Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Star Wars: Dark Lord - Rise of Darth Vader

James Luceno
Ballantine Books

At the height of the Clone Wars, as Jedi are betrayed and the Emperor’s dark new order rises from the ashes of the Galactic Republic, Jedi Master Roan Shryne and his companions manage to escape the clone troopers seeking their deaths and go on the run. But there is one thing they could never account for – the Emperor’s sinister right-hand man, Darth Vader, assigned to hunt down those few Jedi to escape the massacre. Yet that mysterious black-armoured warrior, once the brightest star of the Jedi Order, finds himself struggling not only with the task at hand and the crippling injuries sustained in his last battle with his former master, but also with the burden of guilt at the betrayal of his friends and colleagues.

Unfortunately Anakin Skywalker was no less petulant and self-pitying at the end of Revenge of the Sith than he was at the beginning. Where was Star Wars’ malevolent, implacable crusher of throats? If ever there was a character in need of a good smack around the back of the head it was Anakin, and for all its melodrama Revenge just didn’t deliver. James Luceno’s unenviable task, then, was to polyfilla over the gaping plot holes George Lucas left and give those few Star Wars fans not yet choking to death on their own bile a decent emotional through-line. The mutilated, snivelling manchild still had to become Darth Vader, dammit!

And to give Luceno credit, he does an adequate job. The self-pity that Anakin wallows in at the novel’s opening quickly dwindles in the face of the Emperor’s emotional manipulations, and the decapitated heads of Jedi mark the excision of each scrap of humanity like morbid milestones. Vader’s hunt for the fugitive Roan Shryne is interspersed with periods of emotional self-interrogation which show quite effectively, if a little heavy-handedly, how the headstrong boy grew into a monster.

Just about the most interesting part of Dark Lord is the way Luceno balances Vader’s emotional development with that of his nominal hero, Roan Shryne. Vader’s star might be rising, but at the novel opens Shryne doesn’t even have one. He’s lost his faith in the Force, and feels inadequate to the task of training the bright-eyed Padawan he’s inheriting from a dead friend. The near-extermination of the Jedi order is just another crushing weight on his shoulders, but Luceno develops him with just the right lightness of touch. And the way the fortunes of Vader and Shryne seem to intertwine, their emotions and decisions forcing the other character off in new and unexpected directions, makes for an interesting and dramatically narrative – and a surprisingly tense climax, considering the inevitable survival of one participant.

For those looking for something a little more space-opera and a little less introspective, there’s all the usual furniture of a Star Wars novel – sleazy space-bars, heroic smugglers, unnecessarily complex sub-plots, exotically themed planets and the cross-eyed marksmanship of stormtroopers. It’s decent enough diversion, and the description of the Wookie homeworld is powerful enough to almost redeem the fact that it allows bloody Chewbacca to be shoe-horned into yet another Star Wars novel. All the standard parts are present and correct, and trotted out with the regularity of somebody running their way down a checklist. Yet I feel I’m missing something…

Ah, of course. The lightsaber battles. Well, there are lots of them.

But the problem with swordfights, particularly ones involving improbable laser-based weaponry, is that they look better on screen than on the page. Without a first-rate writer to make something fresh of the action, it’s about as interesting as reading a kendo manual. So it is in the case of Dark Lord – dry description of slashes and parries doesn’t mean very much unless you can visualise what’s happening. It’s a knack, and James Luceno doesn’t really have it. Instead he’s made the common mistake of confusing dramatic conflict with physical violence, the result of which was me skim-reading over the fight scenes in search of something more substantial.

While there is meat on these bones, particularly in the parallel development of Vader and Shryne, overall Dark Lord isn’t the richest of feasts. It’s a diverting few hours, but that’s time which could be better spent. Read Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith novelisation instead, if you haven’t already; James Luceno’s offering just isn’t quite convincing enough to lift it off my ‘Star Wars by the numbers’ shelf.

This review was originally written for