Labyrinth of Evil

Well folks, we’re hurtling towards the end of my Summer of Star Wars now – is September still the summer? Well, I’m counting it. Today it’s the turn of Labyrinth of Evil. This is one of my favourite Prequel-era novels, so as with some of the other blogs in my great prequel re-read, prepare for some slightly biased reporting!

Labyrinth of Evil

The Clone Wars are raging across the galaxy, with the Separatists finally on the run. Dooku and his forces have been pushed back from the core and inner rim, and the war is predominantly being fought now in the Outer Rim, as Palpatine is committing more troops to besieging the worlds still held by the Confederacy there.

Obi-Wan and Anakin are on the trail of Nute Gunray, who has stopped off at the Trade Federation purse world of Cato Neimoidia. In his rush to flee the planet, however, the Neimoidian Viceroy has left a mechno-chair behind, which incorporates a hyperwave transmission grid into its seat that Anakin quickly discovers contains a recording of part of a call between Darth Sidious and Nute Gunray. Having the final proof of the existence of the Sith Lord, after Dooku’s initial confession to Obi-Wan on Geonosis, the Jedi Council decide to pursue the lead, and Anakin and Obi-Wan head to Charros IV, to speak to the Xi Char artisan who made the chair.

The trail leads from the manufacturer of the chair to that of the transmission chip, a Bith technician currently holed up in a mining facility on Escarte. He points the Jedi to a pilot who delivered the device to Coruscant, a Twi’lek who is now living on Naos III, and she is able to indicate a factory building in The Works on Coruscant where she delivered the Sith Infiltrator ship. However, Grievous has attempted to contact Gunray through the mechno-chair, telling him that the Separatist Council will soon be re-located to Belderone – when Gunray disn’t answer, and the Jedi had a task force waiting in orbit at Belderone for the Separatists, Dooku informs Sidious that their comms are compromised, and the Jedi are on the Sith Lord’s trail.

While Anakin and Obi-Wan are dispatched to Tythe to confront Dooku, Mace Windu and Shaak Ti lead an investigation team into The Works and soon discover forensic evidence of both Dooku and Sidious being in the building. They learn that the tunnels used by Sidious leading eventually to the sub-basement of 500 Republica, the monad where so many senators and other celebrities live, including the Supreme Chancellor. However, just when the Jedi team has made this discovery, Grievous launches his attack on the capitol planet, and the Jedi are soon called to the defence of the Chancellor.

Grievous has been furnished with intelligence supplied by Count Dooku, and is able to pursue Palpatine across the planet as the Jedi and Senate Guards attempt to spirit him to his armoured bunker. The Separatist General captures the Chancellor, and is able to return to his flagship in orbit, while Anakin and Obi-Wan realise Tythe was a ruse to keep them away from Coruscant after all.

The book is pretty action-packed, especially considering it is something of a detective story. The opening on Cato Neimoidia is fairly tense at times, and there are space battles at Belderone and Tythe, as well as a snow sledge chase on Naos III and of course, the climactic battle of Coruscant, which takes up roughly the last 100 pages of the book. In some respects, it’s similar to Luceno’s earlier Cloak of Deception, as we follow the Jedi as they’re tracking down clues, with intermittent action sequences, though I think the earlier book is much superior, as it doesn’t have quite such a tight deadline to meet. With Labyrinth of Evil, we have a lot of plot threads to weave into the tapestry, and there is a definite end-point with the beginning of Revenge of the Sith.

That’s not to say it’s not a good book, however! Indeed, I think it’s one of the best prequel-era books out there. We get to learn a lot about the major players, including a complete backstory on General Grievous. Luceno is adept at bringing together many strands of stories to make a cohesive narrative, perhaps reminiscent of the fact his original role in the New Jedi Order was a continuity overseer. Threads from the comics, particularly Quinlan Vos’ storyline, Yoda’s meeting with Dooku on Vjun in Dark Rendezvous, as well as the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoon series, are woven in here to make things feel like we’re in one coherent narrative. Ironically, though, it’s with the Clone Wars cartoon that things become a little unstuck, as we know that the third season of the cartoon essentially deals with Grievous and his invasion, but also involves Anakin and Obi-Wan on the planet Nelvaan, in an episode that once again rams it down our throats that Anakin will become Darth Vader. I believe the cartoon was based on the novel’s outline as it existed at the time, though once the animation was finished, it then caused the novel to change as things had been sexed-up for TV.

