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No one is going to sit here and say the Star Wars prequels are good films. All that has to be said has already been said on the subject, and hopefully we have all moved on.
However, in basing a Star Wars book around characters and in a setting about which nobody really cared in the first place, author of the new Clone Wars book Stealth, Karen Miller, is involved in an uphill struggle right from the off.
Not only does she have to work around the fact that we already know, in broad terms, how this all pans out in the end, she also has to flesh out characters who George Lucas had still managed to leave as vacant effigies after three extraordinarily expensive, not to mention plot and dialogue-heavy, films.
Clone Wars Gambit: Stealth, Miller’s second Star Wars novel, is set between the second and third episode and still sees the Republic at open war with the Separatist Alliance, the anonymous gaggle of poorly realised alien races whose motives we failed to fully understand in Episode II. Palpatine’s monocratic grip on power continues to swell, still with no-one the wiser as to his Machiavellian intentions, Anakin is a full Jedi Master with Ahsoka, a padawan of his own, under his tutelage, and he and Padme are married, unbeknownst to the Jedi.
The Jedi are spread thinly across the fronts of war, falling in numbers and increasingly battle-weary, with the momentum of victory swaying inexorably towards the Separatists. After battling General Grievous at the occupied planet Kothlis, Anakin, Obi-wan and Ahsoka are led to a clandestine Separatist plot involving a hitherto unremarkable small planet of Lanteeb on the Outer Rim; a world brought to significance to the Jedi solely because of the Separatist’s inexplicable interest in it.
The battle at Kothlis hinted at the presence of spies within the Republic, and so Anakin and Obi-wan’s mission to infiltrate Lanteeb is kept secret from the Jedi Council and The Senate for the most part, the only people in the loop being Yoda, Padme and Bail Organa. Just what it is about this planet that is so important to Count Dooku is what the Jedi must discover.
From the book’s outset, not only do we have prior knowledge of who survives to the second three films, we also begin with knowledge of who makes it to the Episode 3. The presence of narrative uncertainly plays a huge part in a story’s ability to pull you in, and the lack of it in this book could potentially have deprived it of tension and mystery, yet Miller somehow manages to craft a story that is deep, insightful and often surprising, despite the burden of knowledge she knows everyone reading the book will be carrying with them.
Her most effective tool in accomplishing this is her simple ability to write strong characters. We know that Obi-wan and Anakin called themselves ‘old friend’ a lot, but besides a bit of lumpen Lucas dialogue we rarely saw any real evidence in the films of the bromance we are supposed to mourn the shattering of.
Miller manages what Lucas couldn’t, and the friendship between the two is played out extremely well, not only in terms of trust and banter but in the mutual worry that is always hidden from the other: Anakin is constantly suppressing his Dark Side leanings and his love for his wife, and Obi-wan is hiding his concerns that something just isn’t quite right with his old apprentice.
An old flame in Obi-wan’s past also serves to add another dimension to this ostensibly asexual character, and the way Miller frequently refers to the internal struggles inherent in being a Jedi serves to make us care more about their successes and failures in their chosen walk of life.
Ahsoka, who gets relegated to a secondary storyline in the book’s second half, is also enjoyably boisterous company (see: is nothing like Jake Lloyd), however it is Bail Organa who benefits most from additional exposition. Seen in this tale as a politician clinging to his values despite ongoing war, secrets, and corruption, it is a nice nod to the grit and gumption we eventually get to see manifest itself in spades in Princess Leia.
Most surprising of all was the book’s desire to not shy away from violence, written in such as way as not to shock, but to try and paint the war as something tangible with real lives being lost or destroyed. It’s hardly American Psycho, but Miller often catches you off guard and it is to her credit that these moments are always intended to pack an emotional punch.
As the first book in a two-parter, though, don’t pick up Stealth with the assumption that you will get any form of closure, as the book ends on something of a cliffhanger. What is certain is that it has more than enough substance to make you want to pick up the second, as Miller has taken characters that are inescapably familiar and has managed to forge a tale full of danger, plot and villainy.
Like with The Clone Wars cartoon series, it seems there is still much that can be mined from this time period in the Star Wars canon. Based on the evidence here, it should be Karen Miller who does most of it.