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A novel by Sean Williams (2008, Ballantine Books)
1 year before Star Wars: A New Hope

Darth Vader's unleashes his secret apprentice on the galaxy, to hunt Jedi, oppose the Emperor and even form the Rebel Alliance, but his heart turns toward his pilot, and his loyalties are torn.




Read April 3rd to 14th, 2013, in hardcover  
    Much of the book reads like a video game, which of course was its original form. The main characters go from obstacle to obstacle, but they also grow in the process, and it's nice to see them react to things at the end of the book that would have seemed routine to them at the beginning. Loyalties shift, every one of them betrays somebody. The nice thing is that the author managed to do all of it while keeping plausible the real birth of the Rebellion and the final confrontation with the Emperor and Darth Vader.

Spoiler review:

I often have trouble separating the book from the Star Wars universe. It is entirely possible to have a good book, even a great one, that deviates from the stuff that came before it, yet still be entertaining enough to be very enjoyable. Often some implausibility can ruin a book, and I'm hoping to stop that right now.

This book is another novelization of a video game. Although I enjoyed the first Dark Forces book, it only dealt with the video game (which I played and completed when it was new) in the last chapter. The other ones I felt were nonsense.

I've always disagreed with the idea that Vader had any apprentices, or that the Emperor kept Force-sensitive humans around to do his secret bidding. There is nothing in the original trilogy to even cause us to suspect that. I even feel that Obi-Wan's discussion with Luke on Dagobah in Return of the Jedi is a case against the two Sith taking on more apprentices -surely Ben would have warned Luke about other Dark Siders that he might meet, or have Luke try to recruit them! But the use of secret Force-sensitive apprentices in the service of the Empire is there from the very beginning of the Expanded Universe, and it might be time to finally accept it. After all, I always enjoyed Mara Jade.

I had to get over my prejudice right from the beginning of this book, as we learn that Darth Vader kept a Force-sensitive boy for more than a decade without the Emperor knowing. "The apprentice", as he is known, is powerful in the Dark Side, and is given his greatest mission, to hunt down one of the few remaining Jedi, General Rahm Kota, on Nar Shadda.

His new pilot is Captain Juno Eclipse, former head of an elite Imperial squadron, brought to the secret base by Vader himself. She is already disillusioned about the Empire, though she doesn't really know it yet. On her previous mission, Vader ordered her to destroy an entire planet, rendering it uninhabitable by blowing up a nuclear reactor, which fed into the water supply. I suppose even the largest nuclear reactor couldn't single-handedly destroy the ecosystem of an entire planet, but this one contaminated all of the inhabited areas, at least.

As Juno flies the apprentice to Nar Shadda to dispense of Kota, then to the garbage planet of Raxus Prime to dispatch another Jedi, she grows to care for him. He also unknowingly grows fond of her, giving her reassuring pats on the shoulder, and calling to let her know he's okay, or asking if she is safe. The first thing that went through my mind was that this is not really Sith-like behavior. The author was conscious enough of this that he was able to make it grow through the book, so that even during his missions, he was thinking of the time he would spend with Juno after it was over.

So while it wasn't a complete surprise that the Emperor found out about him, it was quite a shock to have him killed by Vader a third of the way through the book! Of course, he was revived in the next chapter, completely healed (six months later) and even better than new. In the spirit of leaving no witnesses, his droid PROXY sends the medical space station careening into its sun, giving the apprentice barely enough time to get off -but he takes time to get Juno out of the torture chamber and into the ship, too.

The apprentice received a new mission from Vader, which he kept secret from Juno, and while together they sought out people who could start forming a rebellion, with which to destroy the Emperor, so that Vader could take his place, and the apprentice would take Vader's place. They find Kota, who was seriously wounded from before- but survived blind, wandering around Cloud City as a drunkard, and the wheels are set in motion.

It is Juno who makes life worth living for the apprentice, who wonders about the lonely life of a Sith. She repeatedly tells him that he is only a slave to Vader, and always will be, just as Vader is a slave to the Emperor. This allows him to reach a turning point in his mission to Kashyyyk, where he is drawn to the hut where he used to live with his father as a boy, the son of a Jedi Knight, whom Vader struck down. This is where Vader took him from, all those years ago. And the person the apprentice is supposed to rescue? None other than Princess Leia. It's interesting to note that the Emperor knew of her nature and didn't have her killed. Instead, he ensured that she was placed in locations where she would have no influence, like the slave-world of the Wookies.

