(Sorry this is late everyone, I have been seriously burnt out this week. Hopefully by next week I’ll be out of this slump and back to my regular schedule.)
Shadows and Secrets does two things I never imagined would work in a Star Wars story: One, it riffs on Sherlock Holmes of all things; and two, it casts Darth Vader as Doctor Watson.
I’m making it sound like a parody, despite the scenario being played completely straight, and yet it works. It’s bizarre, but it works, and goes to show that a storyline genuinely comfortable with itself can make just about anything engaging, even making Darth Vader of all characters in many ways a sidekick in his own series. Okay, in truth it’s not quite as simple as that, but we’re still in very new territory. While Vader in a way has always been a subordinate (he is the Emperor’s apprentice and is technically outranked by most of the Imperial high command), throughout the Star Wars films he is easily the most threatening presence of any room he’s in, and acts like he knows it. He’s not the kind of character I expect to respect anyone as his equal, be they enemy or ally; and yet, on both counts, Shadows and Secrets proves me wrong.
Shadows and Secrets, naturally, has a lot of twists and turns to unpack in its plot. As a result, I may be skimming over a lot of it here.
After busting another crime syndicate in the Outer Rim (because there can never be too many of those), Vader confiscates a mother-load of Imperial credits, and makes arrangements for them to be delivered to Grand General Tagge. However, he then secretly hires a band of mercenaries through Doctor Aphra to steal the shipment while in transit, making the raid look like an accidental collision in an asteroid belt. HOWEVER, he then has Aphra fake most of the shipment getting lost in the vacuum of space during the raid, so he only has to pay the mercenaries a tiny fraction of the original take, and keeps the rest for himself to finance his continued scheming.
I wonder what part of Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi training covered con-artistry?
Reporting back to Tagge, a spanner is thrown in Vader’s plans when he is ordered, not to track down Luke as he had hoped, but to instead to investigate his own heist, Tagge’s intelligence having apparently seen through the ruse. To make matters worse, the man perceptive enough to suspect foul play, Inspector Thanoth, is assigned as Vader’s new minder. With an intellect to match, or possibly even exceed Vader’s, Thanoth proves to be far more of an obstacle to the Sith Lord’s plans than the last escort he was saddled with. Now Vader must find a way to succeed on three opposing fronts. He must find a way to succeed in his mission in order to score points with Tagge against the candidates to replace him, all the while removing any evidence that could implicate him from under Thanoth’s nose. Finally, he must also find a way of sabotaging his competition, as they target both the Rebellion and Luke. It’s a dilemma that pushes Vader’s cunning to the limit, and makes anyone close enough to him to be an asset also a potential liability. It isn’t long before Thanoth is hot on the trail of Doctor Aphra, whom Vader has sent to learn more about Luke and his whereabouts. Will loyalty to Darth Vader end up costing Aphra her life as surely as betraying him would?
While the whole ‘Vader gets a supervisor’ thing in the previous book was such a short and ultimately meaningless detour I’m honestly not sure why they even bothered, here it’s the main thrust of the narrative, and so it’s incredibly fortunate that it works. It’s not quite perfect. There are a couple of occasions where Vader should come off as looking guilty as hell but Thanoth lets it slide. However, it’s also entirely possible that he’s playing a longer game, because hey, if your mission is to prove Darth Vader guilty of treason to the Empire, you probably don’t want to make a move unless you’re going to catch him red-handed. That’s what makes the relationship between these two characters fascinating. They’re both playing games with each-other to an extent the audience cannot be entirely sure of, and yet we know is probably going to end badly for at least one of them. Yet, throughout it all there’s a genuine undercurrent of respect. You actually get the sense that, even though he is an adversary, Vader genuinely likes this guy, as much as Darth Vader is capable of ‘liking’ anyone. Thanoth in turn is fond of the manner in which Vader conducts himself. This culminates in a moment where Vader has a chance to use Thanoth as a scapegoat in front of Tagge, perhaps ridding himself of this most stubborn obstacle, but chooses not to take it. Is he trying to get Thanoth on his side? Is he sending him a message that he’s got nothing to hide? Is it simply not how Vader operates to try and vanquish his opponents in a debrief rather than on a battlefield? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that both of these characters enrich each-other, and I’m eager to see more of their dynamic.
Elsewhere, Aphra and the rest of Vader’s team that were introduced last time get somewhat of the short end of the stick. They’re still entertaining (Triple-Zero and Beetee in particular), they just for my mind don’t get enough to do. Aphra’s investigation doesn’t end up fielding anything that Vader doesn’t already know. Along the way, we get some back-story on her and are shown a little more about her nature, but to be honest I could have done with not knowing. The book even comments on itself that her ‘sob-story’ is nothing new, but the fact remains that her personality is more interesting if the audience is left to guess the reasons behind it.
I don’t want to nit-pick too much, but I can’t deny it’s easier to point out elements that fall short versus those that don’t, so as a final point I really wish Marvel, when given a whole galaxy to explore, wouldn’t take me to quite so many underground bars and gambling dens. I get it guys, the criminal underbelly of the Star Wars universe is a huge part of its law, many of its most compelling characters are scoundrels of one brand or another and a story like this in particular is ripe to exploit that. All that said, it is starting to get a little stale. You keep taking me to ‘new’ locales and then not showing me anything I haven’t seen before. A prime example here is when the various parties converge at a galactic holiday resort. When I saw that I was excited, because its something I’ve never seen the likes of in Star Wars before. However, all I ended up seeing inside was more shady drinking establishments and holochess tables. Really? Come on! You couldn’t have used your imaginations just a little bit? Is Darth Vader not allowed to go to the beach even once!
Despite a dew hiccups, Shadows and Secrets is an engaging and genuinely surprising read, and probably the best this series has to offer so far. Don’t hesitate to get your hands on it.