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TFN Review: Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

Posted by Adam on April 28, 2015 at 06:00 AM CST

Adam's Nettina's Take

The fourth adult hardcover novel to be released in the “new” canon of Star Wars literature, Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith might just be the book fans have been looking forward to most since the April 2014 announcement of the Expanded Universe reboot. Chalk it up to a bold and provocative cover featuring Darth Vader and Emperor Palatine in combat, or perhaps to Kemp’s previous experience with “Legends” books like The Old Republic: Deceived, but whatever the reason for the excitement, there’s been no denying the appeal of this early Rebellion Era narrative. Unfortunately, that excitement doesn’t quite come to fruition within the pages of Lords of the Sith, which after a strong beginning fails to deliver a resounding conclusion.

Now I’m jumping ahead of myself. Truth be told, Lords of the Sith begins as not only a great novel, but a great Star Wars novel. The distinction is one which I've come to appreciate within the setting of the new canon, which after four books has, at times, read more like a series of disparate characters sketches with no grounding in a larger universal story arc. Sure, we get that that there may be seeds of rebellion growing in the galaxy, but the lack of interconnected characters and actions (not to mention the less than direct chronology) have caused a bit of a crisis for longtime Expanded Universe readers already skeptical of this new blank slate galaxy. Lords of the Sith dispenses with some of these concerns right away; a prelude announces the story takes place eight years after the Clone Wars, while the first scene featuring Darth Vader in his meditation sphere anchors a familiar character in an Original Trilogy scene we can all picture in ours minds. Likewise, the novel is filled with mentions and asides featuring familiar Star Wars characters and moments. A scene with Vader recalling his former apprentice Ashoka while sitting "dead" in space over Ryloth is handled perfectly in echoing an iconic event from The Clone Wars series, while the revelation that the leader of the Free Ryloth movement is none other than the father of Rebels protagonist Hera not only makes sense, but gives the reader a new angle to watch the forthcoming second season of the aforementioned show.

Connecting the plot to the rest of the unfolding Star Wars story isn't the only thing Kemp does well during the first half of the novel. His rebellion-in-miniature creation of the Free Ryloth movement is masterfully described, while it's leader, Cham Syndulla, is dynamic and believable. Cham's internal struggle to reconcile the particularly aggressive guerrilla warfare tactics of his group with a fundamental humanity is an ongoing struggle Kemp introduces right away, occasionally returning to Syndulla's thoughts of Not a Terrorist, but a Freedom Fighter before and during confrontations with Imperials. Of all the characters in the book I felt Cham was the strongest, and Kemp's ability to probe his emotions and mindset showed amazing depth and growth throughout the novel. Likewise, Kemp seems particularly skilled in writing Cham's second-in-command, Isval, who undergoes perhaps the greatest growth throughout the novel in coming to an understanding of what it means to be a freedom fighter. Skillful in writing the rebel characters, Kemp keeps the reader engrossed with the plot he proposes. A great opening scene with Vader going badass to the extreme in space combat is followed by poignant and memorable introductions of all the main players from both sides, as well as multiple chapters devoted to the novel’s inciting incident when the Star Destroyer Perilous is destroyed and the main Imperial characters are left stranded on Ryloth’s surface.

That said, the novel begins to unravel shortly after the destruction of Perilous. The complications set up by the destruction of the ship shifts the attention more completely to Vader and the Emperor playing Jurassic Park in the jungles of Ryloth. If there’s a chief protagonist in the work it should be Vader. He does, after all, grace the cover, figure prominently in the story, and lend his name to the title. The problem is that Kemp has written a Vader who holds true to Ben Kenobi’s words: more machine than man. What follows is a rather static character, one built with clichés about omnipresent anger and rage but only receiving cursory treatment when examining his inner thoughts. At first I thought this was due to a lack of ability on the part of Kemp the storyteller, but the more I read the more I was convinced that Kemp was deliberately severing Vader from the pain of experience and memory, and thereby conferring on him a sort of regression to the cliche, if not overly violent automaton we all first saw in A New Hope. There are moments, certainly, when Vader’s character is technically sound—Kemp’s prolific description of him in space combat, specifically—and even moments where we do see that he’s still capable of contemplating what he once was. But despite several scenes driving home this point (including an awkward moment in which he tinkers with an ancient communicator) we're never left with any real development from Vader. If anything, the reader witnesses the last vestiges of his humanity fading away, with more questions than answers to how he became what he is. Vader's character arc was frustrating; the Emperor's is virtually nonexistent. Receiving substantially less treatment than he did in Tarkin and nothing approaching the depth we saw of both Palatine and Sidious within the pages of Darth Plagueis, the Emperor is constantly goading Vader with asides about the latter’s past. His tempting Vader’s pride by repeatedly bringing up the established Master-Apprentice relationship of the Rule of Two is at first of great interest, but it leads to little as the work plays out. Most disappointingly, we never really get inside Palpatine’s head, and combined with the frustrating nature of Vader’s devolving character, the actual Lords of the Sith who give the book it’s title really do little more than leave the reader wanting.

