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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

AFICIONADO REVIEW: "DARTH PLAGUEIS" BY JAMES LUCENO



STAR WARS: DARTH PLAGUEIS

A novel by James Luceno

Published in the UK by CENTURY PUBLISHING


Reviewed by Scott Weller


NOTE: This review contains possible SPOILERS


“Have you ever heard the story of “Darth Plagueis the Wise”? I thought not. It’s a Sith legend.”

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious) to Anakin Skywalker (Jedi Knight)



A legend no more, as LUCAS BOOKS and one of their most highly regarded authors, James Luceno, finally expand on that brief but no less infamous and intriguing section of dialogue from EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH, to unearth and reveal the truth and final mysteries of Darth Sidious’s former Sith Lord master, Darth Plagueis, and his ultimate rise and fall, within the shocking events leading up to the destruction of the Republic in the STAR WARS Prequel trilogy. DARTH PLAGUEIS in a novel certainly possessing ambition worthy of the arcane and violent order itself, realised with approval and input from creator George Lucas himself….

And, after his previously disappointing Millennium Falcon novel- a nice idea that he sadly wasn’t quite able to pull of successfully in my own personal opinion and expectations, it’s great to report that DARTH PLAGUEIS is a fine return to form for Luceno within the STAR WARS galaxy.

A strong opening prologue launches the tale on a fixed note of brewing, calculated evil, showing how former Sith Apprentice Darth Sidious, aka Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (think of him as a hybrid of Satan and President Nixon!), having slain Plagueis, fully takes on the mantle of Sith Lord controller. It’s a welcome dark tenor for what’s to come in the books next 300 plus pages…

But Sidious’s control of the Republic had not been something to have happened overnight: his new reign having been but a part of a complex and manipulating nexus plan of triumph concocted by the Sith over many years, and after a prior thousand years of peace, of which, within their personal dictum of Master and Apprentice, the insidious sect have finally emerged from their deliberate hiding to begin slowly and surely initiating plans of corruption and manipulation across the galaxy, and to gain their revenge on the Jedi Knights that annihilated their order: their own personal nemesis and scourge.

The book begins 67 years before the original STAR WARS EPISODE IV, within a crystalline cave on the Outer Rim world of Bal’demnic, with the Sith pairing of alien Darth Tenebrous (a Bith in origin, and totally removed from those charming and lovable creatures of that race that normally play in the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine!) and his apprentice Darth Plagueis, another humanoid alien intriguingly from the greedy capitalist planet of the Muuns, who, through good fortune from the dark side of the Force, sees and relishes an opportunity to become the new Sith Master.

A recent visual conception of Darth Plagueis from STAR WARS INSIDER MAGAZINE.

Plagueis, in his disguise as the powerful and controlling business agent Magister Hego Damask, may not look like an impressive Sith from a visual perspective, but don’t be deceived-he has a fiery and dangerous intellect and superior physical dexterity with the use of a lightsaber, as a freighter crew foolishly find out to their peril in an early section of the book, not realising until too late just how dangerous their ‘stowaway’ really is. Its here that he also inherits a re-programmed medical droid who heartlessly and emotionlessly aids him in his dark continuing works-and a handy part of the storytelling process to answer some of the readers previous questions linked to the Force, and the Sith (particularly Plagueis). More on that later…

As time moves on in the Sith’s favour, Plagueis’s abilities gather momentum as he shows himself as a formidable adversary not just against any Sith pretenders in his path but also the then unsuspecting, sworn enemies that are the Jedi Knights. Plagueis is a master tactician who brings out the worst aspects in humans and aliens nature, especially those whom are supposed to bring peace and order to the galaxy, and as a cruel and twisted scientist zealously determined to change the order and nature of the Sith via discovering the secrets of eternal life-to rule as Sith Lord forever- no matter what the cost, for his own personal unremitting agenda and destiny of ambition and evil, including the perverting of the Force and the life giving midi-chlorian symbiont's that work with them. In his barbaris testing and experimentation on species from across the galaxy, Plagueis becomes a kind of intergalactic Doctor Mengeles.

The destabilisation of the Republic sees in political double-dealing (more relevant and recognisable than ever in todays boom and bust society), plot and counter-plot, shady alliances, family intrigues and assassinations of the best Machiavellian tradition that capture the necessary elements located within the Prequel movies spirit, of which Luceno, always possessing a good grasp of well paced storytelling, leads us up to the opening two Prequel movies and the important events of the Invasion of Naboo and The Clone Wars, (including and filling in plot strands like the late Jedi Knight Sifo-Dyas and his involvement in the creation of the Clone Army on Kamino, as well the first stages of the dark side temptation of the fallen Jedi, the vain Count Dooku). Research information for the book is also garnered from the master himself, George Lucas, making it one of the most cannon yet for the Prequel Saga novels.

