More than a year ago, we declared our intent to avoid Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith, not due to anything Mr. Kemp had previously said or done, or with regard to the quality of the novel, but out of a desire not to get too much “inside the head” of Darth Vader. We wanted to enjoy the subtle indications of the character and this stance was probably something akin to an exaggerated play on ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ However, based on an assignment we gave ourselves, we finally buckled and found ourselves turning the pages of Kemp’s work. Lords of the Sith, as a novel of the Star Wars expanded universe, is an entertaining work, but slightly played into our own fears about Darth Vader.
The setting for Lords of the Sith is in the space between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. The Empire is tightening its grip on the galaxy and as a result, the inhabitants of said galaxy are beginning to suffer. In this specific case, those suffering are the Twi’leks of Ryloth, who have been subjected to enslavement and the exploitation of their planet’s resources. The Twi’leks are not just accepting this state of being and freedom fighters have emerged in the form of the Free Ryloth Movement headed by Cham Syndulla. Depending on your viewing habits, you may recognize that name, either from the Ryloth centered The Clone Wars story arcs or from the Rebels episode, “Homecoming.” In either case, Cham is presented as a resolute fighter for Rylothian freedom.
For as much as Lords of the Sith focuses on Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, it’s very much a story about Syndulla and his closest confidante, Isval. Between them is the story of the Twi’lek resistance movement and the unending fight to liberate the planet. The exploration of Cham’s character and his supporting fighters is both interesting and adds a level of realistic threat. Our titular lords enter the scene when news of their visit to Ryloth is leaked (purposefully) and a plan is hatched to cut off the head of the snake. On the opposite side of the scheme are Palpatine and Vader.
Vader is the focus of the novel, far more than Palpatine, whose inner dialogue remains quiet and left only to implication by his words and actions. The opposite is true for Vader, as the reader is given the opportunity to dive into the fallen Jedi’s brain and gather as much information as possible. This is a double edged sword for the purpose of Vader’s character, as the insight into his existence and how he views the world through the lens of a Sith Lord is fascinating. His own focus on hate and the betrayal by others, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, is useful and interesting. However, it’s also limiting at the same time, because Vader’s character is somewhat reduced in its complexity by underlining and bolding with a virtual highlighter (red) that same view. It’s like opening a clock expecting to see several dozen intricate gears running the time keeping device, but discovering only a handful. It’s worth the look, still, but not nearly as complex as one hoped.
The failure of the arguably hard task of balancing Vader’s Dark Side fueled rage and skewed perspective of the world with expanding his character is disappointing, but not a fatal blow to Lords of the Sith. The real Sith star is Palpatine, who is reminiscent of the man who overthrew the Old Republic and destroyed the Jedi Order by the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith. His power and canny ability to foresee every event one step ahead of the next is on full display throughout the novel, and reflective of the Emperor who believes he can successfully turn the young Luke Skywalker to his side through the course of Return of the Jedi. It’s his mind that the reader ends up truly wanting to peer into, the man who pulls Vader’s strings so successfully and in the same elegant effort overcomes Cham Syndulla’s best attempt to assassinate him.
Obviously, the failure of the Twi’leks to kill either Vader or Palpatine is something the reader knows going into the book, so far as they have any knowledge whatsoever of the original trilogy. As is the case in such circumstances, such as in Rebels when Darth Vader confronts his former padawan, Ahsoka Tano, when we know the ending, it becomes completely about the journey. The journey is worth the time in Lords of the Sith. Buttressed by interesting supporting characters, such as Isval, a former sex slave, and passionate member of the Free Ryloth Movement, or by Imperial Colonel Belkor Dray, a poster child for the power hungry individuals the Empire’s natural rot and decay promotes the advancement of. Their stories, along with the major plot of the novel, add further texture to the general storyline. Likewise, for as much as the insight into Vader’s mind did not quite match desired expectations, Vader is quite successfully portrayed as a character to be feared for his devastating abilities, either in his TIE Advanced or with his lightsaber in hand.
Lords of the Sith is a fine addition to the Star Wars expanded universe, but not necessarily a required reading for those who are not concerned about the completeness of their bookshelf or for those who want to truly understand either the Emperor or Darth Vader. Their characters, as portrayed through film and television, are only modestly advanced in the novel. If one is a fan of either, then undoubtedly the drive will be there to read Lords of the Sith, and one should be sated with its consumption. For those who want to learn more about the Twi’leks and Cham Syndulla, Lords of the Sith is a must read, offering quite a bit more depth to the father of Hera Syndulla and a character familiar to The Clone Wars and Rebels. Paul Kemp has done a fine job, and Lords of the Sith is an entertaining read for those who decide to pick it up, but one shouldn’t feel pressured to do so unless it strikes the minimal requirements of their fancy.