuff. Cloak of Deception is, without a doubt, the absolute forerunner here, as it is a book that is very close to my heart. Indeed, whenever I think of top-ten lists of Star Wars novels, this one is always at the number two slot, coming second only to Tim Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy. But that’s another story.
We begin properly with the short story Darth Maul: Saboteur. This is a bit of a throwaway tale really, which tells the story of how two lommite mining companies on the remote world of Dorvalla basically destroyed each other thanks to industrial competition getting out of hand. Darth Maul is dispatched to help tip the balance, and as you can imagine it doesn’t end well – both companies go under, and from the ruins, the Trade Federation swoops in to get shipping rights and, somehow, their seat in the Senate. I like the story, don’t get me wrong, but it kinda feels a little bit silly, somehow. It seems so inconsistent how seating in the Senate works – some star systems have seats, and others defer to the sector of space. Naboo, for instance, is a seat for the entire Chommell Sector, whereas Dorvalla, an insignificant mining world, has a seat all of its own? The lengths that Sidious goes to in order to get the Trade Federation in his grip are also really quite something – surely, the fact that Sidious knows all of Nute Gunray’s secrets should be enough to keep him in fear. Instead, we have Sidious almost bending over backwards to make Gunray beholden to him, when in actual fact I think his fear might have been enough to get him to launch that blockade. But that’s just me.
The real meat of things comes from the main event, however – Cloak of Deception.
At Dorvalla, the Trade Federation is attacked by a mercenary band led by Captain Cohl while loading lommite ore. Cohl and his team make it to the bridge, where they rig the freighter to blow and demand a cache of aurodium ingots from the captain, Daultay Dofine. With the timer counting down, Dofine hands the aurodium over and manages to escape when another freighter arrives in-system following their distress call. Unbeknownst to Cohl, he has been tracked from the surface of Dorvalla by the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who manage to continue their pursuit even when the freighter jettisons its cargo, raising the captain’s suspicions. Cohl hides in the resulting explosion, leaving the Jedi believing him to have perished.
On Coruscant, the terrorist activities of the Nebula Front, who had hired Cohl and his band, are causing the Trade Federation to petition the Senate to allow them to augment their defences. Senator Palpatine discusses the matter with Supreme Chancellor Valorum, suggesting that taxation of the Free-Trade Zones could allow them to keep the Federation somewhat under control, though the issue is a thorny one due to the notion that the Federation, who already charge their client worlds exorbitant fees for shipping, would simply pass the burden of taxation on to the outlying systems. When the issue is brought for debate in the Senate, and these problems are aired, Palpatine secretly advises Valorum to hold a trade summit on the outlying world of Eriadu, where it can be discussed further before going to a vote.
Qui-Gon is dubious about Captain Cohl’s supposed death at Dorvalla, causing the Council some concern at his seeming obsession with the mercenary. When he and Adi Gallia attempt to meet with the Chancellor to discuss the matter, the Jedi end up foiling an assassination attempt by the Nebula Front. The assassins are traced to the world of Asmeru in the sovereign Senex Sector, and so a judicial mission is approved, with seven Jedi accompanying them, in an effort to mediate the dispute between the Nebula Front and the Trade Federation.
The delegation is shot down over Asmeru, however, and it becomes clear that the Nebula Front intends to hold them as hostage while they make demands of the Republic. Valorum agrees to dispatch Jedi and judicials from the preparations on Eriadu to rescue the stranded delegation, although it further evolves that the Front has split into the moderates and a much more militant wing. From an informant within the organization, Qui-Gon learns that Cohl has survived, and is engaged on a job for someone called Havac. He and Obi-Wan travel to Karfeddion with another Front operative, where the Jedi learn that Cohl has been hiring mercenaries for an assassination job on Eriadu. The Front operative was trying to lure the Jedi away from Eriadu, and tries to kill them when they have uncovered this information, but is himself killed instead.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan arrive at Eriadu to find that Cohl’s plan is already well underway. However, Havac has not been pleased by the fact that Cohl has been so open about recruiting his team, and a blaster fight breaks out, during which Cohl is seriously wounded. Havac attempts to rescue the plan, getting his mercenaries in place on the rooftops of the city, as well as within the hall where the trade summit is to be held, while Valorum arrives with the Lieutenant Governor of Eriadu, Wilhuff Tarkin. The Trade Federation delegation has demanded they be allowed a personal shield for their members, in case of violence, but without knowing it, they have been given a security droid that is controlled by Havac. When Nute Gunray is called away from the hall, the violence breaks out and the Federation activates their shield, whereupon the droid opens fire on the remaining members of the Trade Federation directorate.
