Star Wars authors have left their mark on the universe in different ways. Zahn and Anderson get the lion’s share of the world-building credit, with Stackpole and Allston bringing the thrills, Troy Denning the game changers, and Stover the beautiful prose. But along the way, James Luceno has quietly put together a library (Luceno-verse?) of some of the best—and most important—Star Wars books. He’s a strong writer with a consistent vision and there’s probably no author who better understands the secret hearts of the Sith and the politics leading up to the Clone Wars and beyond. So to task him with examining another Machiavellian baddie must have been a no-brainer. After all, Governor Tarkin—arrogant, calculating, and possessed of a “foul stench” (at least according to Leia)—commits the greatest war crime of the saga and often goes unmentioned in the EU. Here, he finally gets his due.
What results is an Imperial procedural, teaming a 50-year-old Wilhuff Tarkin with Darth Vader as they pursue a ragtag group of propaganda-spreading “dissidents” who have stolen Tarkin’s custom ship, the Carrion Spike. The story is simple, with a compressed timeline and low stakes, but it underlines Tarkin and Vader’s complicated relationship and their differing ideologies: Vader uses force (and The Force) to solve his problems, whereas Tarkin would rather “Rule through the fear of force rather than force itself.” And unlike most, Tarkin has his suspicions about the man under that black helmet.
It’s not a riveting tale, but the cat-and-mouse game is just a platform for the book to tackle its darker themes:
1.) Tarkin as the Ubermensch, and the will to power. He wants order at any cost, and thinks power is best consolidated with a few, so long as one of those few is Tarkin.
2.) Collateral damage and soft targets, with Tarkin, Vader, and the rebels they pursue sacrificing civilians for political agendas. All of it foreshadows Alderaan nicely.
And there’s something new for a Star Wars novel, too: the most successful chapters read like a faux biography of a famous political figure—and for me that’s its best facet. We get to explore Wilhuff’s origins on Eriadu—the brutal upbringing that gave him his prejudices and arrogance, his ambition and his creativity. The book plays him as a skilled hunter from his home planet’s Carrion, an outback-like wilderness. The lessons of primal power and fear that he learns there inform his rise to power and everything after.
Since the mile-high POV of those chapters has to make way for an actual plot, the book does feel schizophrenic at some times, and I would actually have preferred it as an in-universe fake biography of a Grand Moff, but that’s because I like minutia. I was on the edge of my seat for a scene in which Tarkin designs his new uniform, because I care about whether or not the Imperial navy should have epaulets. I read Wookieepedia entries and RPG sourcebooks for pleasure. That is not for everyone, so consider this your warning: The book slows to a crawl in some sections, bogged down by details of starship maneuvers and tactics and political structures. He’s a lot like Thrawn, really, which means Tarkin isn’t a thrill-ride. Luceno puts him in the cockpit of a V-wing at one point, but at the end of the day, this is a book about a man who mostly stands in front of windows with his hands clasped behind his back.
A note on continuity:
Because it’s set between trilogies, Tarkin’s in the bingo free spot of the "Legends" label. Most of the changeable continuity will be post-ROTJ, so here, Luceno is free to draw on his prior work, especially Cloak of Deception and Rise of Darth Vader. Some sections of Tarkin are practically lists—gadgets, planets, weapons, species. It often reads like an attempt to salvage as much as possible before moving into the Episode VII era. Part of that is because Luceno pulls liberally from the Clone Wars series, which serviced fans well and stayed pretty true to the rest of the EU.
That Clone Wars stuff mostly works, but there are moments where the allusions are less than seamless (it’s still a little distracting, for example, when Tarkin muses about the trial of Ashoka Tano, who still seems out of place everywhere but in her own (great) cartoon)). The book fills in some gaps in Luceno’s own Star Wars narrative (like when he returns Vader to Murkhana), and effectively blends the cartoon, the prequels, and the original trilogy.
The powers-that-be could easily have treated these early books in the new canon as a clean slate and piled in unfamiliar names and characters and planets, but if you love what’s come before, James Luceno is your new best friend.
The TL;DR version:
Tarkin plays it safe and moves at a slow clip, but it has good space battles, lays solid foundations, bridges continuity gaps, and takes a fascinating look at the pathos of one of the galaxy’s most criminally underused characters.