Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise? I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would have told you.
Friends, today we march boldly into a very long, very involved book. A book which begins thirty-five years before The Phantom Menace and ends just after that film does. Most importantly, it’s one of the best books in Legends canon.
Welcome to Legends of the Hydian Way, the chronicle of my attempt to read through and review all the novels that make up mainline Legends canon in chronological order. May the Force be with me.
Darth Plagueis by James Luceno tells the story of the rise to power of two people: Darth Plagueis and his Apprentice, Darth Sidious. That’s right, this book is essentially Sheev Palpatine’s origin story (among many other things). Notably though, like Dooku in last week’s book, he is never given a first name since this was written before he was canonically had one, and so some silly hoops are jumped through to avoid it.
I’ll say up front that there is simply far too much going on in this book to summarize adaquately. My synopsis will not even try to give a comprehensive list at all that occurs, and will instead stick to the essentials. If what you see interests you, I strongly encourage you to seek this one out, its definitely worth your time and attention.
Our novel opens with the latest in the line of Sith leading back a thousand years to our friends Darth Bane and Darth Zannah. These modern Sith, the Bith Darth Tenebrous, and the Muun Darth Plagueis, are exploring a mine shaft of the same Cortosis ore that Darth Bane mined as a young man. In the thousand years since Bane, the Sith have changed in their approach to bringing down the Republic. Where Bane and Zannah aimed to weaken the Republic so that they might one day raise an external force to destroy both Jedi and Republic, Tenebrous and Plagueis aim to corrupt the Republic from within and transform it.
Darth Tenebrous, as we learn through the book, has largely come to rely on his statistical models and predictive algorithms. He believes the fall of the Republic is fated, and that all he needs to do is divine when to strike. Plagueis, currently his Apprentice, decides to remind Tenebrous that he’s supposed to be the Dark Lord of The Sith, not the Dark Lord of Math, and kills him.
Wounded but exultant in his new status as Dark Lord of the Sith, Plagueis returns to his home on Muunilist. There we meet him as the rest of the galaxy knows him as Hego Damask, a wealthy and influential financier and owner of Damask Holdings. As Damask, Plagueis sits in the center of a spider’s web of corruption and graft, pulling strings across the Republic and setting in motion plans to finally end the Jedi and fulfill the Grand Plan of the Sith.
Since he intends to be the one to fulfill the Grand Plan, Plagueis decides that the Rule of Two no longer applies to him. Why have an Apprentice who is always looking to unseat him when he can simply live forever? Indeed, Bane’s reason for the Rule of Two was precisely because the Master couldn’t simply exist eternally. Plagueis has for decades been trying to unlock grand secrets about life, and specficially how to induce the midi-chlorians to heal and sustain life indefinitely.
He does, however, decide that ultimately he isn’t the political mastermind to publically rule the galaxy. He’d much rather have someone else do that, and leave him free to rule from the shadows. And so as he plots to use the Outer Rim world of Naboo as leverage for his schemes, he discovers a young noble there called Palpatine.
Now, in the book he has renounced his first name for unspecificed reasons and only goes by Palpatine. In reality this is simply because he didn’t have a first name yet and the author hadn’t been authorized to give him one. It’s clunky, but Luceno’s hands were tied.
Palpatine is a young man, not yet of age in Naboo society. He despises his father for seeking power but being too inept to actually get it, and Plagueis senses that he may have the makings of an Apprentice. Unlike Bane, Plagueis sees his Apprentice as a co-ruler. Essentially, he wants to create a partnership of immortal Sith Lords with no reason to hate one another who can rule the galaxy forever.
To that end he sets about manipulating young Palpatine, stoking the fires of his resentment of his family and affirming him when he expresses feelings of superiority or a desire to be above authority he disagrees with. Eventually, this leads to a violent confrontation aboard a starship where Palpatine unleashes his long held back Force potential and slaughters his entire family.