If frustration with the treatment of the main characters kept me from loving Lords of the Sith, then the cliché and in many ways forced development of the second half of the story ultimately kept me from leaving its pages feeling satisfied. It starts, but by no means concludes, with the less-than-believable treatment given to Moff Mors and Colonel Belkor. Mors, who in the first half of the book is painted as a obese and hedonistic slob rubbing elbows with the Hutts, suddenly has a proverbial “come to Jesus moment” after nearly dying following a crash on Ryloth. As soon as she reveals the motivating factor for letting herself go (both physically and her Imperial duties) was the death of her wife, she suddenly becomes the virtuous and redeemed hero of the novel, adopting a loyalty and professionalism which proves a major difference in thwarting Belkor’s betrayal and rescuing Vader and the Emperor. Attaching Mors’ coming out (the first major declaration of a homosexual character in universe) to such a swift character transformation smacks of trying to make the character likable in a political correct way, as if the reader would need extra incentive not to view Mors any differently than heterosexual characters. Notwithstanding the questionable interpretation of how a totalitarian government made up of few, if any, minorities would promote an openly gay female Moff, Mors’ character seems more a concession to force diversity into the Star Wars universe than anything else. In any case, after her coming out her mannerisms become completely different, and lacking the intrigue once associated with her questionable loyalty, the instant conferring of her heroin status is almost worth an eye roll. So much for not treating characters of different sexual orientations differently.

This has a reverberating effect in how Kemp writes Belkor, whose character is mishandled down the stretch. Throughout the first half of the novel he’s both detestable in his betrayal (which leads to Imperial deaths) and work to combat it (leading to civilian deaths), but there’s a factor of calculation which proves believable. Later intimidated but Cham, Belkor begins to question his actions and loses his confidence, sliding into an anxious and uncertain mentality. I thought it a very realistic portrait consistent with anyone getting in over his or her head, but the complete and utter mental breakdown he suffers, in addition to frankly just some poorly written and throwaway descriptions of him going crazy, make it hard to take his character as a buffoonish, over-the-top comic book villain. Sadly, this image seems to be conferred upon more and more Imperial soldiers in recent literature and television series’, although it’s unclear if Belkor shares the same, uh, “proficiency,” as a marksman as the Imperial characters in

By far though, the more egregious error Kemp makes is with regards to the plot, which degenerates from a story of intrigue and action set amidst a system-wide insurgency to a Jurassic Park 2 dark side orgy on the surface of Ryloth. The second half of the book leans far too heavily on Vader, the Emperor, and two surviving Royal Guards fighting off gigantic, almost semi-sentinent insects in the wilds of Ryloth, a plotline which would make Troy Denning and his Dark Nest trilogy jealous. Within this chase are far too many clichés about omnipresent rage and anger and blah blah blah, with a final dark side exclamation point of lunacy added when the Emperor, equipped with a lightsaber, has a Yoda in Episode II moment in a cave. Also, there are indigenous natives, a prototypical tracker, and a convenient excuse for why electronic communication systems don’t work. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

Minor points of contention may irk longtime Expanded Universe readers, particularly those not as well versed in the time-frame between Episode II and the Original Trilogy era. Ryloth's surface is treated as more a jungle than arid wasteland, while the revelation that at least some Royal Guards are clones may irk those (well, it irked me) who still cling to the aura of the guards inspired by Crimson Empire. Even if it doesn’t, the guards are written in a way which doesn’t inspire much confidence. They’re competent soldiers, I suppose, but an almost butlerish quality and allegiance to the Emperor comes across as comedic and prosaic as opposed to scare-the-crap-out-of-you fanatical. Were also constantly treated to the idea of a Star Destroyer being an almost indestructible capital ship, yet given no specifics to the differentiation in class.

Kemp’s novel may well pay dividends as the new canon continues to unfold, especially with the arrival of another season of Rebels. Yet even in advancing the story of the early Rebellion Era and testifying to the fear which the Galaxy Far, Far, Away learns to have of Vader, Kemp’s novel doesn't do justice to the title, and fails to convey the human intrigue of the Master-Apprentice relationship that James Luceno has previously captured. With a plotline that degenerates into predictability and characters whose development are phoned-in down the stretch, Lords of the Sith doesn't deliver a memorable or satisfying final story that can stand on its own.

Doug Bragg's Take

Paul S. Kemp’s Star Wars: Sith Lords begins as a fun, well-paced Star Wars adventure, but by the end feels more like a missed opportunity to explore Darth Vader and the Emperor. There is a lot to like in the novel: the ties to the Clone Wars cartoon and Rebels cartoon help with the overall feeling that this is part of the Saga; some of the moments inside Vader’s head giving us insight into how he views himself and how at this point he handles his memories of his prior life; the action scenes are well written, and I particularly enjoyed Kemp’s efficient descriptions (i.e. “unzipping”). I also really enjoyed the subtle uses of dialogue from the Star Wars films in this book. The opening demonstrating Vader as a force to be feared was also well done and certainly worked to establish Vader’s reputation moving forward. Finally, the characters of Cham Syndulla and Isval felt 3-dimensional and were interesting throughout the book. Isval had a side story that felt like it came from Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse that I would have enjoyed seeing more of. Actually, that is probably where my issues with the book start… the missed opportunities.

