Paul S. Kemp is no novice in Star Wars literature. He has written three novels within the Legends universe: The Old Republic: Deceived, Crosscurrent, and Riptide. One defining trait of his work that I’ve noticed in reading the former two is his depiction of Sith lords: their raw energy and anger, the potent and sometimes surprising drive that keeps them both slaves and masters of the Dark Side of the Force. Therefore, it seems an obvious choice on the part of Del Rey Books to commission Mr. Kemp with the task of writing a story about the two most famous Sith lords of the official canon: Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The result was a plot brimming with suspense and conflict (though perhaps stilted by heavy conflict in key scenes), punctuated with intriguing character development that brought the focus down from the galactic concerns of supreme rulers to the everyday struggle of insurgents and servants of evil.
That’s what Lords of the Sith is: essentially, a character study. It’s a thrilling adventure, too, of course, but the emphasis is clearly on the novel’s wide cast of characters. And what a colorful cast it is, populated by Twi’lek freedom fighters, Imperial traitors, the first canon female Moff, the Imperial Red Guard, and of course, the lords of the Sith.
All met with more or less great success, I felt. I especially enjoyed the saga of the two primary Twi’lek characters, Cham Syndulla (the father of Star Wars Rebels‘ Hera Syndulla) and the fierce Isval.
Cham came across as a wise and competent leader who experiences self-doubt, a humanizing combination that made him easy to identify with and root for. He is able to run the Free Ryloth Movement, the localized rebellion, with competence and surprising leverage. Isval was, however, a more unique reading experience. Her motivations are less righteous than her leader Cham’s, rooted as they are in a borderline psychotic thirst for revenge. With her character, Mr. Kemp addresses the tradition of sex slavery in the female Twi’lek demographic in a way that adds an extra layer of depth to the story. The Twi’lek pair make for an intriguing contrast; on the one side, you have the moral freedom fighter who wants the best for his people, while on the other you have the emotionally compromised second-in-command who thinks that blowing up Imperials, innocent or otherwise, is completely justifiable due to the wrongs they have dealt her in the past. That’s the kind of psychological debate that can be difficult to handle: how far can you really take revenge before the tables are turned and justice becomes the opposite? Kemp’s use of the multiplicity of perspectives on this subject added yet another layer of depth; again, we see the proof of this book being character driven.
For the novel as a whole, the physical energy was spiked high, which is typical from my experience with Mr. Kemp’s writing style. The action was almost ever-present, and substantial chunks of the book were taken up with an assassination attempt on the Emperor aboard a Star Destroyer, as well as the subsequent hunt amid the tangled jungles of Ryloth following said Star Destroyer’s destruction.
This brings me to another reason why I say that this story’s focus was mainly on character, which is that the physical conflict of the plot was very broadly distributed; the assassination and the hunt sequences are played out across many chapters, with new battle scenes sprinkled throughout to add variety and keep the suspense going. One of the few issues that I have with this book actually comes from the action scenes. There’s one in particular that takes place under Ryloth’s surface that was admittedly a slog for me. It’s basically Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine chopping through hordes of indigenous creatures that are trying to eat them. There’s a bit of interesting inner conflict with Vader as he comes to a point where he realizes that he could just let his master be overtaken by their enemies. Nevertheless, the scene is still thick with action, albeit too thick for my taste.
I’d like to go back to the subject of inner conflict with Darth Vader. This was perhaps one of the most crucial parts of the story (the book is called Lords of the Sith, after all): getting inside Vader’s head and somehow finding a balance between what we saw of him at the end of Revenge of the Sith and where we see him enter the Tantive IV in A New Hope. His state of mind, his state of being with the Dark Side, the depth of his relationship with Palpatine… all of these things had to be addressed. And they were, but for me, the results were mixed.
Vader has by this time completely accepted the mantle of the Sith and his position as the enforcer of order upon the galaxy. Too much of his past life was dominated by the short-sightedness of his Jedi peers; now the worlds and the Force are completely open to him. Now he rules by the side of the greatest Sith lord in millennia.
Darth Sidious himself is not just the ruler of the Empire; he is (or seems to be) an all-powerful enigma. Through all of the trials and danger that he and Vader experience throughout the events of Lords of the Sith, Palpatine appears to be completely aware of all the factors. One can truly see how the Force has dipped in his favor. during the Clone Wars, Grand Jedi Master Yoda could barely glimpse into the future, if he could see into it at all; Palpatine, on the other hand, seems omniscient. Nothing that occurs, not even the Free Ryloth Movement’s attack on his personal Star Destroyer or the conflicts on the planet below, perturbs him. The only factor that seems to have him on edge is his own apprentice. In fact, the collected events of the story appear as a grand orchestrated attempt, by the Force or Palpatine or both, to test Vader’s loyalty.
Vader gives Palpatine little reason for doubt. But there are a couple of scenes in which we glimpse the raw scars from Vader’s past. Memories bubble to the surface unbidden, memories of people and sensations that feed his anger. It is in these moments that we see that Anakin is not entirely gone; yes, his goodness and compassion have fled, but the memories, they still exist. These were, perhaps, the best scenes with Vader in the book.
And yet, there’s still something about Vader’s portrayal in Lords of the Sith that bothers me. Perhaps it’s the overall sense that we are not entirely connected to Vader; except for a few scenes, like in the very first chapter or when he is experiencing visions of his past, I didn’t feel that we were able to really delve deep into his psyche, the turbulence of his secret thoughts. Rather, the impression I was left with was one of detachment from the character. But then, that could have been intentional. When you’re dealing with one of the most iconic characters of all time, you may be hesitant to get too deep into how he thinks, lest you create a label for him that not everyone agrees on. I just wish that I had gotten a better impression of Vader’s emotions; his anger and rage are things talked of, and they fuel his power as a Sith, but I was left wanting more depth than that.
Though the Sith and the Twi’leks occupied most of the narrative, the two primary Imperial officers, whose eyes were saw through in addition to Vader, Cham, and Isval’s, still managed to carry on their separate character arcs. As I mentioned earlier, Lords of the Sith introduced the first canon female Moff, Delian Mors. Mors is also the first canon lesbian character in the Star Wars universe, a move that, while adding an element of interest, did not necessarily have any bearing on the plot except to give you an image of the nature of Mors’s character in the beginning of the story. Mors’s character arc, on the other hand, was very successful. I liked that Kemp treated Mors as a full-fledged character, rather than giving her special treatment because of the novelty of her characteristics (female lesbian Moff). Her subordinate, Belkor Dray, was very well-written, and his part in the story provided some necessary conflict as well as insight into the shadier dealings that go on within Imperial ranks.
Overall, I felt that Lords of the Sith was a solid story. I think it could be considered a safe addition to Star Wars literature; nothing galaxy-shattering occurred, unless you count the sparks of rebellion which are to arise as a result of the events therein. But it was an intriguing story; it presented a canonized look into the era that is the height of Imperial and Sith power following Revenge of the Sith, and it showed us how a particular part of the galaxy is reacting in its own way to that domination. In addition, Paul S. Kemp was able to render characters that were not stereotypical, with very individualized motivations and arcs.
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