Nevertheless, the invasion sequence is pretty spectacular, I have to say. It is absolutely frenetic, as Grievous is pursuing the Chancellor and his bodyguard across the planet. There is a lot of reference made to the real-world politics of the Second Iraq War during the Clone Wars, as we were at war while these stories were being published. It was perhaps natural, even if Lucas and others refuted the claim at the time. Palpatine makes a State of the Republic address, we have the Triad of Evil in Felucia, Mygeeto and Saleucami, etc. However, the way Palpatine was spirited to his hardened bunker was apparently purposefully modelled on the way vice president Cheney was moved during the 9/11 attacks – I remember reading something years ago where Luceno said he had originally planned to write it where Palpatine was instead flown around the planet on the Star Wars equivalent of Air Force One, as happened for president Bush.

There isn’t as much politics as you might expect in this one, perhaps in reflection to how Cloak of Deception had been received. There are a few scenes with Mon Mothma, Bail Organa and Padme where they try to persuade Palpatine to find a diplomatic resolution to the war, though they are few and far between, and eventually the three senators are caught up in the invasion and don’t really have much more of a part to play. It is a shame, given that the political stuff with the Loyalist Committee was cut from the final film, that more wasn’t afforded to it here, but I suppose this novel is more about the intrigue with the search for Sidious than mere political machinations.

We do have a very angry Anakin in this book, and sometimes it seems like he’s almost primal, like when he brings the roof down on top of both him and Obi-Wan simply by being annoyed with Dooku. Now, it might just be me, but this kind of behaviour must surely be setting off alarm bells to someone like Obi-Wan, a member of the Jedi Council? Hm? I get that they kinda cut him some slack, him being the Chosen One, and the late training and all, but even so. On the subject of coming to training late in life, it’s always kinda bothered me that they allowed Obi-Wan to train such an important, such a potentially difficult padawan when he had barely made Jedi Knight the day before. Someone like Mace or Yoda should surely have taken on the fabled Son of Suns? At any rate, Angry Anakin is given a lot of lassitude, even when Obi-Wan is dropping massive hints that he knows what’s going on between him and Padme. Another hm.

But I guess that’s part of Lucas’ overall plot. There are some genuinely good spots of camaraderie between the two of them throughout, and you begin to see that perhaps they were friends after all. Angry Anakin might bristle at the merest hint of Obi-Wan in the majority of the Clone Wars media, but even Count Dooku remarks on how well they have come to work together here. It does go some way to help show that Alec Guinness wasn’t lying when he called Anakin “a good friend”.

There isn’t really a great deal more to be said on this one, though, I guess. It’s a good book, tells a very good tale as we lead directly into episode III. One of the downfalls of the story, of course, is that it doesn’t resolve, and you kinda have to watch the movie to finish it off – even if you know that going into it, it still manages to leave you hanging on the edge of things, more so than Rogue One. Of course, this works both ways, and if you have ever been bothered by the fact that Revenge of the Sith opens directly into the middle of a battle, and you’ve wanted to know what was going on, then you can wonder no more as to what is going on there!

Star Wars: Cloak of Deception

Hey everybody,
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!

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

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!

Star Wars: Darth Plagueis (a review)

Oh my goodness, what a book!

I recently finished reading one of the last, and arguably one of the most important novels from the Legends canon. It was an absolute joy to read, and I really cannot believe that it has taken me so long to get round to reading it! Long-time Star Wars fans might be aware that the book was originally slated to be released in 2008, but it wasn’t published until 2012, putting it among the final few novels to be published prior to the Disney take-over.

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The novel follows the life of Darth Plagueis as he kills his own master, Darth Tenebrous, and begins his quest for immortality through the manipulation of the midi-chlorians. As Hego Damask, the CEO of Damask Holdings, he goes about life as a wealthy financier, bankrolling the Trade Federation’s exploitation of Naboo’s natural plasma reserves. In so doing, he befriends Palpatine, and discovers a latent power for the Dark Side within the youngster. He encourages Palpatine to kill his entire family, and thereafter apprentices him as Darth Sidious.

Eliminating political rivals, Palpatine climbs the political ladder to become the Senator for Naboo. Political shenanigans abound, as Palpatine and Damask both set about initiating the Grand Plan for the Sith to take their vengeance on the galaxy (specifically, the Jedi). Along the way, Palpatine is given a Zabrak infant on Dathomir, whom he trains on Mustafar to be a living weapon for their vengeance. Damask makes contact with the cloners of Kamino, and begins to investigate the possibility of creating a cloned army.

As the novel moves on, it becomes as much a biography of Palpatine as it does of Damask, as the latter becomes consumed by his research into midi-chlorians and immortality. We see Palpatine court a friendship with the Jedi Master Dooku, engineer the fall of Naboo’s King Veruna, to be replaced by Padmé Amidala, as well as the assassination of Pax Teem, the Senator for Malastare. When Damask returns to public life, he renews an acquaintance with the Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, and plant the suggestion that the Republic may need an army to ward against the increasing privations in the Outer Rim.

