“Each life, a flame in the Force is. Beautiful. Unique. Glowing and precious, it stands, to bravely cast its own small light against the darkness that would consume it.” – Yoda
What if the Jedi ceased to fight the Clone Wars with the restrictions of their Order holding them back? What if they allowed themselves, just for a moment, to join their Separatist counterparts in the slog of merciless violence and pitiless cruelty? Better yet, what if just one Jedi could have made that sacrifice for the good of the entire Order, or even the entire galaxy?
Could the war have ended sooner? Could countless lives—clone and otherwise—have been saved? Could Dooku and Grievous have been stopped? Could the plots of Sidious have been thwarted altogether? And, if so, would the price of a single soul be worth it?
Christie Golden seeks to answer these questions and many, many more in her novel Dark Disciple.
Dark Disciple essentially explores the full spectrum of relationships one can have with the Force, whether buried in the dark, cleansed by the light, or carving out a space somewhere in between. However, an important question this novel postulates is whether one’s connection to another person—rather, the person—is more vital than one’s connection to the Force.
After yet another senseless act of violence by the Separatists on the non-sympathetic world of Mahranee, Jedi Master Quinlan Vos is asked to do the unthinkable by the Jedi Council: assassinate Count Dooku. The Council’s justification for their request is purely utilitarian. Dispensing of the Count will bring an end to the Clone Wars and save innumerable lives across the galaxy. However, even with that rationalization, the reader can viscerally feel the Council descending just a little bit deeper into a realm of questionable morality. The dark side, indeed, clouds everything.
Vos is not to act on his own. He is to work alongside one who arguably knows Count Dooku better than anyone else, his former apprentice and feared assassin, Asajj Ventress. When this story takes place, Ventress has, of course, already had a falling out with her ex-master and tried to assassinate him on her own terms a couple of times. That only led to her sound defeat and the genocide of her people, the Nightsisters of Dathomir. Her vendetta makes her the natural choice to accompany Vos on his surprising mission.
As Vos and Ventress become a team, they also become something more. Their shared mission soon turns into shared confidences and eventually shared love. The possible assassination of the Count serves to not only mark a successful mission, but also the start of a new life that they could share together, free of the bonds of the Sith and the Jedi and anything and everything in between.
Inherently, a certain unshakable feeling of melancholy permeates even the quiet, earnest moments of this book, as the reader knows all too well that the pair's mission cannot be completed. Dooku must fall by Anakin's hand in the opening of Revenge of the Sith, not within the pages of this novel. Yet, it's difficult as the reader not to hold on to just a touch of hope. Ventress and Vos truly make a formidable team and it's all too easy to cheer for them.
In the end, each player in this drama must choose what is most important to him or her: power, duty, or love? When each answers this paramount question and the dust settles, not all will walk away unscathed, let alone alive…
A Jedi who doesn't initially fit the mold of a leading character, Quinlan Vos turns out to be the perfect choice for this story. Though he has always been an unconventional member of the Order—from his leather jerkin to his bright yellow facial tattoo—that incongruity quickly escalates in this novel. When given the mission to assassinate Dooku, Vos finds himself unsure of where the limits of a Jedi truly lie. After a short time under the tutelage of Ventress, he unquestionably crosses that line.
Though Vos is a powerful Jedi, he is not immune to the allure of the dark side. Horrifyingly, this novel makes that entirely understandable, as it does a great job explaining how overwhelmingly powerful the dark side of the Force is compared to the light. A rancor to a womp rat, if you will.
The darkness is strength. It is supremacy. It is complete control. Even a Jedi Master, one of the finest warriors the Order has to offer, cannot help but give in when he gets a small taste of that. However, Vos takes it further. He is consumed.
