If you think about it, Wilhuff Tarkin was a minor from the very beginning: he was a secondary villain in only one Star Wars movie. He had a couple parts on The Clone Wars and had minor appearances in a few novels and some comics, but mostly was a forgettable character. It's ironic, considering that Peter Cushing was undoubtedly the most well-known actor on the set at the time the original film was in production, only to be overshadowed by all the other main actors in retrospect. James Luceno had quite a task for him when he set out to make Tarkin, as he put it, "Larger than life."
As the second book in the newly rebooted Star Wars canon, Tarkin is an ambitious title that sets out to be part memoir, part rebel hunt. Author James Luceno is no stranger to writing for the Star Wars franchise, having published Darth Plagueis two years earlier as his other most recent book for the series. Darth Plagueis managed to make an art out of summarizing events from dozens of pre-Episode 1 era books while simultaneously following a completely different narrative arc, and with more than its fair share of callbacks to the novel, readers who enjoyed Tarkin should definitely look into reading Darth Plagueis in order to fully understand the setting in which Tarkin takes place. If you’re a new to the non-movie parts of Star Wars then it’s best that you at least see the episodes of The Clone Wars in which Tarkin appears because the book touches back on those events often.
Most of the first act deals largely centers around Tarkin's origins, which is something that surprised me: for those who only know him from the films, Tarkin would hardly seem an experienced survivalist and outdoorsman: the straight-backed, haughty government official always seemed to me more of an officer who would lead from behind than someone who would jump into the thick of the action, but in the end it makes him a more interesting protagonist to follow. In essence, Tarkin has gone in my eyes from a traditional politician and military commander to a highly-ranked hunter with a literal thirst for blood.
Tarkin’s story before the Empire is without a doubt the most engaging part of the novel, even though it’s split apart in a series of flashbacks sprinkled throughout the rest of the book and meant to break up the action found in the main plot. I found myself smiling at the Machiavellian elements that made up Tarkin’s checkered history and wanting to discover more about a character I thought I knew before.
Readers who are familiar with the Expanded Universe may notice that Tarkin’s newly fleshed-out personality has some parallels to Admiral Thrawn: a character from Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy who became an instant success. Thrawn was a genius tactician who could predict his enemy’s movements by looking at the art of the culture they grew up with, while Tarkin uses his background as a hunter to analyze his foe’s personality quirks to do the same. Like Thrawn, Tarkin is one of few Imperial villains who are written to be smart, resourceful, and even a little successful at times, rather than using the classic bad guy tactics of the Emperor and Vader. Just like Thrawn, Tarkin will make demands of his underlings that don’t make sense at first, only to have the pieces of the puzzle come together at the last moment to complete a bigger a picture and amaze them with his tactical thinking. And just like Thrawn, Tarkin has a Sherlock-caliber ability to turn minor observations into revelations that border on having more basis in apophenia than reality, and become hard to excuse at certain points.
The novel does an excellent job of subtly portraying an Imperial atmosphere and explaining the nuances of the politics of the new Empire, setting the mood well for the scenes on Coruscant and making for good contrast whenever we get the antagonist’s point of view. Luceno also writes very accurate dialog for Vader; not Anakin Skywalker. There's a difference between the two that I hadn't noticed was so drastic until I read the book.
As an example, here’s a line of Anakin’s from Episode II:
“Master, if we keep this chase going any longer that creep is gonna end up deep fried.”
And a line from Tarkin
“The liberties you enjoyed and abused during the days of the Republic and the Clone Wars are a thing of the past. Then, there was some purpose to turning a blind eye to illegality and to fostering dishonesty of a particular sort.”
Words like ‘lest’ and ‘perhaps’ appear in Darth Vader’s dialog, showing how much the years have changed him and his vocabulary. The Emperor, too, is portrayed well, and even has more than a few of his puppet master traits shown off to wrap up the ending neatly.
The most prominent part of the novel is the journey where Darth Vader and Tarkin are grudgingly sent out together to hunt a band of dissidents, but each one develops a greater respect for the other as time goes on, if not friendship. It was a good way to pave over the events of The Clone Wars to establish the professional relationship they have Episode 4. But even though the adventure itself spans the galaxy, it feels admittedly small in scale: the dissidents are shown from the start to only have the ability to cause minimal damage to the Empire, creating for a lack of tension and an anticlimactic ending. I found myself hoping that the people they were chasing would lead to a bigger organization that could one day grow to be a threat on par with the Rebel Alliance, because sending Vader and Tarkin after them felt like overkill. The book admits that their involvement is so that the threat doesn’t go public and is snuffed out quickly, meaning that no matter what, it’ll be snuffed out: Vader and Tarkin are just along for the ride because the Emperor can’t have his image compromised, which doesn’t make for as exciting a story.
The novel branches out into multiple genres spanning from a biography that brings us up to speed on Tarkin’s origins, to a cat-and-mouse chase that makes up the majority of the book, to a mystery, to a political drama peppered with espionage elements. This leads to Tarkin stretching itself thin, suffering from the same style of arc fatigue which critics of the Phantom Menace had problems with. Fans of the past Expanded Universe novels should definitely pick up this book, if for nothing else than to catalog how much of the old Legends canon has been carried over on the back of Luceno’s references, which fill the book from cover to cover. Tarkin is an interesting read, and definitely a fun one if you’re a fan of Imperials, but it’s held back slightly by a lack of focus.
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