“Dark Lord” can be read as Star Wars Episode 3.5 but in reality it is the only prequel you will need for the classic trilogy. The transformation of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is completed here by delving into his conflicts within the suit. This short, quiet novel by James Luceno is by far his best.
The true success of the Revenge of the Sith is in making Darth Vader a relatable character. The “baddest bad guy” of Hollywood never had much depth during the original trilogy until the final moments of The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars film of all six. Luke Skywalker is his son and this formed the central conflict in Return of the Jedi. The ending of the original trilogy reveals that Vader was once a good guy, though we never get to see how or why.
That is until the prequel trilogy came. With Anakin Skywalker at the center, the stage was set to unravel how an innocent kid from Tatooine became the Dark Lord of the Sith. While the films leave much to be desired, enough has been done to drive home the point. Episode III bridged the two trilogies together and left us with a tragic picture of Darth Vader. The prequel adds a new layer of drama to my favorite line of his in ROTJ: “There is no conflict.”
“Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader” by James Luceno begins exactly where ROTS ends. Well, not exactly. We follow the adventures of three Jedi just before the issuance of Order 66 — Jedi Masters Roan Shryne, Bol Chatak and Padawan Olee Starstone in the distant Rim World of Murkhana. By the declaration of Order 66, the three were on a covert mission to disable a Separatist base and thus were far from their Clonetrooper charges. They soon detect that not all is well and manage to evade annihilation. Their escape however, attracted the attention of the Empire and Darth Vader is sent to “handle them”.
This is a short novel, by Luceno standards, and trades broad continuity strokes and epic space battles for a really fantastic character-driven story. We are given a very close look into how Vader’s suit works and a clear picture of more-machine-than-man distinctly emerges. Moreover, we are given a good sense of how Anakin feels inside the suit. For instance, he finds his prosthetic limbs clumsy and feels frustrated and betrayed by his own body. He is no longer as agile as before and his movements are more limited now, especially during lightsaber battles. He would have to rely more on the Force to amplify his movements and enhance his reflexes. Still, very frustrating.
But even more important than the suit, we get a glimpse into the man himself. Anakin, I mean Vader, is more conflicted than ever. He is aware of how the Emperor — Darth Sidious — manipulated the war, the senate and the Jedi to rise into power and carve an Empire out of the Republic. And Vader is aware that the emperor manipulated Anakin Skywalker into the dark side of the Force. He clearly remembers that the Emperor was not able to fulfill his promise of bringing Padme back to life. And for that, he deserves to die. However, the Emperor has twisted him too well.
Vader then recalls the strict traditionalism of the Jedi and how everyone, especially Obi-wan Kenobi, held him — The Chosen One — back. He notes that the Jedi are incapable and afraid of understanding the dark side of the Force and are thus unworthy of the privilege bestowed upon him by the Emperor. Then, his paranoia kicks in. Padme and Obi-wan were in a conspiracy to bring him down in Mustafar, and he has been rescued from near death by his new master, Darth Sidious.
“Dark Lord” is the story of Vader’s inner struggle in becoming the Emperor’s new apprentice. In the most memorable exchange between them, the Emperor asks him, “why don’t you strike me down like you did your former master?” Vader coldly replied, “because I need you… for a time.” The part in him that remains to be Anakin rejects Palpatine’s influence, but now he has been put in the precarious position of needing him. He saved his life, and his only key to living a full and complete one is to learn from Palpatine and eventually, to overthrow him and to seek his own apprentice.
He earns his way into the dark side, and this is what Luceno has done well, through his mission of hunting down the renegade Jedi. The story moves quickly from the Outer Rim worlds to Alderaan and to its finale in Kashyyyk, and sets up the future trilogy in small bits and pieces. For instance, the fate of the Wookie World is revealed, as is their role in the formation of the Emperor’s secret weapon. We are also given an idea of how Chewbacca ends up with Han Solo. And we get a glimpse of the political environment Leia would grow up in. More importantly, the story drives home the grim truth that the Jedi are gone and that the Order has culminated in the superiority of Darth Vader.
Near the beginning of the novel, Vader resents being the Emperor’s own errand boy but soon discovers that his power in the dark side grows with each encounter with the remaining Jedi. There is a large difference between the lumbering man turned machine we see wounded in a lightsaber with one Jedi when he first arrives in Murkhana, and with the devastating Sith lord that glides through the air, hurls lightsabers and duels with six Jedi at a time in the finale in Kashyyyk.
By the end of the novel, Vader earns the respect of the Empire and is feared and revered as “Lord Vader” by all who meet him. The Emperor may control their lives, but is Vader who they fear for their lives. Whatever flicker of Anakin is gone once the novel closes, but we are left with a glimmer of a new hope that awaits the galaxy.
The novel is touted as the must-read sequel to Revenge of the Sith. However, I would go farther and say that this is the only prequel you will need for the classic trilogy.