It's funny to see Leia tell him she doesn't need rescuing, but offers him a target instead -the skyhook where Wookies are being ferried so they can be shipped out to work on a secret project. Kota brings Bail Organa, Mon Mothma and Garm Bel Iblis into the rebellion, which I found hard to believe. Mon Mothma and Bail Organa were part of the Rebellion long before there was an Empire to rebel against. They were cautious, more so even than Padmé, during the Clone Wars animated series. And maybe this is where they were led astray. I still have a lot of trouble believing it, though.

It is stated that the three senators (Organa is active, the others are former senators) were working at cross-purposes, and I can believe that -but not for 17 years! It is my belief, completely unfounded in the literature, yet more logical, that the Rebellion sprung up immediately, and it was ineffective for that long, as maybe it could not do more than strike at small targets.

To prove his worth, the apprentice goes back to Raxus Prime in order to destroy a shipyard that has sprung up in the six months since he last visited, when he was Jedi-hunting. Here he does more than that -in the process, an uncompleted Star Destroyer somehow dislodges from the factory and comes straight for him (unlikely given the orbital mechanics of the gun-station emplacement). He uses the accelerator gun to shoot giant gobs of metal at the factory instead of into orbit for use as raw materials, and has to take control of the Star Destroyer with the Force, redirecting it into the particle gun in a massive explosion.

Throughout the book, the apprentice uses exceptional Force abilities. This is entirely consistent with video games and even the comics (remember that Luke did something similar in Dark Empire, yet never again). The apprentice is very much larger than life. But it doesn't really matter, because he is human inside, and still falls in love with a woman, who despite what he represents, falls in love with him because he cares for her. And her love for him changes him.

At this stage of the book, PROXY is taken over by the central computer of Raxus Prime, and is kidnapped to one of its main locations. The apprentice is forced to duel with the computer in the form of his only real friend (at least before Juno came along). He does win the battle, and PROXY is changed forever by this event.

Strange to say, but my favorite part of the book was probably the part I was dreading the most. After the apprentice is betrayed by Darth Vader on Corellia and left for dead, taking the three senators and the former Jedi prisoner, the apprentice follows them to the secret construction site of the Death Star. It's an area where most video games want to go, but I really thought it would wreck the continuity of the Star Wars expanded universe.

My first thought was that Bail Organa should not have seen the super-weapon, but having him there makes perfect sense. Nothing suggests that Leia was surprised at the Death Star, and maybe this was her first exposure to that, through her father. No wonder Tarkin wanted to make an example of Alderaan in A New Hope. A rebel attack on the space station is even described in Death Star, though it is pitiful and seems desperate -the kind of attack a fledgling Rebellion might cobble together after their three leaders found out about it and barely escaped with their lives.

The apprentice, who learned his name was Galen in his vision on Kashyyyk, is dropped off in the equatorial trench, and defeats walkers and scout walkers, stormtroopers and turbo-laser emplacements, teams of stormtroopers, and more, all the while freeing Wookie slaves (he solves the mystery of where the Wookies were being transported) and making his way to the place where Organa, Mothma and Bel Iblis were being held. The main weak spot was the fact that the Wookies knew where this location was. I would have guessed the detention level, and it only serves the plot to have it in an observation bubble nearly open to space on the edge of the laser dish.

The apprentice, fully devoted to serving no master but himself now, climbs up one of the laser shafts to the bubble, where he cuts his way in and distracts not just Darth Vader, but the Emperor himself! And it remains completely plausible. He fights Vader and is completely surprised at how strong the Sith Lord is, nearly falling to his lightsaber, which was very nice to see -confidence can help, but he was arrogant, too! But drawing on the light side of the Force, thinking about how he loves Juno, he actually defeats Vader, but refuses to kill him (after a reminder by Kota about the path murder would lead to). I loved the Emperor's glee, which is echoed from Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, where he is willing to sacrifice everything to bring about his ultimate goal for power -even his apprentice and possibly his own life.

In the end, Galen gets into a power struggle with the Emperor with Sith lightning, to allow the others to escape as Juno arrives in their starship -good thing the observation bubble wasn't deep within the station. Galen's body literally dissolves, and his spirit departs it. He sees the others get away in spirit form, and is finally happy.

Juno, of course, is distraught, and PROXY was sliced in half by Vader. The others meet on Kashyyyk, which seems like a dangerous place to land, as it is still under Imperial control. They meet in the old hut from which Galen was kidnapped, and decide to use his family crest as the symbol for the Rebel Alliance, which is a really cool origin story for the symbol we've taken for granted all these years.

There is a second book to this series, and I would have hoped it would deal more with Juno. If the cover is any indication, I fully expect Galen to return to his body somehow, which would cheapen his sacrifice. Hopefully I'm completely wrong, however, and it is a different character on that cover!


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