I want to get this out of the way first thing: I haven’t been a regular reader of Star Wars books for fourteen years. Prior to the prequels, the Expanded Universe provided an outlet for my teenaged self to experience the Star Wars universe beyond the Original Trilogy. But once The Phantom Menace hit theaters accompanied by its merchandising blitz, the Expanded Universe didn’t resonate with me in the same way. I didn’t have anything against it, but I no longer needed it to fan the flames of my fandom as Star Wars was everywhere.
Now I’ve picked up the odd Star Wars book here and there over the years, but I had never seriously gotten back into reading in that universe, and I had no intention to. The films and television series were enough for me up until Lucasfilm announced that the EU was transitioning to Legends and going forward all new novels would be considered canon.
Giving the books “official” status (nevermind that one form of fiction can’t actually be more “real” than another), tripped the completist switch in me. I needed to know the whole story. I devoured John Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn when it released in September and was privileged to receive an advanced copy of Tarkin by James Luceno which I also tore through.
The book follows Moff Wilhuff Tarkin as he is sucked into an insurgent plot that sees him brought from a remote world in the Outer Rim to the galactic capital and into an investigation where he is teamed with Darth Vader. Along the way, we are treated to flashbacks detailing young Tarkin’s summers in the wilderness of his homeworld of Eriadu to his rise among the Republic and then Imperial ranks.
As someone who’s version of Star Wars has been heavily prequel-orientated for fifteen years now, I absolutely loved the world building that occurs in the book. Luceno goes to great lengths examining the Imperial power structure and showing not only how such an institution could exist but also how it actually functioned. He provides a lot of detail about the various branches of the Imperial government and military, and I found that the fleshing out of those details have actually given me a greater appreciation for the Star Wars Rebels animated series.
A pleasant surprise was Emperor Sheev Palpatine’s role in his own government (yes, that’s his name, and I almost threw my Kindle across the room when Tarkin dropped the Sith Lord’s first name so casually early on in the book). Palpatine may have an Empire, but he’s perfectly content to let others run the organization, spending most of his time studying the Dark Side in a forgotten Sith Shrine beneath the Imperial Palace and only taking an active role in events when he senses the Dark Side leading him to do so. It becomes very clear that the Empire doesn’t need its Emperor to function — for the most part, he’s a figurehead. It felt very consistent with what I remember of the novelization of A New Hope and has inspired me to go back and reread that book. It also seems to line up with the persistent rumors that the Empire survived Return of the Jedi and plays a role somehow in Episode VII, and I’m interested in seeing if that pans out.
World building seems to be a unifying theme in this era of Star Wars storytelling, as A New Dawn, Rebels, and now Tarkin seem to be going to great lengths to show us exactly what the Empire of the Original Trilogy is like. It’s a direction that I for one enjoy, as I’m feeling more immersed in the realism of the universe than I think I ever have been before.
As for the actual story, it struck me as more of a buddy cop tale than anything. Vader and Tarkin don’t get along due to Tarkin having once prosecuted Vader’s Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano (Tarkin doesn’t know that Vader is Anakin Skywalker, but he strongly suspects it), and since the Emperor needs them on good terms, he sticks them on a mission together. I was surprised at how much their story referenced their interactions from the Clone Wars cartoon series, and not just that but also brought in elements from the incomplete story reels “Crystal Crisis on Utapau” that are available for viewing on StarWars.com in addition to being included on the Blu-ray set of Clone Wars: The Lost Missions when it is released on November 11. I also highly suspect that elements of the long-gestating Underworld live-action series made it into the novel as early on Vader is established as having dealings with the criminal world based on Coruscant, which has been mentioned as having played a part in that show. Luceno did a great job at taking all of these elements and treating them as vital to the plot instead of mentioning them in passing, and as a fan of Clone Wars, I really appreciated that.
Otherwise, I felt the main storyline — Vader and Tarkin hunting down the cloaked ship — was just kind of ho hum. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t hold my attention in the same way as when Luceno was connecting all of the dots and showing not only how things worked but why everything was the way it was. Even still, I liked the buddy cop story more than I did the flashbacks, which while informative and definitely helping add depth to Wilhuff Tarkin, kept popping up and undercutting the momentum of Tarkin and Vader’s investigation. I couldn’t help but feel that there was maybe a smoother way to transition into those scenes without breaking the pace of the story.
I also found the insurgent plotline kind of fascinating. In another time and place, say ten years down the timeline, these guys would be key members of the growing rebel movement. In a slightly different universe, a cartoon about their exploits could be airing on Disney XD. As it is, it was fascinating to see the early stages of civil unrest in the galaxy beginning to form, even if a few of these cells acted too early before the stage was really set for a movement to begin.
All in all, I enjoyed Tarkin. The primary storyline, while not great, was interesting enough that it held my attention, but where the book really flourished was in the depth that Luceno added to the world. I loved seeing the universe established in the Prequels and Clone Wars built upon and transitioning to what we know from the Original Trilogy, and I am extremely excited to see how the next couple of books add to that.