Tarkin grabbed me with one line, in which Darth Sidious mocks Darth Vader in the same way he mocked Luke in Return of the Jedi:
“Slavery and the desert forged Skywalker,” Sidious says, smiling, crowing because the dark side has Vader so completely enslaved.
Tarkin is very much a story about people being forged – specifically, rich, powerful men. Tarkin himself undergoes a primitive rite of passage. A Rebellion so young that its members are referred to as Republic loyalists leads the Empire on a dangerous chase.
James Luceno is known for politically complex, atmospheric, encyclopedically knowledgable books about Star Wars villains like Darth Plagueis, and Tarkin very much continues in that vein.
While Tarkin and Vader are on a mission to the planet Murkhana, Tarkin’s prized ship is stolen. At this juncture Tarkin is not a Grand Moff, a position which doesn’t yet exist – instead he’s an overseer at a station adjacent to Geonosis, where the Death Star is being born. He and Vader determine to wipe out the remaining resistance fighters, utilizing a Star Destroyer to chase down the fleeing, hyper-advanced Rebel ship, which begins attacking Imperial targets along the way. These are Rebels who use Separatist-era war droids in their cause, a clever connection to the prequels. Luceno makes other realistic connections to The Clone Wars too, describing a planet environmentally devastated by the war.
The titular antihero is presented as the flawless scion of a wealthy, ruthless family, without doubts or fears. By the time he visits a town on his homeworld where the governor just happens to be a distant relative, he’s been solidly established as a privileged, amoral character. “Will there actually be a losing side for men like you and me?” Tarkin asks, and in this book, there isn’t. And the top of the food chain gets boring.
James Luceno captures voices well, with cadence and word choice that call to mind the on-screen sounds of Sidious, Vader, Tarkin, and Count Dooku. The dialogue is just elevated enough to sound like Star Wars, but rarely campy. The scenes of Dooku talking to Tarkin are almost as good as seeing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on the screen together. In those same conversations, Luceno name-drops places and events fans may be familiar with in the Expanded Universe or The Clone Wars, solidifying what events did or did not make it into canon. It’s a neat way to show, not tell what the Star Wars universe is going to look like going forward, and Luceno was uniquely suited to writing it.
Tarkin answers fascinating questions, like how much information Tarkin or Dooku knew about Sidious’ plans (just enough to build a lot of irony on what they get wrong) and why Sidious felt the Death Star was important beyond its material value. However, the relationship between Tarkin and Vader never seems to come from a place of common ground or of respect. It’s not a rivalry, nor a friendship, and as such doesn’t illuminate A New Hope as much as it does the saga as a whole.
That lack of character hurts the book in larger ways, too. Tarkin suspects that Anakin is Vader, but Tarkin being right and never acting on it is not nearly as interesting as Tarkin or Dooku being wrong about Sidious’ plans. The survivalist scenes were, at best, short enough to remain exotic, but Luceno never portrays any flaws Tarkin overcame – just more and more proof that his plan to rule by fear works. That rule by fear, which Tarkin spoke of in A New Hope, is referenced all over this book, whether Tarkin is fighting rebel spacecraft or wild primates.
Tarkin is a distanced book, appropriate for its haughty subject. The first chapter introduces a third person narrator — separate from the story as the text crawl which starts it — by excerpting from a book of memoirs published after Tarkin’s death. That excerpt also makes Tarkin a tale of a doomed man, but it doesn’t pull any pathos out of that concept.
Likewise, the proto-rebels don’t have a lot of personality until their occupations are revealed, and the one heart-to-heart between two of them made me wish for more like it, more scenes that show what these people are fighting for and how they feel about it. The book does pull a neat sleight-of-hand as it makes the reader wonder whether the antagonists are noble Rebels or just as amoral as Tarkin.
The book is weakest at the beginning and the end, and strongest when Sidious, not Tarkin, is the center of the scene. Tarkin is an insightful book, with a lot of momentum. However, fans looking for nuance from Tarkin himself, or for characters with heart, are likely to find the book, like its protagonist, dry and imperious.