Canon Novel Review: Star Wars: Dark Disciple

Star Wars Dark Disciple Review

Spoiler Review –

Dark Disciple, written by Christie Golden and adapted from 8 unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars TV show, follows two unlikely participants in a quest to assassinate the villainous Count Dooku: Quinlain Vos and Asajj Ventress. At times a thrilling story about love and the power it holds, what it means to be true to one’s self and the Force, and the darkness within us all, it falters however by feeling like it adheres too closely to the scripts, doesn’t elaborate enough, and stumbles to an uneven end. That being said, Dark Disciple is an engaging read not only for fans of the cancelled animated show, but for those who want an electrifying adventure that certainly reads like the up and downs of TV show episodes. But it could’ve been so much more.

Dark Disciple‘s greatest strength is how being adapted from The Clone Wars scripts helps Golden craft a tale that ebbs and flows at a never dull, always entertaining, and snappy pace. It’s fun to try and spot all the places in the book where one unproduced episode ends and the other begins, and because it feels like she had little leeway, it’s incredibly simple to find these TV show like cuts in the story. It’s also really easy to pick this up and find yourself halfway or more through the book, especially if you’re just along for the ride and not reading DD with a critically aimed eye. My first read through was certainly enjoyable, in fact some of the most enjoyable canon Star Wars novel reading since A New Dawn, and its entertainment factor caused me not to initially notice some of the issues I’ll talk about later. The second read through, where I focus on a critical outlook, did reveal some of the cracks within the mostly well stitched seams.

DD‘s story starts with Count Dooku adding another notch to his considerably large war time atrocities belt and the resulting emotional and philosophical fallout leads the Jedi to reluctantly consider his assassination. While initially a hard pill to swallow that the Jedi would even think about an assassination attempt, let alone order one, it’s easier to accept thanks to both the numerous questionable decisions the prequel Jedi have made thus far (especially in TCW) and because the story’s pace prevents you from thinking too much about it. Obi-Wan, though firmly against the idea, suggests Quinlan Vos for the part seeing as the latter is best known for doing dirty work and going undercover. Vos will have to use his considerable talents in the undercover department when he’s tasked with recruiting Asajj Ventress’ help. However, neither is properly prepared for the effect their partnership and mission have on each other, as they struggle with their emotions both for each other and for the path ahead; Those emotions change everything for both characters, throwing them down exciting and surprising paths throughout the entire novel. And while the opening half of the book might feel like it occasionally takes some stretches to get things where it wants them to be—like say even the whole assassination plot idea and why Vos can’t let Ventress know he’s a Jedi—the second half expertly pays off many of the story threads and other miscellany with entertaining results…besides the ending, which I’ll get to later.

Asajj TCWAsajj Ventress is definitely among my top favorite characters in the franchise, especially thanks to how her role matured and changed in unexpected ways throughout TCW. The book does a decent job of continuing that trend, as her inner monologue looks back at all the things she has lost, including Talzin and the Nightsisters, while there’s some good continuity where she has to deal with the repercussions of her slight to Boba Fett in TCW S4 episode, “Bounty,” and the effect returning to Dathomir while training Vos has on her. I had little to no trouble hearing Nika Futterman’s musky purr as Ventress throughout the novel and it is a testament to how well I thought she was written. DD feels like the natural progression of her story arc from the show, as her new outlook on life changes her interactions with characters we’ve seen her trade barbs with throughout the series while she continues to make brave and new decisions. In particular, her interactions with the Jedi Council in the second half of the book are some of my favorites, as her time with long time enemies now turned fragile alliance is a thing of beauty and full of great exchanges. As usual, her banter (which Obi-Wan was very hesitant to admit he does with her) is fun and funny, which meshes well with Quinlan Vos’ personality throughout the book, while having her punch Vos at the outset one of books top moments. Unfortunately the ending and Ventress’ much shorter POV time, especially during scenes where it’s somewhat surprising we aren’t following her thoughts, does some disservice to the fan-favorite character.

