Book Review: Tarkin, by James Luceno
Despite his long list of credits (including 9 Star Wars books) this was my first encounter with James Luceno, and it is quite a place to start. Although I was initially dubious of the history being created for Tarkin, the author sews it up so nicely by the end that I willingly embraced the entire story. He took the elements I doubted and made them essential, a move I rarely encounter.
Peter Cushing had a lot to do with it, but I have always loved Grand Moff Tarkin. In A New Hope, he is so absolutely imperial, so clearly in charge of himself and his command. It’s hard not to admire that level of certainty, even if his hobbies do include planetary destruction. Whereas Vader and the Emperor are occupied by matters of the dark side, Tarkin’s sole occupation is domination. He embodies the cold precision of the Empire, and in this book Luceno masterfully shows how that came to be. Not only do we see Tarkin in action, we see him in evolution as well. This is the kind of book that I wish Kenobi had been.
Where I initially struggled was in Tarkin’s childhood. Through a series of flashbacks, Luceno depicts Tarkin’s pre-teen and teenage years not in a military academy, but living hard and rough in the wilderness of his home planet. Under the tutelage of his great-uncle Jova, Tarkin is forced to confront life as a part of the food chain out on The Carrion, “a place that teaches you the meaning of survival” (p. 34). As a fan, I had trouble resolving this survivalist image of Tarkin, cargo pants and all, with the tailored poise of Peter Cushing. Luceno creates the imbalance deliberately, however, because the first thing we see the adult Tarkin doing is designing a new uniform. As the plot unfolds, Jova’s teachings, the lessons of The Carrion, became plain in Tarkin’s strategies and reactions. These are not big, epiphanic moments, but subtle details and mannerisms. The result is that by the novel’s end, the reader sees the connections clearly despite the dots’ relative smallness.
In the longer view, the book fits nicely into the Star Wars universe, filling in gaps rather than creating ripples. Much of the external story is dominated by the relationship between Tarkin and Darth Vader. I never quite understood Vader’s willingness to take orders in A New Hope, but Luceno makes it less about subservience and more about respect. Thanks to the events here, it’s easy to see how Tarkin has earned Vader’s admiration and deference in military affairs. Indeed, there is some suggestion that the entire plot was orchestrated by the Emperor simply to force his two prime lieutenants to form such a bond. Palpatine himself plays a significant role, and we learn quite a bit about him and his relationship with the dark side in a relatively short amount of time. In fact, Luceno reveals something about the Sidious mindset that, to this reader, dramatically shifts our understanding of both Emperor and Empire. That he can do this without upsetting the continuity applecart is…dare I say it?…impressive, most impressive.
James Luceno has done more than written a good Star Wars book here; he’s written a good book. Full stop. The characters are complex and well-developed, thrust into an interesting story. The pacing is excellent throughout, filled with moments of both entertaining action and subtle politics. Nothing feels wasted or extraneous, but rather the novel is satisfying in the extreme. I may not have known Luceno before this, but I know him now, and this will not be the last book of his I read.