—–WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD–—
Mike: While familiarity with the Expanded Universe is one strong connecting thread, I try to bring people on board at this site who represent a wide spectrum of perspectives on Star Wars so that each person’s writing feels distinct. That being said, reactions to the last couple years’ worth of novels have been universal enough (Kenobi yay, Heir to the Jedi meh, etc) that only now has one of our “primary” review pieces finally managed to differ almost entirely from my own feelings. Suffice it to say that while Alexander Gaultier very much did not care for Lords of the Sith, I found it to be, at the very least, the most gripping Star Wars novel in years not written by John Jackson Miller. I thought it would be interesting to hash out our differences of opinion in a sort of friendly debate, and Alexander was happy to oblige me.
What little I’ve seen of Paul Kemp as an internet personality suggests a man with a distinct worldview, and very little interest in softening that worldview in an effort to be better-liked by Star Wars fandom—or anyone else. While I can appreciate that to a point (as I did with Karen Traviss), I can also see why it would rub some people the wrong way, and that that can color one’s experience with an author’s work. Personally, nothing I’ve seen of the man has been so offensive as to override my default setting, that being to take the work as it is and not factor the author’s personality into my experience.
All this is my way of saying that while there were moments while reading LotS when I stopped and thought “okay, that’s going to annoy people”, and that after reading your review, Alexander, I was able to revisit my experience and further recognize troublesome details, none of that comes close to outweighing the fact that I could barely put the book down. Before now, the harshest thing I might have said about Kemp’s SW books was that they were plodding and self-serious, and while the latter is still fair to say, the pacing of this book—in particular the assault on the Perilous, which takes up roughly half of the book despite only covering maybe a few hours—made it an absolute breeze to get through.
What was interesting about your review, and where I think our real departure point lies, is that I never really expected Darth Vader and Palpatine to take up more of the book than they actually did—and in fact, there were certain moments where I thought we could stand to see even less of them. For me, a huge rebel organization throwing itself futilely at the titular Sith Lords is a very compelling premise, and given that we know they can’t die anyway (and further, that the Free Ryloth movement can’t amount to much), I would rather a book like this spend its time developing the rebel characters so that their inevitable defeat matters to me, rather than bother with dreaming up a more substantial threat. Indeed, the part of the book that dragged the most for me was Vader and Palpatine fighting an endless horde of lyleks—because who gives a shit? Seeing them slaughter rebels has a level of pathos to it, but wild animals is just burning page time.
Basically, the book to me is the closest we’ll likely get to “Star Wars Titanic“—we know how it’s gonna end, but seeing an early rebel organization this large go up against an iceberg like Vader is thrilling, in exactly the way that Teller’s rebels in Tarkin should’ve been—because this time it gave them enough attention that I cared. My first question for you, Alexander, is whether any of this make sense to you? Even if you don’t think it was executed well, is your problem just the execution, or do you think the book needed to try harder to make the Sith the real stars, and give them a more credible threat?
Alexander: I can understand what you feel when you read the book, at least in theory, but I honestly can’t make the connection between the text that I read and the reaction you’re describing. To me, it’s as if we were reading two entirely different stories.
Lords of the Sith was a rare instance in which, by the time I was finished, I could not think of a single page in the entire book that had made the endeavor feel even remotely worthwhile, and it normally only takes a single character or concept to satisfy me. It was the very definition of wasted time: knowing what I do now, I would never have picked it up in the first place. I could not agree with this statement more:
“Indeed, the part of the book that dragged the most for me was Vader and Palpatine fighting an endless horde of lyleks—because who gives a shit? Seeing them slaughter rebels has a level of pathos to it, but wild animals is just burning page time.”
But I would have to apply it to the entire novel. The lyleks might actually have been more memorable than the Twi’leks. You see, I don’t think our biggest point of disagreement has to do with the lack of focus on the titular characters and whether that’s a good thing or not. It goes beyond that.
I found it disappointing, yes, and if you want to tell a Titanic about ultimately doomed characters, I have no problem with that, though I do honestly feel that it would have been vastly more effective to avoid the perspectives of Vader and the Emperor entirely in such a case, to conceal the meaning behind their thoughts and actions from the reader and to present them as inscrutable and foreign forces of nature more than individuals, to better represent how their enemies truly perceive them.
It’s not that I don’t think that it’s possible for a story with Lords of the Sith‘s balance of perspectives to be well-written. It could have been a grand adventure. It’s that I don’t think that it was, at all. Like you, I cared little for Teller’s rebels in Tarkin – I would have been perfectly happy to see that plotline dropped from it entirely, and the room reallocated to Tarkin’s backstory – but I didn’t find the development of Free Ryloth to be any more compelling.
