So, I read “Tarkin” by James Luceno, who had done a number of Star Wars books that I had enjoyed reading, and who was starting from a possibly overused but interesting concept of trying to provide some more background on Grand Moff Tarkin. The concept had potential. The execution was lacking.
Okay, so it starts off by giving Tarkin a less refined and civilized background, by having him grow up on a civilized planet that happens to contain a massive jungle and having him be sent out into it every year starting at 11 (I think) to learn from it and to be tested by it. This sort of background, however, is utterly unnecessary for a character like Tarkin. We didn’t need to build some kind of tough warrior image for Tarkin, as he could very well have been portrayed — and, in my opinion, is better portrayed — as someone who is more intellectual, someone who can fight if necessary but whose greatest strength is maneuvering people into positions where he can defeat them without having to rely on brute force. Giving him the warrior background seems to suggest that he couldn’t be as brutal as he was strictly from an intellectual standpoint, but instead needed some idea of brutality to make that work, which is ridiculous. Also, I didn’t find those sections at all interesting, which doesn’t help.
Now, in Star Wars, Tarkin is utterly unintimidated by Vader, who has already been established as someone to fear. This makes Tarkin someone to fear as well, and so the novel here has to establish and maintain that idea that Tarkin is someone powerful and competent enough to be someone that even Vader will back down from. Given the differences in physical ability, it’s going to have to be Tarkin’s intelligence that gives him that strength. So, in this novel, Tarkin is going to have to be intelligent and since Vader is a powerful Force user you’re going to have to build Tarkin up without tearing Vader down.
So how come they do that by making them be at least a step if not more behind a rag-tag group of not-quite-yet-Rebels led by a former ISB agent?
The story is pretty much the same as that of the Deep Space 9 episode “Defiant”, except Thomas Riker actually has a better plan. Rebels steal Tarkin’s super-powerful and super-stealthy ship — and why he has so powerful a ship is a little odd, but we can accept that — by tricking Vader and Tarkin, and then go on a spree attacking Imperial assets, eventually building to a final mission and a final deception that Tarkin predicts. Unfortunately, for most of the novel, Tarkin and Vader barely get close to them and are always outmaneuvered by them, and early in the novel Vader and Tarkin end up looking like fools. But at this point they’ve already proven their strength and power, and so it’s a bit out of character. If Teller — the ISB agent — had been portrayed as being absolutely brilliant, that might have helped … but he isn’t and, even if he was, Vader and Tarkin really ought to be smarter. And at the end, Teller proves that he isn’t that bright as he falls into a trap while pursuing Tarkin in an attempt to get revenge.
This really brings the book down. The Tarkin history is boring and mostly irrelevant, and the main plot doesn’t support the Tarkin history well and, in and of itself, is mostly pointless. The biggest impact it has is the removal of an ambitious Admiral, who ends up being the main reason Teller and his crew succeed in the first place. It’s possible that we were supposed to know most of the these characters already from other works and so be interested in them, but I’m not and so I’m not, and again the only two characters that I do know look stupid for most of the novel. This novel was very disappointing, in my opinion.