Review of ‘Tarkin’ by James Luceno

Tarkin tells the story of everybody’s favourite Grand Moff, who was so incredibly menacingly and ably played by the inestimable Peter Cushing in the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately overshadowed by Darth Vader through the movies, Tarkin is a character who has always interested me. He’s essentially third-in-command of the entire Empire but all we really know about him is that he’s ruthless in a lot of the same ways Vader is, but is also a lot more coolly rational and realistic. To come across a novel that reveals even some of the background of this previously enigmatic character was very exciting, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wasn’t the best it could have been, but as a window into this character it gets the job done quite well.

He’s the scion of an honourable and revered family. A dedicated soldier and distinguished legislator. Loyal proponent of the Republic and trusted ally of the Jedi Order. Groomed by the ruthless politician and Sith Lord who would be Emperor, Governor Wilhuff Tarkin rises through the Imperial ranks, enforcing his authority ever more mercilessly . . . and zealously pursuing his destiny as the architect of absolute dominion.

Rule through the fear of force rather than force itself, he advises his Emperor. Under Tarkin’s guidance, an ultimate weapon of unparalleled destruction moves ever closer to becoming a terrifying reality. When the so-called Death Star is completed, Tarkin is confident that the galaxy’s lingering pockets of Separatist rebellion will be brought to heel—by intimidation . . . or annihilation.

Until then, however, insurgency remains a genuine threat. Escalating guerilla attacks by resistance forces and newfound evidence of a growing Separatist conspiracy are an immediate danger the Empire must meet with swift and brutal action. And to bring down a band of elusive freedom fighters, the Emperor turns to his most formidable agents: Darth Vader, the fearsome new Sith enforcer as remorseless as he is mysterious; and Tarkin—whose tactical cunning and cold-blooded efficiency will pave the way for the Empire’s supremacy . . . and its enemies’ extinction.

It has always felt like a waste to me that Peter Cushing’s Moff Tarkin got so little screen time in the movies. There’s only one Grand Moff in the entire empire, and he’s both the highest ranking military officer and the one in charge of the construction of the Death Star. Add in the fact that Cushing is just a tremendous presence and carries ‘menacing and brilliant’ very easily, and the idea of a novel exploring any elements of his past seemed like a no-brainer. I was slightly disappointed that it turned more into a very episodic ‘Tarkin goes on a mission’ and didn’t have quite as much as I would have liked about his formative years. It was a comparatively short book at 288 pages, and while it might have seemed slow-moving to the younger action-craving crowd that Star Wars Expanded Universe novels seem to appeal to, I would have loved another 50 pages of deeper backstory about how he got where he was.

The plot of the story itself appears to be garnering Tarkin a bit of negative press from some other early reader/reviewers mostly because early on, Tarkin basically gets suckered by some characters we barely know and can’t really evaluate their intelligence and competence. Since this whole book hinges on how brilliant and ruthless Tarkin is, starting off like that seems a little at odds with the premise. But that’s really giving Tarkin first too much credit, and then not enough. Nobody, no matter how tactically minded, no matter how brilliant can actually anticipate literally everything. Things are going to happen unexpectedly. I mean, anybody who knows who Tarkin is will recall that one of the last things he says is ‘Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!” It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, things will catch you by surprise.

Given that understanding, how he and Vader carry out this mission absolutely builds up the evidence for why Tarkin is right up there with Vader and the Emperor in the hierarchy of the empire. You get the sense that if there were no force, and no Sideous and Vader making the agenda about furthering the power of the Dark Side and constantly doing things like letting their arch nemesis keep learning and gaining strength in the hope of corrupting him, and the whole empire was just Tarkin wanting to consolidate power, the trilogy would have ended after the Empire struck back. You’ve probably seen one of those lists of the things to never do if you become an evil overlord, and Tarkin, one suspects, was the one who wrote that list. How terrible must it have been for him, with his fully operational battle station, to have to not just fly around blowing up anybody who opposed him, and have to go spend 45 minutes orbiting around to a moon to blow up some idiots.

I seem to have gotten a little off-track and wandered from the actual novel at hand here. Tarkin is not the perfect backstory novel. There’s a little too much largely present-day content and not enough backstory. I wanted an origin, and got a few glimpses but not the full treatment I was expecting. Larger Star Wars fans than I am were hoping for a repeat of the in-depth history of something like Darth Plagueis probably because it was also written by Luceno. While we didn’t get the backstory we wanted, the story we got was still pretty friggin good. Luceno does a great job making this feel like it’s still Peter Cushing, right down to the tone of the dialogue, and the story is well-paced and interesting. I’d still like somebody to give us more about his actual past, but as somebody who is a big Star Wars geek for the movies, and really not at all for the novels, I quite enjoyed this look at Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (Man, George Lucas is so bad at names).

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from LucasBooks via Netgalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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