Star Wars: Lords of the Sith is one of the recent Star Wars books which already belongs into the new canon. Set between episodes III and IV, it deals with the beginnings of Darth Vader’s “career” as the Empire’s dreaded enforcer as well as with the roots of the resistance movements against the Empire.
The “Lords of the Sith” in the title are of course Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, who at the time is still fairly at the beginning of his path as the evil apprentice. Many would therefore probably expect this book to focus heavily on the Master-apprentice relationship. But in this the book’s title and cover is deeply misleading (the cover very much: there is not a single AT-AT or stormtroopers in a ground battle in the whole story). I have to say it straightaway: if you are expecting a Master-apprentice drama, be prepared that it will be only a minor subplot. And if you are expecting deep insights into Sith philosophy, don’t bother to read. There are none whatsoever. Not a single time does the Emperor say anything like “…and that’s what I want you to learn from this, apprentice” or “and this is what we Sith do”. If you are looking for something akin to Drew Karpyshyn’s Darth Bane trilogy or even James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, this is a very different kind of book.
That is not to say there is no dynamic between the Emperor and Vader at all. But overall that part of the plot is rather flat, maybe until the few very last pages (and even that does not contain any great revelations, it is just a bit more interesting). Most of the time, we are shown only the characters’ actions and have to guess what they are thinking. That, at least in this story’s case, somewhat undermines the use of book as a medium.
Indeed, from the writing style – especially one terribly long and boring fight scene which takes pages and pages – one would rather expect to see Lords of the Sith as a post-Clone Wars TV episode. Books are really not the medium for describing action sequences – or, they can be, of course, if well-written, but Paul S. Kemp did not really manage that here, except for the space battle sequence.
This all is a warning so that you know what Lords of the Sith is not. What is it, then? A story of several characters – yes, among them Vader and the Emperor – caught in the events surrounding a massive strike against the Empire made by the resistance movement of Free Ryloth, hailing from the twi’lek homeworld. Other important main characters include the resistance leader Cham Syndulla (who appeared in the Clone Wars series and is the father of Hera from Star Wars Rebels) and his more-than-just-friend Isval, Imperial Moff Delian Mors and her deputy, colonel Belkor Dray. The power struggle between these three, with intrigue and plotting, was probably my favourite part of the book.
Another thing the book manages to describe perfectly is Darth Vader. He is really believable and similar to both Vader from the films and Anakin. That is no easy feat for a writer, and Paul S. Kemp has managed this. If there are any worthwhile moments in the Emperor-Vader scenes, they are those where Vader deals with his memories of being Anakin, which I feel hasn’t really been addressed enough thus far. It is only sad that the Emperor does not manage much more than to smirk evilly in the background.
There are some very nice, although somewhat basic (“team-spirit”) interactions between the resistance fighters of Cham’s group, as well as between the main characters and other minor ones (I personally enjoyed the presence of named members of the Emperor’s personal guard). What I could do without were long, boring descriptions of action scenes, and anything featuring Rylothian fauna, and the worst are of course those featuring both. The author probably didn’t have much choice to alter preexisting threats on Ryloth, but when you read the sentence that something “rushed towards the main character, mandibles clicking” for about the twentieth time, it really gets annoying.
There was one nice action sequence: the assault of the resistance on an Imperial ship. That was overall a well-written part of the book, tense, and conjuring just the right feelings. Darth Vader was also appropriately scary and menacing there, just like he should be. The author also incorporated nice nudges to his past as Anakin.
One more thing I want to note may be subjective, but I nevertheless want to mention it. I changed my favourite characters a few times throughout the course of the book, and I ended up very surprised who turned out to be my favourite in the end. It was a character who had undergone the most development. Speaking of development, almost all the characters had at some point gone through stages where I rooted for them and where I disliked them. The Imperials are evil and corrupt, but there are moments of surprising camaraderie. The rebels have tough past of oppression and losing their comrades, but sometimes they are nothing more than terrorists.
So, in conclusion: How good is Lords of the Sith? Generally speaking, nothing spectacular. As the first Sith-themed book in the new canon, it limps behind, or actually rather lies in a ditch somewhere far behind the old-canon Darth Bane trilogy or even Darth Plagueis. But I have said already that despite its name, this book has nothing to do with Sith whatsoever. It is, in its own way, a prequel to Star Wars Rebels, that’s for sure – it plays on the themes of the beginnings of uprising against the Empire and, for hardcore Syndulla family clan fans, it offers a lot about the past of the twi’lek terrorists (sorry, Cham is a terrorist, as is the rest of his group, Isval most of all. I mean it as compliment though, as it’s a trait that makes them more interesting than just a bunch of goody-goodies!). It is also very much a brilliant show of power dynamic on so many levels. Master exercising his power over the apprentice, the Imperial officers just learning to accept Vader’s lead. An Imperial officer trying to undermine his Moff, while at the same time being blackmailed by the rebels. Yes, maybe “Power” should have featured in the book’s title. So, it is not a bad book overall, but I feel like it came mainly as a way to sell Star Wars Rebels. If you are expecting the likes of Timothy Zahn, the new canon has yet to deliver those to us.