Groomed by the ruthless politician and Sith Lord who would be Emperor, Governor Wilhuff Tarkin rises through the imperial ranks, enforcing his authority mercilessly while pursuing his destiny as the architect of absolute dominion. Under Tarkin’s guidance, an ultimate weapon of unparalleled destruction moves ever closer to becoming a terrifying reality. But insurgency remains a genuine threat. Guerrilla attacks by an elusive band of freedom fighters must be countered with swift and brutal action — a mission the Emperor entrust to his most formidable agents: Darth Vader, the fearsome Sith enforcer, and Tarkin, whose tactical cunning and cold-blooded efficiency will pave the way for the Empire’s supremacy…and its enemies’ extinction.
Tarkin by James Luceno is part of the new Disney canon of Star Wars, after all of the previous extended universe (EU) stories were reduced to “Legends.” I bring this up because Wilhuff Tarkin, the book’s titular character and villain from the original Star Wars film, had an extensive history established in the EU. Some of it has apparently been adapted here, but if you’re invested in those old stories I’m afraid they no longer apply. I’m coming at this book with virtually no knowledge of Tarkin’s history outside of what was established in the films, but I wanted to acknowledge that this isn’t the first time Tarkin has been given more backstory. For better or worse, however, this is now the backstory.
Though he’s not such an inspired character that I was dying to know more about him, Tarkin is an icon of Star Wars and important enough in the Empire that a novel about him made sense. This book gave an intriguing look into Imperial politics from the perspective of those in high ranks. Tarkin interacts with the Emperor and Darth Vader, as well as Naval Intelligence and Imperial Security heads, to resolve an issue involving an attack from unknown dissidents. Though it was limited, I liked seeing a bit of how these different arms of the Empire interact with the Emperor and each other, and the ways the Emperor oversees them.
While this storyline takes place in the book’s present, we also learn about Tarkin’s life growing up on the planet Eriadu, an Outer Rim world where his wealthy family has resided for a millennium. Though affluent, the Tarkins also believe in discipline and survivability, preserving the legacy of their family who helped settle the world and tamed its savage wilderness. Growing up, Wilhuff took trips into preserved wildlands with his grand-uncle to learn skills to harden him, make him cunning, and teach him how to overcome adversaries through fear and force. Learning the nuances of his upbringing and life on a specific planet in an otherwise vast galaxy were some of the best parts of this book. I’d have be more than fine with an entire book being dedicated more closely to the life of a character at a smaller scale like this.
As a work connected to a larger franchise this book tries to do too much. Grand Moff Tarkin is an iconic villain, after all, responsible for the destruction of Alderaan, so giving him a book makes sense, but they try to cram as much about him as they can into one 300 page book. So we learn about his upbringing and early military career, details of activities during and following the Clone Wars, his time as Governor of Eriadu, his relationship with Palpatine (before and after he becomes Emperor), hints at friction between him and Vader, this current mission, his promotion to Grand Moff along with his official appointment as overseer of the Death Star, and so on. A lot of these things were still worth reading about, but it felt like far too much crammed into one story, and as a result the only compelling information is stuff that’s already happened. The book is full of interesting biographical facts and details about Tarkin, but framed around a low stakes story that plays it really safe.
Ultimately, safe and inoffensive is what Tarkin boils down to. It’s not a bad book; there are sections that are legitimately unique and worth your time, but its buried in a mediocre story. Even the supposed friction between Darth Vader and Tarkin is virtually nonexistent. It is heavily implied when they’re first paired together, but seemingly for the sake of synergy with existing Star Wars material nothing dramatic happens between them at all. This could have been a conflict to delightfully trump the run-of-the-mill dissidents they have to deal with. I would love to see how Tarkin could earn the grudging respect of a dismissive Vader. If he is a character who interests you, I’d still say it’s worth checking out, there are certainly worse things you could read, but don’t expect much to wow you here.