VosI’ve never read Vos’ comics, and apparently neither did Golden (revealed in her interview with Far Far Away Radio, which I have a link to below), so the Vos we see here is mainly based off of his previous TCW appearance and input from the Story Group. Golden does a great job of making him feel different from the other Jedi, while still maintaining their code and ethics even in his most shadiest of dealings. Obviously though, he falters and love overpowers his senses in both good and bad ways, though I wasn’t entirely sold on their relationship in the beginning but eventually it grew on me. He’s definitely a good foil for Ventress, and vice versa, and their banter plays off each other well. While it wasn’t shocking Vos’ psychometry gets used against him, it’s done in one of the more crueler and harsher ways possible, and I’m happy DD took advantage of the ability and didn’t shy away from using it in such a fashion. Also, his time back with the Jedi after being in Dooku’s care might’ve been a little too on the nose and obvious about his true intentions and motivations, but again the events were entertaining enough one can look past it. However, the book ends up feeling like more of a Vos novel than a Ventress one, which is disappointing considering she was the far more important character to most fans going into DD.

As thoroughly enjoyable as the novel may be, DD has the feeling like something is always missing constantly hanging over it as it’s definitely questionable why it didn’t spend more time with X character in Y situation or filled in some of the blanks between what was obviously an end to one of TCW episodes and the start of another. It’s unclear if this is due to the author limiting herself and trying not to stray too far from the source material, a choice out of her hands thanks to the powers that be (i.e. Story Group/editors/etc.), or a combination of both, but either way this book’s lightening fast pace sacrifices some of the character development necessary to help sell some of the bigger emotional moments. For example, late in the book Vos is returned home to the Jedi Temple after being under Dooku’s care for some time and the circumstances of his return cause a rift between him and Ventress. Instead of following Ventress’ POV and getting her reactions and feelings surrounding Vos’ return, let alone following Vos’ POV, we spend an inordinate amount of time with Obi-Wan; even though I’m an unabashed Obi-Wan fan, and he’s written really well here, it’s a strangely timed break of POV from the two most important characters in the book at their most important moments yet.

And it’s not just poorly implemented POV shifts, but disappointing and awkwardly glossed over bits, like Vos and Ventress’ first bounty together hunting down the disloyal lover of the female pirate leader of the Blood Bone Order, Lassa Rhee. There’s a bit of build up to the first big hunt together, including Ventress catching Vos off-guard with her wink and nod or full-on gambit approaches to seducing the mark to get what she wants, but just when you think we’ll get to spend time meeting this cool new pirate leader or see Vos and Ventress work in tandem together, it’s written off in two or three sentences as easiest thing they’ve ever done. I could see them not covering the hunt for the TV version of this story, but this was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the prose medium and let a moment like that shine.

Unfortunately, Golden doesn’t stray far from the script (at least that’s what it feels like) and lets this and several other potentially interesting side stories fall to the wayside in favor of pace and plot. This issue happens more often than I realized on my first read-through, with my second one really revealing the problem. I could understand moments of incompleteness and odd POV shifts in the TV version of this story due to episode time constraints and the typical storytelling mechanics of said medium, but it’s hard to comprehend it being done in prose where expanding on material is highly welcomed, encouraged, and truly the medium’s staple.

SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE NOVEL IN THE SECTION BELOW.

SCROLL TO “END OF BIG SPOILERS” IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ABOUT THE BIGGEST SPOILER.

YOU’VE BEEN WARNED

Spoiler Warning 4

As per the tease from Filoni’s sketches in his Thank You post to The Clone Wars fans, there’s been a lot of speculation over the image of Vos carrying Ventress and it possibly hinting at her death. Unfortunately it most certainly is of a dead Asajj Ventress being held by Quinlan Vos, as she sacrifices herself in the final moments of DD to save Vos both literally and figuratively. While it was nice to have her make the choice, instead of being killed outright/not of her own choice, it’s still a pretty disappointing end to one of the better explored characters over TCW‘s history. On top of that, it’s bizarre in some ways because technically, especially for those who never read Vos’ comics and their only interaction with him was his previous TCW appearance, he’s a relatively new and unknown character who survives instead of a character who TCW viewers have become fans of and seen change in exciting new ways. Her death starts bringing up questions like: why did the character I went into this book that I considered more important have to die to save a character I know/care little about? Her death gets even a little more questionable when you consider Darth Maul is actually still alive (as far as has been revealed), because if he can survive past the TCW, couldn’t they have let Asajj go on as well? The biggest question yet though is: what exactly did she see from the Force that convinced her to end her own path by saving Vos, since what does he go on to do that’s so important other than get a throwaway mention in Revenge of the Sith? Or, as I suspect the more I think about it, does it have nothing to do with Vos’ life post-DD, but rather all about showing any Force users at the time (specifically Jedi) just how powerful and important love can/will be to the events yet to come?

