Darth Plagueis by James Lucero (3.5/5)
“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” So begins Senator Palpatine’s short tale about a Sith lord who had such control over midichlorians, microscopic organisms that are symbiotic with the force, that he could defeat death itself. As told to Anakin Skywalker, the story of Darth Plagueis helps turn the Jedi to the dark side of the Force by dangling the promise of his wife, Padme’s, continued survival. Out of a couple lines of dialogue, author James Lucero weaves a narrative of Darth Plagueis’s rise and fall in a time before the events of Episode I.
Darth Plagueis can be an incredibly fun read. Like a videogame that allows you to indulge in wanton destruction, there’s something electrifying about rooting for the Sith for once, and at times the novel feels as if it has opened up a whole new perspective on the Star Wars universe. We no longer have to spend time on the side of the Rebellion or the Jedi Council. Still, if Darth Plagueis had hewn more closely to his description in Episode III, an ancient Sith delving into arcane magics, then Lucero’s narrative might have a little more room to maneuver.
When I first heard that there existed a novel that detailed the life and times of Darth Plagueis the Wise, I assumed it took place centuries prior to the prequel trilogy, perhaps around the events of the Knights of the Old Republic. After all, Palpatine tells Anakin that the story of Darth Plagueis is a “Sith legend” and that he lived “many years ago.” Unfortunately, Lucero’s novel chooses not to explore Star Wars lore from the past and instead develops Plagueis as a Sith master to Palpatine. Less a retelling of an ancient legend, Darth Plagueis serves as a prequel to the prequels.
Early in the novel, Darth Plagueis rendezvous with his master Darth Tenebrous, a meeting that ends in the death of Tenebrous at the hands of Plagueis. This battle between master and apprentice, a relationship formed out of the “rule of two” mentioned in the prequels, characterizes a Sith’s fraught life hardened by a form of social Darwinism. These events do not occur in some distant past, but about thirty-five years prior to the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. The Sith, it appears, haven’t been eradicated from the galaxy, but rather, have existed in secret for some time.
Plagueis isn’t a human like Vader, Palpatine, and Dooku. He’s a Muun, a species devoted wholly to financial dealings and whose homeworld is the center of the InterGalactic Banking Clan. It was a smart decision to make Plagues a Muun, because it establishes his love of money and working evil through misdirection behind the scenes rather than through brute force. Plagueis’s modus operandi becomes important as it becomes clear that he developed the grand plan to destroy the Jedi that Palpatine would later carry out. In his civilian life, Plagueis is Hego Damask, the CEO of Damask Holdings, a position of power that allows him to manipulate galactic politics from afar.
Following the murder of his master, Plagueis soon sets his sight on his own Sith apprentice, the mononymous Palpatine. Large portions of the novel are devoted to fleshing out the backstory of the duplicitous senator and eventual emperor. We learn that during his youth, Palpatine was the black sheep of a prominent Naboo family. Plagueis senses Palpatine’s force sensitivity and guides him towards the dark side, nudging Palpatine along far enough so that he eventually murders his entire family, including his overbearing father, while making it look like an accident.
In the films, Palpatine was purposefully opaque. We don’t see him in the original trilogy until Empire, and even then we’re only given a holographic glimpse of the man behind Vader. In the prequels, Palpatine mostly just, to paraphrase Bela Legosi, pulls the strings, which means that the convoluted backstory leading to the Clone Wars remains largely unseen. Darth Plagueis sheds light on both Palpatine’s rise to power and the execution of the grand plan to dethrone the Jedi from Coruscant. By focusing much of its attention on Palpatine, the novel risks shedding his cloak-like mysteriousness. Throughout the Star Wars series, Palpatine comes to be known by his mercurial slipperiness, a kind of reptilian embodiment of evil. Fortunately, Lucero is smart enough to maintain some of the character’s unknowability thanks to some smart characterization.
As one might expect, the story is heavily influenced by the world building from the prequels. This means that midichlorians are front and center, and Darth Plagueis’s search for immortality is less about digging up arcane Sith scripture than it is about carrying out Dr. Frankensteinesque experiments, a development that might bother those still upset that a person’s connection to the force can be determined by a blood test.
Personally, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about developments in the prequels that made the Star Wars universe closer to our own. The original trilogy derived much of its power from its ability to transport us to a completely unfamiliar realm. If Star Wars were to take from our own history, I’ve always felt they should borrow from myth and the middle ages, which is why I never liked the idea that Padme was “elected” queen, and, similarly, I’m ambivalent about Muuns and the introduction of finance capitalism in the Star Wars mythos. It makes sense that, as a Muun, Plagueis has access to nearly unlimited wealth to pull off his massive scheme. This also ties into the theme that all of the Sith villains in the prequels are men who come from power: aristocrats, politicians, and financiers. Still, I sometimes get the feeling that we’re just a step away from introducing credit default swaps into Star Wars.
As the novel proceeds, we learn more about Palpatine’s training how he and Plagueis went about sowing disorder in the galaxy. Much of the narrative is episodic, and we move from one event to another. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, and the fact that the novel contains no single adversary kind of necessitates a looser narrative. However, as the events in the novel begin to collide with the events of Episode I, it feels less like a story within the larger Star Wars universe and more like a Wookiepedia article.