Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader (James Luceno)
Dark Lord: Rise of Darth Vader takes place during and immediately after the events of Revenge of the Sith. This novel explores what happened to some of the Jedi who survived, and more importantly, the development of Vader and his experiences and limitations in the iconic suit.
A disproportionate amount of the book is spent with the rogue Jedi. These Jedi have no prior reference in the EU, so their inclusion lacks appeal. This group of Jedi take up atleast 70% of their story, but their meaningful contributions are minimal. There simply isn't enough of a reason to care for these characters. From the time they first encounter Vader, to the end of the novel, it is clear that these guys are no match for Vader, as they present little challenge to him. They survive a series of encounters through luck alone, and the final fight with Vader sees the majority of the Jedi easily defeated. The stories of those who survived have never been built upon, further diminishing this arc.
The one quality aspect of this portion of the story is the internal conflict between the central character. This Jedi abandons the order in exchange for a more normal life with his long lost mother. He comes back into the fold during the climactic battle on Kashyyyk, but unfortunately we don't know where he comes from, why he has changed his mind, or etc. The book cuts from him leaving, to him returning, and as a result his unexpected return is a bit forced.
Vader's storyline is much better. Besides the physical aspect of his chase for the remaining Jedi and rogue senator Fang Zar, this aspect of the book focuses heavily on Vader's changing dynamic with Palpatine, and his new view of the galaxy. His interaction and new relationship with Palpatine is a far cry from that seen in the beginning and middle of Revenge of the Sith, and the author does a good job of presenting this. I also appreciated the look into what exactly wearing Vader's suit is like, and the limitations and subsequent compensations. A good example of this is Vader's struggle early on to defeat a no-name Jedi due to his suit's flaws, but in later duels he adopts a different fighting technique and handles more no-name Jedi handily.
Bail Organa makes an effective cameo at the halfway point of the book. His arc does a good job of fleshing out his relationship with his wife and adopted daughter. He is one of the few people that know Vader's true identity, and that puts his encounter with Vader into a completely different perspective.
The battle on Kashyyyk is suitably epic, the combat between wookies and clones creating the only truly memorable sequence in the entire book. Chewbacca and Tarfull make a useless cameo here, and the Jedi's method of escape made little sense, but the cinematic spectacle of the event was enthralling, if nothing else.
An epilogue involving Obi-Wan and his new life on Tatooine is a great, if unexpected, way to finish the book. This passage shows us his new relationship with the Lars family, and how he came to realize that Anakin is alive.
The biggest flaw in characterization is the immense amount of Jedi and friends with absolutely no personality. The central Jedi's struggles are mentioned above, and he is the only remotely effective one. His sidekick, Olee, is so cliche that she becomes completely forgettable, however this is the only other character in the bunch with a distinctive voice. The remaining handful of Jedi and their smuggler companions have no identifying features or interesting facets, they are simply there to add numbers. The failure of this group of original characters damages the novel because they appear in so much of it. In some ways, this is more their story than Vader's.
Vader himself is good, but not quite great. Though the character's interaction with Palpatine (they are already at odds with one another and seeking to replace the other with a more powerful apprentice/master) and thoughts towards the Jedi are conveyed accurately, it would have been better for him to show more regret; his transformation seems too sudden for someone who will someday sway back to the lightside. His interaction/revelations to the central Jedi was also a bit inexplicable.
The minor movie characters, Palpatine and Organa, are both effective in their limited roles. Palpatine could've been used more, but his characterization is accurate and fitting for his role in the story. Organa's deep concern for Leia and his wife, and overall cautious nature is a much better use of the character than the swashbuckling buffoon seen in the Clone Wars series.
Overall, the bad characterization of the "good" guys outweighs the above average portrayal of Vader and Palpatine.
The prose is nothing special, the usual Luceno references to other EU events are nearly non existent here. The few occasions where they are worked in are mostly short tidbits, with the exception of the first act, where Republic equipment and armor is explained in great detail. From there, however, these references are extremely subdued.
The more conventional aspects of the writing are effective, but not inspired. The action scenes are well written, though they lack power for any number of reasons. The descriptions of Kashyyyk and Alderaan are concise and accurate, and serve to effectively illustrate the action taking place on these worlds. The only slight drawback to the writing style is the dialogue. Though the majority of it is adequate, Olee and one of the smugglers have some really cliche back and forths, and a completely forced romance almost spawns from this. Olee also has some obnoxious comments to make on her own, and overall this insufferable character pollutes nearly every scene she is in.
The worthless Jedi sub plot fails to evoke any kind of emotion, and the flat characterization of this ragtag band of fools does irreparable harm to the book as a whole. Though the Vader portions of the novel successfully achieve theirs goals, and the cameos by Bail and Obi-Wan are well done, the book feels extremely uneven, and is a prime example of lost potential.