Simultaneously elated to be free and, despite his attempts to hide it, shaken by what he’s done, Palpatine contacts Damask, who reveals his Sith identity and inducts Palpatine into the Order as Darth Sidious. The pair retire to Plagueis’s birth planet: the icy world of Mygeeto. There they begin a harsh training which gives us as readers a truly fascinating glimpse into the philosophy and mindset of the Sith, as opposed to a simple Dark Jedi like Set Harth. I’ll let Plagueis himself explain:
“Propelled by fear or hatred, even a Jedi can pass beyond the constraints of the Order’s teachings and discover power of a more profound sort. But no Jedi who arrives at that place, who has risen above his or her allegiance to peace and justice, who kills in anger or out of desire, can lay real claim to the dark side of the Force. Their attempts to convince themselves that they fell to the dark side, or that the dark side compelled their actions, are nothing more than pitiful rationalizations. That is why the Sith embrace the dark from the start, focusing on the acquistion of power. We make no excuses. The actions of a Sith begin from the self and flow outward. We stalk the Force like hunters, rather than surrender like prey to its enigmatic whims.”
One thing that this book does very well is make the Sith seem much more like the religion or a cult they are meant to be. Sometimes Star Wars fiction paints the Sith as just being “the evil Jedi,” but here they are fully fleshed out with a code of beliefs that, though deplorable, is at least consistent enough that you can believe people might adhere to it, especially ambitious and amoral people. It shines through both Plagueis and Palpatine, even more so as the story moves ahead ten years, with Palpatine’s arranged advancement to the Naboo Senate seat.
Palpatine is now versed enough in the Dark Side that Plagueis considers him a partner, albeit an inequal partner. Left to his own devices on Coruscant, Palpatine thrives. You really get to see a side of Palpatine the movies don’t depict. He’s a lover of the high life. Art, culture, fine dining and all the trappings of Senatorial life captivate him. It’s almost funny to see the biggest bad of Star Wars caught up in the Coruscanti life like he was an intern on his first day in Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, Plagueis has been planting seeds for the Republic’s downfall even as Palpatine positions himself to assume power when things fall apart. He discovers the Kaminoan cloners and debates using them to clone a an army of Force-resistant reptillians called Yinchorri, but ultimately with Palpatine’s help realizes that an army fighting alongside the Jedi would be better placed to kill them all.
Things culminate as Plagueis returns to Coruscant to attend an initiation of one of his aides into what appears to be the Freemasons of Star Wars: The Order of the Canted Circle. Simultaneously, Senator Palpatine is kidnapped by some of Damask’s political enemies as part of a plot by Damask to unveil them. At first, Palpatine is furious that he’s been used like this, but Plagueis reveals that this was a test of sorts for Palpatine, and that he’s passed.
However, it turns out that the plot was a double bluff, and Palpatine realizes this too late to contact Plagueis. He races to save his Master, and arrives just in time. Unfortunately, Plagueis is nearly decapitated by an assassin’s blade and needs immediate medical attention. Palpatine meanwhile wreaks bloody vengeance on the true conspirators in a terrifiying and animalistic display very reminiscent of Ian McDiarmid’s performance when Mace Windu arrives to arrest Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith.
Following his injury, Plagueis largely withdraws from public life for years, leaving Palpatine to manage what he calls “the profane world” while he dedicates his time to unlocking the mysteries of life and death in his lab on Muunilist. At some point, the two meet together and employ an arduous ritual to wrestle with the very Force itself in an attempt to tip the balance toward the Dark Side. Plagueis warns Sidious that the Force has a will, and that there is almost certainly going to be consequences for what they did. Actions have reactions, even in the Force. However, after the ritual are successful in bringing a dead test subject back to life through the Force several times.
As events close in on the first movie, Palpatine finds more and more that he is running the whole Grand Plan, it seems, while Plagueis secrets himself away. Suddenly, however, a rejuvenated, Plagueis reappears, and begins reasserting his place in the plan. Plagueis has learned to heal himself to some degree by influencing the midi-chlorians, and now feels invulnerable. Sidious grows more and more concern as Plagueis’s arrogance even leads him to reveal the existence of the Sith, ordering Palpatine to send Maul after Queen Amidala on Tatooine.
We see Episode 1 through the eyes of the Sith, working together in partnership to maneuver Palpatine into the Chancellorship, whereupon he is to announce the appointment of Hego Damask as Co-Chancellor and the two can begin their plan to crumble the Republic.
