Review: Star Wars: Dark Disciple novel (LucasBooks)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Over five televised seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, clearly the show's breakout star is Asajj Ventress. Count Dooku's former apprentice-turned-anti-hero bounty hunter precisely represents the gray space between the light and dark sides of the Force that Clone Wars focused on in its later seasons. The Jedi were not entirely blameless in their downfall, from at the outset accepting the clone soldiers into their midst to warring on the Separatists who were not wholly evil; into the center of this comes Ventress, neither easily defined as an evil Sith lord nor a heroic Jedi.

If a team-up might be viewed as a pairing of equals, then Christie Golden's Star Wars: Dark Disciple -- which novelizes eight unproduced episodes of Clone Wars -- shows the Jedis' station continuing to fall as Ventress's rises, until they meet in the middle. In the Jedi Council proposing to do a very un-Jedi-like thing, Ventress becomes their unlikely, but likely, ally; and clearly, the proposed dedication of almost a third of the episodes of a Clone Wars season to Ventress underscores the character's importance. Dark Disciple feels quintessentially Star Wars, focused indeed on the always-warring-but-irrevocably-connected light and dark sides of the Force. Golden successfully recreates the essence of Clone Wars, and even the novel's peculiarities are wonderfully reminiscent of the show.

[Review contains spoilers]

The final televised Clone Wars storyline (not counting the sixth Netflix season) saw Padawan Barriss Offee betray the Jedi Council, castigating them for their own dark turn in inciting and continuing the Clone War. With these accusations now spoken (and Padawan Ahsoka Tano leaving the order), Dark Disciple demonstrates how the ongoing war continues to erode the Council's morals, as they agree to employ Jedi Quinlan Vos and Asajj Ventress to assassinate Separatist leader and Sith lord Count Dooku, a decision made, as these things often are, for the so-called greater good.

Ventress is as ubiquitous in Clone Wars as Vos is not, a character notable for his bombastic personality but spotlighted in only one episode. In this way, the two characters are opposites, but similar; as Golden establishes early in the book as the pair shares an ill-gotten bottle of whiskey, Vos has no "story," a reference both to his sheltered upbringing in the Jedi temple and to his canonical blank slate. Ventress, on the other hand, describes her variety of origins as a Sith apprentice, a mystical Nightsister, and now a fugitive bounty hunter, but notes that despite all her adventures, she has often been a cog in other people's stories, not the main actor in her own (a problem for female characters in Star Wars canon far beyond Ventress, which it appears the franchise is trying to fix). Though from opposite sides of the Force, it's in this way that Ventress and Vos form a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet bond, each seeking definition beyond their respective alliances.

Golden begins the book as something of a romantic action-comedy, but while the romance aspects remain mostly strong throughout, the book is surely not a comedy by the end. The early chapters involve Vos, undercover at the time, trying to gain Ventress's partnership and trust largely by making himself a nuisance to Ventress until she relents. They embark on a couple missions together, including some morally wrenching, until the two become, indeed, partners and lovers. So as to have a chance of killing Dooku, Ventress trains Vos in the Dark Side, and then there's a bit of a "heist" vibe as the two confront Dooku and General Grievous. But the book takes a rather surprising, dark turn when Dooku captures and then tortures Vos, essentially warping the mind of the once happy-go-lucky Jedi.

That Dark Disciple ventures so far from the early bright tone to the ending darkness gives the book an epic feel; there's a sense in the book of having journeyed a far distance with these characters. At the same time, the mutability of the tone, and especially that toward the end of the book Ventress and Vos disappear considerably in favor of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, might seem unusual choices for the average novel. But in this, Dark Disciple demonstrates itself as being authentically of Clone Wars; this is precisely the thing a series of Clone Wars episodes would do, trading out tones and characters even while ostensibly following one storyline. Though I could guess many times what episode the chapters were within (the episode titles are listed inconspicuously at the beginning), I wished Golden and company had divided the book with the episodes, such to mitigate some of the changes and further strengthen the connection with the source material.