Without a doubt, Vos's apparent fall makes him the most mysterious character in the story. After he gives in to the dark side, the twists and turns of the book mostly revolve around him and where his loyalties truly lie. Are they with the Jedi, who sent him from the Temple where he grew up to carry out such a gruesome task? Are they with Ventress, with whom he has fallen unexpectedly, but deeply in love? Or are they with the dark side and its promise of unlimited power? When even the Jedi Council—headed by the wise Grand Master Yoda—is unsure of the answer to this question, the reader can't help but be as well. That uncertainty saturates the novel up until its final pages.
It’s unclear exactly who the “Dark Disciple” from the title is referring to since one major character is walking away from being a disciple of the dark and another is becoming one. However, one could argue that the book ought to be re-titled “The Tragedy of Asajj Ventress.” Throughout the story, readers are treated to a journey they never thought they would see Ventress undertake, especially if they watched her in The Clone Wars. They see her largely forsake her connection to the dark side, give up her quest for revenge against those responsible for her many, many sufferings in life, and, ultimately, choose love in spite of its immense cost.
Ventress already has one of the most unfortunate backstories in the entire Expanded Universe, especially with its recent additions in Cavan Scott’s audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost. She was taken from her family, the Nightsisters, as a small child and forced into slavery. When her master was murdered, she was discovered by the Jedi Ky Narec and became his Padawan. However, Narec, too, would be murdered after a short number of years, which is ultimately what launched Ventress down her rampage of darkness leading up to her work with Count Dooku. After a series of failures, Dooku would abandon Ventress and even try to kill her. Though she escaped and found her way back to Mother Talzin and the Nightsisters, Dooku’s wrath knew no bounds. He would return and wipe out every last Nightsister from existence, leaving Ventress entirely and utterly alone.
Clearly, after so much loss, Ventress would have a hard time believing that anything could truly last. Anyone and anything she had ever loved had been taken from her. That’s why Ventress is so intent on being a loner. It’s not because she truly wants to be. It’s because it seems like she has to be. Her lot, for whatever reason, is one of anguish and seclusion. Until Vos shows up, that is, and lights a small spark of hope in her heart once again.
This is what makes Ventress’ character so endearing. Despite all of her loss and suffering and tragedy, she still finds it within herself to hope for something better, for something more.
That type of emotional perseverance is nothing short of astonishing. A character who spent so much time as a two-dimensional force of evil and destruction in the television series suddenly blossoms into a challenging, sympathetic, and even lovable character instead.
Another great Star Wars author by the name of Claudia Gray recently wrote that “people are more than their worst act” in her latest work, Master & Apprentice. In many ways, Ventress is the epitome of that statement. She becomes much more than her worst act…much more than all of her worst acts. In fact, after reading this book, she will likely be remembered for her greatest act: choosing love.
Ventress’ ultimate fate, though beautifully sad, perfectly captures the true essence of her character.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker
This book also places both Obi-Wan and Anakin in incredibly difficult situations that foreshadow their own unfolding stories. Kenobi, hesitant to go along with the Council’s decisions throughout the novel, is the embodiment of the Jedi’s conscience. He doesn’t feel right about assassination whether its target is a dark side user or not. Despite being handed execution orders for the presumably irredeemable Quinlan Vos, he is unable to bring himself to fulfill them. His inward struggle perfectly correlates with the moment fans know is coming in the near future: standing atop a fiery hill on Mustafar, looking down on his failed apprentice, unable to strike the killing blow. In the end, it is perhaps Kenobi’s most appealing trait that he always sees the good in people—even when it appears that good has been gone for a long time.
Anakin, too, must face hard truths concerning his own future, though he doesn’t know it at the time. He is faced with watching Vos give in to darkness and excuse his decision due to its base in his love for Ventress. Anakin sees a Jedi Master lose his way, and he boldly condemns him for it. Indeed, Anakin is all too ready to execute Vos for the choice he has made, spending the latter part of the novel treating him with outright contempt. Yet, in those moments, Anakin is really speaking to his future self. In one particular chapter, while discussing the situation with Padmé, he briefly seems to realize the similarities between himself and Vos, but quickly shrugs them off. A more in-depth dissection of those similarities, headlined by more conversation with Padmé, would have been both illuminating and welcome.