Then the Queen of Naboo arrives, rumored to be accompanied by a boy about 9 years old with an unprecedented midi-chlorian count. Plagueis and Palpatine are clearly terrified nearly out of their wits by this news. “Have we been undone?” Plagueis wonders. The Sith believe Anakin is the reaction, the consequences, of their ritual nine years ago. That by upsetting the balance of the Force, they caused the Force to give birth to a being to restore that balance by destroying them.
After learning that the Jedi will not train him, however, they relax a little bit and put dealing with Anakin on the back burner. With the Chancellorship for the taking, the two scheme even harder and finally, the evening comes before the election. Plagueis and Palpatine celebrate long into the night drinking fine wine and going over Sidious’s acceptance speech for Supreme Chancellor of the Republic.
Plagueis begins to droop and fall asleep, and Palpatine suddenly strikes, seizing his chance and using Force lightning to destroy the respirator Plagueis must now use to breathe. Choking, Plagueis tries to use his power over the midi-chlorians to save himself, but finds that he can’t do it while being murdered.
Palpatine reveals his true feelings about Plagueis’s plan, and his Master’s arrogant assumption that Palpatine would be forever content to play second fiddle to the real Master of the Galaxy. I’ll let Sheev himself explain:
“Sidious sighed. ‘A tragedy, really, for one so wise. One who could oversee the lives and deaths of all beings, except himself.’The Muun’s eyes had begun to bulge; his pale flesh, to turn cyanotic. ‘You may be wondering: when did he begin to change?’ The truth is that I haven’t changed. As we have clouded the minds of the Jedi, I clouded yours. Never once did I have any intention of sharing power with you. I needed to learn from you; no more, no less. To learn all of your secrets, which I trusted you would eventually reveal. But what made you think that I would need you after that? Vanity, perhaps; your sense of self-importance. You’ve been nothing more than a pawn in a game played by a genuine Master. The Sith’ari.'”
With that, Darth Plagueis the Wise dies, and Darth Sidious assumes the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith.
In an epilogue, Palpatine meets with Obi-Wan Kenobi and his new Padawan, Anakin Skywalker. With a gleam in his eye Palpatine thinks that he will subvert the will of the Force and make Anakin his new Apprentice.
This book is fantastic. It’s paced well, it builds a whole new layer of scheming to the plot of the prequel trilogy, and it makes Darth Sidious an altogether more interesting villain. In fact, most of the way through reading the book I was a bit concerned, because I thought I’d have to write as a negative that Luceno seemed to be taking a lot of the credit for the plan that brings Palpatine to power from him and giving it to Plagueis. But then in the final chapter, Palpatine reveals that all those ideas were things he’d manipulated Plagueis into doing anyway, and gives his evidence. It’s amazing how much this book builds Sidious up without just giving him a bunch of informed attributes.
One thing my synopsis doesn’t adequately convey is just how much political scheming there is in this book. There’s a lot of characters, and each character has an agenda, a plot, and a way that those things interact with the overall story. I’ve heard that George Lucas really wanted the prequels to be a very political series of movies, even if they didn’t really end up that way. This book delivers on that promise. Suddenly all the politics in the background of the films are in the foreground and you can see every subtle manipulation and pull of the string necessary to set up the Clone Wars and the Empire.
If I had to pick one place where this book falls short of it’s potential though, it’s in the third act. Because it’s a parralax story to The Phantom Menace we end up jumping from plot point of that film to plot point and basically just having the Sith react to each thing as it happens. It lacks the dynamism of the rest of the book and the story immediately improves once the Queen leaves Coruscant and the Sith stop worrying and get back to being Sith. Understandably this is because the movie is key in Palpatine’s story, but thrilling reading a Sith color commentary does not make.
Finally, one thing that you notice reading this book is just how much of the rest of Legends Luceno went to the effort of making sure to connect his book to. Almost all of the books we are about to read in the coming weeks will get at least a nod, and not in a name dropping way, he actually integrates them in such a way that you wouldn’t know he was referencing another book to read it here. I stand amazed at his ability to pull that off.
James Luceno is an author who consistently turns out quality Star Wars fiction, whether Canon or Legends. Darth Plageuis is definitely worth your time even if you don’t care about Legends.
Next week we step back from where this book ends and join Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon for some insight into the training of one of the most famous Jedi ever!