Near the beginning of Darth Plagueis, after a dramatic and pleasantly unsettling opening as Darth Sidious surveys all that he will soon lord over, we get a nice quiet moment in a dynamic book. Young Palpatine, who forswore his first name as an unwanted sign of his family allegiance, doesn’t know what he’s doing after university and wishes the winters were milder. He reveals this while walking with the Sith of the title, who will launch both of them into a galactic conspiracy to ensure their rule. Palpatine is likewise not particularly friendly when he is introduced, but he’s very human. College-age Palpatine is a hot-headed but directionless kid who manages to hide his Force-sensitivity from Plagueis (and the reader). Like Anakin (and George Lucas), he’s a race-car driver. It’s the human elements of this archetypal character that kept me reading Darth Plageuis, as well as the way James Luceno ties together a history of the Republic’s decline now more than ten years in the making.
James Luceno is known for extensive knowledge of the Star Wars universe, which he does indeed have: lists of people and places guarantee that Plagueis is probably not a good introduction to the expanded universe, but for me it provided great atmosphere and the occasional thrill of glee as I recognized a name. (Oh hi Alexi Garyn!) There’s just something so Star Wars-y about the lists, with their clear, regular vowels and the occasional interjection of a proper noun or a crazy x to remind us that this is a science-fiction universe that borrows and embraces all corners as well as inventing a ton of its own. When I read Plagueis I was looking for a book I could get lost in, and I definitely did get lost in it. It reminded me of my old days of fandom when I would look joyfully at maps of the Star Wars galaxy and try to figure out how long it took to get from one place to another.
Here too Plagueis was a nostalgic experience for me. I used to love writing about Darth Maul and Darth Sidious, and this novel gives us more of both of them. As previously mentioned, Plagueis gets to tie together a lot of loose ends from other materials, and it’s fun to see stories like Darth Maul: Shadowhunter from the perspective of the Master instead of the apprentice.
Another reviewer said that Plagueis didn’t try to justify the Sith, and it doesn’t. The lesson of classic Star Wars is that morality is black and white. Other EU material like Knights of the Old Republic and the Revenge of the Sith novel try to see the justifiable thoughts in characters who make dark side decisions. Darth Plagueis, though, is just quietly, determinedly selfish and vicious, and the tone of the novel leaves it up to the reader to judge the morality of his decisions.
James Luceno does a great job pulling in just about all of the loose threads from the prequels, explaining where Sidious and Plagueis got the ideas for the Jedi Purge, the clone army, and the Chosen One in a deft weave of politics. Everything comes together at the end, forming a sort of mystery story where the reader already knows the ending, but not the middle. We know the events of the prequel films, but this book fleshes out why they took place, and as a tie-in to the upcoming theatrical re-release of The Phantom Menace it is a nice introduction to the movie. Picking out which decisions and conversations lead to which events we’ve seen in the movies and books before became more fun as the ending sped up. Sometimes the book suffers from homage syndrome, where everything has to take place in a location that appeared in the movies. Aren’t there any other lake houses on Naboo? But Luceno does get points for one character flat-out not knowing what sort of place Tatooine is.
Sidious is the focus of the book by default, knowing as we do that he will become the iconic Emperor in the original trilogy and the scheming politician Palpatine in the prequels. His story is bookended by his Master, Plagueis, and his apprentice, Darth Maul. The finding of Darth Maul is one of the most peaceful scenes in the book - he is pretty much handed over to Palpatine, by a (human?) mother who doesn’t want both of her sons to be under the sway of the Nightsisters. This, and the new explanation for his tattoos, is markedly unexciting compared to the previous fanon (Maul getting stolen, Jedi-style, from a typical Zabrak family) and canon (his painful tattooing ceremony) and may be the only part of his new history that I resoundingly dislike.
Plagueis is introduced by killing his own master, Tenebrous, an event also chronicled in Matthew Stover’s excellent story The Tenebrous Way. That story, as well as the Star Wars saga in general, tells of the fall of the Sith, and in Stover’s and Luceno’s hands that fall begins to gain the feel of a tragedy.
Both Tenebrous and Plagueis sought to escape the cycle of Sith Masters felled by their apprentices, but by the end of the novel Luceno has very convincingly explained how they could fail to defeat their conniving proteges. As orchestrator of plenty of tragedy himself, Darth Sidious may seem to be fully explained in this novel, but the things he hides from both his Master and the reader show that he is the most insidious of them all. (Using a droid as a point of view character facilitates this in Plagueis’s case as well.) While all of the three Sith have their own opinions on the nature of the Force (the way Plagueis talks about the dark side almost as if talking about a person or a deity is particularly interesting), Palpatine’s commitment to what Plagueis calls the “mundane” world ultimately guarantees his success. Of course, years later Luke Skywalker will cause the revenge of the Sith and their quest for immortality to come to nought, so Darth Plagueis serves to illuminate the original trilogy as well.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable book. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who doesn’t like Star Wars books in general: if you don’t have a prior attachment to Sidious, Maul, or the huge universe they inhabit the pace of the book is probably going to feel a bit flat. But it was just plain entertaining, which is more than I can say about some Star Wars material. It was what I needed, an immersive book to get one through January.