At about 220 pages, the story was efficient in sticking to the main plot (with rare deviations – such as with Isval), but left me feeling like there was room to expand things and to take a few more side trips to help flesh out Cham Syndulla and his efforts more as well as to show us how the Imperial Officer that Cham manipulates throughout the book got started. There’s also not a lot shown as far as what the Empire is doing to the people of Ryloth that gets Cham and his Freedom Fighters so worked up. By the end of the story there were also some threads that were left unresolved that a brief epilogue addressing these things would have been nice.

For me the biggest missed opportunity seems to be with Vader himself. The story is set 8 years after the Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith. Thus, one would think that Vader has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer Anakin Skywalker. However, it is certainly reasonable that he might start having doubts. Padme was lost, although his enticement to becoming Vader was that Palpatine might be able to teach him how to save her. But, from the outset, there does not appear to be any internal conflict with Vader. The few times we get into his helmet, memories come up about his past and he quickly buries them. Then we have Palpatine encourage him to bury those feelings. Since Vader started off on the same page with Palpatine on that at the beginning of the story, there is no character development for Vader. Perhaps if there had been more time in Vader’s head thinking about regretting his choice or feeling that he was ready to ascend to being the Master, then there could have been some development, and the adventure with Palpatine as it unfolded may have led to some sort of internal change in Vader, a re-affirmation of who he was and was not. But, since there was no such conflict set up, the journey with Vader and Palpatine felt like a missed opportunity. Even if not pursuing that route, it was an opportunity to see Palpatine impart Sith teaching. Would he teach through more stories of past Sith Lords? Would he use it to try and show Vader Sith techniques similar to Yoda teaching Luke? Instead, the lessons seemed to cover familiar territory.

Another missed opportunity was in delving into the scheming and manipulative nature of Palpatine. The story quickly moves to this chess game between Palpatine and Syndulla, with both setting a trap for the other… but Palpatine sets up the situation inviting the trap – much as he did in Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi. He used himself as bait to draw out his enemy and to destroy them. Or so that seemed to be the theory. In practice, Palpatine had no real plan where Syndulla put a plan into action that would have made Grand Admiral Thrawn proud… and then apparently Syndulla decided he didn’t need to actually think through his plan until it was mostly completed. A tactical genius that out-thinks the Empire 2 or 3 steps, whose constant advise to his subordinates is to have 2 exit plans couldn’t follow his own advice.

Thus, while in the films when Palpatine offered himself up as bait only to have the situation manipulated to be as much in his favor as possible, this time, he didn’t bother. In Revenge of the Sith, he commanded both armies gave both orders to protect him. In Return of the Jedi, he had a fully operational Death Star and a shield generator protected by a legion of his best troops. I kept waiting for that Palpatine to appear in the story.
As a result of Palpatine not having a plan, the story reached a point where to progress without killing off Palpatine, Darth Vader had to use the Force to such a degree that the Force Unleashed game was immediately brought to mind. While the Force Unleashed was a fun couple of games to play, the Force Powers in that game felt too powerful. Indeed, if Anakin / Vader were this powerful , the Battle of Yavin would have gone very differently. Arguably, the opening of Revenge of the Sith would have gone very differently as well. As a result of Vader needing to be as powerful as he was to progress the story, after they landed on Ryloth, the Ryloth Freedom Fighters hunting them could not possibly be a threat. At one point, Vader uses the Force to such a degree that it makes Yoda pulling the X-wing from the swamp or saving Anakin and Obi-wan at the end of Attack of the Clones look like child’s play. When Dooku dropped the large equipment on Anakin and Obi-wan, Yoda showed real effort and concentration in stopping it and moving it away. But here, Vader and Palpatine use the Force to do something far more impressive without apparently much effort at all. Similarly, in Attack of the Clones, Boba Fett fired on Obi-wan with the Slave I’s guns. This was too much for Obi-wan in the film. But for this version of Vader, that would have been a non-issue.

It felt that once the story got to the forest of Ryloth (yes, forest on Ryloth, which constantly bothered me as an unnecessary change to Ryloth), logic gave way to doing things necessary to move the story forward. Thus hordes of dangerous wildlife have to be thrown at Vader and Palpatine because nothing else could possibly be a threat. Even then, there is little feeling that the duo are in any sort of peril.

The novel seems to accomplish its goals of acting as a bit of a bridge between the Clone Wars cartoon and the Rebels cartoon (both shows that I enjoy), and of showing Vader earn his fearsome reputation (somewhat). However, it doesn’t appear that the events here substantially move anything forward in the galaxy far, far away. For a mostly entertaining diversion into the galaxy far, far away, it kinda works. For fans of the saga looking to see significant events in the development of the Rebellion or Darth Vader, it leaves the reader feeling frustrated and disappointed.

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