With that final thought, her death isn’t all doom and gloom for this story, because it does introduce and explore the theme of love and the power of the emotion, something which Golden tries to weave throughout DD. I believe Ventress’ sacrifice out of love shows the Jedi just how powerful that one single emotion can be when used for good intentions, something that probably wasn’t lost on the two most sagely Jedi of the era: Obi-Wan and Yoda. Their experiences here, learning and understanding what the emotion can do, might have had a hand in their decision to send Anakin’s children against him, as they were likely hoping the love a father has for their child and the love a child has for their father would conquer all. It’s not a far-fetched conclusion to make considering her vision seems to explicity mention Vader and what the galaxy would be like if he was never saved (by love). I can’t say setting up the importance of love was explicitly part of the showmakers’ intentions behind DD‘s storyline, but one thing TCW kept getting better at as it matured was planting the seeds for the saga ahead. And frankly, it’s the only justification I can come up with to have such a seemingly important character from TCW sacrifice herself for someone (some of us) don’t really know well. But, as with Heir to the Jedi‘s similar seemingly unnecessary death of a character, could it have been done in a different way such that Ventress wasn’t killed and that her arc from the series would still be an effective way to get love’s importance across? The sad but true answer is: We’ll never know. {I’ll be discussing the book’s theme of love again, without the spoiler, below but with some different thoughts so don’t be surprised if you’re reading something and it sounds oddly familiar!}

 

 

 

END OF BIG SPOILERS

It’s Padmé, in her ever so brief appearance in a scene with Anakin, who makes the wise comment about how Ventress’ love might be the most important factor in returning Vos to the Jedi Order. It’s both a poignant point and sad bit of foreshadowing, as I’m sure Padmé was pretty devastated when she learned her love wasn’t enough to bring Anakin back. But the seed she plants in Anakin’s mind, along with the one Ventress’ actions by the end of the novel place in the minds of all the Jedi (specifically Obi-Wan and Yoda), seem like a pretty perfect set up for love’s importance during even the darkest of times; like a time where the Sith rule the galaxy and the fate of the all things lies in the hands of an untested Jedi named Luke. Golden’s not always focused on love and its role in the proceedings, sometimes only until absolutely necessary, but it’s a great theme for the book and one I’m sure all fans will agree hints at the emotion’s role throughout the saga as a whole.

Here are a few other things:

