Let me state that outset that I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. Like many other reviewers, I feel that the title is incredibly deceptive, since it suggests that the book is going to primarily focus on the relationship between Darth Vader and Palpatine. While that is indeed a very prominent storyline, it’s only one of many, and it can sometimes be a bit bewildering trying to keep track of everything that’s happening (to say nothing of becoming actually involved with some of these characters).
The novel takes place some time before the events of A New Hope. Vader and Palpatine find themselves ensnared in the Ryloth resistance movement led by the Twi’lek Cham Syndulla. In the process, they find themselves stranded on the planet Ryloth and have to contend both the native wildlife and with the efforts of the Twi’leks, as well as a renegade Imperial, and their attempts to destroy them.
Of all of the complicated relationships of the Star Wars universe, that between Vader and Palpatine is one that has always hovered at the edge of full comprehensibility. Sure, we get some clues to its nature in the prequel trilogy, but we only occasionally see how they feel about one another. Throughout this book, we get the distinct sense that Vader doesn’t have a great deal of love for his master, and in fact may just be biding his time until he can bring about his destruction. It’s really fascinating to see this little spark of rebellion in this iconic villain, a reminder of how perpetually unstable the relationship between the Sith was and remains.
This novel makes it clear that Vader still struggles to put the darkest parts of his past behind him, that the ghosts of his horrible actions still haunt his waking hours. He thinks back to incidents that fans will recognize from the prequels, such as his notorious slaughtering of the younglings in the Jedi Temple, as well as his murderous rampage after he discovered his mother’s tortured body. The sequences from Vader’s perspective were some of the most compelling parts of the novel, and they really do shed light on his inner psychology. However, each time I read a Vader chapter I’d be left wanting more.
The novel moves along at a brisk pace, but despite that it can sometimes get a bit boring. There were a few times when I found myself getting genuinely invested in the rebelling Ryloth characters, but the novel’s main antagonist, a rebelling Imperial, was both ineffective and frustrating to inhabit as a character. The novel would have been better served, I think, by focusing its attention on the two Sith rather than secondary Imperial characters.
There are some parts of Lords of the Sith that threaten to veer into the ridiculous, most notably the far too extensive battle between Palpatine, Vader, and a nest of creatures known as lyleks. It just felt so strange and out-of-character to see these two giants of the Empire doing battle with strange creatures on an alien planet. I’m also not entirely sure what Kemp was trying to accomplish with this scene, other than to show that both Vader and Palpatine still wield enormous power as users of the Force (as if we didn’t know that anyway).
On the other hand, there are some notable action sequences that are worthy of praise, particularly those in which Vader gets to once again put his superior flying skills to use. The battle sequences were depicted very well, and they were some of the rare instances where I actually felt myself engaging with what was going on.
All in all, Lords of the Sith is entertaining enough, but I did emerge feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The many pieces just didn’t seem to fit together very well, and I really do think that if the novel had either been strictly about the two Sith or about the rebels of Ryloth that it would have made a stronger novel. As it is, it’s hard to find a sense of narrative urgency. We know that the efforts to assassinate the two of them are doomed to fail and, since the events precede those of the original films. The novel is an unfortunate reminder of what might have been.