Growing rebellion on Ryloth prompts Palpatine and Vader to personally travel to the planet to deal with matters. Immediately upon arrival, their Star Destroyer is attacked by Cham Syndulla’s forces. Vader and Palpatine are forced to evacuate and crash land on Ryloth. Seeing this opportunity, Cham engages in a dangerous game to hunt down and kill the two heads of the Empire and finally free his people from Imperial oppression.
Thus is the setup for Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp.
Head below the cut for the spoiler-filled review!
Let’s get right to it and talk about this book’s most prominent feature: action. It comes hard, fast, and is sometimes delightfully over-the-top. Early on in the book, Vader essentially hurls himself into hard vacuum, slices his way into a freighter with his lightsaber, and proceeds to single-handedly kill everyone on board. And that was just in the first couple of chapters. There are plenty of other scenes that delve into what I like to call video game action. Force-aided, physics defying movement. Even Palpatine gets into it when he throws down against some giant bugs. It was sort of a Yoda at the end of Attack of the Clones moment that, while perhaps a touch cheesy, was genuinely fun to read.
The big problem with the action in this book, though, is that it has a tendency to run long. If you’re the sort of reader who skips over long descriptions of fights, there may be large chunks of this book you’ll be skimming over to get back to the meat of the story. This also has the effect of negatively impacting the pacing of the book. Lords of the Sith was perhaps at its finest when it got introspective, but that often gets buried under lots of set-piece action.
But let’s talk about the introspection. When Kemp dives into the heads of the characters, the book excels. Lords of the Sith is perhaps one of the better books that explores Vader. Where it really sets itself apart is when it goes a step further and explores the dynamic between Vader and Palpatine. We all know that master/apprentice relationship is fraught with tension, but this book brilliantly illustrates the why and the what behind said tension. Vader and Palpatine always seem to be on the brink of betraying one another, but seem to refrain only because their relationship is symbiotic.
On the other side of the introspection coin is Cham and Isval, the Twi’lek rebels. When Cham Syndulla muses about his plans and philosophies, you start getting insight into why his daughter Hera behaves the way she does in Rebels. Isval is an emotionally scarred former slave. From her you get a feel of the growing rage against the Empire (and suspect that rage might have given her a death wish).
From a strict narrative standpoint, the book is pretty decent. I’ve read better stories, but I’ve also read worse. It’s definitely another new-canon novel that plays it safe while the universe eagerly awaits The Force Awakens. There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of the suspense is hamstrung by knowing that Palpatine and Vader survive, which means Cham’s mission is doomed to fail. The only question is whether or not they can get some small victories in the process. If I could leave it there, I’d have no problem saying that Lords of the Sith is worth checking out. Unfortunately, there are some problematic things that need to be addressed.
Much has already been written about Moff Mors, the first LGBT+ character in the story group era canon. I was wary about how Kemp would handle her and, unfortunately, I found myself not overly pleased with how she was handled. While she does go through a decent arc that shows her tactical skill and smarts, her initial framing is rather awful. She’s described as being visually akin to a Hutt (and this isn’t the only instance of body shaming in this book, several characters are guilty of this). Then there’s the drugs and harem of female Twi’lek slaves.
So while she overcomes that initial characterization to prove competent in this book, I have to question whether or not that setup was necessary. It hits a bunch of iffy tropes and overall felt like a huge disservice to her character and the LGBT+ readers who will pick up this book. Can this arc be accomplished without this framing? I think so, which makes her portrayal in this book disappointing.
This book also goes to great lengths to further the All Female Twi’leks Are/Were Sex Slaves stereotype, which was something I hoped could be left behind in the old EU. There was seemingly a lot more diversity in the male Twi’lek characters, but the females? Not so much.
Once again, we get an interesting female character in Isval. Once again, that interesting female character dies at the end of the book. While this wasn’t fridging ala Nakari in Heir to the Jedi, it’s still disappointing. Her death served a purpose, but with the relative lack of available female characters now compared to the old Expanded Universe, it really stands out when yet another one dies. This issue, of course, can be mitigated by introducing more female characters into the new canon.
On a final (non-diversity related) note, the book ends very abruptly. So abruptly that I thought my review e-galley was missing pages. If you’re looking for a more satisfying conclusion, Lords of the Sith may leave you a bit disappointed. You ultimately learn the whole conceit of the book was Palpatine testing Vader, but something just feels lacking on where everything wraps up.
Lords of the Sith was a mixed bag for me. It’s a book that probably has the biggest Your Mileage May Vary potential for readers. What tripped me up may not be an issue for other folks. I loved the introspection and getting into Vader’s head. I didn’t care for some of the problematic elements. I enjoyed a lot of the set-piece action. I struggled with the pacing. For everything I liked was something that just didn’t work for me.
Unfortunately what moves this book from one I’d say is worth giving a shot to one I struggle to recommend is the way it deals with Mors and other female characters. The first LGBT+ character in the story group era canon could have and should have been handled with more grace. Her later improvements don’t fully justify the initial framing. With Isval, introducing and then killing another female character when there are so few of them right now is a bummer.
For those reasons I have to give it a 2.5/5.