Darth Bane speaks with the voice of Clancy Brown. That's what I kept hearing in my head as I read Darth Bane: Path of Destruction by Drew Karpyshyn, the latest Star Wars novel. If George Lucas ever spends an episode or two of the upcoming Star Wars TV show delving into the ancient history of the saga, he absolutely must hire Clancy Brown to play Darth Bane... provided that he can get Brown to shave his head 'course. I just had to say that before I did anything else in this review because if you know the kind of characters that Clancy Brown has played (Kurgan in Highlander, Brother Justin on Carnivale, Kelvin on Lost, voicing Lex Luthor on Justice League just to name a few) that will totally have you "getting" the kind of character that Darth Bane is.
In the movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace as we are "introduced for the first time" to the Sith, we are also told that there can be only two Sith at any one time: a master and an apprentice. Only if you had read the movie's novelization did you gain some more back-story on the Sith: it turned out that a thousand years ago the Sith were legion in number. But because of their own internecine struggles for power and the efforts of the Jedi and Republic, the Sith were almost completely wiped out... except for one. This last Sith realized the faults of the previous regime and re-created the cult so that ever afterward it would only persist in two individuals: one to hold the power and the other to lust after it.
The Sith Lord who re-established the order, according to the Episode I novel, called himself Darth Bane. It was Bane who first forged the ongoing chain of master-and-apprentice that would stretch across the millennium until it culminated in the one who would finally bring to fruition the revenge of the Sith: Darth Sidious.
We know how the Sith reign ultimately ended. And in the past few years we've had a few glimpses of Darth Bane's history (mostly through the Dark Horse comics). In Darth Bane: Path of Destruction we at last get the full story of how the Sith we've come to know and hate began in earnest, starting with the Sith Lord who's visual depictions have run anywhere from the powerful to the ridiculous (I'll never, ever forget that "cabbage head" thing from the very first released picture of Bane).
Darth Bane: Path of Destruction takes place one thousand years before the time of Emperor Palpatine: an era when the Sith were not two in number but thousands, if not millions. At this point in Star Wars history the Sith exist as perhaps a few hundred Force-users who owe their allegiance to the Dark Side, and who command a vast army of soldiers. The Sith are engaged in a galaxy-wide war for domination against the Republic and the Jedi that serve it. It's a conflict that is sapping countless star systems of both natural resources and young people who are being actively courted for recruitment by both sides.
Amid this chaos we find Dessel, a young miner of cortosis (a mineral so resilient it can stop even a lightsaber blade) on the desolate world of Apatros. Dessel has known nothing but misery and suffering all his life: first from a violent and abusive father and then the never-ending toil of working the cortosis mines. But rather than be broken by his situation, Dessel turns his loathing and rage inward, making them something he draws strength from. His afflictions harden his spirit just as the rough work and terrible conditions in the mines build him into an imposing physical figure.
After being temporarily relieved of duty in the mines following a savage fight with another worker, Dessel finds himself in a high-stakes game of Sabacc (a high-tech card came in the Star Wars universe that is something of a combination of blackjack and poker) with several Republic naval officers. Aided by his yet-discovered Force ability, Dessel wins the full pot... and finds himself ambushed by the bitter Republic personnel on his way back to the barracks. Dessel slays one in self-defense, but he knows the circumstance makes no difference: he's still looking at a stretch of hard labor in prison. Knowing that Dessel has nothing but contempt for the Republic – which is thought of as distant and indifferent toward the plight of those like the miners of Apatros – an acquaintance tells Dessel that if he wants to escape both prosecution and life on Apatros, he can be smuggled off-world and sent to join the Sith. Dessel sees that he has nothing to lose, and agrees.
A year later, Dessel is commanding a troop of Sith soldiers in a campaign against the Republic. When he commits mutiny by attacking and countermanding the orders of his superior – and displays more of his nascent talents with the Force – Dessel attracts the attention of the Dark Lords of the Sith order. Recognizing the enormous untapped potential in the young soldier, the Lords take Dessel to Korriban: the ancient homeworld of the Sith and location of the order's most high-level academy. His masters offer Dessel the opportunity to train under them and finally learn to use the Force to the maximum of his abilities. Dessel accepts, and casting off his old identity as a miner and soldier he chooses a new name, one taken from his father, who had often referred to Dessel as "the bane of my existence". And so, Bane of the Sith is born.
Bane soon throws himself more into his training than any other student at the academy. He is not only an apt pupil of the Sith masters, he spends much time in the academy's archive: studying ancient records and texts spanning the entire history of the Sith. Over time, Bane comes to realize that the Sith order that he is part of has strayed from the path of the true Sith. During the rest of the story – which involves rivalry with other students, an inter-cult battle for supremacy, and the galactic-wide war between the Jedi and the Sith – we watch as Bane searches not only for the heart of the Sith philosophy, but for his own identity and what he must be if he is truly to be dedicated to the Dark Side of the Force. By the end of the story, we can definitely see the Sith that we saw represented by Sidious, Maul and Vader come into being as Bane – who has at this point taken the long-proscribed title of "Darth" as his own – institutes the Rule of Two, having cleansed the corrupted "Sith order" and found his own apprentice.
