James Luceno is one of the classic Star Wars novel authors. In Tarkin, he tackles the back story of the original Star Wars film’s villain – the other one, not Vader, that is.
The book has unusual status in many ways. With the coming of Episode VII and its sequels, the former Expanded Universe canon has been mostly canceled – only Tarkin managed to appear exactly at the time of transition and it has been already incorporated into the new canon. At the same time, however, it has many elements borrowed from the earlier canon (as you would expect a long-time SW writer like Luceno to do).
So what does the story itself offer? We return only a couple of years after the events of Episode III, with governor Tarkin positioned as overseer of the Death Star project, so far removed from the center of events. Whereas Tarkin is an important and famous persona by then, the book quite nicely shows how he became THE persona. What begins as a seemingly insignificant threat of separatists (not yet rebels!) soon pushes him into the center of events which make him work alongside Lord Vader and, of course, ultimately help him to rise to prominence.
The story does not really offer, as one might expect, some kind of big galactic political game (even though political scheming is present on the background, of course). Rather, it is a sort of adventure story on the back of which Tarkin shall eventually ascend to the rank of Grand Moff. The story tells us also something about his youth, in flashbacks. These parts are certainly interesting, but hands down, the best part of the book is the relationship between Tarkin and Vader which forms as a direct result of the threat posed by dissenters to the Empire. Because the partnership is merely starting at the beginning of the book, we can witness the mutual respect of the two highest-ranking Imperials blooming right in front of our very eyes. If you are familiar with the term “brOTP”, that is what I would not hesitate calling them after reading Tarkin. [brOTP= refers to a set of best friends who are destined to be best friends forever.]
It helps a lot that James Luceno manages to make the characters appear true to their film portrayal. That is obviously one of the most difficult things about writing a book based on film or TV series. One criterion I always use for evaluation is imagining some scenes from the book and imagining the lines spoken there in the characters’ film voices. If it sounds wrong, then the author did a bad job. But in the case of Tarkin, I would say that Luceno succeeded. And perhaps it is even more marked in the case of Darth Vader than in Governor Tarkin’s. That is because characters like Vader are really difficult to write – they might sound cool when uttering short, epic lines in a film, but if you need a scene where they are keeping a longer conversation (the worse if they are explaining something), you may find yourself in big trouble. But that is something Luceno actually managed to do while keeping the Dark Lord sounding like himself.
The book as a whole reminded me a lot of another Luceno’s fairly recent book, Darth Plagueis. There, the author also concerns himself with showing us a “Dark Side relationship” and the tale of a rise to power on the background of dark galactic machinations. One very striking parallel I found between the description of Tarkin’s youth and “family rituals”, and some of Palpatine’s similar experiences as Sith apprentice. Luceno seems to very often relate “Dark Side” and “savagery”, respectively the very brutal view of the world as the claw-and-tooth arena where you have to stay on top by any means necessary. The gist of Tarkin’s growing up, which could be summed up as “strong ones rule – by fear”, is of course a perfectly reasonable explanation of why he is the man he is. I have to say, however, that I would have expected a bit more focus on the “impose fear to maintain order” aspect, because that seems to be the central concern of the film and the reason he believes in the Death Star so much. Luceno’s book explains his ruthlessness mostly on the background of one personal experience, but that by itself seems to me somehow separated from the galactic politics. I miss something small that would show us how Tarkin came to the conclusion that “survival of the fittest” in the most vulgar and violent sense applies also to the galactic society as a whole.
Another thing that I would hold against the book, and that is actually a bigger problem, is the way the “villains” (in this case, dissenters against the Empire) are portrayed. They could have been probably a very interesting crew, but throughout most of the book we don’t know anything about them or their motives. Of course, all this is made so that we can get it as a “big” revelation which comes only close to the end, but that does not entirely justify having a bunch of nameless, un-relatable people who you can’t really tell apart from each other and even though you are given considerable insight into what they are doing, you do not have an inkling about why. That is definitely an omission. Until the finale, I could not be bothered to try to remember which of the dissenters is which (one alien, another alien, one woman, another woman, some man…), and by the time I learned about their background, it was too late. I feel like I have lost a considerable portion of the story because of that.
All in all however, Tarkin is very well written and it makes a very interesting read. I would certainly recommend it to all Star Wars fans who like to read more stories from that universe. It is also enough old-school despite being part of the “new” canon to satisfy the old-timers and yet it can be interesting for those who are just finding their way in the expanded Galaxy.