Since James Luceno was given the opportunity to write the lead-in book to the last “Star Wars” movie, Labyrinth of Evil, it seems only fitting that he write the sequel to it. That sequel, Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, is much better than Luceno's first book, mainly because he leaves all the politics at the allegorical level. There are other problems with the book, but nothing that takes away from a fascinating look at the early days of one of the most recognizable villains of all time.
The Jedi are destroyed and Chancellor Palpatine has named himself Emperor. The Republic has become an empire, and the Senate is now useless. But Palpatine still has to consolidate his power, with outlying worlds still holding out and a few rogue Jedi on the run. He needs a right-hand man who can be his weapon, a man indebted to him for his life, and an apprentice who wants power for its own sake, enough to even consider eventually killing Palpatine and taking it for himself. That weapon is Darth Vader, the new incarnation of the horribly wounded Anakin Skywalker, a man who is still completely unsure of his place in the universe. Palpatine uses Vader's hunt for the elusive Jedi to bring him completely under the Emperor's deformed thumb. Will the Jedi realize that teaming up to try and bring down this dark force will be futile, and that they must bide their time? Or will the newly confident Vader be able to completely wipe them out?
It's fascinating to see Vader in Dark Lord, as he is completely different from what we're used to. He still has the imposing figure and the dark mask that will intimidate all but the most gutsy prisoner. But inside, he's a mess. Remnants of Anakin still exist, he's plagued with self-doubt, and he realizes that Palpatine is manipulating him even as he allows it to happen. Palpatine, for his part, needs an apprentice who is thirsty for all the power he can give, and he is irritated that Vader doesn't seem to want to take it. Thankfully for both of them, there are some Jedi who keep popping up that Vader is obsessed with, which will certainly help them both. Even better, the George Bush overtones are a lot more subtle (and probably only recognizable if you either agree with them or if you know that Luceno feels that way from the previous book). While we see Vader's internal monologues, his discomfort with his new armor and his bionic appendages, outwardly he covers it well. The combination of the dark, imposing mask and his manner are the same as what we're used to. The contrast is very striking.
I can't leave the other Jedi out of the characterization question, but unfortunately most are not quite as well done as Palpatine and Vader. I really liked Roam Shryne and Olee Starstone (what is it with these names?), and Roam's internal conflict was quite good. He is torn between the life of a Jedi and returning to a normal life, especially when he meets a long-lost relative. Starstone is an idealistic apprentice, and she can't fathom what Shryne is going through. She's determined to seek out as many Jedi as possible to see if something can be done about the Emperor.
The other characters, however, aren't as well-drawn. It's not that they're two-dimensional, but Luceno doesn't generate enough interest in them to make us (or me, anyway) want to read about them. The smugglers are rather stereotypical (with the exception of Jula). Bail Organa and his wife are fine, but their storyline seems superfluous considering the rest of the book. Yes, it introduces Lord Vader to the broader galaxy, but the fake suspense involved in the "will Vader find Anakin's droids in Bail's house, and will he recognize his infant daughter" just lie there because we know none of that happened.
The book is more characterization than plot, which is strange for a “Star Wars” book. It does drag at times, but Vader is cool enough, and Shryne is interesting enough, that it doesn't become that much of an issue. The final confrontation is a wonderful set-piece that Luceno draws out to almost a perfect pitch on the Wookie homeworld. We see some familiar faces, and even the starship action is riveting. Dark Lord truly benefits from having no known characters as its lead protagonists, as anything can happen to them, and does. You never know who's going to die, how they're going to die, or what will happen. This gives the finale an even more gripping feel.
Ultimately, the thing that makes Dark Lord great is the interplay between Vader and Palpatine, as well as Palpatine's machinations. I loved the details of what exactly the suit does, and how Vader is initially very conscious of how vulnerable his breathing unit is (he's constantly protecting it in a lightsaber duel). His bionic limbs make him clumsy, especially his legs, and he has to relearn his lightsaber technique. He's very strong in the Force, which helps him compensate in his initial duels, but he slowly grows more confident.
It will be interesting to see if there are more books planned between the two trilogies, showing even more of the rise of the Empire and the initial stages of the Rebellion. We see some of the figures who will become prominent, and you have to wonder if some of the other rogue Jedi will become part of the whole thing. We know how it all has to end up, with Ben Kenobi and Yoda the last of the Jedi until Luke gets trained, but there is a lot of room for other stories. Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader makes a fitting beginning to that, giving us a Vader familiar yet different, and showing us exactly how he became the villain so many people have loved.