I’m reading Lords of the Sith now, and I’m not a huge fan of it so far. It’s a pulpy action-adventure novel, but that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade me; I rather enjoyed the one-off adventures of Heir to the Jedi. I’ve still got a ways to go, so it’s probably unfair of me to form so harsh an impression so early, but this might be my least favorite book of the new canon that I’ve read so far (that tier would go From a Certain Point of View, then A New Dawn, then Heir to the Jedi, then Tarkin, and finally Lords of the Sith at the bottom). I think it’s the subject matter, and I think subject matter might explain why I was not especially fond of Tarkin as well (in part).
You see, while I like to see Star Wars stories that explore the Dark Side, and while I like powerful villains and complicated antiheroes, I still ultimately like to read stories about fundamentally good people. Sure, all people are flawed in some way. No one is perfect. But good people generally want to do the right thing, and generally try to make decisions that they believe are justified, and generally want to improve. I like to be able to cheer for the characters of a sci-fi adventure story especially; optimistic and escapist action is part of the draw for me. But Tarkin and Lords of the Sith focus on very bad people, and their opponents are morally compromised rebels. No one is any good. And you know that the bad people will win, and that even if their opponents could seize the day (they can’t, you know, because canon dictates otherwise), they still aren’t all that much better at the end of the day. In attempting to give a reason to root for the bad guys, the authors have let their opponents seem just as awful in many ways.
My favorite stories of bad guys in Star Wars typically at least have a strong heroic foil (e.g., the Thrawn books with Luke and company, Revenge of the Sith with Obi-Wan and Yoda, or Fatal Alliance with its eccentric band of heroes working against and at times with the Sith). So maybe I’d otherwise enjoy a one-off pulp adventure, but not when the “heroes” are evil Sith Lords bent on oppression and death; maybe I’d enjoy a lengthy pseudo-biography of a character if not a fascist thug like Tarkin.
Okay, so all that said, how do I explain my admiration for James Luceno’s Darth Plageuis? My suspicion is that Plageuis offered such a fascinating glimpse into the lives of otherwise mysterious characters, and the story was so well-told. It’s reasonable to assume that even my biases can be overcome with good enough storytelling. If nothing else, it had something interesting to say, and it offered a new and darkly disturbing perspective on familiar events. Tarkin, even though also by Luceno, just didn’t tell a significant story. Its scattering of backstory amid the pursuit of pirates did not particularly provide depth to Tarkin’s character so much as it did breadth. The Grand Moff seems just as much a fascist and just as much a psychopath to me as he did before I read the novel.
I don’t read just for escapism, but I admit that it is a primary motivator behind Star Wars reading. That said, I think I can accept a dark and challenging story even in that galaxy far, far away…so long as the story justifies the tone with something special.