In the aftermath of the summit, it transpires that distant cousins of the Supreme Chancellor, who own a shipping company based on Eriadu, had received a massive injection of capital that has been traced back to an account funded by aurodium ingots, the same amount stolen from the Trade Federation above Dorvalla. While many companies had received investment in the wake of the Supreme Chancellor’s decision to tax the trade zones and allot a portion of the revenue to developing projects in the Outer Rim, he is made to look corrupt and so his position as leader of the Republic is weakened.
The droid delivered by Havac to the Trade Federation directors came on the orders of Darth Sidious, whose aim was to increase Nute Gunray’s standing within the company, drawing him further into his web. With the Trade Federation arming themselves with droids, Sidious suggests they carry out a trade blockade of Naboo, the homeworld of the Senator who was the biggest champion of taxation in the first place.
This summary does not really do the book justice at all, as there are so many wheels within wheels at work. I’ve mentioned several times now that I love this book, and I think it’s just such a good story that sets up The Phantom Menace perfectly. The object of the book was fairly clear, I think, in that it needed to explain much of the opening crawl to episode 1, such as the trade dispute and the corruption charges against the Chancellor. And in my view, it does that really well. I think we have certain expectations from Darth Sidious, that he’s going to have a very labyrinthine scheme to achieve power, and yet when we first saw The Phantom Menace, a common accusation levelled at the film was that it was boring, because Star Wars had been reduced to trade disputes and politics. But how else is Palpatine going to become Emperor? He won’t be massacring Jedi and stuff, he gets other people to do his wetwork. He’s dangerous because of his strength in the Dark Side, for sure, but it goes beyond that, because his mind is his greatest weapon. A holdover from the early drafts of the original movie is that the Emperor is too charming and too charismatic to be allowed, and he can get anybody to do anything – he can even convince a galaxy to elect him as Chancellor. And this is the Palpatine that we get here. He has all the answers, but he’s doing it all behind the scenes; he’s everybody’s friend, while committing to nothing, yet making other people do it all for him. I think it’s beautiful to see the plot with Palpatine unfold here, and every time he’s on the page, it’s just glorious.
What’s more, Luceno has a knack for writing the characters’ voices correctly – Palpatine in particular, he uses a lot of the phrases that Lucas scripted, which allows us to read the book in those voices. It’s a small point, but it becomes incredibly powerful when it comes to enjoyment of the story, I think.
I know that a lot of people dislike the politics of the prequel trilogy, and while to some extent I do think they’re a bit silly at times, and a bit over-wrought in terms of how we’re almost like in some kind of allegory or something, it’s books like Cloak of Deception, and later, Labyrinth of Evil, which really serve to flesh out what is going on in the galaxy, and make it feel a lot more “grown up”, for want of a better expression. I get it, there’s only 2 hours or so for the story to be told via the film, and people might not want to see something like this novel filmed, because it’s got a high ratio of politics to lightsabers, but Lucas himself has said that the early story of Anakin and his downfall was a bit more of a thriller rather than the action/adventure of the original trilogy. Cloak of Deception provides some very necessary backdrop for the movie to take place, and at times it does feel like required reading, which might make it sound like I’m being negative towards the film, but I’m really not. I think it’s just unfortunate that so much more story was left out of the film!
The book is not without action though, as we have the Jedi subplot as they attempt to thwart the Nebula Front’s activities, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan involved in a fair bit of action. On Asmeru, we get almost a repeat of Jedi Council: Acts of War – seven Jedi with lightsabers blazing, the sequence is a bit short I suppose, but even so! Once we get to Eriadu, though, the suspense is real as the pieces fall into place.
