My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Lords of the Sith is simultaneously one of those books that demands familiarity with Star Wars canon while contributing very little to it. It’s as close to a Tales of story collection that a new-canon book can be, without any of the heart or quirkiness, and while being about two of the saga’s biggest villains. I would place this book toward the bottom of the new-canon Star Wars pile, along with Tarkin.
The premise of the two books is similar. We follow a villain’s perspective in a hunt for terrorists. We know that the villain must live and that the terrorists must die. Actually, in Lords of the Sith, the stakes are even lower: we know that there can be no major shift in the relationship between villain-protagonists Palpatine and Darth Vader; we know that neither can die; and we know that while most of the terrorists will live, their leader, Cham Syndulla, must survive, because he is a father to Hera Syndulla and appears in the Rebels television show after the events of this novel. That last point isn’t entirely fair; Wikipedia tells me that Lords of the Sith was published in April 2015, while Cham’s first appearance in Rebels was a season two episode first airing in February 2016. Still, while Cham’s fate may have been uncertain at the time of original publication, at best that’s just another terrorist (oh, excuse me, Cham would insist “freedom fighter,” as the book tells me again and again) who might be cut down by the Sith Lords.
Despite the shockingly low stakes, the book stresses its connections to other canon, but in mostly brief allusions. We get name-drops from the prequel films and Clone Wars show that require some level of inside baseball knowledge; Senator Orn Free Taa, the Senator of Ryloth, which features prominently in this book, is an exception to that rule, as his role and personality are adequately explained, but in a bizarre turn of events he disappears halfway through and is never mentioned again. He literally could be alive or dead by the end of the book, and while the Dark Lords might not care, I suspect I wasn’t the only reader who did. We also get occasional mentions of Cham’s daughter, who is named Hera, and….that’s it. Hera is absent from the book, but we don’t learn why. We gain virtually no insight into their relationship. At the end of the book, a character insists that Cham must try to escape because he is important to the revolution and because he has a daughter; this latter reasoning falls completely flat and reads like the afterthought that it is. Sure, she appears prominently in other media, but while each book doesn’t need to reexplain the rules of the galaxy or physically describe a Twi’lek in great detail each time, providing insight into a fraught relationship, especially when it should be taking up psychological real estate for a main character, should probably be at least a secondary priority. I don’t believe I saw a reference to Hera’s mother, but don’t worry, Cham has a new, young woman he’s in love with. I don’t believe “freedom fighter” Isval’s age is ever specified, but I came away with the implication that she might be about the same age as Cham’s daughter.
I was hoping that a book that would take place primarily on Ryloth, home of the Twi’leks, and follow Twi’lek rebels might provide more insight into their unique culture in the new canon. We get a good sense of Ryloth’s geography, and some glimpses of what their cities and towns may be like, and we certainly get a good look at the native predators, but I’d say that culture remains lacking. Sure, that might be part of the point–these rebel freedom fighters have given up everything in their devotion to a cause, and the Empire has leached Ryloth of its character in its demand for spice and slaves. It’s still disappointing. Even freedom fighters aren’t fighting for (or against) freedom all the time; they still have to be humans (or the nearest alien equivalent), and they should have traditions they see as valuable and worth preserving. The family entertainment cartoon show Rebels has provided a better glimpse into Twi’lek art, culture, and family structures. Disappointing.
This novel sees the first new-canon LGBTQ character, Moff Delian Mors. There is the suggestion of an interesting character here midway through the book when we are briefly told that she was once a good officer until her wife died, at which point she descended into a sort of drug-addled stupor until the crisis of the novel. But since that happens in about a paragraph of exposition midway through, what we really have is a fat, lazy, degenerate, drug-abusing, slave-keeping lesbian who rushes to push the blame for a major Imperial loss onto one of her subordinates. She does help save the day for the Dark Side by the end, but she is unimpressive. There’s nothing wrong with a villainous gay character, and flawed protagonists are more interesting and human. Nonetheless, to have the first canonically gay Star Wars character veer toward what TV Tropes might classify under the Depraved Homosexual or Psycho Lesbian categories is ill-considered and in poor taste.
But the action scenes are mostly really good. There are a lot of action scenes, and Kemp often infuses a sense of tension and terror into the scenes from rebel perspectives when being pursued by the nightmare that is Darth Vader. There are also some mindlessly large and loud fight scenes, where Vader murders groups of soldiers or dozens of giant predators. Many of these scenes seem better-suited to a comic strip or video game, where the visual element can provide awe and spectacle. I can even point to really explosively interesting new-canon displays of Dark Side power in, for instance, Marvel’s Darth Vader comic run. As it is, in book form these scenes constitute a lot of words devoted to chasing and killing. If you like military action thriller novels, this might actually seem like a strength to you, but I was disappointed here as well.
Also, the action was at times confusing and even outright contradictory. For instance, the number of remaining guards fluctuates. Vader pilots the Emperor’s doomed shuttle to the surface of Ryloth. In the crash landing, the Emperor and Vader survive. We quickly learn that most of the remainder died. Two guards who had remained strapped in rose to their feet, alive. A third was unconscious but executed because evil dudes weed out the weak and whatnot. Palpatine says, “And now there are four” survivors, referring to himself, Vader, and the two guards who stood. Yet later, when the party is under attack by rebel starships, a laser blast is “slammed into the chest of a Royal Guard and vaporized all of him save for his helmet.” On the very next page, we are back to two guards again, when there should be one, and those two guards remain until one is killed again, for good, toward the end. This was an early printing of a first edition, though, and I suspect that issues like this may be fixed in later editions. It’s still quite jarring and beyond the normal minor typographic errors one might expect in a published novel.
In short, I would not recommend this book. Unless you feel the need to read everything Vader, or everything Twi’lek, or you’re just a Star Wars completionist, I think it’s safe to pass over this novel.
P.S. You may be curious as to why my top image is a video game screenshot instead of a picture of the book cover. Simply, it’s because this book felt more like a Dark Side power fantasy in line with a video game than a typical Star Wars book. In Battlefront II (that old classic–I know next to nothing about the new release), you could play as the Emperor, among other heroes and villains, darting around the map and spraying Force lightning on your enemies. That’s pictured up top. But there’s also the strategy game Empire at War, which has a mission in which Palpatine goes alone to Bothawui to eliminate an entire city of traitorous Bothans. The mission plot has some parallels to Lords of the Sith. While not quite that over-the-top, those video game power fantasy narratives are what I had in mind when reading.