“Are you testing me, Master?”
“Testing you? Is that how you perceive things?”
“Am I wrong?”
After the smash hits that were A New Dawn and Tarkin, I really couldn’t put in to words how excited I was to read Lords of the Sith. I’m an Anakin sympathizer and a huge fan of Darth Vader, especially when it comes to getting in side of the Sith Lord’s head, so I was already expecting that from this book. What hit me like a curve ball on freshman free night was a complicated story told through multiple perspectives that tore me apart as a reader. I’ve been saying that we’re in something of a dark period as far as current releases go — right now, with every book, show and comic coming out of the Star Wars universe, “the heroes” are losing — and this book defines just how bleak things were in the period between episodes III and IV.
We, as fans, are watching this particular period fill out in explosive ways through Star Wars Rebels, the new books, and the latest standalone series Kanan: The Last Padawan. With Kemp’s Lords of the Sith (and the first episode of Star Wars Rebels season 2, airing soon), Darth Vader makes his grand return to the storyline as a Sith who is still learning how to wield his poisonous emotions. This Vader is still gripping and dismissing the memories that plague his mind, and one of the stand-out characteristics of Kemp’s Vader is this inner struggle. It’s not overplayed or too obvious, happening in instances that exist to further Vader’s growing power.
The downside to this book is that the cover, title and description are a bit misleading: Vader and Palpatine dominate roughly 1/3rd of the book, as opposed to taking on the roles of main characters. They split even time with Cham Syndulla, with supporting characters filling that third gap, and for any Imperial faithful hoping for more from this book, that can be a little disappointing.
There is no sign of Anakin Skywalker in this book. Instead, the passionate rebel fighters are the Free Ryloth movement from The Clone Wars, now hanging on by a thread at the command of Cham Syndulla. Cham spends little time dwelling on feelings, but this book challenges the Twi’lek commander’s tolerance for letting those he loves suffer. Cham, a freedom fighter since the Clone Wars, now leads a skeletal Free Ryloth movement, far away from wherever his daughter — Star Wars Rebels‘ Hera — lives. Cham’s crew is all-Twi’lek save for one human, and his second in command is an anxious ex-slave named Isval. There is more to Isval and Cham than their camaraderie, and there is much more to Isval herself, as her story seems to unravel all the way until the very last chapter of the book.
In fact, Isval is easily one of the most interesting breakout characters in this story. It was her story that gripped me and kept my pages eagerly turning for a sign of her again. Isval’s perfectly written PTSD is an honest look at someone suffering with some of the worst torture a living being can endure. Isval is a damaged, almost neurotic character who can let her emotions drive her too far, but she definitely steals the book every single time she’s on the page. Her wild courage and drive lead her heroics, and while Isval is a soldier with a dark past, she is still a heroic, likable character.
While offering some sense of mortality to otherwise immortal-feeling characters, Lords of the Sith is more than just space jargon and evil cackling. It gives readers a look at the Empire’s leads personally dealing with matters when things go wrong within their ranks. The Emperor is on the ground, not protected on Coruscant, and interacts with the citizens of Ryloth as well. Vader is an untouchable force that also exists amongst Twi’lek children, and the way these strange-sounding instances are written in context gives us an in-depth look at the unique team that Vader and the Emperor can be.
The headline-making character that exists as the first canon LGBT citizen of the Star Wars universe was not given any delicate treatment. Moff Mors is an unlikable, perverse, rude, and lazy commander who makes for a wonderful adversary in the beginning. Lords of the Sith, of course, isn’t that kind of basic or predictable text: Mors’ later role in the book is an impactful story that unfolds in surprising ways. It is reassuring, in this sense, to see a character that isn’t ‘too precious’ to be a bad guy, and one who is far more complicated than just her sexuality. The biggest faults in this character, I felt, were the descriptions of her weight. She’s described from a rival’s point of view, and her heavy weight seems to be implied as a reason for her demeanor. Mors has a very specific reason for her behavior, and that made her a character that I’d like to see continue again the Star Wars mythos.
While the Emperor’s ominous hovering as a supporting character can get annoying onscreen, Palpatine displays the signs of a diplomat in several moments, guiding Vader’s anger and actively teaching his apprentice in the ways of the Dark Side. We’re given a real look at Palpatine’s teaching methods, and his wisdom as a Sith Lord.
I had expected Cham and the Free Ryloth movement to be depicted as antagonists in this book, but the third-party point of view doesn’t seem to skew one way or the other as so many previous Star Wars books have. Every individual story in this book is told from an honest and believable point of view, and because of that, Mr. Kemp has earned himself a long-time reader in me.
One last note on Vader: This is a wonderful look in to Vader’s thought process, and what he struggles with when controlling those thoughts. This is Vader learning that reckless anger won’t always make him effective, and that certain memories, no matter how much they anger him, aren’t correct for certain situations. Vader contemplates the fates of he and the Emperor, and readers are shown how his early thoughts reflect on the final moments of his life.
Lords of the Sith brings the feeling of desperation to life in ways I’ve only seen horror movies do: you know someone is going to die, you know it’s not going to be pretty, and you’re waiting for the jump scare on the next page. The realization is that the horror of the Dark Side isn’t as easy as a jump scare, but rather a long and heartbreaking story of repeat failures and losses that drive even the hardest fighter to desperation.
If you’re looking for a great novel about Darth Vader, the Sith, and a peek in to the Syndulla family’s history, check out Lords of the Sith. It is an incredible read, and I’m happy to count it as part of the new Star Wars canon.
Lords of the Sith releases on April 28th, 2015.