—–WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD–—
Of all the novels that have been announced since the rebooting of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Lords of the Sith seemed to me to be the most interesting. True, there was Tarkin, but this was ostensibly a Darth Vader/Emperor Palpatine buddy cop novel: what more could any loyal Imperial ask for? Furthermore, it was set to blaze several notable new trails. It was Paul S. Kemp’s first foray into the Galactic Civil War (he was previously best known for The Old Republic tie-in Deceived and the Jaden Korr Crosscurrent/Riptide duology), and his first time handling any of the major characters from the saga. New blood is always a welcome sight.
Chronologically, it was also one of the earliest entries in the new timeline thus far, being set a few years after James Luceno’s biography of the titular Grand Moff, Tarkin. While it wasn’t the first villain-centric novel to be announced, it was to be the first featuring Darth Vader as a primary character. More significantly than any of these other things, however, it was announced that it would introduce readers to the Star Wars universe’s first LGBTQ character in the form of Moff Mors, advertised as “an incredibly capable leader” who “also happens to be a lesbian.” All things considered, Lords of the Sith was, at the very least, set to be an interesting read.
One of the first things readers will likely notice after cracking open Lords of the Sith is that both the title and cover are more than a little misleading regarding its contents. Whatever event the cover is meant to portray never takes place, and (more problematically) the titular duo take up a surprisingly small amount of the story.
The bulk of the page count is dedicated to the attempt to assassinate them, as seen through the eyes of Twi’lek freedom fighter Cham Syndulla (who some may recognize from The Clone Wars) and three entirely original characters: the neglectful and decadent Imperial governor Moff Delian Mors, the treacherous Imperial flunky Colonel Belkor Dray, and Syndulla’s right-hand woman, the vengeful ex-slave/serial killer Isval.
While I understand the desire to market the novel as appealingly as possible to the general public to maximize sales, the false advertising is more than a little puzzling when one considers the successes of Darth Plagueis, Tarkin, and a lengthy list of recent comics starring Darth Vader. Strange as it may seem, it can honestly be said that Lords of the Sith doesn’t spend nearly enough time on lords of the Sith.
But let’s put that aside for the moment and talk a little bit about the assassination attempt itself. In all fairness, there’s not really a lot of room for an author to maneuver here. The plan is doomed to fail from the beginning. Both of its targets have to survive (mostly) unscathed so they can go on to appear in the vastly more significant events of the original trilogy. The Empire’s foundation must remain strong, and Ryloth wedged firmly beneath its polished bootheel. But that’s not to say that a foregone conclusion cannot still be interesting: it’s the journey, not the destination, etc.
This soon after Revenge of the Sith, the Emperor and his new apprentice would be in the early stages of their relationship, having not yet settled into the state with which we are most familiar. The Emperor would have only just begun his favorite hobby of testing Vader’s loyalties and limits, and Vader must still be adjusting to his role as an infamous masked enforcer under the new Imperial regime. A story in which the two of them are thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, forced to rely on one another, bereft of the immense resources and vast legions that they normally command, is potentially quite an interesting one. Unfortunately, this is not that story.
In some ways, Lords of the Sith resembles the video game The Force Unleashed. Both feature (at least initially, in the latter’s case) Imperial-aligned protagonists capable of mind-boggling physical feats and displays of power with the Force. Vader’s demonstrations of might in this novel are very much reminiscent of Starkiller’s abilities: “blasts of power” are often being “loosed” all over the place, the results always spectacular.
The key difference between them, however, is that The Force Unleashed at least attempted to provide opposition worthy of the protagonist’s strength. If it did any less, it would have amounted to little more than a terribly dull exercise in shredding wet tissue paper.
Despite the technically impressive performances put on by Vader and the Emperor in Lords of the Sith, it all feels rather beneath them. They’re never truly or meaningfully imperiled, and that the freedom fighters are able to even come within a parsec of the Emperor’s person is only due to his whim. The rebels are all dispatched with tremendous ease and inevitably wail in incomprehension at the incredible supernatural powers they face before their demises. If a story is going to feature Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine joining forces, then the threat should at the very least seem significant enough to warrant their combined attentions. Cham Syndulla and his band of merry men, regrettably, are simply not up to the task.
Given the special mention made of her prior to the novel’s release, we should also devote some time to the character of Moff Delian Mors. Though she was characterized as “incredibly capable,” it unfortunately turns out that that was something of an overstatement. When she was described as someone who “happens to be a lesbian,” that was something of an understatement. While not completely incompetent (at least compared to the usual portrayal of Imperial officers), she has undeniably become severely negligent regarding her duties by the time that we meet her. A lethargic and hedonistic spice addict with a harem of green-skinned Twi’lek slave girls, the text explicitly compares her physical form to that of a Hutt.
Some attempt is made to humanize her and provide an explanation for her behavior, but it’s laughably insufficient if it’s meant to come even close to making her a sympathetic character. Her treatment in the story is unusually lenient, given the Empire’s longstanding tradition of executing its officers for blunders far milder than hers.
As the first LGBTQ character in the new Expanded Universe, I’d have to call her a resounding failure. Her character could only have benefited from having her list of vices shortened dramatically, and would have been far more interesting had she not been the embodiment of such embarrassingly outdated negative stereotypes and essentially a gender-flipped human incarnation of Jabba.
Lords of the Sith is, ultimately, a “safe” book. The core concept does not change the status quo, its placement in the timeline mandates that. It contains no momentous events that might influence or simply be of interest to future works. It does very little, if anything, that has not been done before in one form or another, and it feels no particular need to put a new spin on those ideas. It will not challenge a reader’s preconceived notions about the Star Wars universe or the characters that inhabit it.
It conveys no new information of significance to devotees of the history of this fictional universe. You will find nothing here to point at and tell someone “this is why you should read it.” Given the opportunity to help shape and define the future of the Star Wars universe on paper, the novel contents itself with simply existing. Perhaps that’s the greatest disappointment of all: that a story with so many interesting and promising elements should be so forgettable. I can only hope that future novels will learn from it and refrain from following in its footsteps, and instead choose to give readers something worth remembering.