Monday, April 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: "Lords of the Sith" by Paul Kemp

Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine flex their Force muscles in Paul Kemp's Lords of the Sith, but the real stars of this book are Cham Syndulla and his rebellion on Ryloth. According to the publisher's summary:
On Ryloth, a planet crucial to the growing Empire as a source of slave labor and the narcotic known as “spice,” an aggressive resistance movement has arisen, led by Cham Syndulla, an idealistic freedom fighter, and Isval, a vengeful former slave. But Emperor Palpatine means to control the embattled world and its precious resources—by political power or firepower—and he will be neither intimidated nor denied. Accompanied by his merciless disciple, Darth Vader, he sets out on a rare personal mission to ensure his will is done.
In his previous Star Wars books, Paul Kemp impressed me with his memorable characterizations and willingness to slow down the action to focus on the little details. Deceived took a generic Sith from The Old Republic MMO trailer, Darth Malgus, and gave him some real depth and emotions. In Crosscurrent and Riptide, Kemp added small character quirks for Jaden Korr and the crew of the Junker that made them stand out. I still remember the fact that Khedryn Faal had a lazy eye and Marr Idi-Shael had a chipped tooth.

Kemp brings that same type of character development to Lords of the Sith, especially with the Twi'lek rebels. Cham Syndulla first appeared in The Clone Wars episode "Liberty on Ryloth," but came across as simply a lofty idealist. Lords of the Sith shows his strategic acumen, as well as his internal doubts. He's not above using blackmail and sending people to their deaths. His colleague Isval has her own inner demons from the time she was kept as an Imperial slave. If anything, I was a bit surprised and disappointed that Kemp didn't take this character to darker places as it seemed like she was being set up for a "Heart of Darkness" style arc.

Kemp's new Imperial characters also get some unique quirks. Moff Mors is the Imperial leader on Ryloth. The media made a big deal of the fact that she is officially the first lesbian character in Star Wars, but what's more interesting is that she starts the book depressed, having given up on her career. It's rare to see a Star Wars character who suffers from genuine depression and it made her character arc more meaningful. She cedes most of her authority to her assistant, Colonel Belkor. Belkor finds himself enmeshed in a conspiracy partly of his own making. The character is forced to make difficult choices and seeing him slowly slip into insanity was a treat.

Cham Syndulla - not just an idealist
It was good to see Kemp give these characters their due because - through no fault of his own - the plot of this book contains little suspense or surprise. Anybody who has seen the Original Trilogy knows that Vader and the Emperor survive. Their fate is never in doubt. Moreover, the official publisher's summary spoils the plot of about 50-60% of the book (I took the liberty of removing the last paragraph of the summary so as to not spoil readers). If you've read the publisher's summary and seen the movies, you know what's going to happen here.

All too often in Star Wars, the heroes are more lucky than skilled. This is particularly egregious in the Rebels TV series, where the main characters regularly barge onto Imperial ships or bases with no plan, relying on Imperial incompetence to save the day. In my review of Tarkin, I noted that the ragtag rebels in that book never seemed like worthy adversaries. Not so in Lords of the Sith. Cham's Twi'lek rebels come across as competent and careful. Cham has carefully cultivated resources and personnel. His team has to think carefully about where and when to use them. Nobody would ever accuse them of just being "lucky." I dare say it's probably the most realistic depiction of an insurgency we've ever gotten in Star Wars.

The rebels use their resources to attack the Star Destroyer Perilous, which is carrying Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and Senator Orn Free Taa. I appreciated that Kemp makes this into a Big Deal. Ever since Return of the Jedi, it's become something of a trope in Star Wars that starfighters can destroy Star Destroyers by taking out the two shield towers and then hitting the bridge. In The Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows, one gets the sense that capital ships are pretty expendable. By contrast, Cham and his rebels have to commit a lot of resources to an attack with multiple phases. Kemp also doesn't shy away from the death toll; both the Twi'leks and Imperials recognize that hundreds, likely thousands, of officers died. By the time the rebels actually destroy the ship, you feel like they've earned it.

Despite its title, I was less interested in Vader and the Emperor in Lords of the Sith. The publisher's summary states that their relationship will be "tested as never before," but I didn't find that to be the case. Both characters are so overpowered that they could easily destroy any obstacle that stood in their way. Obviously, I knew neither character would die, I never felt like they were seriously threatened or even stressed. Vader had a few nice character moments, particularly when he's haunted by his past, but it never seemed to me like anything they faced truly tested their relationship. Perhaps it's because in the old Expanded Universe/Legends we had so many stories in which the Emperor "tests" Vader and I've become inured to the concept.

I've noticed that the newer Star Wars novels seem to struggle to deliver a fitting denouement. Unfortunately, this is the case with Lords of the Sith as well. The events in this book should have important consequences for both Ryloth and the galaxy at large. The Twi'leks hope that their actions will ignite a spark of rebellion throughout the galaxy. Does the Empire cover up the destruction of the Star Destroyer, as they fear, or does news of their victory spread? We simply never find out, which ironically means we don't know if the protagonists were successful in their ultimate mission. We also never get a closing scene for Moff Mors explaining her fate, which is a shame because her character underwent considerable growth and this is probably the last we'll see of her (although there are rumors that she will appear in the Rogue One spinoff film). We don't even find out what happened to Senator Orn Free Taa. Admittedly, he doesn't play a large role in this book, but he had been a prominent character in The Clone Wars.

Kemp's Lords of the Sith is easily the best of the four canon novels out there. The characters are memorable and defy predictable stereotypes. The destruction of the Star Destroyer is probably the most epic moment in the new canon thus far. And I enjoyed seeing the way this band of rebels operated. I just wish there had been a bit more payoff at the end.

Overall: 4 Ryloth Gutkurrs

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