Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.