At Star Wars Celebration III, before the release of Revenge of the Sith, I walked up to Matthew Stover’s table dressed as Mara Jade, and asked him to sign the Episode III novelization he had written. As he opened the book, I said to him, “I’m planning to wait until after the film is out to read the whole book, but I read the sample chapter they put online and… you made me cry.”
Matthew Stover stopped signing and looked up at me with a smile. Then he took my hand and thanked me. I still have my signed copy of the book.
When I have friends and acquaintances tell me that Episode III really didn’t deliver for them, my auto-response has always been “Read the novel.” And people usually laugh at me. I understand the impulse; novelizations of films are generally not thought of in artistic terms whatsoever, and often the person writing them has very little control over the work they’re producing. They have to use the script they’re given and any outside information from the creators to make something that mimics a film. If you’re lucky, you get some extra background, a window into the character’s heads. If you’re not lucky, you end up with a movie script punctuated by blocky narrative.
It had been ten years since I’d read the Revenge of the Sith novelization, and I admit to being nervous with this reread—should I still be telling people to “read the novel” if they don’t like the film? Would the book have the same hold on me that it did a decade ago? I opened my copy on the subway for my evening commute…
…and was blinking tears out of my eyes five minutes later.
The title above was not meant as clickbait. I am completely serious; you could read this book and forgo the entire prequel trilogy. Sure, you’d miss the beautiful design work, the costumes, the score, but in terms of a satisfying story, the novelization of Revenge of the Sith is superior in every way. It is a perfect self-encompassing tale that emotionally invests you in its tragedy with every step it takes. Every vague explanation, hand-waved plot device, and oversimplified exchange in the movie is leveled in favor of a true epic—the kind that Star Wars in naturally positioned to take on.
What’s more, it’s just a great novel. Full stop. With or without Star Wars in the title. It’s snappy and well-paced and smart. The dialogue is funny, the characters are fully realized and engaging, the prose is frequently beautiful. Star Wars books can be all of those things, but they are often not. And sometimes they forget that they are books rather than films, which is a mistake that Stover never makes. This is a novel, with all the strengths that a novel can have over a film.
To that affect, there are devices Stover uses in his text that play out in jaw-dropping fashion, two in particular. The first is a conversation via the omniscient narrator of the play between dark and light, as ephemeral concepts, as philosophy, as components of good and evil. What’s fascinating is how these meanderings make it clear precisely what about Palpatine’s views are tempting, how easily one could be swayed over to his way of thinking with the right arguments applied. Darkness seems inevitable, unstoppable, the natural reaction to everything good that light struggles to create. But by the very end, he turns those arguments on their head with a few simple turns of phrase, setting the stage for the next generation’s adventures and the resurgence of light.
The second device Stover uses is in service of the characters; when introducing each main character, he begins with a section that goes, “This is [Anakin Skywalker/Obi-Wan Kenobi/Count Dooku].” Then he proceeds to give you an account of that person, a manner of introduction that would seem clunky or awkward in less capable hands, but which works here to give the reader a deeper understanding of that person’s place in this terrible saga. Before each major event, he leads with a section to the nature of, “This is how it feels to be [Yoda/Mace Windu/General Grievous] right now.” Another fascinating window into each character’s mind at the point where they commit a great act or make their gravest mistake. At the end of the novel, Stover turns this format on its head—as Lord Vader’s helmet is fit into place, he explains to you “what it feels like to be Anakin Skywalker… forever.” It’s chilling. By which I mean you will feel actual chills running the length of your body.
It’s not just that the novel fleshes out the motivations of each character in a useful way; it’s that the motivations given are better conceived that any legwork done by previous novels or the films. For example, it’s explained that Dooku shares Palpatine’s xenophobia, and that’s the reason why the majority of the leaders in the Separatist movement are non-humans—so that they will be blamed and the Empire will have more reason to push its all-human agenda. It explains also how Anakin wound up bound to R2-D2 and Padmé to C-3PO; they gave them to each other as wedding gifts, Anakin first thinking of it because he had nothing else to offer his wife. Since he was aware that he’d programmed Threepio with a bit too much personality for a droid, and the Naboo don’t think of droids as servants or property, they made the exchange with the stipulation that their spouse act as a friend to their new companion. It handily explains Anakin’s rapport with and devotion to Artoo, which builds dramatically at some point between Episodes II and III when the audience can’t be around to appreciate it.
Additionally, whenever Artoo is talking to Threepio, we are told what he’s saying. It’s extremely effective—and heartbreaking—at the point in the story where Anakin begins to turn, because Artoo is better positioned than anyone to notice the sudden change in him, and voices those concerns to his golden friend.
There are fun little asides for diehard fans as well; for instance, Lorth Needa (of the infamous “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” fame) shows up as a Republic commander who threatens to blow up General Grievous’ ship over Coruscant. On another high note, Grievous is far more intimidating here; a monstrous, unfeeling mass of circuits that lays waste to everything in his path.
Stover had written a book that centered on Mace Windu prior to the Episode III novelization, and that book laid some incredible groundwork to describe how Windu experiences the Force differently from other Jedi. His particular expertise deals with something Stover refers to as shatterpoints; Mace Windu looks into the Force and sees the future laid over the galaxy like fault lines, points of causality that run between people and eventually explode at their breaking point. This explains his failure to anticipate what occurs during Palpatine’s attempted arrest better than anything the film comes close to suggesting—that Windu makes the mistake of focusing on discovering the Chancellor’s shatterpoint (Anakin), while failing to recognize the importance of Anakin’s shatterpoint (the desire to save his wife). Which is mostly important because Mace’s death in the film seems far too convenient; he’s one of the best Jedi in the galaxy, he shouldn’t seem so easily discarded.
