Lords of the Sith is by Paul S. Kemp, and based on its strength, I am looking forward to reading his other Star Wars novels.
While Darth Vader and The Emperor are used to sell this novel, and they are indeed major characters, the novel spends just as much time on the leaders of the Free Ryloth movement. Ryloth is the home planet of the Twi’leks, and it has known enslavement and oppression for a great deal of its history. Republic or Empire, the regimes change, but the approach doesn’t. However, the movement has a great opportunity as The Emperor and Darth Vader have scheduled a visit to Ryloth. This is the perfect opportunity for an assassination.
All of the characters worked for me in this novel. In fact, the relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor was fascinating. This story takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, though it is closer to Sith than Hope. Kemp’s portrayal of the Sith lords works toward bridging the gap between where we last saw Anakin Skywalker and where we first (in real-world chronology) saw Darth Vader. In many ways, this is a psychologically abusive relationship where the Force is just one more tool used to oppress a person’s autonomy. The Emperor constantly goads Vader into remembering the most painful moments of his past, keeping him emotionally enslaved to his darkest fears and anger, and repeatedly emphasizing that he, the Emperor, knows more and is in control. He allows Vader moments to consider asserting himself, but always reiterates that he knows everything Vader thinks and feels. In the end, Vader doesn’t hate or fear the Emperor; he submits because it is the only option he has. It is the only option the Emperor leaves open to him.
Another double act in this novel is that of Cham Syndula and Isval. Cham is the leader of the Free Ryloth movement, and Isval is one of his most-trusted (I guess an organization such as this doesn’t have military rank) co-leaders? A little less leader? She’s interesting, regardless. Cham and Isval are a type of counter-point to The Emperor and Vader. They are leader and subordinate; they are the calm and controlled planner and the angry enforcer. They are different from the Sith, however, because their relationship is built on respect, not control. Cham and Isval are still at odds, though, because of their unspoken love for one another. The two characters are interesting in their own right, and their relationship (or fear of one) elevates them to a level of sympathy that I rarely feel toward characters in books.
The final double act is Moff Mors and Belkor Dray. This is the most chaotic of the leader/subordinate relationships in the novel. Mors is hedonistic and incompetent. Belkor is calculating and calm. But this relationship is upended when the assassination attempt occurs. Belkor thought he was using Cham’s group to subvert Mors. Instead, Cham used and manipulated Belkor. When the targets were not quickly eliminated, Belkor’s carefully constructed plan fell apart, and his cool demeanor broke. Mors, on the other hand, gets a surprising amount of great characterization as Kemp explores why she became a bad leader. Someone in Palpatine’s Empire doesn’t rise through the ranks if he or she is incompetent, and Mors is no different. She was quite good early in her career, but tragedy broke her, and her slide into seeming incompetence was actually a slide into despair. Kemp surprised me by bringing depth to this villain. He made her sympathetic, which was unexpected and gains major points from me.
Of all the novels I’ve read in the new canon, Lords of the Sith is the most cinematic, the most suited for adaptation into a film. It has three major acts, one that introduces the characters and their motivations while setting up the Imperial visit to Ryloth, which leads to act two, the assassination attempt. The third act is the hunt for Vader and Palpatine. Despite knowing that the two Sith would survive, there was still surprise as I wasn’t sure which of the new characters would live or die. Particularly chilling, however, was Palpatine’s lack of concern over the events that transpired. He was always calm, always in control. I never thought the assassination would succeed, but the question of how bad it would be for the heroes was ever-present. Overall, I think the story was strong, with only a few places where my attention wavered. As the new canon goes, that’s pretty good.
What was it trying to do?
This novel attempted to bridge the characterizations of Darth Vader and Palpatine between the prequels and the original trilogy. It attempted to bring more depth to Anakin and his journey to the Dark Side by showing how he viewed his former self. It also provided a fascinating look into the Vader/Palpatine relationship, which is portrayed as somewhat psychologically abusive. Additionally, the novel continued to set up the idea that disparate rebel groups would one day need to unify into a larger movement. The Empire is large and organized. Disparate cells could not hope to take down something this big.
Was it successful in doing it?
Relevance to New Canon?
There is plenty here that applies to the new canon. We meet Hera Syndula’s father, thus tying the novel to Rebels. Again, the novel bridges the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. It also showed that while knowledge of Vader’s mystique and prowess were spreading (and sometimes dismissed as rumors—to the horror of those who found out otherwise), the Emperor worked hard to make sure his status as a Sith was known only to Vader and his personal guard. Anyone who saw him use his powers would die.
There is plenty in this novel to enhance the new Star Wars lore.
Personal Enjoyment: 8
I truly enjoyed this one. While my attention waned a bit in the last third, Kemp kept me engaged through the majority of the novel, and I always looked forward to reading it. The strength of the new characters really worked for me. My only real issue was with the fight against the predators (Lyleks) in the forest. I don’t think I would say that it was unnecessary; I just didn’t care for it.
Kemp is a good writer, and as I said earlier, I look forward to reading his other Star Wars novels, especially those set in the Old Republic era as I’m on a bit of an Old Republic kick right now.
Final Rating: 9/10