"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, June 15, 2012

Jaded Fan vs. 'Darth Plagueis'

Star Wars: Darth PlagueisStar Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps my favorite scene in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the one where Palpatine entices Anakin toward the dark side by recounting the story of Darth Plagueis—a Sith Lord who manipulates the Force in an effort to become immortal. I love the scene in part because it focuses on personal relationships as opposed to bureaucratic procedure. It also emanates with the most spiritual strains of Jedi and Sith lore. So when I saw a new Star Wars novel titled Darth Plagueis, I snatched it eagerly from my library’s New Release shelf.

Though there is plenty to compliment in veteran Star Wars author James Luceno’s novel, I came away deeply disappointed. This book is not what I expected, and frankly, this book is not what publisher Del Rey bills it as on the dust jacket. Darth Plagueis’s Frankensteinian excursions into the Force do not drive this story. After an engrossing opening, which ties off Darth Plagueis’s relationship to his master, the novel quickly sinks into the same sludgy bureaucratic opera that mired the plot of Episode One: The Phantom Menace. The bulk of this yarn plays about as mystically as a cop procedural. Law and Order: Sith Unit would have been a more honest title.

It could be argued that Darth Plagueis is not even the main character. Sith all-stars Palpatine, Dooku and young Darth Maul keep wresting the spotlight from him. While adequate back story is provided to explain Plagueis’s obsession with immortality, his macabre Force experiments remain on the periphery of a plot too invested in Republican politics and backroom business deals. The Sith Lords, herein billed as mystical zealots, come over largely as stoic crime bosses. What colorful personalities they sport at the outset are quickly steam cleaned away to conceal their powers from the Jedi. A justified storytelling choice? Yes. But not an especially interesting one.

What is more, in the most egregious missed opportunity of the book, Plagueis’s greatest feat of Force manipulation gets mentioned only in hindsight. Ever notice how The Empire Strikes Back, a critical and fan favorite, is as much a lean ensemble play as it is a grand action film? Now imagine Luke’s training by Yoda not being depicted as it transpires. Instead, picture Luke all but dropped from the middle third of the film while Darth Vader and the Emperor have conference calls with coconspirators. What a disappointing Empire Strikes Back that would have been.

I picked up Darth Plagueis because I wanted—and was promised—a mystical fantasy. Instead I got a complicated and rather impersonal history of organized crime in a galaxy far, far away. Perhaps hardcore enthusiasts of Star Wars novels had a different experience than me. I freely admit to being a fair-weather fan of this sprawling subgenre. It is my impression that this novel was written solely for readers who devour every Star Wars novel published. That may be okay, but it strikes me as a franchise growing too insular and selling itself short.

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