Towards the end, the book runs concurrently with several other books and comics, such as Cloak of Deception, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, and latterly, The Phantom Menace. At the novel’s climax, Palpatine kills Damask, revealing that he had been manipulating his former master for years. With Dooku as a potential ally in the upcoming war, and his eye firmly on Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine begins his own plans for taking over the galaxy.

This book is amazing. James Luceno is one of my all-time favourite Star Wars authors, as has been well-chronicled here on this blog, and I do particularly enjoy his prequel-era novels from the Legends canon. I don’t really know why I had put off reading this for so long, but I suppose other books have come under my glance, and whatnot. Luceno is definitely steeped in Star Wars lore, and is able to weave a story around the existing body of literature with ease. References bogged down his first novel for the franchise, Agents of Chaos: Hero’s Trial, but over the years since then he has shown himself to be adept at wielding the mythos like no other.

That said, the book is definitely much more interesting when it can be its own animal. The first two-thirds are an absolute joy, as we see Plagueis established as both a Sith Lord and his alter-ego, Hego Damask. The politics of the Republic are one of the more interesting aspects of the lore, to me, so it was fascinating to see how things worked at this point. As the story wore on, and we got to the point where it needed to weave in and out of pre-existing material, however, things did tend to get a little more muddy, almost forced, due to the fact that Luceno was trying to use characters who had already been written about – ironically, I think this was at its worst when he was trying to weave Palpatine and Valorum into his own Cloak of Deception.

Cloak of Deception, incidentally, is one of my all-time favourite Star Wars novels, and I will doubtless be writing up some thoughts on that book sometime soon!

Attempts to tie up loose ends, and weld the narrative firmly into the established events around The Phantom Menace aside, things certainly gather momentum as the book moves on. The middle portion, where Palpatine is moving up the political ranks and trying to learn more about the Dark Side, did often feel a little bit like it was dragging, but nevertheless I think it was good to let the plot breathe in this way. The story of the apprenticeship of such a seminal character as Emperor Palpatine should not be treated lightly, after all! I do wish that this was maybe a duology, and we could actually have expanded upon certain parts. For sure, the book jumps ahead a few years twice, to eliminate some of the more mundane stuff, but I thought there were a couple of missed opportunities for further exploring the characters in the wider universe. I mean, we’re likely to never see Darth Plagueis in another book, as this one pretty much tells his entire life story, and the same is true for Palpatine, so it would have been interesting, to me, for the story to have been properly expanded upon.

Something that almost seems to have been glossed over, or just mentioned in passing at first, is the creation of Anakin Skywalker within the Force. I suppose it’s possible that George Lucas wanted this to have been kept deliberately vague (Lucas, for those who don’t know, had a significant amount of input into this novel, making it as close to G-canon as any other book had come up to this point). Somewhere between the end of Part Two and the start of Part Three, Sidious and Plagueis both undertake a Sith ritual that shifts the balance of the Dark Side, almost like they’re firing the starter pistol to let the Jedi know that they’re coming for them. It’s intended to be a grand scheme to show that the Dark Side really is ascendant in the galaxy. When Palpatine then learns of the existence of Anakin, he mentally back-tracks and learns that the boy was born around this time, and it is theorized that Anakin could have been a product of the Force “fighting back”. It’s interesting, because since Revenge of the Sith, I think most fans had been of the mindset that Plagueis’ experiments with midi-chlorians had actually caused the birth of Anakin, but it turns out that he genuinely is a product of the Force itself.


There are a lot of call-backs to the Darth Bane trilogy, and often Luceno will reference all manner of Darths as part of the history of the Sith. It’s interesting to note that Plagueis sees himself as the last of the line of the Bane tradition, but even when the Rule of Two was still in force with his master, Darth Tenebrous, there were still Dark Acolytes being trained to use the Force, as Tenebrous seemed to need a failsafe against the loss of Plagueis as an apprentice. I suppose this meant the revelation of Palpatine training Darth Maul in secret on Mustafar was slightly less jarring. I suppose this problem of three Sith lords being around at the same time could have been solved by having Sidious kill Plagueis before the timeline of The Phantom Menace, but for whatever reason, it was decided to place the death of Plagueis at the eve of the Battle of Naboo.