An attempt was made, certainly, but it failed to resonate with me in the slightest (if anything, I found aspects of Isval’s portrayal to be almost as problematic as what was done with Mors). I thought Vader and Palpatine were rather ham-handedly handled, their relationship a caricature of what it is at its best, and yet they were still vastly more interesting than Cham Syndulla or any of the new characters.
So, in short, I don’t think that the novel’s primary failing was in its lack of focus on Darth Vader and the Emperor. But that does raise a point of secondary importance, in that in a more general sense, I do think there is a certain obligation (to fulfill the expectations that have been encouraged for some time) for a story to prominently feature its titular characters.
There was no ambiguity in the marketing of this novel, no question of which Lords of the Sith it was referring to. The cover and advertising made sure of that. Just look at Plagueis, Tarkin, Revan, or the Bane trilogy. Even the old Boba Fett young reader books. One of the key elements that they all have in common is that each and every one of them shed new light on meaningful and previously unseen periods in the lives of their titular characters.
Something else that we have to consider is that this book is not a part of the Expanded Universe that we knew. There, it might not have been out of place as just another aimless adventure. We certainly had our fair share of those. But the numerous depictions of the relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor that we are so familiar with no longer have any meaning or significance to us.
There’s a massive blank slate between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and Kemp had the opportunity to be the first to write with authority on the subject of these two characters. This is their inaugural outing together in print, what current and future readers will regard as the start of their journey that ended in Return of the Jedi. And I think it’s a great shame that nothing of consequence was done with that.
Mike: The funniest thing about this is that we’re really agreeing to a huge extent about Vader and Palpatine—“inscrutable and foreign forces of nature” is exactly how I wanted to see them. I did see one missed opportunity in that regard; when Cham’s team first lands in the jungle and is immediately attacked by gutkurrs, my initial read of it was that the mere presence of the Sith nearby was amping up the aggression of nearby animals; that would’ve provided an impetus for the otherwise completely random attack, and the moment when the rebels eventually worked out that Vader was turning the jungle itself against them would’ve made for a terrifying scene, especially compared to the what ended up happening.
That said, though, otherwise I think I got what I wanted from the two characters. While I think they were sufficiently in-character, Vader’s internal arc wasn’t especially logical or compelling to me. I loved Palpatine’s entire plan from a military/political standpoint—draw out the rebels, shock Mors out of her stupor, etc—but it’s hard to see how he thought coming to Ryloth would force Vader to confront his past. It happens because it has to happen (and I did enjoy watching Palpatine pick at the scabs like he does), but the logic didn’t really translate for me and I don’t think it was worth the trouble with so much else going on. It kind of reminded me of the early era of post-Revenge of the Sith Vader comics, where you could set your watch by his sudden bouts of Padmé angst, whether the plot warranted them or not.
But hey, I’m supposed to be defending this thing. Moving on to the Twi’leks, I have to admit your characterization of Isval as a serial killer caught me off-guard in that I couldn’t exactly argue with it…I just didn’t really mind. She’s of a kind with Skelly in A New Dawn, I think—someone too unbalanced to cope with the Empire as it is, but not really cut out for organized rebellion. Not only did I enjoy her character as such, I really feel like Story Group is making an effort not to rush the Rebel Alliance in this time period by focusing on groups that are either too weak, too local, or too disorganized—so when the Alliance finally comes together in Rebels or wherever it’ll feel like a real step forward.
That you felt the Sith were more interesting sounds like simply a difference in taste, so I guess there’s not much more to say about it. On the topic of the misleading cover and title, I can’t exactly argue there either, but in my experience that’s something fans are quick to forgive when the story is good—Kenobi being the prime example—while I can’t help but think that a book like AND reportedly not selling very well is a sign of what happens when they don’t shove a hot movie character front and center. Like a guest appearance by Wolverine in a Marvel comic, it’s kind of icky, but it’s such an established reality of modern publishing that it’s hard to put much blame on one book in particular for going that direction, at least one that I generally enjoyed.
Alexander: I’m not so sure that they were quite in-character enough for me, actually. Vader, perhaps, when fulfilling the role of the Emperor’s blunt instrument and silently muscling his way through the enemies of the Empire. But Palpatine? Rather than enjoying seeing him work on Vader, I found it all somewhat petty and atypical of him. There’s a point in the book where the Emperor asks Vader if he’d contemplated allowing him to die, and Vader admits that he did, briefly. It, and Palpatine’s other lessons, felt like taking a sledgehammer approach to driving the point home where a scalpel would have been more than sufficient.
