Star Wars novels stir a range of emotions for fans. Some view them as natural extensions of the movies, and because of that they hold them to the impossible standard of the franchise's big-screen installments. Others just view these novels as a way for Lucasfilm to make a quick buck.
There was a time when both opinions were valid, which unfairly stigmatized these novels.
However, with production company Lucasfilm now under the Disney umbrella, the entire focus of these novels has shifted, bringing the stories directly into the series' overall mythology and tying events even more closely into the movie universe.
This raises the stakes for all future novels as key plot points in the movies are explored in these books, which are now more closely scrutinized by the Star Wars think tank at Disney. And that's the biggest selling point of the latest book, Star Wars: Dark Disciple.
Written by Christie Golden and based off unproduced scripts for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this book is surprisingly vital to the Star Wars mythology, especially for fans of the prequel trilogy and the subsequent animated series. Golden knows the genre and has honed her craft on Star Trek novelizations, gaming fantasy novels and original fantasy works, plus three Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi novels.
The book unfolds between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as the Jedi, believing that Count Dooku's death will bring an immediate end to The Clone Wars, begrudgingly authorize the Sith Lord's assassination. Who better to take Dooku down than his former apprentice, and the one person who hates him more than the Jedi, Asajj Ventress?
However, Ventress hates the Jedi almost as much as she hates Dooku, so to get her onboard with the plan, the Jedi Council enlists Jedi Master Quinlan Vos to go undercover to convince Ventress to work together to take Dooku down.
Trying to capture the tone and scope of the Star Wars universe with prose is a thankless job, yet Golden solves this problem by making Dark Disciple a much more intimate affair based around characters, rather than mammoth space battles.
The interactions between Ventress and Vos are particularly intriguing, as each of these opposing characters are inevitably drawn to one another, despite being on opposite ends of the Force spectrum. It's an elemental relationship, hurtling toward tragedy, yet engrossing nonetheless.
For those unfamiliar with The Clone Wars animated series cast, there are also appearances by iconic Star Wars characters to make you feel at home, including Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who are so expertly crafted that you can't help but hear Frank Oz and Ewan McGregor's voices whenever they speak.
What makes Dark Disciple work, though, is the plot from Golden. Whereas a lot of Star Wars novels in the past have strayed from the swashbuckling tone of the movies and moved into second-rate sci-fi territory, Golden uses this opportunity to craft Dark Disciple into a spy/espionage thriller.
As the Jedi Council’s resident undercover expert, Vos comes across like a superspy, infiltrating enemy organizations with nothing but his duplicitous charms and smirking self-assurance. Despite being a part of the solemn Jedi Order, Vos is a bit of a scoundrel, in the tradition of Lando and Han Solo. This makes him the perfect foil for Ventress, who is snakelike in her every motivation. Instead of dealing with fantasy or sci-fi, Golden makes Dark Disciple read like a spy novel with some political overtones and sharp wit thown in.
Surprisingly, though, there are some dark moments sprinkled throughout — darker than most Star Wars material, especially the beginning of the novel, in particular, with the raid on Mahranee that leaves countless refugees dead.
Golden also depicts the seedy side of bounty hunting in the Star Wars universe, including a scene where The Black Sun crime syndicate executes a family as Ventress and Vos are powerless to stop them. These moments aren't outright graphic, but they raise the stakes and shine a light on the fact that there are casualties in George Lucas' relatively kid-friendly universe; it's not all about wisecracking smugglers and eye-popping lightsaber duels.
In the end, Dark Disciple feels like the swan song for The Clone Wars era as Disney shifts focus toward The Force Awakens. Plot threads are tied up, characters meet their fate (including a big one that I won't spoil) and perhaps the last unproduced scripts of The Clone Wars cartoon series are finally put to use.
This war was a huge part of the Star Wars brand for years, and Golden manages to craft a story worthy of the themes and characters that fans have come to relate to. If you kept up with all of The Clone Wars material up until now, this book should feel like a natural extension of the cartoon and give you some much-needed closure.
Dark Disciple: Star Wars (LucasBooks, 2015) became available July 7 in hardcover, on Kindle and as an audiobook.