Anakin’s fall to the dark side is no longer an abstract, distant idea that rapidly comes into being due to a bad dream, but something we are helped to understand through past and present events. His difficulty with loss crystallizes years beforehand in a moment where he encounters a dead star—something that he hadn’t known was possible in the universe. The inevitability of death becomes the thing that snaps at Anakin’s heels, the thought that occupies him through every terrible battle, which ties into his natural empathy with the dark side… because the Sith teach that the Force is something that the user bends to their will, not the other way around. Anakin is using the Force in exactly that way every time he refuses to accept an outcome that does not result in the survival of loved ones. To that end, his crash landing of the Grievous’ ship on Coruscant has much higher stakes; what Anakin pulls off is scientifically impossible, but he makes it possible for the sake of Obi-Wan and Palpatine. It is something of a miracle, but proves that his downward spiral has already begun. Same with the execution of Dooku; Anakin’s guilt over the murder is clear and painful, but Palpatine works as always to enable Anakin to do what he truly wants no matter the cost.
Palpatine’s guiding hand where Anakin is concerned is much more carefully depicted, the depths of his manipulation masterful and devious. Stover constantly refers to him as “the shadow,” a description that gets more and more ominous with every page turn. What’s worse is knowing that the Jedi were far closer to catching him than the film leads us to believe; they simply didn’t trust their resources (the lack of trust in Anakin is the crux here, something that the Chosen One himself perceives, leading to his withdrawal from the Jedi faster than ever), a primary effect of the war on a tired and thinned out Order.
Padmé’s role as founder of the Rebel Alliance is back in play here, and her difficulty in watching the Republic she loves get ripped to pieces makes the political side of this tale wrenching in a way it fails to be in the movie. Her relationship with Anakin is in many ways more frightening; the love that they feel seems more like a mandate of the universe than a choice. She is aware of all the parts of her husband that are angry and damaged and unsettling, yet she loves him anyway, and it makes their story more tragic. It’s a collision course that the galaxy has set in front of them, both too addled by war and pain and the haze created by the dark side to fully comprehend how wrong their lives will go.
The final showdown between Yoda and Palpatine is devastating because we understand precisely what Yoda is losing when he fails. This isn’t just a big boss fight—Yoda has trained for hundreds of years to be prepared for exactly this. To be the greatest Jedi Master the galaxy has ever seen, precisely so he can defeat evil when it rears his head. And he is forced to come to terms with the fact that those centuries of work, of meditation, or service, amount to nothing. In the end, he doesn’t have what it takes. It sets the tone for the story’s close, the punishment that Yoda levies on himself for his inability to do the duty that fell to him.
The friendship and brotherhood between Obi-Wan and Anakin runs deep through every page of this book, on both sides of the relationship. Their banter is loving, their partnership the stuff of legend. Obi-Wan shows severe discomfort once the Jedi Council starts asking him to keep secrets from his former Padawan (so he can more carefully observe Anakin’s relationship with the Chancellor). Anakin’s growing mistrust of Obi-Wan as Palpatine gets further into his head is devastating because we can see how much it hurts him. Kenobi and Skywalker are billed as two halves of a whole, and the wedge driven between them by both Sith and Jedi is wholly responsible for destruction of their era.
Or as Stover puts it at the very start of the novel—the end of an Age of Heroes:
[…] they know what they’re watching, live on the HoloNet, is the death of the Republic.
Many among these beings break into tears; many more reach out to comfort their husbands or wives, their crechè-mates or kin-triads, and their younglings of all descriptions, from children to cubs to spawn-fry.
But here is a strange thing: few of the younglings need comfort. It is instead the younglings who offer comfort to their elders. Across the Republic—in words or pheromones, in magnetic pulses, tentacle-braids, or mental telepathy—the message from the younglings is the same: Don’t worry. It’ll be alright.
Anakin and Obi-Wan will be there any minute.
Oh god, how could you do that to me?!! (That might be the point where I started sniffling on the subway.) This is everything that the movies were meant to communicate and never got across, this exactly. And it doesn’t hurt that Stover actually considers the impact of the Clone Wars on the galaxy at large, the reaction of its denizens and the public opinion that gets formed around the people who are fighting it. Children are growing up listening to the exploits of these magical knights, believe in these heroes, yet their parents are far more reticent, knowing that legends rarely bare out under the light of day:
And so it is that these adults across the galaxy watch the HoloNet with ashes where their hearts should be.
Ashes because they can’t see two prismatic bursts of realspace reversion, far out beyond the planet’s gravity well; because they can’t see a pair of starfighters crisply jettison hyperdrive rings and streak into the storm of Separatist vulture fighters with all guns blazing.
A pair of starfighters. Jedi starfighters. Only two.
Two is enough.
Two is enough because the adults are wrong, and their younglings are right.
Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.
LEAVE ME ALONE, EVERYTHING HURTS FOREVER.
The creation of Vader is given the true reverence it deserves by the end. There is never a suggestion that Anakin cannot see past Palpatine’s lies; he does not know the truth about Padmé or his children, but he also does not believe for one second that the Emperor is a friend. Rather, Vader’s existence is one of resignation, body abused and barely alive, run by machines and barely capable of interacting with the world on a human level. His ability to access the Force is greatly diminished and though he wants to destroy Palpatine, he finds that this man is all he has left in the universe.
The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker finally takes on the dimension it should have had all along.
So there you have it. If you haven’t already, go out and grab a copy of this book. Doesn’t matter if the novelizations are now part of the Legends canon or not. This was the story that we deserved. And it will always hold a special place in my Force-happy heart.
Emmet Asher-Perrin honestly sobs her ways through a hefty portion of this book because she just has a lot of feelings about Jedi friendships, okay? You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.