It’s probably fair to say that Darth Plagueis is the most anticipated Star Wars novel among Expanded Universe fans in several years. As of the writing of this post, for example, the TFN Literature discussion thread on Darth Plagueis has over 1800 posts, far and away more than other recent releases even after their publication, including the flagship Fate of the Jedi series. That level of pre-release interest was often the norm for EU books a few years back, though. In the meantime, a wider variety of discussion boards have emerged and Twitter and Facebook have changed the face of the internet, but that only makes the lengthy thread all the more impressive for a book that hasn’t even hit bookshelves yet.
I co-wrote the blog’s review with my editor Lex. He took the first crack at it almost two months ago; I tweaked it up, having been a little slower on my reading. James Luceno has an amazing penchant for tying together a million details – it’s why fans have dubbed his writing the Lucenopedia – and that made him a natural choice to tie-up the NJO series and pen several inter-movie books. His technical writing abilities are superb. As I mentioned in a previous blog, he can create characters that are unique and identifiable with nothing more than a few lines of dialogue and accompanying beats.
Still, I’ll admit Luceno hasn’t been my favorite author or written any of my favorite Star Wars stories. While his writing and characterization are top-notch, at times his books have lost my attention for all the detail or the inability to really deliver a fulfilling ending. In Darth Plagueis, I got a little cross-eyed somewhere between page 50 and page 100. As a writer, I understand the need to fill in the canvas with nice little touches. Sometimes the devil really is in details, and for the Star Wars fandom that’s the interesting pickle it’s found itself in. The EU has relied on facts, encyclopedia entries, and a daunting array of continuity to hold itself together, rather than the mythology. The great thing about books and comics – and where I think Lucasfilm has been shortsighted over the past decade in its approach to the EU – is that they are point of view story-tellings, and characters frequently are unreliable. Yet fans have come to expect that what is seen on the page is true. Once retcons and databank entries became the norm, continuity of fact ruled the day in fandom and not the stories about the characters or the importance of continuity of characterization.
When Palpatine took center stage in the book, that’s when my interest was piqued. Plagueis, while interesting in this villainous-monologue-turned-novel, isn’t nearly as compelling as the strawberry-headed politician from Naboo. My biggest fear for this book was that it might have taken a fanficcery turn and attempt to rationalize Palpatine’s evil deeds, but thankfully that fear wasn’t realized. Evil for the sake of evil still reigns supreme in Darth Plagueis – as opposed to some of the softer, kinder Sith we’ve been handed recently. Undoubtedly this is attributable to input from the master, George Lucas, and his own apprentice, Howard Roffman. As Plagueis and Palpatine interacted with other dark side users, I couldn’t help think that the pair would have rendered the Lost Tribe of the Sith extinct in short order as not worthy of the dark side faction. Held up for comparison, the Lost Tribe just doesn’t stack up (even one on top of the other) to the dynamic Sith duo Luceno portrays.
The strength of this book is the lore packed between the pages, and people who like the movies should enjoy Darth Plagueis because of the insight it gives fans into the Force. Honestly, the book didn’t change anything I have taken away from Star Wars as it’s been overseen by Lucas. In fact, the Force philosophy aligns with the treat fans were given last year with the Mortis arc in The Clone Wars – just this time it’s from the point of view of Sith, who succeeded in ruling the galaxy for a time.
More lore is exactly what a few of the other movie characters deserve, as well, specifically Leia and Padmé. If any two characters have suffered for the lack of expansion on their motivations and backstories, it’s the two heroines of the movie franchise. Luke, Han, Boba, Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon have had their younger years fleshed out. It’s not clear if Lucas put his foot down as far as Padmé and Leia were concerned because of future storytelling designs, or if others with the power to put those books into play haven’t deemed the leading ladies from the movies worthy. Whatever the reason, their strengths as characters would be very well displayed in a similar style of introspective, political machination tale that the two Sith Lords were given. The risk with any lore book, of course, is that the image fans have created in their minds can be muddled, but that’s obviously not what has happened with Darth Plagueis. If Lucas’ vision was included in lore books for Padmé and Leia, it would provide an opportunity to cement their places as true heroes in Star Wars. Hopefully with the success of Darth Plagueis, their backstories will be given more consideration for novel treatments. (Just a reminder that the blog will be taking a deep-dive into the characterization of both characters later this month.)
Darth Plagueis undoubtedly will kick off 2012 right for Del Rey, but it’s not a novel I expect to draw many new female fans to the EU. Some disenfranchised readers will certainly hear about the book, and there are women out there who will be intrigued by the name from the movies. But this isn’t a book that will captivate a casual fan’s eye in the store. When I queried the members of my fansite message boards, populated mostly by long-time female EU fans, many of whom bought every Star Wars book a few years back, there simply wasn’t interest in Darth Plagueis. The feedback I’ve seen from the Cantina members has been pretty representative of the waning interest from female book-reading fans in general. For any fan who picks up Darth Plagueis as an entry point to the EU, the density of the facts might prove daunting and much of the direct correlation to other EU material will fly right by.
To be honest, I’m finding as I speak to more women who enjoy scifi and fantasy storytelling that the vast expanse of minutiae make the EU intimidating. I’ve heard and been asked more times in the last year, “Where exactly should I start?” For this reason, I’d caution existing fans to be gentle to people who have jumped in feet first. It’s hard to catch up on two decades worth of stories, and most people don’t have the time to scour roleplaying sourcebooks or essential guides. That doesn’t mean those people aren’t just as big of fans or that they’re less worthy of participation in discussions. Factual knowledge does not make one a master of the Force, or an expert on the nuances of storytelling or characterization. If someone enters a discussion and missed the fact that Nubian ships aren’t made by the Naboo, be nice rather than dismissive when pointing it out. The fact is this – more fans enjoying the books is a win-win for Star Wars and EU fans in particular. More readers means a greater ability to leverage quality creative talent for the franchise. One Disney employee at the “Last Tour to Endor” event at Celebration V noted that Star Wars fans were the nicest people he’d ever met, but when it comes to our literature fandom it hasn’t always been true. Maybe it’s time to change that?
Think of it this way: Luke had little to no understanding of the Force, but that didn’t stop Yoda from teaching him. Be a Star Wars EU ambassador, master, or mentor, not an Imperial Guard standing at the gate of the EU forbidding others to enter. Here’s to a nice start for 2012, and hopefully many more books and comics to come.