Of course, it’s not all amazing stuff. It was Luceno’s third Star Wars novel, and he was still in that habit of trying to show off, I feel, and reference as much as possible. Of course, back in 2001 there wasn’t much in the way of prequel references, so instead there’s a lot of foreshadowing (another hallmark of Star Wars literature!) Tarkin, for example, is said to look like he prefers the “antiseptic gleam of a space-worthy freighter” while Valorum is being shown around his palatial mansion. Qui-Gon will attempt to rescue / befriend any native creature he comes across. And on it goes. It’s not bad per se, but it does begin to feel a bit like these are two-dimensional characters, who will never develop or anything. Maybe Tarkin liked rococo architecture before he designed the Death Star? Who knows.
When it came out, Cloak of Deception had something of the USP that it would feature clues to the plot of episode 2. Now, a few references to the Techno Union and Commerce Guild were really all that this amounted to, but there is also a line about taxation of the trade routes leading to potential secession for the Outer Rim, which I don’t think I’d noticed until this read-through. Or, I should say, I don’t think I had really taken on board until this read-through. I wonder if the events of episode 1 had proceeded differently, and Maul had survived and the blockade had not been lifted by Queen Amidala leading a successful resistance, whether Sidious’ end goal was to cause this rift between the Core and the Outer Rim to engineer the Separatist crisis? Of course, things still worked out pretty well, with Count Dooku being the charismatic front man for his Separatist Alliance, but I do find it interesting to explore these what if moments.
It’s also worth noting that Luminara Unduli makes a speaking appearance here, as she is the same near-human species as Captain Cohl. I mentioned Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy at the top – well, Jorus C’baoth (the original, not the clone) also has a small speaking part to play. Every member of the episode 1 Jedi Council has a speaking part, actually, which is interesting, and Adi Gallia has quite a significant role to play as something of a liaison between Valorum and the Council. There is a throwaway reference to how Yaddle became a Jedi Master, which I believe is made in reference to one of the Jedi Apprentice books published at this time. There are still some wide-ranging layers within the book, and fans of the literature like myself will invariably find stuff to enjoy here.
Sate Pestage and Kinman Doriana both have repeated appearances, and we get Bail Antilles and Orn Free Taa in fairly large roles for the political storyline. Having now seen the deleted composite scenes of Adrian Dunbar as Bail Antilles, I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I read the scene where he indicts Valorum at the court, as I kept imagining Dunbar in his role as Hastings in Line of Duty – “there’s nothing I hate more than a bent Supreme Chancellor” and so on. At any rate, much like the Jedi Council, we have a lot of speaking roles from among senators, and this is fairly interesting, because there are a number of references to both episode 1 and episode 2 politicians, the latter group including those senators who joined the Confederacy. It really gives the setting that kind of homogenous feel, like this is a real place, and so on.
Unfortunately, while Luceno is excellent at providing these kinds of rich tapestries in terms of the large cast, he still falls into the trap of having Tatooine as the only remote planet that anybody talks about. Tatooine is meant to be the planet farthest away from the core, and even allowing for Luke’s hyperbole, it’s still going to be pretty obscure and overlooked. Yet everybody knows about it, everybody makes reference to it… I mean, Luceno should be better than that. How about gardening on Ithor? Or crop farming on Uyter, if he wants to stay firmly in the prequel era? That’d show off some knowledge, right there. But no, we have Tatooine as the only planet worth mentioning…
I do like the fact that the Stark Hyperspace War is mentioned though, and later on becomes something of a plot point as Cohl gains access to the summit hall. We’ll get to that later on in the Republic comics series, though, but it’s nice to see this kind of recent history to the story added in. It’s also nice to get Vergere as a character in here, as well – Luceno introduced Vergere to the New Jedi Order with his novel Agents of Chaos – Hero’s Trial, and it eventually came out that she was a Jedi of the Old Republic. To see her in the prequel era is slightly complicated, because it opens up questions about when she attached herself to the Yuuzhan Vong, but with all of this being Legends now, I suppose the point becomes moot!
I’ve read this book so often, I can’t begin to say how many times. I’ve read it in a day before now. It used to be something of a cornerstone of my Christmas reading, as I’d read a few of the prequel-era stories over the festive period. Cloak of Deception really became almost like a signal that Christmas had begun for me, which is always nice! I know it’s got politics, and I know it’s not going to be to everybody’s taste because of it, but I think overall it’s really amazing, and I would recommend it to anybody who stands still long enough!
Next on the list is Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter. A pretty good adventure in the depths of Coruscant, and one that I do enjoy quite a lot!