Despite that Dark Disciple stems from stories intended for the animated series, Golden gears this book rather clearly for adults. Clone Wars itself skewed surprisingly adult more often than not, and at least one example was when Ventress, charged with delivering a package to a governmental lord, reneged after she discovered the "package" was a young girl, meant to be the lord's bride; the episode doesn't explain explicitly forced marriage or child brides, but neither does it provide younger viewers an alternate explanation for what's happening. Dark Disciple, at its milder, sees Ventress using a ruse of sex in the bathroom to gain information; later on, Vos must murder a sentient beast to engage the Dark Side, and Dooku's torture of Vos is hard to read as well. Some of the situations are unpleasant, but Golden uses the novel versus television format well (also at times in disguising undercover characters by virtue of the narrative, when if televised the audience could just see who's who).

There is an odd push and pull in the book given that the audience already knows the plot to kill Dooku will be unsuccessful, by dint of the events of Revenge of the Sith; at times Golden spends too much focus on Dooku seemingly being killed or captured when the audience knows whatever injuries he suffers can't be fatal. Early in the book there's some question of whether Ventress is just using Vos and not that she actually loves him; for a sci-fi romance story, that Ventress's feelings are true makes sense, but I felt disappointed this wasn't presented with more irony or nuance given how stoic Ventress has previously been. There's also some awkwardness toward the end when Ventress frantically believes Vos has turned to the Dark Side; both Vos and the narrative itself seem to suggest otherwise, but then it turns out maybe Vos is on the Dark Side or at least serving his own interests, all of which comes off confusing rather than shocking since the book has already traded Ventress and Vos's perspectives for Kenobi and Skywalker.

Most controversial is the story's end, in which Ventress is seemingly killed; I can't say for sure but I'm guessing this is from Katie Lucas's original outline and not Golden's independent choice. I do say "seemingly" since Ventress is a Nightsister and resurrection is far from improbable, though I'm unsure if subjecting the character to the trope of death and rebirth is any better than simply killing her off. For a book that seemed intended to spotlight Ventress -- and to intend for her to star in eight episodes -- the character's death is an odd choice, leaving Vos as the book's real perspective character; I'd have much preferred Vos died. Perhaps the Clone Wars team felt some need to explain away Ventress's absence in later Star Wars episodes, though we've recently seen the same has not been necessary for Ahsoka and some of the clone troopers. Though Ventress's move to the light side of the Force in her death has Star Wars precedence with no less than Darth Vader, to me it felt like a disrespect to the character, something I'd hoped the book's very last chapter would undo but did not.

My disagreement with Star Wars: Dark Disciple's plot choices, however, doesn't take away from my overall enjoyment of the book, which I thought Christie Golden wrote well (and especially in how the characters "feel" emotions in the Force, like "bright arrogance"). Among other ways that Dark Disciple succeeds in evoking Clone Wars is also in a variety of character cameos, not just the Jedi Council, but also Padme Amidala and Boba Fett and his band of mercenaries. Though a Jedi and a Sith/bounty hunter, Vos and Ventress have a certain bantering romance evocative of Han Solo and Leia Organa, further making the book feel authentically of Star Wars. As a last glance back at Clone Wars, Dark Disciple hits the right notes.

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  1. I guess that pokes a hole in my headcanon that Ahsoka becomes "bounty bros" with Asajj after leaving the Jedi Order.

    1. Only just started, but I know who Fulcrum is ;)

    2. OK. I didn't figure that was a spoiler any more but you never know. But you were still thinking "bounty bros" happened somewhere in the untold period?

    3. Before I knew about this book, I thought so. The last arc of Season 5 where they teamed up briefly made me think that we might have seen more of the two of them together had the show gone on longer. Evidently not!

    4. There's a deafening lack of mention of Ahsoka in Dark Disciple; it's pretty weird, given Ventress and Anakin have conversations and that there's mention of the events with Barriss in the novel, just not Ahsoka. It made me wonder if maybe when Dark DIsciple was being written, the Star Wars team was still figuring out what they'd do with Ahsoka post-Clone Wars and maybe that affected her use in this book.