Whatever I may feel about the prequel trilogy and the ancillary stories that have clogged the arteries of Star Wars fandom since the publishing of Timothy Zahn’s post-Return of the Jedi novel Heir to the Empire back in 1991, I’ll admit that that particular fictional world continues to fascinate me. So it was that I was intrigued by James Luceno’s recent hardcover novel, Darth Plagueis. It details the backstory of the Dark Lord described by Chancellor Palpatine to young Anakin in the movie Revenge of the Sith.
While the movie only implied that Plagueis was the former master of Darth Sidious (Palpatine’s own Sith secret identity), the novel promised to make their relationship clear. I hoped that it might also clarify one of the nagging questions at the heart of the story, the matter of Anakin Skywalker’s parentage.
The first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, introduced a number of controversial elements. (I mean, besides Jar Jar.) Chief among these were the so-called “midi-chlorians,” quasi-scientific fictional organelles similar to our own mitochondria. They were said to provide a link to the mystical Force from which both the Jedi and Sith warriors drew their powers. Furthermore, it was suggested that these microscopic organisms had somehow impregnated Anakin’s mother, thus fulfilling the prophecy of a Chosen One who would bring “balance to the Force,” whatever that meant. (You know, I’m a little embarrassed just typing out all of this.)
In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine’s retelling of “The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis” included a reference to the Dark Lord’s ability to influence midi-chlorians not only to hold back death, but to create life. Many viewers inferred that the off-screen Plagueis might have astrally knocked-up Anakin’s mom as part of the decades-long scheme to subvert the Republic and its Jedi protectors.
Here was Lucas doubling down on some of the sillier bits of The Phantom Menace. And yet I was kinda willing to go along with it, if only because it made the Sith Lords’ plan that much more devious. I liked the idea that Plagueis might have taken advantage of the old Jedi prophecy to plant an unwitting mole in their midst.
So it was that I voluntarily dove into 368 pages’ worth of Sithtastic history.
Darth Plagueis, the novel, is the literary equivalent of spackling. It’s an attempt to tie together disparate story strands from various Star Wars spin-offs and explain what was going on behind the scenes in the lead-up to the Clone Wars. I’m not well-versed in many of the comics and novels, but even I recognized elements from Heir to the Empire, Shadows of the Empire, the current story arc of the Clone Wars TV show, and even the old Droids Saturday morning cartoon. Passages of the book read like an accounting of random Wookieepedia entries. An example:
If any Jedi were present, they would be sitting in contemplation, as Maul knew he should be doing, as well. Or if not meditating, then completing work on the graciously curved speeder bike he had named Bloodfin or the droid called C-3PX, or perfecting his skill at using the wrist-mounted projectile launcher know as the lanvarok.
Personages such as Wilhuff Tarkin, Jorus C’baoth and Mother Talzin are name-checked, but play no actual role in events. An enormous cast of characters exist on the periphery, there mostly to suggest that one is reading the Grand Unified Theory of Star Wars.
As befits a story set in the decades before the prequel trilogy, there’s a lot of politicking and discussion of interstellar commerce. If you ever wanted to know more about the taxation of trade routes cited in the opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, here’s your chance.
There’s also a surprising amount of gore for a universe in which people usually fall to cleanly-cauterized lightsaber wounds. Young Palpatine (no first name, he’s already that much of a douchebag) goes all serial killer on his family on his path to the Dark Side, and it’s pretty intense for a tie-in to what George Lucas keeps insisting is a property targeting 10-year-olds.
Your enjoyment of Darth Plagueis may depend on how much you like spending time around the unrepentantly evil. The Sith philosophy at times seems to be an especially noxious variant of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. But while the Dark Lords insist that they merely view the Force from a different perspective than the Jedi, they delight in cruelty. There are good guys in the book, but they’re off on the sidelines having adventures while our protagonists are front and center kicking puppies.
One objection that I have to the book is that some major events occur off the page. Luceno devotes an entire chapter to Plagueis’ hunt for those Force-sensitive individuals that his own former Sith Master had been grooming as potential disciples–a narrative dead-end–yet tosses away other actions of far more significance. More on this in a few moments.
Okay, I’m being hard on this book–which, objectively, is not very well written–but I won’t go as far as to say that I didn’t find it worthwhile. I came for the hole-filling, and enough holes were filled to leave me satisfied overall. But to talk about that I’m going to have to get into big-time spoilers. If you’re adverse to these, skip the following and rejoin me for the final paragraph.
One notable revelation is that Darth Plagueis is still alive and active throughout most of the events of The Phantom Menace. Whereas the movie tells us flat out that Darth Sidious and his own apprentice Darth Maul are the only two Sith Lords, Plagueis is there as well, observing events right up to the final few minutes. I suppose that this bit of retconning doesn’t really change anything, but I found it interesting nonetheless. (Sidious’ murder of his Master just prior to his own appointment as Supreme Chancellor of the Republic is a good scene, and I could easily hear actor Ian McDiarmid reading the dialogue in my head.)
The bigger deal was the long-awaited answer to the nature of Anakin’s baby daddy, and here’s where having things occur off-the-page left me confused. When Plagueis and Sidious learn of Anakin and his alleged virgin birth nine years earlier, both are shocked. Plagueis rushes (too late) to intercept the boy:
He had to see this Anakin Skywalker for himself; had to sense him for himself. He had to know if the Force had struck back again, nine years earlier, by conceiving a human being to restore balance to the galaxy.
Problem was that I couldn’t remember just what was the significance of nine years ago. Thanks to Wookieepedia, I found it buried back on page 280: a single paragraph devoted to Plagueis’ off-page attempt to influence the creation of a Force-sensitive being. The gist of this thread, apparently, is that Palpatine’s bedtime story from Revenge of the Sith wasn’t the whole tale. Plagueis didn’t slip a Force-roofie into Momma Skywalker’s blue milk; Anakin Skywalker’s conception wasn’t the direct result of the Sith’s machinations. Instead, he managed to piss off the Force, which in turn reacted by giving the universe actor Jake (“Yippee!”) Lloyd.
Got it? ‘Cause I didn’t. It might have helped had this plot point been treated as prominently as, say, Plagueis hunting down a Force-using gambler.
So, to sum up: Darth Plagueis is a book for hardcore fans only. If you want to know about Palpatine’s youthful troubles, or just who in the heck was Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, pick up a copy. But if you don’t know Hath Monchar from Gardulla the Hutt, you’re better off sticking to the films.