Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith -- Spiral comes as something of a shock. This is a story quite removed from the Star Wars movies -- taking place more than 2,000 years(!) before Episode I. As such, some of who fought whom and which group betrayed the other will be hard for a new reader to grasp at first -- there is an impressive amount of mythology here. At the same time, by the end of the first chapter, once a Wookie appears and the lightsabers come out, Spiral begins to feel enough like "traditional" Star Wars that any early misgivings ought dissipate.
Author John Jackson Miller offers a quite interesting look mainly at the Sith on their own, without any Jedi about. More than some of the villain-centered episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where the Sith plotted against one another or planned their next attack on the Jedi, here Miller imagines a real society -- if the Sith were marooned on a planet, how would they actually live day to day? Miller mixes all the treachery one would expect from the Sith with an intriguing dose of the mundane -- for instance, how Sith elect an official, or how they manage succession from one leader to the next.
In this way, Spiral suggests the sheer depth of the expanded Star Wars mythos -- someone's even thought through ancient Sith governmental proceedings -- even as it also offers a rousing adventure story. The setting allows Miller to imbue the story with a greater fantasy element than a Star Wars story might normally have, and this serves Spiral well almost (though not quite) to its end.
[Review contains spoilers]
Miller's main characters here are Takara Hilts, daughter of the Grand Lord of the Sith, and Parlan Spinner, a rebellious Sith slave. The cover of the book depicts Hilts with her lightsaber, and indeed Hilts is the character who's easier to follow -- she resembles a Force-user in the traditional sense, and also offers the "young person longing for new horizons" aesthetic a la Luke Skywalker.
Spinner is tougher for the reader to get ahold of, in that he starts the story captured by Hilts and seemingly functioning as Hilts's sidekick (a Han Solo to her Luke Skywalker, to an extent), but by the end he essentially takes over the story and seems to gain the greater reward. I don't fault Miller for defying my preconceived notions; rather it demonstrates good growth of the characters over the book's five chapters that they act in unexpected ways.
Spiral's best chapters are its first two, which have Hilts and Spinner getting out of some scrapes, offers details about how the "Lost Sith" -- marooned for centuries on an alien planet -- have built a society around and on top of the alien natives, and then provides an equally detailed look at a a group of Jedi and Sith marooned even earlier than Hilts's people, and how those Jedi have built themselves a utopian society. Hilts and Spinner seem to "go rogue" at every opportunity, and it's entertaining to see how they try to one-up each other or take advantage of their various captors (often with lightsabers flashing).
The end of the book offers both a starship battle (with a ship that looks awfully, and perhaps not coincidentally, like the Millenium Falcon) and a group of rampaging Leviathan monsters (like prehistoric rancors). With the latter, plus a group of Jedi dragon-riders, Miller delves into greater "swords and sorcery" territory than I was used to seeing in a Star Wars story (even despite the mystic power of the Force). Long-term this probably isn't how I'd like my Star Wars, but Miller makes it work and it helps especially that there's still that starships buzzing around the skies.
The one hitch in the book is the depiction of resurrected Sith lord Remulus Dreypa. Dreypa has a flamboyancy to him, more Ming the Merciless than Darth Vader, which generally works with the less serious, more swashbuckling tone of this story (we're more in Return of the Jedi mode here than Empire Strikes Back). But Dreypa looks neither scary nor imposing, but downright ridiculous, in a cape with his underwear on the outside like a superhero villain, when others wear armor and the like. It's a lone discordant note, but when the story turns on the threat of Dreypa's return, I'd have preferred to see him be more threatening.
It's fun to have artist Andrea Mutti here, having just seen his work in less fantastical form in Denise Mina's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. Mutti excels especially at the one-on-one conversations, such that Hilts and Spinner's banter comes through well, as do the more factual studies of Sith government; the only sore spot remains whomever designed poor Remulus Dreypa's costume.
Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith -- Spiral is not the most straightforward entry into the expanded Star Wars universe for a new reader -- but at the same time, it contains enough detail and depth that a new reader certainly gains an appreciation for how truly expansive the extended Star Wars universe is. Hilts and Spinner are fun characters more or less in the classic Star Wars mold, and a new reader holding fast to them should be able to navigate this book relatively unscathed.