R.A. Salvatore was known for exactly one thing in the Star Wars Universe prior to writing the novelization for Attack of the Clones—
He was the man who killed Chewie.
That’s right, R.A. Salvatore wrote the opening chapter of the New Jedi Order series: Vector Prime. And in that book, Chewbacca died saving the youngest Organa/Solo progeny, Anakin Solo. It was devastating, making the tone of that whole line of novels abundantly clear. So when he was announced as the author of the second film’s novelization, I remember being quite nervous to read it.
Appropriately, it begins with a nightmare.
One of the greatest problems that the prequels suffer from is rarely showing us anything from Anakin’s perspective. It’s a keen loss because without getting into his head, his fall to the dark side is not something that the audience can empathize with. Being the tragic hero of this trilogy, and the one who needs redeeming in the second, it is essential that we understand both why he feels things and how. So this book starts by filling in one of the most important gaps that the movie leaves off; it shows us the nightmare Anakin has been having about his mother. And it’s terrifying. (Like, people are surrounding Anakin and smiling and laughing, and Shmi is there as the focal point, and then she just freezes and starts bleeding from her eyes and then she shatters to pieces like glass.) Seriously, if it had been shown on film it would have been easy to understand why Anakin broke rank to go rescue the woman.
As with the Phantom Menace book, there is quite a bit of information that really helps the story coalesce into a sharper tale. Following Anakin’s nightmare, we move on to Tatooine to see how his mother is getting on with the Lars family on Anakin’s birthday. We learn how Shmi feels at having been without her son all these years, how she bonded with Owen though he is the complete opposite of Anakin because he filled a gap in her life, how excited she and Cliegg are that Owen has found such a promising girlfriend in Beru. The fact that the films spend literally no time with Shmi is exposed as a fatal flaw; without getting to know her better, we don’t tune in to Anakin’s grief at her death. This book corrects the problem, and has the added benefit of letting us get to know Cliegg and Owen and Beru as well, so they don’t just seem to come out of nowhere once Padmé and Anakin arrive on Tatooine.
Obviously, the relationship between Anakin and Padmé gets far more attention here. In some places it’s awkward as ever, but at least the narrative tries to give some explanation for said awkwardness. We see the moments where Anakin gets more petulant or impassioned because Padmé is open to listening to him in a way that his Jedi comrades do not. And then some of the more cringeworthy exchanges are contextualized so they’re not so icky:
“Please don’t look at me like that,” she said, turning away.
“Because I can see what you’re thinking.”
Anakin broke the tension, or tried to, with a laugh. “Oh, so you have Jedi powers, too?”
Padmé looked past the young Padawan for a moment, glimpsing Dormé, who was watching with obvious concern and not even trying to hide her interest anymore. And Padmé understood that concern, given the strange and unexpected road this conversation had taken. She looked squarely at Anakin again and said, with no room for debate, “It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Anakin relented and looked away. “Sorry, M’Lady,” he said professionally, and he stepped back, allowing her to resume packing.
Two things: to start, this version of the dialogue makes Anakin about 88% less creepy. He goes for the joke when things get tense, and as soon as Padmé tells him she’s uncomfortable, he backs right off without leering. It’s also noteworthy that Padmé discomfort comes partly from being observed by an outside party, fearing how the conversation might look to her handmaiden.
The other thing exchange points out is something that Episode II as a film lacks in its entirely—sexual tension. Fine, they roll in the grass and Padmé wears a leather corset, but in terms of dialogue, there is no indication that lust is a part of this equation, which is kind of important when you’re playing the ‘they were fated to instantly fall in love’ card. The naughtiest dialogue in Attack of the Clones is Padmé’s eventual quip about “aggressive negotiations.” But here we have her acknowledge that Anakin is looking her over, thinking about her in terms that stray from Jedi placidity. We need those moments. We need our “stop that, my hands are dirty,” scene for the prequels. The tension between Han and Leia is so thick throughout the entirety of Empire Strikes Back that by the time Han gets frozen in carbonite, you’ve bought a ticket to that show, and are already sailing off the edge of the earth with it. We need that kind of chemistry from Anakin and Padme.
