The second canon novel in the current Star Wars continuity and the first by respected Expanded Universe contributor James Luceno, Tarkin focuses on the story behind Wilhuff Tarkin’s rise from Governor and Moff to the first Grand Moff, while explaining the rites of passage that led the man to a position of power within the Empire.
Tarkin is part of the current Star Wars canon. Check out the timeline.
The talents of James Luceno for dry and detailed storytelling aren’t necessarily suited to everything. But when it comes to a story about powerful, amoral men, there’s nobody I’d rather have behind the wheel. And Wilhuff Tarkin, the scion of a wealthy, ruthless family, and the thin-faced Imperial official who bossed around Darth Vader in A New Hope, is one of the most powerful, most amoral men in any galaxy – even one far, far away.
Tarkin, which is set five years after Revenge of the Sith, is mostly divided into two stories. The first is a present-time mission in which Tarkin and Darth Vader attempt to thwart a spree of rebel attacks against the Empire. The second is a large swatch of Tarkin’s early life, told in flashbacks to a primitive rite of passage. Being part biography, part caper, and part love letter to the Clone Wars TV series is a lot of responsibility, but despite a few rough edges, Tarkin comes together as a satisfying – albeit brief – whole.
At the novel’s beginning, Tarkin is overseeing construction of the Death Star (although I don’t think anyone calls it that) from a remote facility that is promptly attacked by rebels. In an operation that also incorporates Separatist-era battle droids and a tricky bit of Holo-Net corruption, both reminiscent of the Clone Wars, the attackers agitate Emperor Palpatine enough to send Tarkin and Darth Vader to investigate the planet Murkhana, a former stash for Separatist communication devices.
You can see already Tarkin’s fascination with the Clone Wars conflict, immediately incorporating familiar iconography, plot details, and relationships. A lot of Tarkin’s inner monologue is devoted to speculation about various things from the war, including that Vader is likely Anakin Skywalker, which Tarkin has deduced fairly easily. We get to see his perspective on what happened to Ahsoka in the final season, and also his theory that both Palpatine and Vader are Sith, which it only just occurred to me is something that wouldn’t be common knowledge at this point in the continuity.
What Vader and Tarkin discover on Murkhana is a pacey, interesting story with some surprising turns, and the inherently comical premise of a rebel unit terrorizing the Empire in Tarkin’s (stolen) personal ship. That Tarkin is forced to share attention with Vader in his own novel might initially seem like a misguided bit of fan-service; a lack of confidence on the part of either Luceno or the publisher in the average fan’s interest in the title character. But it turns out the dynamic is the best thing about the novel. Their different methods of problem-solving complement and hinder each other, but the mutual respect that they ultimately form goes a long way in contextualizing the weird command structure seen aboard the Death Star in A New Hope.
The story of Tarkin’s youth is engaging too, but somewhat less so. Luceno details the extreme initiation rituals to be performed by Tarkin men, all military leaders, and governors with a unique, uncompromising perspective on life and people’s roles in it. These adventures take place on the Carrion plains; odd survivalist adventures that don’t so much explain the specifics of what Tarkin went through, but better contextualize his overall view that the best way to rule is by ruthlessness and fear. These sequences are short enough to remain exotically separate from the main tale, but the way Luceno ultimately ties things together feels extremely contrived, and you get the sense that Tarkin’s backstory would have been better served in its own novel.
Luceno captures voice well. His dialogue is uniquely Star Wars in style but doesn’t descend into camp for any length of time, and his use of cadence and word choice has characters like Tarkin, Count Dooku, Vader and Palpatine feel very reminiscent of their on-screen counterparts. Luceno writes an excellent Palpatine, it must be said, but the interactions between Dooku and Tarkin are a particular highlight, and about the closest we’ll ever get to seeing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee on-screen together.
The problem with Tarkin is that it’s far too short to satisfactorily cover all the elements it would like to. Everything feels condensed to a certain extent; Tarkin’s backstory and current predicament less so, but the proto-rebels are tremendously underserved, with Luceno offering them very little personality and a thin anti-Imperial viewpoint that doesn’t really give a sense of who these people are or what they’re fighting for beyond the obvious. Because of that, the late suggestion that these do-gooders might be just as amoral as Tarkin himself falls a little bit flat.
All told, though, Tarkin is a dense and well-written book that might not do much for the broader canon but fills in a lot of details about specific characters and events. With its often-fascinating nods and name-checks that’ll satisfy fans of the EU and The Clone Wars while also solidifying what is or isn’t canon (and what might be made canon in the future), it feels like something that, at this point, only James Luceno could have written. If only he’d written a little bit more of it.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.