Written by: Paul S. Kemp
Published by: Del Rey Books
Chronology Placement: Set Five Years after “Revenge of the Sith”
Synopsis: Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight, is just a memory. Darth Vader, newly anointed Sith Lord, is ascendant. The Emperor’s chosen apprentice has swiftly proven his loyalty to the dark side. Still, the history of the Sith Order is one of duplicity, betrayal, and acolytes violently usurping their Masters―and the truest measure of Vader’s allegiance has yet to be taken. Until now.
On Ryloth, a planet crucial to the growing Empire as a source of slave labour and the narcotic known as “spice,” an aggressive resistance movement has arisen, led by Cham Syndulla, an idealistic freedom fighter, and Isval, a vengeful former slave. But Emperor Palpatine means to control the embattled world and its precious resources―by political power or firepower―and he will be neither intimidated nor denied. Accompanied by his merciless disciple, Darth Vader, he sets out on a rare personal mission to ensure his will is done.
For Syndulla and Isval, it’s the opportunity to strike at the very heart of the ruthless dictatorship sweeping the galaxy. And for the Emperor and Darth Vader, Ryloth becomes more than just a matter of putting down an insurrection: When an ambush sends them crashing to the planet’s surface, where inhospitable terrain and an army of resistance fighters await them, they will find their relationship tested as never before. With only their lightsabers, the dark side of the Force, and each other to depend on, the two Sith must decide if the brutal bond they share will make them victorious allies or lethal adversaries.
“Lords of the Sith” is one of the first novels published after Lucasfilm redefined its Star Wars continuity, categorising previous EU adventures as non-canon “Legends”. Taking place five years after the events of “Revenge of the Sith”, the book focuses on the uneasy relationship between Sith Master and Apprentice as the Emperor continually tests Vader’s commitment to the dark side. The story also acts as a bridge between the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels TV shows, focusing on the conflict in Ryloth and freedom fighter Cham Syndulla, who appears in both series. Even without the added context provided by the Disney XD shows, “Lords of the Sith” works well as a standalone novel, delving into the newly unexplored period of unrest between Episodes III & IV.
Even though the reader knows that Vader and Palpatine will survive this assassination attempt from the Free Ryloth movement to appear in the later movies, Paul S. Kemp manages to create a genuine sense of tension and excitement throughout the novel by focusing on the more ‘expendable’ supporting characters such as Isval, Moff Delian Mors and Belkor Dray; whose fates are not cast in stone. Kemp keeps the action moving throughout, introducing new complications and dangers for Cham, Isval and the Free Ryloth fighters to overcome. The sequence aboard the Star Destroyer is amazingly tense, as Vader personally hunts down our protagonists with the same unrelenting zeal witnessed in those closing moments of Rogue One.
The relationship between Vader and Palpatine is explored, primarily from Vader’s perspective, as the apprentice Sith Lord attempts to quash memories of his past on Ryloth, which can be seen in episodes from The Clone Wars TV series. Kemp does a fantastic job at capturing Palpatine’s enigmatic and Machiavellian behaviour as he manipulates events and tests Vader’s strength and loyalty. His dialogue throughout is extremely reminiscent of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Palpatine, and evokes the sinister nature of the character. I also enjoyed how Kemp described the relationship between the two Sith Lords as symbiotic – kept in balance through a desire of power and dominance. While his Vader is portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine, there are some brief hints of humanity displayed during his private thoughts foreshadowing the eventual redemption arc to come.
The most striking thing about the novel is the pace and urgency of events after the Free Ryloth initiate their attack on Vader and Palpatine. The constant improvised plans and attempts to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat make for a compelling read and Kemp fills his narrative with plenty of twists and turns, most notably in the storyline of Belkor Dray and Delian Mors – two opposing forces within the Imperial Army. Tonally, the book felt similar to Rogue One – capturing the spirit of the heist movie genre and applying it to the Star Wars universe. The constant shifts in objective makes “Lords of the Sith” evocative of a Coen Brothers movie, as our heroes find themselves regularly adapting to events in order to survive. I just loved how tangled the plot became, particularly the sequences with Belkor Dray whose fate was dictated largely by the actions of others.
While the book’s cover implies a heavy focus on Vader and Palpatine, the novel actually spends the majority of its time with Cham Syndulla and his Free Ryloth movement, establishing them as the precursor to the Rebellion – plot threads that would later be picked up on in the Star Wars: Rebels series, featuring Syndulla’s daughter Hera. While I haven’t actually dipped my toe into the animated Star Wars universe yet; my introduction to these supporting characters have piqued my interest and made me reconsider my decision to bypass those shows. Kemp fills his novel with plenty of continuity references, fleshing out Ryloth and the various alien creatures that inhabit it. The Ryloth Insurgency, as described in this novel, is an important historical event in the new Star Wars continuity, and Kemp does a great job at laying the foundations for future stories set between Episodes III & IV.
On its own, “Lords of the Sith” is a tremendously fun read that showcases just how bad-ass Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are. Paul S. Kemp has fun unleashing the true nature of the Dark Side of the Force in one particular underground sequence during a battle with hundreds of Lyleks. Relentlessly fast-paced and with a grim inevitability to the plot, “Lords of the Sith” captures the same desperation against overwhelming odds that was seen in Rogue One, highlighting the brutal realities of the Rebellion and the high body count that precedes Luke Skywalker’s “one in a million” shot against the Death Star.