When Del Rey announced a few new Star Wars titles, I was surprised to see Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno on the list. Wilhuff Tarkin appears in both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and A New Hope, and though I’ve always been intrigued by the man who could boss Darth Vader around without receiving a throat hug, I didn’t expect a novel dedicated to his story. While Tarkin’s rise to power is certainly interesting because it cuts open a slice of the post-Clone Wars politics, I’m not convinced Tarkin’s background is worthy of an entire book.
Star Wars: Tarkin takes place five years after the end of the Clone Wars. Emperor Palpatine is using his influence and the dark side of the Force to manipulate the galaxy and change the landscape. Moff Tarkin is in the Outer Rim overseeing the construction of the Death Star, and Darth Vader is doing whatever the Emperor wants. In this case, the Emperor wants Vader and Tarkin to work together to investigate what appears to be an act of insurrection. Mystery ensues.
As the plot unfolds, so does Tarkin’s past. We learn about his family, his home on the planet Eriadu, a little about his time in the Clone Wars, and most importantly, we see his family’s peculiar rites of passage. Those experiences – which are essentially an intense game of Survivor that pits Tarkin against wild creatures and nature – are what ultimately shape Tarkin into the man we meet in Episode IV. They taught Tarkin the value of ruling with fear, and it’s a theme that runs throughout the book. The Empire’s governing techniques are rooted in intimidation. They’re building a Death Star to rule with terror.
Some portions of the story detailing Tarkin’s past read like a resume. That sounds boring on the surface, but it actually works. I was fascinated to see how Tarkin jumped around the galaxy and ended up in Palpatine’s favor. The book reveals how much Tarkin knows about Palpatine’s true identity and his plans and what he suspects about the man behind the Darth Vader mask. Those are questions I’ve always been curious about, and I was pleased to see them addressed as well as hints about Count Dooku’s involvement. I marked several passages with Post-its for further examination.
The relationship between Tarkin and Darth Vader was another especially interesting facet of Star Wars: Tarkin. I don’t know that I’d label their interactions as a friendship, but you can see a mutual respect bloom. They work well together, and with them at the top of Palpatine’s Empire, it’s no wonder the government was harsh.
All that said, the essence of the book could have been boiled down to a shorter story. The pacing was slow at the beginning, tempered by some action scenes in the middle, and then rushed at the end. This wasn’t a book that grabbed me from the first chapter. I found myself having to re-read paragraphs because they didn’t stick. The water slowly boils to the point of conflict, and pages fly once you’re in the middle of action. Then it slams into an abrupt ending. Not a bad ending but it did come across as rushed.
Flashbacks to Tarkin’s youth were peppered throughout the story, usually when Tarkin had a challenging decision before him. His thoughts turn to some lesson he learned on Eriadu that’s relevant to the situation. It was effective at demonstrating why Tarkin is the way he is, but those trips through time occasionally came across as forced and awkward. Along that line, several names from what are now Legends stories were sprinkled in such a way that it felt like there was a list of characters that someone wanted to be part of official canon. I understand that and seeing some of the names was like a reassuring pat on the back, but it didn’t always fit naturally into the story.
Overall, Star Wars: Tarkin presents a compelling tale about Tarkin’s past and his position within the Imperial government. The story is a slow burn with speed bumps that trip up the story in a few places, but the mystery, action, and peek at the inner workings of the Empire overcome the hurdles.