Sunday, December 04, 2016

Dark Disciple

Dark Disciple by Christie Golden and Katie Lucas (4/5)

Without appearing in any of the feature films, Asajj Ventress has become one of the more fascinating and nuanced characters in the prequel era. Originally developed by the Lucas brain trust for Attack of the Clones, Ventress would go on to appear in the original 2D Clone Wars series and a number of comics during Star Wars’s days at Dark Horse. Throughout The Clone Wars she became a more rounded character, especially after a story arc finding her abandoning her apprenticeship with Count Dooku to strike out on her own. Star Wars is a world of light and dark, but it has always managed to find the complexity these two poles. And it’s that in-between space that Ventress best represents.

For fans of Ventress, it was a pleasant surprise to see the novel, Dark Disciple, take the focus off of Obi-Wan and Anakin to explore the character of Ventress. Taken from unfinished Clone Wars storylines, Dark Disciple showcases what that series did best: explore the moral Catch 22 of war. Believing the toll of the Clone War has become too great, the Jedi Council decides, with some desperation, that it would be better to assassinate Count Dooku rather than let the war linger. Mace Windu is the chief proponent of this plan, but he manages to get the rest of the counsel to go along. Obi-Wan recommends that Quinlan Vos, a rebellious and unorthodox Jedi, carry out the assassination plot.

Vos knows he won’t be able to take out a Sith Lord by himself, so he’s told to recruit Asajj Ventress as an aid. The fact that she had previously attempted to kill her former master makes her an ideal ally. Knowing that Ventress would never trust the Jedi, Vos goes undercover as a fellow bounty hunter. He arranges a “chance” encounter with Ventress by going after the same bounty as her, and in the tradition of Marvel comics, after they squabble with one another, they soon become partners, Vos’s exuberant personality complementing Ventress’s guarded, no nonsense approach to everything.

For a time, Dark Disciple follows the time-honored narrative of the undercover cop ingratiating himself with criminals, but [spoilers] that thankfully doesn’t last too long. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout the novel, and you can tell it had been expertly plotted before being transformed from a series of 22 minute episodes into a book. I also won’t spoil anything else for you. The person who developed the original story was none other than Katie Lucas, daughter of the Maker himself, George. Here she’s helped by author Christie Golden. In a postscript, Katie Lucas writes about how she was drawn to Ventress because she’s a strong female character. I also feel as if the inclusion of Ventress and Ahsoka in the series speaks to the necessity of including female creators and artists in the world of Star Wars. Would these character be as rounded and complex if someone like Katie Lucas wasn’t there to influence the creative process?

What drew me to The Clone Wars cartoon was how it handled some of the moral entanglements hinted at in the prequel films. For all their flaws, the prequels had some legitimately interesting ideas that were, unfortunately, poorly executed. The idea that you could win a war and still lose seems particularly relevant today considering America has been waging a seemingly endless war on terror for fifteen years, and yet somehow global acts of terrorism have actually increased. But there are other ways to lose a war. Dark Disciple, and much of The Clone Wars, suggests that we lose by blurring the line between the “good” and “bad” guys. By engaging in assassination, the Jedi Council have lost their purity. But this isn’t an easy decision. You could see how the Jedi might come to the conclusion that engaging in what’s considered an immoral act, even during wartime, would be their best option, even if it is ultimately an abandonment of their principles. And in the process they have sacrificed the welfare of Quinlan Vos, who must struggle with the Dark Side during his mission.

Not everything about Dark Disciple is completely successful. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older and more cynical, but at times it seems as if the romance between Vos and Ventress seems driven more by the plot than by the characters. But because the novel focuses on secondary and tertiary characters, there can be real consequences. Dark Disciples feels like more than just another adventure in the life of these characters. And the novel reminds us that even in a world with a light side and a dark side, it’s not always easy to know which side you’re on. Like Star Wars itself, this is a lesson that is both of our time and timeless.

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