Darth Bane: Path of Destruction reminds me an awful lot about the movie Conan the Barbarian. The central theme of that movie was the philosophy of Nietzsche: "That which does not kill me will only make me stronger". That certainly describes Dessel/Bane and the experiences that shape him from being a lowly blunt and vulgar miner into not only a formidable warrior but a leader with far-sighted wisdom. Throughout the novel we watch as Dessel is confronted with conflict, and is often beaten down and broken from it: sometimes viciously so. But from each defeat Bane comes back stronger, harder, more cunning... and more dedicated to the Dark Side. He takes the road less traveled from his fellow students, who trust their masters all too much. And in the end, when there is nothing else that he can learn from the "Sith" who took him in, Bane does with them as he has done with everything else in his life that has held him down: he casts them off and grinds them into the ground, having become a force too powerful to be contained by either other people or outdated dogma.
I liked Darth Bane: Path of Destruction a lot. I mean, a whole lot! For one thing, it's a well-structured story that proceeds at a brisk pace involving a wide variety of characters and locations... exactly as a Star Wars story should be. For another, even with last year's Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader in mind, this is the first novel to come out of the Star Wars saga that deals with things, for the most part, from the Sith perspective. I liked Dark Lord a lot but that book was far more devoted to Vader's initial struggles with his new Dark Side persona (and his costume) than it was to the Sith itself. Darth Bane: Path of Destruction is the first purely Sith book that's come out so far. I'm looking forward to reading many more (especially the forthcoming novel about Darth Plagueis that James Luceno is currently writing for publication in 2008). For a first-time Star Wars novelist, Drew Karpyshyn has done a remarkable job in adding an immense amount of rich material to the saga's mythos. He also uses a lot of pre-established stuff to wonderful effect here, like the origin of the "Darth" title and using some really wicked locations like Korriban and Rakata: both of which you would know if you ever played the Knights of the Old Republic videogames. But even if you've never played the games or have no other previous knowledge of Star Wars "ancient history", you won't get lost because of a lot of obscure back-story that it would be assumed you already know: Darth Bane: Path of Destruction is a wonderful enough read that you can readily comprehend even if this is your first time delving into the centuries prior to the rise of the Empire.
I think that Darth Bane: Path of Destruction also stands solidly alongside Timothy Zahn's Outbound Flight (read my review of that book here) as a novel that "reconciles" a lot of things that have been introduced into Star Wars lore but have otherwise conflicted with each other. This is a unique period that the saga is in right now, coming immediately on the heels of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the final Star Wars movie to be produced. There are now some established limits in place on things that in the past few decades were left to conjecture: some of it wildly so (killer green space rabbits, Bela Lugosi as the Emperor, steam-powered starships, and sentient planets are some of the more... unusual elements to be thrown into the Star Wars mix). In Outbound Flight, Zahn "retconned-out" several problems that had arisen in continuity between his earlier Star Wars novels and the prequel trilogy. In Darth Bane: Path of Destruction Karpyshyn does just as magnificent a job at using his novel to reconcile the Sith as we understand them from the movies with the earlier incarnation of the Sith that was first introduced in the Tales of the Jedi comics that Dark Horse put out in the mid-Nineties. The fact that Karpyshyn was the writer for the amazing Star Wars role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic for Xbox and PC certainly helps matters here. Darth Bane: Path of Destruction stands as something like a "Book of Acts" for the Sith: bridging the gap between the "gospels" of Exar Kun, Naga Sadow, Darth Revan and the rest of the 4,000-years earlier period from the comics and videogames to the later stories involving Sidious and Vader.
My only big complaint with Darth Bane: Path of Destruction is that, for my tastes anyway, it figures in some things that I would have rather be left out of how the Star Wars saga is evolving post-prequels. The whole thing on the planet Ruusan could have been reworked, 'cuz that's mostly there to "work in" the central plot element from the computer game Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II... and I always thought that whole "Valley of the Jedi" thing was pretty hokey to begin with. It doesn't need canonizing like this. But Darth Bane: Path of Destruction has too much else good going for it to condemn the book on this point. So I'll overlook it the way I overlook everything else I don't agree with in the saga: by reminding myself that Star Wars is more than anything else a legend, and one as protean as the rest of them.
Darth Bane: Path of Destruction was nothing but a pure delight to read. Definitely one of the most satisfying additions to the Star Wars body of literature that I've ever taken the time to take in. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone else who's a Star Wars fan, and especially to those who find themselves more than a little infatuated with the Sith and all that other wonderfully wicked Dark Side stuff.
EDIT 11:45 PM EST: Earlier I mentioned Darth Bane having a "cabbage head". Well, here is the pic: the very first look we ever got at Darth Bane...
The story is this: Darth Bane wound up on the moon of Dxun and was attacked by barnacle-like parasitic creatures called orbalisks. The orbalisks attached themselves to Bane's body. In the end, Bane let the orbalisks keep sucking on his body's life energy while he used the orbalisks as very tough built-in body armor: a really sick symbiotic relationship. The helmet he's wearing keeps the orbalisks from spreading to where they cover his face and head (click on the pic at the left to see Darth Bane in his full orbalisk-covered glory).