One of the most frustrating things about Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy is the time-hopping that leaves big gaps in the story of the Clone Wars and left me, as a viewer very disconnected with the characters whose story he was trying to tell. Even more annoyingly, the planetary and political backdrop to this entire period in Star Wars Universe had clearly been discussed, debated and worked through in quite some detail and there's nothing more that this reviewer likes than an epic story that takes place on a well thought out, politically complex canvas.
Although he's become a terrible director Lucas did one thing right with the prequels and that was to open up the franchise to allow for a bigger multimedia campaign that would be freer to tell stories that "couldn't" be told in the movies. The original Clone Wars microseries - for instance - is wonderful and probably more essential than the movies. That show was artistic and impressionistic, though, so it's down to the novels of the period to really fill in the gaps and to explain to a confused viewer like me just what exactly was going on with the bigger picture.
Labyrinth of Evil is one of these novels and was written as a direct prequel to Revenge of the Sith and its primary intent is to fill viewers in on what happened leading up to the opening of that movie which sees Anakin and Obi-Wan on a mission to rescue Palpatine who has just been kidnapped from Coruscant. It's fair to say that Luceno has done a really good job of not only creating an entertaining sequence of events that build nicely into that scenario but he's gone one further and tied together a whole lot of loose ends that were hanging from Attack of the Clones too. Character details and motivations from that movie are explained and characters such as General Grievous and Dooku get some nice history and background information, and I now feel like they are a firm, important part of the Star Wars universe, rather than underdeveloped creations that Lucas just happened to think "looked cool". Having read this novel I now feel that the era of the Clone Wars is one that matters to Star Wars mythology and is more than just a cash cow.
Sadly, Luceno is a competent, but not a great writer and he drops the ball in two major ways (as well as having an awful habit of switching perspectives mid-chapter and confusing the hell out of me). Firstly, the major plotline of the novel is horribly A-B. Some readers maintain that this is a "detective" novel and in a sense it is, since it follows an attempt by the Jedi to uncover a series of clues that will lead to them finally uncovering the identity of Darth Sidious. However, no good detective novel simply sees the main protagonist leap from one clue/interrogation to the next in a linear fashion (i.e. Anakin/Obi Wan speak to someone who tells them to go and speak to someone else, then someone else and so-on) since there's little interest or dramatic tension to be had from pure linearity. It's not a terrible plot device for allowing a number of space operatic action scenes, though, and since the main Anakin/Obi-Wan plot is interspersed with sections featuring Yoda, Windu, Amidala and more it never feels as linear and dull as it could have. What's more there's some nice scheming on Palpatine's behalf towards the close of the book and it all ends in some fast paced action.
Secondly, Luceno never lets us get inside Anakin's head. I'm not sure if he was afraid to, or if he'd been directed not to for fear of spoiling Stover's novelisation of Revenge of the Sith, but this hampers the book badly since it both distances us from the main protagonists, and worse, fails to help sell the idea that headstrong Anakin would turn into the ultimate evil that is Darth Vader. Having ended this book my feelings about Anakin were "he's just another guy" rather than an impassioned but brilliant Jedi on the brink of a major catatastrophe that will shake the core of his soul and the entire universe. I was particularly disappointed by this since Lucas' characterisation of Anakin is very weak and was hoping for a little more depth and understanding, particularly as this is the point of the entire series. Obi-Wan too, unfortunately, remains as flat as he does in the movies.
Overall though, for the positives, this is a recommended read for anyone who either enjoys the prequels or wants to get a little more background, and to make a little more sense out of them. There's more than enough here to suck you into this particular universe and I'm continually more appreciative of the complexity of this backdrop and of Palpatine's political machinations that lead to the downfall of a once great Republic. As a series designed for young adult readers this is never going to reach amazing heights of subtlety or brilliance, but it fills its remit pretty well and makes for an entertaining easy to enjoy Space Opera.