The Emperor ought to be content to let Vader figure out lessons for himself, and Vader is more than intelligent enough to comprehend what he’s meant to learn without having to be told. There’s a layer of subtlety in their relationship, an “I know that you know that I know that you know,” that I found to be entirely lacking here. Had they been presented to the reader only at a distance, it would also have had the benefit of concealing the intricacies of their interactions, which aren’t really Kemp’s strong point here.
While Palpatine’s plan may have ultimately been successful, one of the other things that bothered me was that he felt the need to take such a personal hand in it. The Emperor is the spider at the heart of the proverbial galaxy-sized web. If it’s simply a matter of providing an irresistible target, a body double ought to have been more than sufficient: note that the Ryloth rebels were determined to make the attempt with barely anything in the way of confirmation that it was really the Emperor, and despite it being such an obvious trap (one lone Star Destroyer? Really?).
It would be far more the Emperor’s usual style, I think, to sit on his throne on Coruscant and observe events from afar, and then see what lessons Vader learned and pass judgment on his results when he returned. His personal intervention was novel, yes, but at no point was the novel ever able to provide me with a reason for it that I found particularly compelling.
Something else that struck me as unusual about Palpatine’s portrayal in this story is his ultimate apparent forgiveness of Mors’ numerous failings. That seems tremendously out-of-character for him, given what we know of the Empire’s traditional attitude toward errors on the job. Mors neglected her role as governor so badly as to allow her aide to secretly encourage terrorist attacks damaging to essential Imperial infrastructure in hopes of taking her place, the first known destruction of an Imperial Star Destroyer, and a rebel assassination attempt that nearly (to the knowledge of most people, anyways) claimed the life of the Emperor and Darth Vader.
That is not something you get to keep your job after, in any universe. That is not something your career comes back from. That is not something her belated realization of her mistakes came even close to making up for. That’s the kind of error that gets the entire planetary command structure gutted (literally) to make an example of them.
I find it interesting that you’d agree that Isval is unbalanced, as that’s precisely the issue I take with her characterization. Or, rather, the source of her characterization. I can’t speak for any resemblance to Skelly, having not read A New Dawn and having no plans to, but Isval is by no means a rare or uncommon type of character. In fact, her backstory is a painfully overused one and not particularly well-regarded in most circles, especially when (frequently) invoked as an “excuse” for strong and uncompromising female characters. As such, I wasn’t able to derive any enjoyment from her character arc or its ultimate termination for the sake of hardening Syndulla so that he can go on to do the actual important and meaningful work in combating the Empire.
What I find most questionable about the misleading cover and title and marketing in this case, I think, is that I cannot come up with a compelling reason for it. The Expanded Universe is, as I’ve said, dead and buried. We’re no longer flooded with stories about saga characters: there’s no pressing need to explore new and unique characters and ideas yet. For most people, this is the first canon novel ever to feature Darth Vader and the Emperor in major roles, and the first time they’ll meet them off the big screen.
And I have to question why, instead of capitalizing on that opportunity, they’d give us The Cham Syndulla Adventures if they’re not planning to make a star out of him. Don’t get me wrong: I would have disliked the book just as much had it been labeled as such from the start, because the false advertising is really the least of my issues with it (just the one that I think most people will care about), but at the very least people would have been able to honestly assess what they were spending their money on.
As far as realities of modern publishing go, our traditional concern with Star Wars products has been with the overuse of the Big Three and related saga characters, not using them as marketing tools for stories where other characters actually feature more prominently. I wish that had been our problem. It would have been a tremendous relief from the usual fare. The expectation has always been that if you see Luke or Leia or somebody or other on the cover, you’re going to get more of them shoved down your throat than you’d ever need or want, probably at the expense of more interesting secondary characters. Looking at it from that perspective, Lords of the Sith is an exceptional anomaly.
With Wolverine’s guest appearances, he’s normally at least popping up in the comics of other established characters and teams to boost their sales numbers: the closest equivalent here would be plastering him all over the cover of a brand new comic titled “WOLVERINE” and then having him play opposite to the real main characters, two out of three of which we’ve never seen before and will probably and certainly, respectively, never see or hear from again.
