Like Tarkin, Lords of the Sith is not a novel about good people. Even Cham Syndulla, who holds himself to the insistent standard that he is a freedom fighter and not a terrorist, threatens and uses his Imperial contact. Along with him, the cast contains the slovenly Moff Mors, Cham’s murderous lieutenant Isval, treacherous Belkor, and Vader and Palpatine themselves, who receive some fantastic characterization in a Star Wars book that falls slightly short of excellence.
Cham Syndulla and his band of Twi’lek guerrilla fighters are no more interested in governance from afar than they were in The Clone Wars. After one of their attacks succeeds against the Empire, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are stranded in the wilderness of Ryloth.
Lords of the Sith does all that it can with a Vader in transition. He plainly acts like Anakin Skywalker in places, blasting buzz droids off his ship after some death-defying flying. In times of crisis, Vader remembers his former life, and his apprentice. In one emotionally charged scene, a fiery fall reminds him of Mustafar. Some scenes between Emperor Palpatine and Vader ring more true to the nature of the Sith as defined by the films than a lot of other Star Wars material. As master and apprentice, Palpatine and Vader are both allies and rivals, and Kemp shows that in tense scenes that capture both the anger and the loyalty between the two men, with one emotion quickly following the other. The conflict within Vader is not moral but rather emotional, and his actions show a complex, willful submission to the Emperor.
He does show glimmers of disloyalty, such as when Vader walks through a burning Star Destroyer and suspects that Palpatine has allowed his own troops to die, but Kemp, like Palpatine, keeps Vader firmly in line. Vader always tells Palpatine the truth, even if his thoughts are seditious. This more than anything else in the book calls forward to Return of the Jedi instead of backward to the Prequel Trilogy: Vader never told Palpatine that he planned to overthrow him on Luke’s behalf, and might not himself have known that he was going to do it out of good will instead of hunger for power. Lords of the Sith deepens Vader’s actions in that scene. Meanwhile, everything that Palpatine says has a double meaning for Vader. One of the more blatant examples was the cutting, ominous “It’s fascinating to see broken things pieced back together.”
When Vader is shown from the point of view of Cham Syndulla’s Twi’lek rebels, he is a murderous force of nature. Hearing the screams of his victims through an open comm channel is frightening even when the reader knows that part of Anakin Skywalker is still alive in Vader’s heart.
The road trip on Ryloth is all a lesson for Vader. The planet isn’t very different from any we’ve seen in Star Wars before: there are disreputable cantinas, deadly beasts, peaceful villages, and a lot more forest than we saw on Ryloth on The Clone Wars. While it’s refreshing to see varied biomes, Ryloth itself could have been given some more culture, even homogenized as it may have been by Imperial laws.
Kemp writes Palpatine as inscrutable and all-knowing, and also gives us more of a glimpse into the Imperial Guards’ lives than we have had in the new canon before. The guard captain’s coldness keeps him from being a sympathetic character, but I can easily imagine the guards receiving the same sort of attention as clone troopers, from both the canon and the fans, and developing personalities and culture of their own. Kemp smoothly details some other inner workings of the Empire too, including the massive effort involved in salvaging a downed Star Destroyer and a vicious bureaucracy.
Kemp is good at giving characters ticks and quirks to make them memorable, although more so with the Twi’leks than the Imperials. Perhaps this is intentional homogeneity – there’s a nice moment where Isval chooses the one human member of their team to pretend to be an officer – but the similar names Borkas and Belkor also became confusing.
Cham and Isval are most interesting in relationship to each other: his professional advice to “think through your exits” becomes a through-line for both of them as they try to survive the guerrilla war they have, in part, helped create.
However, like Rebels itself, Lords of the Sith is sometimes vague with its relationships. Just like we’re never really certain whether Hera and Kanan are romantically involved in the television show, we’re never really certain who Hera’s mother was or what role, if any, Isval played in Hera’s life. If this information is revealed later, the choice will be understandable. If not, it seems coy.
The ending is powerful but oddly paced. Isval in particular seems to lose her thread: her violent, disturbing vigilante double life is never addressed, and she serves more as a chance for Palpatine to gloat than as a character in her own right. What could have been an important event in Vader’s life is told in brief on the very last page, and perhaps that says something about Vader too: all of the death on Ryloth is just one more slaughter to him. Cham’s fate is so similar to the end of Heir to the Jedi as to feel stale, and the Twi’lek rebel named Goll appears too briefly for his role in the ending to be meaningful.
Some of the disjointedness felt in the recent Star Wars books could be attributed to the fact that they must by nature exist separately from one another. There aren’t enough of them to cohere into a whole, approaching the consistency of the old Expanded Universe, and without much information about the Sequel Trilogy, loose ends are just as likely to be either teases or oversights. There is still potential for some characters to serve as connecting points, of course.
New Imperial Moff Mors changes dramatically over the course of the novel, and several aspects of her backstory, including her maltreatment of the Twi’leks and the past that drove her to indulgent despair, could make her a multifaceted antagonist in the future.
Even if it stands alone, Lords of the Sith will likely be a satisfying read for fans of Vader and Palpatine. Both bloodshed and quiet conversations contribute to their characterization. A disorganized ending harkened unpleasantly back to Heir to the Jedi, though, and Rebels fans looking for clues about the life which Hera herself is so silent will have to keep waiting to find out more.