It’s me again, with another Star Wars Read-A-Thon post! This time, I’m digging into the prequel novelizations–Episodes I, II, and III of the original cinematic canon. If you’re not familiar, this is basically the story of how Anakin Skywalker, the most talented Jedi Knight the galaxy had ever seen, became Darth Vader, most feared entity in the cosmos. There’s more to it than that, of course–the slow demise of the Republic and the subtle takeover of Emperor Palpatine, the character growth of Obi-Wan Kenobi from idealistic student to wise but wearied master; and the introduction of completely new characters like Mace Windu and Padme Amidala.
Like most of my fellow Star Wars purists, I am not a huge fan of the prequel trilogy. As such, I didn’t expect much from the novelizations. So imagine my surprise when I came to love these books more than any other single Star Wars novel I have read to date. Literature is a very different medium from film, and some stories just work better written than on-screen. That’s certainly the case with the Star Wars prequels, even though the written versions of these stories came later.
In this review:
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, by Terry Brooks
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, by R. A. Salvatore
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, by Matthew Stover
The first book, The Phantom Menace, follows the life of Anakin Skywalker as a young boy. Now, in the movies, we’re introduced to the story through a lot of political exposition, which always leaves me a touch unmoored and anxious. I’m not good at following political intrigue if I’m dumped into the story without being given a chance to connect to any of the characters involved, and with the exception of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the characters in Episode I are all completely new. The other confusing thing about the Episode I film is that there is no clear protagonist, even though it was pitched as Darth Vader’s origin story. Anakin is barely in it, and his scenes are short and not exactly connected to the main plot.
Author Terry Brooks, best known for his Shannara series, both expands and improves on the existing story by reframing it as explicitly Anakin’s story. We meet him first out of all the characters and get to know what an average day for him is like on Tattooine, rather than meeting him roughly halfway through the movie without any context. From then on, Brooks makes an effort to show as many scenes as possible from Anakin’s point of view. It’s a fascinating adaptation, because all the same scenes are there that were in the movie, but the reframing changes the way they come across. You see all the battles, political debates, and meetings between Jedi and Senators through the eyes of a child who has some motivation to be there, but has no idea what’s going on. It both simplifies the tone of the story, making it more accessible, and speeds up the pace to keep it interesting. Since The Phantom Menace is, for me, the least interesting entry in the prequel trilogy, this made a surprising and welcome change.
Unfortunately, the second film, Attack of the Clones, is always the hardest one for me to get through, and that’s the case with the literary adaptation as well. Written by R. A. Salvatore, who made a name for himself writing novelizations for the Forgotten Realms universe, this one is a fairly close rendition of the cinematic story, with a few extra pieces thrown in for depth and detail. It’s a bit like the novelization of A New Hope in that way. Unlike A New Hope, there’s a big focus on the building romance between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala–a pairing that, while I knew it was coming for plot reasons, has always completely baffled me. Romance is one of the most difficult things to write convincingly, and the way it’s handled in Episode II is sadly typical: the reader gets overloaded with descriptions of the two lovebirds’ feelings, and how strong and irresistable they are, without ever getting a sense of what these two see in each other in the first place. Considering that this episode shows Anakin at his most childish and self-absorbed, I have a real hard time believing a clever, sharp-eyed Galactic Senator like Padme, a character I really like, would have fallen for him at this particular moment in time. It’s a problem.
To be fair, there is a lot of fun stuff going on in Episode II if you can get past the romance: an assassination plot being investigated by Obi-wan Kenobi, whose espionage storyline delivers a fun Space Noir vibe; the introduction of the enigmatic Jedi Separatist Count Dooku; the backstory and childhood of the infamous bounty hunter, Boba Fett; and lots and lots of action. It’s not terrible, just terribly weighed down by a big chunk of the main plot.
The absolute best volume in the prequel trilogy, however, is Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith. I’ve always felt this was the strongest in the film trilogy, but Stover takes it to a whole different level. His prose is gorgeous for one thing, and his use of repeated phrases to drive home a particular thing. In the hands of a lesser writer, this sort of literary tactic could get wearying, but for stover, it just works. For example: Anakin is deathly afraid of things ending, and has a revelation when Obi-wan tells him that even stars can die. Since then, he’s haunted by what he calls the “Dark Star Dragon”–the inevitability of his own death, and the deaths of the people he loves, namely Padme. Not to mention, Stover has a fantastic handle on writing action scenes. Just watching the movies, you get a sense of the Jedi’s mastery over various martial arts techniques (or whatever the Space Opera equivalent of that is), but in the book, Stover offers a lot of insight into what those techniques mean for their respective characters.
Most importantly, this final volume made me feel empathy for Anakin Skywalker, and I truly felt the tragedy of his fall to the Dark Side. Since that fall is basically the reason the prequels exist in the first place, it’s the most essential part of this chapter to get right. Stover did what all three movies failed to do, and that makes this a remarkable volume on its own.
Now, if you want to read the entire saga, all six books, I recommend using the so-called “Ernist Rister” order, which goes like this: IV, V, I, II, III, VI. That way you get the original trilogy as a framing device, picking up the prequel trilogy as an extended flashback in the middle to explain how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader, and ending with the final resolution of both Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s respective storylines in Return of the Jedi. That’s how I read them this time, it’s how I’ve been watching the movies this year, and it makes for a much more satisfying conclusion.
Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy–Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command