It certainly provides a fair number of challenges for Luceno-a fine authorship choice- notably in the first third, where he has the unenviable job of creating the iconic character of Darth Plagueis literally from scratch, in a believable and accessible way that lives up to the coda of the on-screen Sith we’ve seen in the movies and the venomous, greedy, evil and corruptible and corrupting beings established in the Expanded Universe of STAR WARS fiction. Luceno does sterling work in those first 100 or so pages that bring Plagueis to life as the ultimate overlord, and its never boring, but the book really kicks into gear, and becomes a truly engaging read, when he meets the young student Palpatine on the city of Naboo-the ultimate new interpretation of the Garden of Evil and the hidden tree snake lurking with temptation inside.

Having obviously watched and admired Ian McDiarmid’s on-screen portrayal as the character alongside the rest of fandom, Luceno writes Palpatine extremely well. There are some fine moments where I could easily imagine the prestigious Scottish actor delivering the master manipulator’s dialogue with vicious, bloodthirsty relish.

Starting out as a keen member of the Naboo youth legislative program, the singular named Palpatine is, in many ways and examples-dark parallels throughout the novel- the Anakin Skywalker that wasn’t. As a young man he’s just as intelligent and resourceful as the eventual “Chosen One” of the Jedi. An academic, coming from a powerful and noble political family. He even wanted to be a Pod racer: everything Anakin should have had in life had he not have been born into a slave’s existence.

Darth Sidious/Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, as played in the STAR WARS films by Ian McDiarmid.

Palpatine wants a special and significant position in history; to be somebody important in the universe, possessing his own moral code of ethics and singular attitudes. And, right from the start, he’s someone who knows how to twist the hearts and minds of people into doing very bad things. He’s a charmer, but with a cold and deadly veneer beneath the smile. A dangerous but highly intelligent delinquent, whose evil Force abilities have lain previously dormant, ripe for control by the Sith, whose political aspirations make him a perfect puppet and disciple for Plagueis as the duo go on to become the ultimate architects of evil…

But is it possible for the Sith Lord, even one with such power and paranoia as Plagueis (and possessing the general Sith rivalries and vying for control bred into the species for so long), to fall into the trap of prior holders of the title? To fail to recognise and anticipate the true power of an apprentice until it’s too late?

Tantalising questions about the relationship between Plagueis and Sidious, the Sith as a race, their part of the Force (which, in both its aspects, captures the best and the brightest (or should that also be the worst of the darkest?!)), alongside their abilities, motivations and activities in and out of events leading up to The Clone Wars, are finally explained and will surely satisfy many of the fans expectations. Though I’m also sure that there will be some fans who’ll be upset by the fact that possibly too much has now been revealed about the saga’s greatest baddies, when they may have preferred some parts of their STAR WARS history to have been a bit more vague and mysterious. It’s a difficult balancing act to tread, and one that I’m sure Luceno must have thought about and conflicted himself over a lot whilst in the novels plotting stages. Personally, my only real criticism is that Plagueis’s involvement in the final chapters feels a little too shoe-horned with regards to the events of the Naboo invasion and the emergence of The Chosen One, but that’s a minor niggle, especially as the closing scenes between him and Sidious prove so satisfying. (I imagine Luceno had to lock himself into a very dark place both mentally and environment wise to bring this much anticipated story to life. So much so that I bet even his own family were too scared to go near him in for fear of bringing out the Sith Lord trapped in his mental processes!).

Darth Sidious shows his unique mastery of the Sith lightsaber blade.

As ever, the author has that fine skill of seeding the book with fun story building references of important characters (including the popular Darth Maul and his development as a Sith weapon of revenge and slaughter to be used against the Jedi), locations and events from across all the STAR WARS universe-film, books, comics and games, of which all the strands are put together in a welcome tapestry  In all those respects you won’t be disappointed with what he’s accomplished, and you may want to go back and re-read some of his earlier Prequel Trilogy themed books, like Cloak of Deception and Labyrinth of Evil.

Having been saved from prior cancellation by fellow LUCASFILM alumni Howard Roffman, DARTH PLAGUEIS proves itself as both a proud phoenix rising from the ashes idea and also as a much justified book for the Expanded Universe pantheon. It will please not only long time fans of the STAR WARS book cycle but also general fans of the films themselves who want to know more about the Sith Lords and how their ultimate reign of terror returned slowly and subtly back to the universe of the once wise Republic.

DARTH PLAGUEIS is easily one of Luceno’s best STAR WARS tales and will surely become one of the most popular and consistently read, and re-read, titles of the entire STAR WARS range - a fine alternate fairy tale of murder and evil for all followers of the Dark Side…

AFICIONADO RATING 4.5 out of 5

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