    • You can see two scenes from the unaired arcs in rough animation form in the video from the Untold Clone Wars panel at SWCA 2015. The first clip, seen at the 28:16 mark, is of Ventress’ chase of a bounty on Pantora and her hilarious first meeting with Vos (this is very early in the novel) and the second is at 35:30, where Dooku battles some familiar but unexpected foes (though this scene happens ‘off screen’ in the novel and not until much later). Lastly, when The Clone Wars Legacy was first revealed, there’s a video which contains some more (very brief) animation from the unaired arcs, starting around the 4:30 mark, including shots of Vos versus the mysterious creature from Ventress’ home and Dooku’s speech on Raxus.
    • Taris received its second canon mention here, with the first being in Tarkin. Neither were particularly noteworthy mentions, but it’s nice to see the starting planet from Knights of the Old Republic make the canon cut.
    • The design and concept behind the Mahran sounds pretty nifty, even if they take some inspiration from honeybees. Vos’ Mahran Jedi friend Desh was too conveniently brought into the story and was barely heard from until being dispatched in a rather unsurprising escape attempt late in the novel.
    • Sheb Valaad, the Koorivar merchant Vos is doing an undercover sting on during the opening moments of the book, has a Gamorrean bodyguard who speaks basic. I thought Voort “Piggy” saBinring from Legends was the only Gamorrean who could speak basic thanks to being biogentically engineered, but this Thurg does a decent enough job here.
    • Being a big fan of the Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy from Legends, I appreciated the Bounty Hunter’s Guild still being a thing (though I guess it first got mentioned canonically in Ezra’s Gamble).
    • Lassa Rhee and her Blood Bone Order are definitely now on the top of my list of things I’d like to see more of at some point in the future. Too bad they got such a big pass here to the point their mention almost feels unnecessary, especially after getting some interesting build-up.
    • My original assumption had been that DD takes place before Son of Dathomir (the comic series adapted from unproduced TCW episodes regarding Maul and Talzin) and it turns out I was half correct: the first 4 episodes DD‘s based off of do take place beforehand, while the second half takes place after, as per the updated chronological list of TCW episodes on the official site (The two 4 episode arcs split the novel rather evenly). With that in mind, it was strange Obi-Wan or Mace Windu don’t make mention of their brief run in with Dooku or that they’ve been told off of both Maul and Dooku by the Chancellor himself.
    • Though brief, the time spent listening to Dooku’s slanted speech about the Confederacy of Independent Systems version of the war was enlightening and intriguing. The last time we got a look at the Clone Wars from the CIS’s side was in S3 TCW episode, “Heroes on Both Sides.” Hopefully, when and if we ever return to the Clone Wars era, we can get more from the ‘enemy’s’ POV.
    • Dan Zehr, who runs the Coffee With Kenobi podcast, has an article at the official blog discussing DD’s usage of the literary device foils with Vos and Ventress.
    • Obi-Wan and Yoda were really well-written here, as they both stayed true to their characterization so far. Obi-Wan was the biggest voice against the assassination plot and the biggest proponent of Asajj. His speech at the end about the Council’s blame in the entire matter strikes all too true; Yoda felt like a Yoda post his season 6 TCW appearance should, where he learned how to become a Force-ghost and saw how the Jedi were doomed to fail for now, because in the novel he seems to make decisions, comments, and goes along with some surprising things due to both hoping what he’s seen isn’t true while letting the others feel like they might still have a chance to change things for the better. Also, his slightly more kooky demeanor à la The Empire Strikes Back appears here for great affect.
    • Far Far Away Radio has an interview with the author, Christie Golden. They touch on how much room she had doing this adaption (with a fairly vague answer), she admits to cutting some action scenes (which seems surprising!), who Golden all had contact with while writing, the pressure of working on Asajj Ventress, how much of Vos she knew beforehand, adding the little Padmé scene (which I really liked), and some thoughts on the cancelled Legends trilogy about Jaina Solo, Sword of the Jedi.

Dark Disciple

In the end, if you’re looking for an engaging adventure set during the Clone Wars, mostly starring non-movie characters and has the story beats of a pulse-pounding TV show, look no further than this book. However, looking too deeply into the seams of Dark Disciple yields a mixed experience, though one who’s exciting events occasionally block out some of its shortcomings and is easily one of the better recent canon novels.

+ Thrill ride from start to finish

+ Power of love

+ Mostly well-written main and side characters

 Poorly implemented POV shifts

 Feels too beholden to the scripts/Doesn’t take full advantage of prose’s storytelling benefits

Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth. You can follow the website @MynockManor.

DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of this book, through NetGalley, from the publisher at no charge in order to provide an early review. However, this did not affect the overall review content. All opinions are my own.

CANON NOVEL REVIEWS:
Bloodline
Aftermath | Aftermath: Life Debt
Battlefront: Twilight Company
Lords of the Sith
Tarkin
A New Dawn
Heir to the Jedi
CANON YOUNG ADULT NOVEL REVIEWS:
Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure
Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo & Chewbacca Adventure
The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
Lost Stars
Before the Awakening

CANON COMIC REVIEWS

LEGENDS NOVEL REVIEWS:
Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void
Kenobi