Initially based on an unaired arc from The Clone Wars television series, it’s difficult to call Golden’s work “original.” In fact, you can find some of the unfinished footage of the episodes online and get snippets of the story told in Dark Disciple. However, where the story excels in terms of originality is in its actual premise. Hearing the Jedi Council order one of its own to assassinate someone is genuinely shocking. Learning that the attempt is to be carried out by a respected Jedi master and Dooku’s ex-apprentice is even more so. It's one of the most unlikely teams in the history of Star Wars.
Maybe the best measuring stick for assessing originality is looking at how the story makes the reader feel at its close when compared to other Star Wars projects. To be sure, few novels have the heart of Dark Disciple. Granted, that heart is irreparably bleeding.
Readers beware, this books will challenge you in ways you may have never been challenged before by that galaxy far, far away.
After reading only a few chapters of this book, it becomes apparent that, for a story meant to be an arc on The Clone Wars, this needed to be a novel. The amount of story that would have been crammed into a rumored (and surprisingly long) eight episode arc wouldn’t have allowed for the necessary character development to feel natural. It would have felt forced or stilted, at best. However, Golden’s delicate prodding of the characters allows the story to breathe in a way that a television show never could. The characters end up exactly where they need to be, exactly when they need to be there.
Golden also made a great decision to write from several different characters’ perspectives. The reader is allowed to crawl into the consciousness of Vos as he questions how far he is willing to go for a mission, of Ventress as she doubts if she deserves a happy future in spite of her murderous past, and of Kenobi as he desperately tries to manage the entire situation for the Council, which he believes is treading dangerously close to the dark side itself.
Ultimately, Golden's finest work may be in making the reader understand what one truly has to go through to fully surrender to the dark side. When Ventress persuades Vos to kill the Sleeper, an ancient creature that lurks in the deep waters of Dathomir, it is a genuinely sickening, heart-wrenching, and altogether uncomfortable read. It is perhaps the most unsettling passage in the entire novel, rivaling Anakin’s march on the Jedi Temple and its younglings (although, that is only because the viewers of the film are spared the details of that slaughter in contrast to the excruciating detail of the Sleeper’s murder in the novel).
Dark Disciple is incredibly entertaining. It’s a relatively long novel, but the pacing keeps it from feeling that way. In a sense, it feels as if you’re reading through a feature-length film set in the vein of The Clone Wars. Those who watched the television series will have a hard time not actually hearing Ventress’s sultry voice and seeing Dooku’s furrowed brow in their heads.
Bolstered by its fair share of lightsaber duels, where this novel truly excels is in its exploration of some of the deepest questions Star Wars has to offer. It is, in many ways, a re-telling of how love caused a Jedi to lose his way, but eventually led him back to the light.
No doubt, the Clone Wars episodes would have been wildly entertaining, but those of us who read the Expanded Universe can be a little selfishly pleased that the Dark Disciple storyline was saved for us.
A genuinely great Star Wars book is one that not only challenges the characters along their journey, but also challenges the reader. By that standard, Dark Disciple is worthy of heaps of attention and even more praise.
Golden puts forth the rather convincing argument that what may be more powerful than one’s dedication to any particular facet of the Force is one’s dedication to one person…to love. The light or dark side may be paths to walk in life, but love is its ultimate purpose. Posing such a challenging opinion to the reader—that, in reality, applies to the saga as a whole—is what elevates Dark Disciple above much of the rest of the Expanded Universe.
Now to re-iterate the questions posed at the beginning of this review. What would happen if the Jedi chose to fight without the restrictions of their Order? The answer, it appears, is that they would lose much more than the war. They would lose their way.
And would it be worth it? Perhaps a sketch of one of the final moments in the novel answers that question best...