Supreme Leader Snoke

I mean, that assumes that Plagueis died, of course. Since The Force Awakens debuted in 2015, fans have been theorizing that Snoke is in fact Plagueis, pointing to the wounds on his face (particularly his mouth) as being in a good fit. I’m not personally a fan of this idea, not least because Plagueis is said to have been using the Force to heal himself, and intended to return to the galaxy as co-Chancellor with Sidious, and be revealed to have fully healed. If he had survived Sidious’ attack, then surely the interval of 50+ years would have seen him not only return from the dead, but continue that process? The mangled mess that is Supreme Leader Snoke is, I feel, a new character – at least, I bloody hope so!


Darth Plagueis is a cracking book. Even if it is, after all, no longer canon, it is still well worth reading, even today!

Rogue One: Catalyst

Rogue One: Catalyst

Rogue One: Catalyst is, as the name might suggest, a tie-in novel to the standalone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Written by James Luceno, I had high hopes for this novel, which were sadly not borne out by the end. Let me explain…

The story is basically that of Orson Krennic’s ambition to oversee the Death Star project, and details his machinations as he climbs the corporate ladder. Along the way, he makes use of a variety of people, notably Galen Erso, a former school friend (unlikely though that may seem), to advance his career. Galen is portrayed as that typical scientist-type who is so wrapped-up in his own work, he’s barely aware of his surroundings, including his own family. Which I thought was weird, based on his portrayal in the movie…

The novel begins while the Clone Wars are still in full-flow, though Galen is notably undertaking research far from the front line, attempting to synthesize kyber crystals to create a renewable energy source. He is soon wrapped up in the fight between the Republic and the Separatists, however, and it is Krennic who comes to his rescue. Over time, Krennic manages to seduce him into working indirectly on the Death Star project, as Galen researches the energy output of the crystals that is then weaponised by a separate team of scientists.

During this time, we do get to see the fascinating upheaval from Republic to Empire, which is something that I enjoyed. It’s interesting how quickly people seem to forget the Jedi – I’d always liked the alternative idea that is often hinted at within the Dark Times comics, that the idea of the Jedi carried with it such inherent danger that people chose not to involve themselves. Anyway!

Another strand to Krennic’s ambition is his use of the smuggler, Has Obit. Has is used to basically deposit weapons on the so-called Legacy Worlds – worlds that are the Star Wars equivalents of National Parks. With this, Krennic is able to claim the worlds were arming themselves against the Empire, and so their Legacy status is stripped from them – and the strip-mining of all natural resources can begin. Over time, Has sees what he is doing and, thanks to Galen’s wife Lyra, turns against Krennic and helps the Ersos escape Coruscant for good.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but the basic gist of the story is here. So what’s so bad about it? Well, first of all, Galen Erso has got to be one of the most infuriating characters ever to grace the pages of a Star Wars novel. He just annoyed me so much, I found myself wishing his bits were over so that we could get back to Krennic, who is actually quite interesting, for all his naked ambition.

While the book is a really nice marriage of the Prequel era and the Original Trilogy era, these ties are somehow relegated to the background in comparison with other Luceno novels. There was a nice sequence with Krennic and Poggle the Lesser, as he tries to get the Geonosians to construct the focusing dish for the battle station. Also, Krennic’s patron throughout the book is Mas Amedda, who comes across as slightly more competent in this book than, say, his Aftermath appearances. Tarkin also has a significant role, though he serves more as an obstacle to Krennic than anything – he doesn’t quite come across the same as he does in, say, Luceno’s Tarkin.

Which is a bit weird, as they’re by the same author, but I think herein lies the main gripe I have with the book: it feels a bit rushed. I can’t quite decide if I mean it feels like it was pushed out to meet a deadline, but the action sometimes feels entirely too glossed-over. True, a battle station the size of the Death Star is going to take years to build, which could be tedious if we had to have all of that detailed to us, but there were several instances where I felt we could have done with more detail. Whether all new canon novels need to conform to a certain page length, who knows, but I definitely felt like we could have benefited from a bit more.

So, while I did feel a bit let-down overall, there were still some good bits to be enjoyed. Mentions of the Corporate Sector and COMPNOR were particularly nice, as it’s always fun to see the old canon being referenced. And the way the novel straddles the Prequel and OT eras was nicely done, too. While the Jedi stuff could have done with more time spent on exploring how they just dropped out of the galactic consciousness, I guess this book isn’t trying to tell that particular tale.

