Darth Bane: Path of Destruction was an entertaining read. Some have commented that this book did a great jorb at making the title character both evil and sympathetic. I disagree. Although Bane is someone thrown into terrible situations who is trying to survive as best he can, somewhat like Mr. Eko in Lost, two of his primary motivations are selfishness and ambition, with revenge a close third. I can't help wondering if he would have ended up like Jedi Master C'baoth if he'd been born into more pleasant circumstances. On the other hand, he demonstrates a certain amount of loyalty and camaraderie on a few occasions--even guilt about his murders. Bane is a natural leader who has a combination of steely determination and cunning. Part of the tragedy of this book is seeing him slip all too easily down the dark path...but don't forget, he also chose it. To the degree that I thought of Darth Bane before this book, I envisioned him as a sneaky, perhaps somewhat weak and cowardly schemer, the kind of Sith who would think "the rest of ya can go ahead and die, I'll be waiting over here when you finish killing each other". The Bane of this book is so powerful by the end that he reminds me of Batman's Bane. Still, he excels at using everyone else as his pawns, to the point of being a recognizable precursor to Sidious.
A sizable chunk of the story, part two, covers Bane's experience in an elite Sith academy. This makes for an amusing counterpoint to the Jedi academy in I, Jedi and a series of books that rhymes with Fairy Hotter (at Sith-Hogwarts, Malfoy would blatantly be cheering for Harry's bloody death and all of the professors would ignore Neville). One of the main themes of the entire story is that a society which inevitably encourages power struggles is inherently on the edge of chaos. Even in the controlled environment of the academy, Sith like to double-cross and kill each other. Imagine applying the Sith paradigm to other contexts. In Sith driving school, road rage would be worth 50% or more of the final grade. In Sith poker, all players at the table could have four aces at the same time. In Sith curling, the stones would explode on impact. Bane's switch back to the Dynamic Duo model of the Sith is not only insightful but necessary. This way, Sith can mostly dispense with the veneer of cooperation for mutual benefit, but still survive. Masters can satisfy themselves by directing their immense powers at non-Sith targets. Apprentices can satisfy themselves by eventually killing their masters, which appears to be a popular route of self-promotion. Sith don't pass the torch so much as pry it from each other's cold dead fingers.
Generally, the book moved along at a brisk pace, building enough momentum to keep me interested. The ongoing war between the Sith and the Republic offered plenty of opportunities for action, as well as Bane's personal competition for attention and survival at the almost-literally-Darwinian academy. The first part of the book, before Bane takes on the Bane identity, is a bit annoying and gritty to plow through, but it's exciting and quick enough to not be a problem. It's also essential to understanding who Bane is. The third part, featuring Bane's climactic, victorious triumph, has its share of both drama and explosive events but suffers from the predictable certainty of fecal matter striking the rotating air circulation system.
Something else to be said for this book is its portrayal of characters beyond Bane. From time to time, the focus shifts from Bane to the larger war and its generals. The first couple instances felt like annoying distractions from the true story. As I learned more about these characters, I enjoyed the breaks. The dark lords of the Brotherhood and the masters of the Jedi had their own unique personalities, quirks, and abilities. They also had their own problems and goals. The other apprentices at the academy don't receive the same level of attention, apart from the two or three Bane chooses to concern himself with. When Bane disposes of almost all of them, it seems like such a waste, but Darth Bane is not the book for celebrating the superiority of good to evil. It's a dark tale about the rise of someone who was destined to sow the seeds of the far-later Empire. As long as we're talking about books written from the perspective of a Sith...
Switching gears altogether, a book I often thought of while I was reading Darth Bane is the Darth Maul "Episode I Journal" by Jude Watson. It was a paperback, wider and taller and thinner than the typical adult novel, published by Scholastic, and about 100 pages of large type (no pictures of course). When I picked it up in the bookstore to sample a few pages out of curiosity, I assumed it would be the book equivalent of journalistic fluff: a straightforward retelling of Episode I that any upper-elementary-school child could enjoy. It was less that than a one-way ticket to the crooked depravity of Maul's thoughts, desires, and memories. The fact that the book is written in such a simple style almost makes it more striking to read. It includes Maul's scenes from Episode I, of course, but also scenes from Maul's childhood under his master's training, his past missions, and what he was doing during the rest of Phantom Menace (here's a hint: he wasn't just sitting around), with varying levels of detail. Have you ever heard of parents dropping their children in a body of water to entice them to learn to swim? There's something like that in here, but much worse. How about making a child go without supper, at least for a couple hours? There's something like that in here, but much worse. Maul's childhood, if that name applies, sucked. And throughout it, he was given wonderful advice like "There is no pain where strength lies", "Never break a fall" (never be prepared for a mistake), "I can do without you", "A punishment is a lesson", "Do not flinch again". Maul's current frame of mind is locked into identification with the Sith tradition, a determination to earn his master's respect, trust in his master's absolute judgment, vivid hatred for the Jedi, joy in battle, projecting all negative feelings outward, and so on. This frame of mind colors and inspires each deranged thing he writes in this journal. Here's a direct quote from Maul's meditation, on page 76, after he has fought but failed to defeat Qui-Gon on Tatooine: "I will destroy you, Qui-Gon Jinn. I will see the shock in your eyes when I run you through, Qui-Gon Jinn. I will stand over your dead body in triumph, Qui-Gon Jinn". As I said, the book is short, but it's so engrossing that it seems longer. Since Maul dies at the end, the final chapter is instead a calculated, regretful analysis, by Sidious, of the battle for Naboo, in which Sidious also muses on the strengths and weaknesses of Maul. I recommend the book, but don't expect it to be satiating like a novel.