Legends of the Hydian Way: Cloak of Deception

We pick up with Legends where we left off: the Outer Rim Mining world of Dorvalla. When last we left this project, Darth Maul was earning his stripes as a Sith saboteur by ruining the prospects of two independent mining companies and forcing them to crawl to the Trade Federation to ship their cargoes of lommite ore.

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.

This week’s offering, Cloak of Deception by James Luceno, is a political thriller at heart. While not lacking for lightsaber swinging and space chases, Cloak of Deception captures the feeling I imagine George Lucas intended when he decided to focus the prequels on politics to the degree that he did.

We join Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi above Dorvalla, on the trail of notorious mercenary and pirate Captain Cohl. Their quarry is under contract to Outer Rim advocacy group turned militants the Nebula Front to board and sabotage a Trade Federation vessel sent to collect lommite ore from the now desperate Dorvallans. Cohl and his crew skillfully capture the massive vessel (at this point in the chronology the Trade Federation has not been permitted to arm themselves to the degree seen later, so a handful of security droids are all they face) and set it to self destruct. The panicked crew flee in escape pods as a second Trade Federation ship arrives to rescue the cargo of the detonating hauler.

In truth, Cohl’s real objective is a case of aurodium ingots, a precious metal analogous to gold or diamonds in value. This case is supposedly a secret, but Nebula Front informants discovered it and tasked him with its pilfering. Case acquired, Cohl and his crew make good their escape, faking their deaths in the process. Qui-Gon remains unconvinced the pirate has actually perished, but with no other options returns to Coruscant.

We learn in the aftermath of the Dorvalla attack that tensions and violence are erupting in fits and starts across the outer worlds with increasing frequency. Groups like the Nebula Front begin as coalitions dedicated to lobbying against the predatory and monopolistic practices of the Trade Federation, and when faced with the Senate’s utter lack of concern, turn to piracy and terrorism to enforce their views. In response, the Federation increasingly calls for Republic military protection for their vessels. In the middle of this mess, we find Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum.

Valorum is a man beset by troubles, desperate to break the grip of corruption on the Senate but increasingly stymied in his efforts. Recently, he’s found an ally in Senator Palpatine of Naboo, with whose help he devises a proposal to end the piracy and bring the Federation to heel. He brings forth a motion to tax the previously tax free zones in which the Trade Federation operates, in exchange for allowing the Trade Federation greater latitude to purchase and maintain additional security and weapons.

To say this proposal is contentious is to engage in dramatic understatement, but Valorum arranges a trade summit on the world of Eriadu to allow opinions to be heard before a Senate vote. Incensed at not being invited, the Nebula Front launch a brazen assassination attempt against the Supreme Chancellor. Shaken, but undeterred, Valorum dispatches a Jedi contingent to apprehend the Nebula Front operatives responsible while he goes ahead with the summit.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, along with several other Jedi including an avian named Vergere who will become important much later on in Legends, head to capture the Nebula Front cell from which the assassins originated. Unfortunately, it proves to be a trap designed to delay the Jedi from realizing the true obiective: another strike at the Chancellor on Eriadu, led by none other than Captain Cohl.

Qui-Gon takes off on Cohl’s heels while the pirate Captain smuggles a crew of assassins to the militant Nebula Front’s leader, a man called Havac. Havac is enraged that the Jedi have picked up Cohl’s trail and betrays him, nearly killing the captain and hijacking operational command for himself. Havac briefs Cohl’s crew, who are unaware of the double cross, on the plan to smuggle a modified battle droid into the Trade Federation’s security detail. When activated, the droid will hack the other battle droids and all of them will open fire on the Supreme Chancellor.

Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan close in on Cohl, who though injured, is still trying to catch up to and kill Havac. Cohl surrenders but insists there’s no time if the assassins are to be stopped. He joins the Jedi in storming Havac’s safe house overlooking the trade summit just as the initial fanfare begins for the event.

As the blasterfire and commotion of Havac’s capture draws the eyes of the politicians below, a panicky Trade Federation orders their booth’s shield generators activated. Sadly for them, this in fact proves to be the true triggering event, and all of their battle droids in unison draw blasters and cut down the entire Trade Federation delegation while the Jedi and Republic guards are trapped powerlessly outside the shields.

In the wake of the violence, fear of mounting tensions prompts senators to approve Valorum’s taxation and the Trade Federation, now headed by Viceroy Nute Gunray, arms itself with military grade droids and fightercraft. To add insult to injury, after the summit massacre Chancellor Valorum is linked to the Trade Federation by the discovery of the missing aurodium ingots, used as an anonymous investment in his family’s businesses. With scandal and accusations of corruption over his head, Valorum is defanged and left without any real political power.

And so the stage is set. Cloak of Deception paints the political backdrop against which The Phantom Menace will take place. Throughout the book, Sidious’s influence is felt as he manuevers all sides of the fiasco into their roles to abet his rise to the Chancellorship.

Luceno does a remarkable job of keeping all of the many and varied political threads both interesting and coherent. As with Darth Plageuis there are far more plots and subplots going on politically in this book than I can reasonably comment on but they all remain both interesting and integral to building the stage upon which future events will play out.

If I have one criticism, it’s that seemingly main protagonists Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan actually have very little to do in this book. They spend all of the book, including the climax, one step behind the villains and too late to stop anything of importance from happening. They catch a few minor players and prevent Havac from escaping, but ultimately it’s the gunfight they start that kicks off the actual assassination.

Cloak of Deception continues Luceno’s streak of masterfully weaving together threads provided by other Legends works to give a real sense that everything is happening in one universe. It’s noteworthy that in the midst of all the other things this book does, it showcases little-used characters like Yaddle and provides an early glimpse at Vergere without ever feeling overburdened or shoehorned in.

In the end, Cloak of Deception lives up to the high expectations I have come to have of Luceno’s work in the Star Wars universe. Next week we tackle the first of two more Darth Maul stories before we reach the events of The Phantom Menace. Stay tuned!

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