When they announced the first batch of canon Star Wars novels there was one in particular that stuck out to me, Paul S Kemp’s Lords of the Sith. Call me morbid, but I do love the dark side novels. A story all about Darth Vader and the Emperor sounded like it could be full of bleak broody Star Wars goodness. Well, having finished the book the first thing I have to say is that despite the name, there’s surprisingly less time spent with Sith Lords than you would expect. Instead Lords of the Sith is in fact more a book about Twi’Leks. Surprise!
So let’s get this out of the way first: Darth Vader is barely in the first half of the book. This is not a story about being a Sith and this is not a story about Darth Vader’s day-to-day life. It’s a story about Twi’Lek freedom fighters who plan and stage a chaotic assassination attempt against both Darth Vader and the Emperor.
The book basically has two acts, it has a before the thing and after the thing. The beforehand story is mostly build-up and character development, while the backend is filled with tense and exciting moments as characters scramble around in the aftermath. The first chunk of the book is perfectly readable and fairly enjoyable but I did find myself waiting for things to get going. There’s a sense of slow momentum for quite some time but once things kick off then I found the quality improved as things become much more involving.
Despite being central to the story, we never get a point of view chapter from the Emperor, which I think is actually a good choice. Instead we see the novel from the perspectives of two Twi’Lek freedom fighters, two Imperial higher-ups and of course, Darth Vader himself. As already mentioned, Darth Vader doesn’t do a whole lot in the first half of the novel, but the second half steadily gives us some scenes from his point of view and he begins to feel like a central character. We get a good look at his unsteady and tense relationship with the Emperor too, who comes across just as eerie and sinister as he did on screen. Darth Vader here is portrayed as someone still struggling with who he is and what he’s done, meanwhile the Emperor is looking on with a kind of bemused reassurance that Vader is fully under control. As for the remaining cast, they’re all a fairly entertaining bunch to follow. All become tied together quite tightly as time goes on and their actions set them on a collision course. The impending presence of this upcoming clash becomes an engaging reason to keep reading and Kemp ensures enough happens along the way that we don’t get bored.
The tone of the book is pretty bleak. We’ve been getting our share of dark Star Wars stories over the years and this fits in with them. The book is a pretty serious affair and a couple of characters face fairly gruesome deaths, which we’d most likely not see on screen if this were a typical family friendly Star Wars movie. It never steps overboard though and it only lightly pushes what you’d expect, this is still good ole space fantasy action not a horror story.
My only real complaint about the book is that the combat segments are sometimes a little dry. Although Kemp is brilliant at writing some very tense scenes, when the lightsabers actually fire up it all becomes a little straightforward. That said, I don’t think Kemp is necessarily to blame here. By which I mean the book suffers from an unavoidable problem by the nature of what it is: we know Darth Vader and the Emperor survive just fine. Of course they do because they have to live long enough to get to Return of the Jedi, right? Any scene where the two are in peril is diminished somewhat by the obvious fact that they’re not really in any danger. This isn’t a new problem with Star Wars books, in fact it was a regular criticism in the 90s that the characters felt too safe, but it does suck some of the tension out of the action here when the fate of the Sith duo is seemingly in question for most of the novel.
Speaking of continuity, there are a few fun little nods throughout the book that remind us we live in a post-prequels and post-The Clone Wars TV show world now. These references are actually really well placed and done in a manner where you’ll get a kick out of them if you’re tuned in to the other Star Wars media properties, but they don’t intrude on the plot either. If this is your first Star Wars novel and you’ve only seen the movies then you’ll be just fine, nothing in the book relies on prior knowledge. Though I must say it was a little strange at first to see Darth Vader spare a thought for Padmé, but I do think the book is better for trying to tie things together. It works quite well to remind you that, like Star Wars Rebels, this book is a bridge between the two trilogies and the new canon won’t shy away from referencing both sets of movies. It makes the book feel like part of a cohesive whole and less of a specific tie-in to one certain slice of the property, as some of the previous EU novels often did.
I know some people are very excited at the prospect that these new books might offer new tasty pieces of lore or insights we’ve never seen before, so if that’s you I’ll say now for your benefit that there isn’t much of that here. Like I said there’s little references but there’s no grand sweeping revelations, not that there needs to be. At its core this is a fairly straightforward story, a good one at that.
When I hit the final page of Lords of the Sith I felt pretty satisfied with the experience. It’s not too short and it’s not too long, although it takes a bit of time to get going it also knows when to call it quits and bring things to a close. Most of the novel relies on its tense atmosphere and the lingering question of how this will wrap up. Sure, we know Darth Vader lives but there are enough other characters in the mix to keep you guessing at who’s going to make it out and who’s going to have the last laugh.
Overall Lords of the Sith is a solidly enjoyable Star Wars novel. It doesn’t break any particularly new ground but it is fun and does provide an enjoyable ride.
Review based on the Kindle version purchased from Amazon.co.uk. Disclosure: Following that link (or this Amazon.com one) to purchase the book will toss me a couple coins. I don’t expect you to use the links if you feel uncomfortable doing so, but it’s a nice way to toss me a tip if you enjoyed the review!