In that kind of situation, I think people would be justified in getting a little annoyed at the effort put into making them think they’re buying something that they’re not. To continue the comic analogy, imagine you’re the average reader who’s only seen the movies, with no prior Expanded Universe knowledge or experience, never seen The Clone Wars or heard of Cham Syndulla, and you pick up Lords of the Sith purely for the Vader-Palpatine buddy cop cool-awesome factor that it’s being sold on the strength of. Just how fulfilled are your expectations going to be, in that scenario?
Mike: While I’d agree that it’s novel—to use your word—that Palpatine (apparently) let Mors keep her job, I think what you describe as “the Empire’s traditional attitude” is really just Vader’s traditional attitude. We’re still over a decade before the dissolution of the Imperial Senate, so unexpected or not, I actually really like the thought that Palpatine’s power base isn’t yet so secure that he can just execute someone at Mors’ level unilaterally—it’s a distinction from his usual portrayal, but it’s a distinction that makes sense in the larger timeline. Vader may be a blunt instrument, but Palpatine is still a politician.
The recent Darth Vader comics are actually instructive here, in that they suggest his repeated killing of subordinates is something that wouldn’t have been politically acceptable even as late as ANH. I wouldn’t be surprised if the old status quo of them both killing anyone they want eventually reasserts itself (because it’s just easier, and more logical from the POV of a casual fan), but for the time being I have to give the reboot the benefit of the doubt, and the notion that Palpatine would have to concoct a plan like this to get a Moff’s shit together is interesting to me. And anyway, her survival was by no means guaranteed; there could be a version of this story where Belkor actually emerges with the upper hand and Palpatine chooses to reward his cunning. As always, either way he gets what he wants: an end to Free Ryloth and a more effective Moff.
On Isval’s past, I’m of two minds. It’s been a delight this past year to get to know Hera, such a positive and level-headed figure without even a whiff of objectification in her design, in utter defiance of the female-Twi’lek stereotype, but that stereotype has firm roots not just in Jabba’s Palace, but The Phantom Menace, as well—the reboot can’t do anything about that. I can accept that it’s squicky and hamfisted (why no Lamproid slave girls?) while still appreciating an interesting character that emerges from it, like Aayla Secura (whose slave past may yet remain intact) and the X-Wing books’ Dia Passik before her. And as much as I’m happy to see major characters like Hera that play against the stereotype, it’s not like we were never gonna see this again; I can’t lay all its problems at Kemp’s feet when he so clearly went out of his way to make her a complicated (if not universally sympathetic) character. Let me try a variation of my earlier question: is Isval’s stereotypical past your core problem, or just Kemp’s handling of it? Could he have done a better job without changing her backstory?
On your question at the end there, no, you’re totally right: it’s a bait-and-switch. It doesn’t bother me because I personally have no desire to read a solid 300 pages of these two (actually, the early chapter from Vader’s POV while meditating was a particular low point that made my eventual engagement with the book even more surprising: “his hatred fed his rage, and his rage fueled his fury, and his fury…” ugh.) but I would never tell someone they were wrong to have expected that, or to be disappointed over the lack thereof. Having said that, though, I’m not totally convinced they don’t have larger plans with Cham down the line. Hera’s past is still a complete void beyond simply being his daughter, and it seems to me that this would’ve been a very easy explanation of why he’s not around circa Rebels if that had been required of his role here; instead, they kept him alive and gave him a firm kick in the direction of a larger movement.
Alexander: The portrayal of Twi’leks here may be rooted in the films – thanks for that, Lucas – but the likes of Hera, as you say, and her father, as well as Aayla Secura (now that her backstory is no longer canon) make it abundantly clear that authors do not have to continue enforcing the stereotype. Isval is a completely unnecessary regression, especially when we had been doing so well. I think our difference of opinion lies in that where you see a complicated character, all I can see is a lazily written trite one-dimensional (damaging) stereotype. In theory, yes, an author could have handled her better without altering her background, though I still maintain that it would have been better not to use it at all, but I don’t think Kemp, specifically, could have done a better job, in that we’re talking about a level of necessary nuance and delicacy well beyond anything most authors for this franchise are capable of.
I suppose it is possible that they have some limited plans for Cham in the future, but I was referring more to the primary viewpoint characters, two of which the story kills off, and I don’t think Mors particularly likely to put in any further appearances outside of reference books, unless they decide to write a direct sequel. And that strikes me as a particularly poor choice of middle ground: if telling the tale of Cham Syndulla is your goal, there are far easier and more efficient ways of going about it than marketing it as a story about Vader and the Emperor while making it a story mostly about people who are decidedly not Cham Syndulla. I see Lords of the Sith, and I see a novel that doesn’t really know what it wants to be or wants to accomplish, and ultimately does very little at all.