I don’t think it really adds anything to Rogue One, save perhaps explaining Saw Gerrera’s relationship to the Ersos (which itself seemed a bit forced). Which brings me on to my final point – why can’t we have Star Wars novels for their own sake anymore? It feels like everything that has come out so far has been trying to tie into something, either a new movie or an appearance by a beloved character in a cartoon. Why can’t we just have a book for its own sake? Heir to the Jedi springs to mind as perhaps the only one, so far, and that was originally planned as the third in a loose trilogy prior to the abolition of the old EU. I’d love to have something that tells its own story, that can run to 500 pages or more, and just brings back some of the old Bantam magic. We still don’t really have that feel right now, I think, where the galaxy feels like a cohesive whole. Where’s the new canon’s Mara Jade, or Talon Karrde? The novels feel like they exist in some kind of weird vacuum, and I’m really not sure that I like it. Sure, plenty of them are good, but they’re good by themselves, with no real reference to the wider galaxy. The hipster in me is thinking, this is what happens when a franchise hits the big time, and everything has to have a mass-appeal. Whereas previously we could have novels that reference comic books, which reference other comic books, which reference other novels, which reference RPG material. There was an expectation that people reading these things would be immersed to the next level at least. Now everything seems to need only the films – the widest audience for this material – to rely upon. It’s just feeling kinda fractured, and I’m not sure how much longer I can keep myself interested in this way of doing Star Wars.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be quite so down on the book, or the franchise as a whole, but sometimes I do wonder what’s happening to the GFFA…

Star Wars: Tarkin

Continuing to make my merry way through the new Star Wars canon, I’m just done reading Tarkin by my old favourite, James Luceno. What a good book! It wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but my goodness, it was good all the same!

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First of all, this is essentially a biography of Grand Moff Tarkin, but principally told through flashbacks, as Tarkin remembers key moments from his upbringing that clearly inform his actions as an adult. I wasn’t really expecting or hoping for this, as I don’t honestly feel that we need to know that Tarkin’s childhood was a harsh one, with very primal lessons drilled into him as he was mentored by his great-uncle in the wilds of Eriadu. I know he’s the villain of A New Hope, and his ruthless, uncompromising nature led to such atrocities as the Death Star – and that’s fine, I don’t need to see why he is like this; it’s enough that he is. I think I was hoping for something that shows us the Grand Moff in his prime, not necessarily working on the Death Star project, though that is of course a big part of his story.

We do get some of this, as the main storyline involves Tarkin pursuing a group of dissidents who have stolen his ship. Vader is along for the ride, and there are some really great moments between the two that show why the Dark Lord was essentially willing to play lapdog to Tarkin during A New Hope. I actually found myself really liking the fact that Tarkin doesn’t truly know who Vader is, but has a strong suspicion that it is in fact Anakin Skywalker, with whom he worked briefly during the Clone Wars.

Vader is very much Vader, but we do get to see more of Emperor Palpatine, especially in Tarkin’s flashbacks as we see the Senator help him on his way. There were a couple of mentions of Palpatine’s master, and I feel like I would probably have gotten a lot more out of this book if I had also read Luceno’s Darth Plagueis. It’s still annoying to me that I haven’t gotten round to that one yet, but it’s increasingly in my sights, so expect a review once I’ve read it!

Perhaps most strongly tied to this book is Luceno’s earlier novel, Cloak of Deception. That book is one of my all-time favourites, and so I was really happy to see that they haven’t written it off entirely. While there are several bits and pieces scattered throughout this new continuity that make me feel like, “oh, that’ll mean x will be part of canon” or “y is out, then!”, there is much more than merely referencing the fact that Tarkin was a native of Eriadu and once held the post of Sector Governor; the majority of the book’s plot is discussed as historical fact within this novel, which makes me feel that Cloak of Deception can pretty much be the first old-canon novel that can be considered to be new canon, too. Of course, we may yet be proven wrong, but I hope not! On the subject of books that we can assume are definitely no longer canon, Admiral Daala is not mentioned at all in this book, so take from that what you will…

Luceno can be very verbose, and sometimes goes to great lengths to tie in bits of continuity that sometimes feel forced. This was particularly a problem for his first Star Wars novel, Hero’s Trial, but had been less and less of an issue, but it’s now back here, unfortunately. There was also a cute little meta-moment where Tarkin is being fitted for a uniform and remarks on the importance of boots that fit properly, recalling Peter Cushing’s experiences on the set of the film. That’s pretty much the only thing I can find to say that’s actually bad about it. Sure, I wish Tarkin had been treated much as Palpatine was in Cloak of Deception, and have him be the centre of attention without delving into his background like this, but aside from making Tarkin appear somewhat sentimental, it doesn’t really hamper the plot – indeed, it should probably be expected, with a title like Tarkin!

So overall, I liked it a lot!

This is also the 50th book I’ve read so far this year, counting all of the comics as well as the more traditional novels, so I thought that was impressive! I wonder if I’ll get another 50 read by the end of the year…