Monday, February 13, 2012

Shepherd492 reviews: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis

Darth Plagueis (James Luceno)



Plot

Darth Plagueis is, without a doubt, one of the most essential Star Wars books of the last five years. Not only does it tell the story of Palpatine's master, Plagueis/Hego Damask, but it also tells the essential story of Palpatine's origins and rise to power. This would be enough to make it a recommended read, but it manages to go even further, greatly improving the story of Episode I by providing important background details.

The story is told in three parts. The first concerns Plagueis's origins under his master, Tenebrous. This section is a great build up for later events as we are introduced to Plagueis's far reaching aspirations and how he plans to obtain them. We also see his search for a new apprentice, something that is very enjoyable despite the fact that the outcome is known beforehand. Plagueis is revealed to be a truly unique Sith in both his goals (to cheat death using the force) and methodology (imprisoning people to use in experiments to further his understanding of the force.) The end of this segment features Plagueis's first interaction with Palpatine, here only a teenager. While seeing a young Darth Vader somewhat diminished his character, Palpatine comes across much better. He definitely seems to have an evil boiling just below the surface, which manifests itself during a brutal attack against his family.

The second, and shortest, act takes place 11 years later. Palpatine and Plagueis are manipulating political events in order to gain power. Here, the first seeds of what will be Palpatine's rise to Galactic Chancellor are planted. We also get quite a few training scenes here, which serve to explore the dynamic between the two Sith. The training scenes are unique, and the dynamic is very intriguing. Plagueis leaves Palpatine to his own devices, sometimes for months at a time, while pursuing his own goals. The relationship between the two sometimes feels more like a partnership than master-apprentice. Also featured here is one of the book's best action scenes. There aren't many on the whole - this is a book that relies on political machination and character development, not mindless action - but Plagueis's struggle to survive a deadly trap is far and away the best this book has to offer in terms of action. This passage also sets up Darth Maul's origins. He plays an important, but relatively minor role throughout the remainder of the story.

Act three is set near the beginning of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This passage is easily the weakest, both in terms of writing quality and implications for the saga. Though it has its moments, namely Palpatine's betrayal of his master (which the author manages to completely surprise the reader with) this section is just a bit rushed. The pacing ramps up and most of the events will be familiar to those who have watched the movie. Also, the idea that most of what happens in the first movie is partially or entirely due to the efforts of Plagueis somewhat diminishes the character of Palpatine, and it was rather surprising to see Plagueis this late into the timeline. Another disappointing aspect of this final act is that Plagueis's efforts to control the force are pretty much glazed over in favor of Palpatine's rise to power. It would've been great to explore that a bit more as the focus seemed to drift more from Plagueis to Palpatine over the course of the novel.

On the whole, the book is an excellent tale of Palpatine's origins and the dynamic between Plagueis and Palpatine. It fills in several key details about the saga and serves as a more focused "anti-hero" story than any other such book in the Star Wars universe. Fans of political novels will enjoy this, as there is far more maneuvering and politicking than there are lightsaber duels. A great, off the beaten path novel.

Characterization

Plagueis is unlike any Sith we've yet to see. Beyond his aspirations and teaching style, the Sith Lord also has quite a different style of bringing about his changes for the galaxy. Plagueis, unlike Vader or Bane, rules through guile, not through force. He also has a more solid grasp on economics than his predecessors, and the fact that he is one of the few alien main characters only adds to the depth of his character. One of the best things about him is, not only is he a good mentor to Palpatine, but he is also a great mentor, as it is plain to see the influence that Plagueis had on Palpatine's strategies and plans. He still is quite separate from Palpatine, but the two are a more natural master-student pair than, say, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who are quite different from one another.

As for Palpatine, his character in this book is not quite how we would see him later, although he does have his moments of pure evil. His background on Naboo was well handled, though not mentioning his first name was one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in the book. The character clearly grows and develops over the course of the novel, which was great, and seeing that he took initiative and learned things that his master wasn't interested in is an important counterbalance to the fact that his role in plotting the downfall of the Jedi was somewhat mitigated by this book. His final monologue to Plagueis is pure evil, and the fact that the author doesn't really foreshadow this aspect of Palpatine's plan makes it all the more effective. Though it is, and was known that Palpatine kills Plagueis, the moment in which he chooses to do it was still surprising, and the speech he gives as he does it is classic Palpatine.

Another important aspect of this book is in how the Sith managed to turn Dooku and convince Syfo-Dyas to create the clone army. Plagueis has several conversations with the duo throughout the book that help to stir their misgivings about the way the Jedi/Republic are handling things. They aren't terribly important to this story, but in the greater context of the saga these are some crucial scenes involving their inadvertent assistance of the dark side.

One of the things I appreciated most, however, was the complete lack of "foil" characters. Sure, some of the Jedi get mentions and brief roles in the story, but this isn't like every other anti hero novel in Star Wars. There aren't any point of view passages dedicated to "good" characters, and the villains are always, indisputably the central characters (unlike the Darth Vader and Darth Maul books, in which the titular characters were secondary to random no name people.)

Prose

Arguably the strongest element of any novel by James Luceno is the excellent use of continuity and pre-established characters/settings. This books is arguably his finest outing in this regard. Here, a great many of the pre-Episode 1 events are name checked or worked into important parts of the story. The comic book Jedi Council: Acts of War is fairly important to this novel, though events can be understood without having read it. The Stark Hyperspace War, Cloak of Deception, Jango Fett: Bounty Hunter and Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter are also worked into the plot to some degree. This makes the universe feel infinitely more cohesive, and is an excellent treat to those who have read these previous works. More than any other novel, the references here are on point and feel more like important aspects of the story than random tidbits of information.

This doesn't mean that there aren't random tidbits of information to enjoy, however. There are several different planets visited over the course of this story, most of them completely or mostly unfamiliar. The author prefaces most of the action on each planet with a brief outline of the planet's history, climate, peoples, and galactic importance. To fans of the universe as a whole, this is a fantastic touch on what is one of the most detail oriented EU novels ever. The only drawback to this is that sometimes the build up ends up being about as long as the actual events that take place on the planet. Overall though, this is used to powerful effect, once again tying the universe together.

As for the other elements of the novel, it was great to see more of a reliance on politics than on action. The political scenes are high stakes and engaging, much more so than most of the limited action scenes in the book. They also require a bit more thought than standard, and it was good to see a Star Wars book that is willing to force the reader to make connections and think critically. The dialogue is also very solid. Palpatine has some awkward lines during his introduction, but other than that it is all fitting.

Darth Plagueis features extremely solid, continuity friendly writing. That doesn't mean that it is inaccessible to newcomers; far from it, Darth Plagueis has something for everybody, and new fans will appreciate how well the book ties into the movies, in addition to learning quite a bit about the EU in general.

Conclusion

A strong plot, unusual hero and some of the best political scenes in Star Wars propel Darth Plagueis to among the top tier of Star Wars novels. The amazing use of continuity, interesting and distinctive settings, and fleshing out of Palpatine's character take it to the very top. Do not miss this book.

Final Score

97/100

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