You May Fire When Ready: Review of James Luceno's "Star Wars" Novel "Tarkin"
He’s the scion of an honorable and revered family. A dedicated soldier and distinguished legislator. Loyal proponent of the Republic and trusted ally of the Jedi Order. Groomed by the ruthless politician and Sith Lord who would be Emperor, Governor Wilhuff Tarkin rises through the Imperial ranks, enforcing his authority ever more mercilessly . . . and zealously pursuing his destiny as the architect of absolute dominion.
Rule through the fear of force rather than force itself, he advises his Emperor. Under Tarkin’s guidance, an ultimate weapon of unparalleled destruction moves ever closer to becoming a terrifying reality. When the so-called Death Star is completed, Tarkin is confident that the galaxy’s lingering pockets of Separatist rebellion will be brought to heel—by intimidation . . . or annihilation.
Until then, however, insurgency remains a genuine threat. Escalating guerrilla attacks by resistance forces and newfound evidence of a growing Separatist conspiracy are an immediate danger the Empire must meet with swift and brutal action. And to bring down a band of elusive freedom fighters, the Emperor turns to his most formidable agents: Darth Vader, the fearsome new Sith enforcer as remorseless as he is mysterious; and Tarkin—whose tactical cunning and cold-blooded efficiency will pave the way for the Empire’s supremacy . . . and its enemies’ extinction.
James Luceno’s novel, Tarkin establishes a backstory for one of Star Wars’ earliest villains, showing how he came to be a ruthless Imperial leader and his friendship with the Emperor’s enforcer, Darth Vader. Luceno does an excellent job showing what made Tarkin into the man (or monster—depending on one’s point of view) who oversaw the construction of the Death Star and became its commanding officer, but it fails to provide an engaging story when it tells the tale of Tarkin and Vader teaming up to stop a Rebel incursion. While Tarkin is a fun read, it does not match to Luceno’s Dark Lord Rising, his tale of Darth Vader’s early days that held the reader’s attention like a Force grip.
Another of Peter Cushing's many marvelous roles
Grand Moff Tarkin is a character who fascinated Star Wars fans since his first and only appearance in Episode IV: A New Hope. The fact that George Lucas was still putting his universe into place meant that there were irregularities that wouldn’t be fixed until the sequels (such as Darth Vader’s true identity and Luke and Leia’s relationship as brother and sister). Watching the first Star Wars, Grand Moff Tarkin is clearly the film’s villain and Darth Vader is his henchman. Vader would take a much more prominent role in The Empire Strikes Back as the film’s major villain and by Return of the Jedi, it was clearly established that Vader was the second most powerful figure in the Empire.
So what of Grand Moff Tarkin? How did he get to be the commander of the Death Star and was Vader an enforcer, a spy for the Emperor, or something else? Through the years, fans have speculated that Tarkin sought to use the Death Star to overthrow the Emperor and that Vader was there to keep an eye on him. Others have speculated Vader was there serving the Emperor as his official troubleshooter. Tarkin fills the fans in on this relationship and more importantly, how a boy from a backwater planet rose to power in the Galactic Empire. Luceno doesn’t gloss over the fact that Tarkin, like Vader and the Emperor, rose from humble origins.
Once upon a time, George Lucas authorized books, comics, and video games as taking place in the same universe as the Star Wars films (unlike Star Trek, which limited canon to film and television). Known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe, these tales continued the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, and company as well as developing a new universe of supporting characters and new generations of heroes. Along the way, writers helped fill in the backstory of how the Death Star was built, how Han Solo became a smuggler, and other unanswered questions. While Grand Moff Tarkin’s background was slowly developed (including appearances in the animated Clone Wars), fans still had much to learn about what made him into the ruthless officer who helped enforce the Emperor’s commands. Sadly, the Expanded Universe became apocrypha when Disney purchased Star Wars and the material is now known as Star Wars Legends.
James Luceno does a splendid job examining Tarkin’s formative years and the experiences that turned him into a ruthless and efficient officer. The novel is not a biography of Tarkin but tells a story of a challenge Tarkin faces, flashing back to his past occasionally, but remaining in the present for the most part. This is where the novel stumbles as the central plot of Tarkin does little to show Tarkin’s capabilities.
Tarkin in The Clone Wars
Luceno does a splendid job of illustrating the power triad that is the Emperor, Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin. Luceno not only shows Tarkin’s rise to power, but he shows how the Emperor grooms him into his position, testing him like he does with Anakin Skywalker. Luceno also provides a look at the dynamics of the Empire’s military high command, demonstrating how the Emperor pits them against each other to test them and possibly keep them better controlled. The Emperor often seems one-dimensional in Star Wars novels, but here, Luceno explores the Emperor’s grand vision for the future and the people he uses to accomplish it. It’s probably best that we don’t get too close a look at the Emperor or the character would lose some of his mystique. Luceno navigates this challenge well, allowing the Emperor to serve more as just a figurehead somewhere on the Imperial home world, Coruscant.
Tarkin is a good book, but it’s not a great book because Luceno has Tarkin chasing around characters who are stated as being challenging, but don’t translate into that in the story. I had a hard time taking Tarkin’s foes seriously and if he was another officer in the Empire, he would likely have been Force-choked halfway through the novel.
The best part of the book besides the look at Tarkin’s past is Luceno’s exploration of Tarkin and Vader’s working relationship. This helps show their professional respect for each other and explains why the two worked together on the Death Star. Perhaps a future novel can show Tarkin and Vader working together against a more challenging foe. Until then, Tarkin is a mixed bag that will hold your interest at times and leave you indifferent at others.