We spend time with Padmé’s family when they’re on Naboo, which is an aspect expanded from deleted scenes in the film. Getting to know Padmé’s sister and parents makes it easier to understand why a senator who is so bound up in her service suddenly falls head over heels for an impetuous guy who’s barely out of his teen years. Her older sibling already has a family, and believes that Padmé has spent too much time giving her life away in service of others. Her parents worry for her constantly. Deep down, Senator Amidala feels as though she’s missing out on something, and Anakin’s love for her home and her family (two things that Anakin misses from his childhood) make him a sudden possibility.
Anakin’s journey to retrieve his mother on Tatooine is given the extra attention it needs to make it more palatable. For one, it’s suggested that the reason why the Tusken Raiders essentially torture Shmi is to find the weakness of their “enemies.” So the idea that this is a reactive stance, that the Tuskens are acting out of fear at the human population, is at least paid some lip service. The brief flash of Qui-Gon’s voice that we hear in the film as Yoda meditates is expanded upon; Anakin tapping into that fear and anger basically calls up Qui-Gon’s spirit and that plea is even audible to Anakin himself. (Yoda’s shock at hearing it is what prompts his research into Jedi preserving their spirits after death.) And then there’s Anakin’s tirade to Padmé when he returns with his mother’s dead body, which easily qualifies as the most disturbing point in their relationship because Padmé tells Anakin that she’s a-okay with him committing child slaughter. But in the book, it makes sense that she’s trying to calm Anakin—and that’s because it’s clear that he’s gone into genuine shock and she has to work to bring him back to himself.
Politics takes a larger stage in the novelization and the corruption running through the Republic is explained in far greater detail. Anakin and Padmé both give voice to these issues, and we see how this attracts them to each other as well—thought they may have different ways of tackling problems, both of them are frustrated with how their government is reacting to threats and challenges. Both are concerned for a seismic shift that they perceive is in the future. Obi-Wan, too, is unhappy with the state of the ruling elite, and stumbles upon the Separatists’ plan, which is much more topical than the film makes it seem. Essentially, the powers behind the Separatist movement are all proponents of uber-capitalism, (the sort of group that count banks and corporations as people). While this is implied in the film, the novelization makes these affiliations plain and obvious.
And then there’s Jar Jar. Who spends his limited time in the book being pushed back and forth between the senators and the Jedi, told to speak on Padmé’s behalf when he clearly has no inclination to do so and is not ready to hold a forum. The fact that Jar Jar—someone with the political shrewdness of a celery stalk—is maneuvered into a position where he’s asked to grant a chancellor ultimate powers over the current government is ludicrous. So many smart people are on board with this plan. If there’s any sign that the Republic deserves to fall, that’s the one that lights up like a Vegas casino sign.
But perhaps my favorite revelation of all? In this novel, the Jedi straight up admit that they have no idea what “bringing balance to the Force” means. They all acknowledge that the prophecy concerning the Chosen One could be interpreted many different ways. As for why the Jedi are having such a hard time discerning the flow of events, Yoda explains that the only way they might tap into this stream would be to probe the dark side of the Force, moving closer to it. This understandably disconcerts them. What’s more, Yoda’s decision to go to Kamino and gather the clone troops for the first fight in the war is ultimately driven by personal concern—he admits that he saw two paths for the future, but the one where he brought in the troops resulted in the deaths of fewer Jedi.
This does not change the fact that the Boba and Jango Fett sections come off worse than ever in the book, but hey, they’re not really important to the general plot, so it’s not surprising that they’re the weakest link. The action is also unfortunately flat throughout the majority of the book, but that’s not really what any of these novels are good for. By this second installment, it’s clear that they’re here to fill in all the plot that the films never took time to chew on.