The Kessel Run (in under 12 Parsecs): A Guide to the Star Wars Expanded Universe
Star Wars. Whether or not you consider it science fiction, it’s what many people think of when you mention space, spaceships, laser guns, or robots. One movie back in 1977 spawned an empire that continues today. It spun off into additional films, television series, games, comics and, yes, books. These make up part of what’s referred to as the Expanded Universe, the material that isn’t exactly canon but which has fleshed out Lucas’s world far beyond anything we’ve seen in the films. The Expanded Universe (or EU) has filled in the timeline after Return of the Jedi and gone back to explore the origins of the Sith, the Republic and even the Jedi themselves.
I remember when the Heir to the Empire trilogy was about to come out, back in 1991, the first Star Wars book in some time, and the anticipation with which it was greeted. Now, 22 years later, the Expanded Universe is a crowded place. Just look at the Wikipedia page where you can see how many they’ve produced. So, when tackling this post, I had quite a task ahead of me. What follows is not a comprehensive list or summary, but I’ve tried to highlight works that stand out for some reason.
Oh, and one disclaimer—I grew up with the original trilogy (or Classic) and love those movies to death. I absolutely hate the prequel (or New) trilogy. As such, you can see my bias as I’ve largely focused on books that avoid the time period of the New Trilogy. Here, then, is my biased and patchy list, in no particular order.
Many people will tell you these are the best books in the whole of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. And they do have a lot to offer. They capture the scale and scope of the movies, feature all the familiar characters we’ve come to love, and help introduce new characters as well. They should be lauded, for example, for introducing Mara Jade, a much-needed bad-ass female character.
There are, however, problems. My biggest problem is the introduction of the ysalamiri, a species that has “evolved” to repel the Force. Frankly, I find this idea to be bullshit. As Obi-wan tells us in Star Wars, the Force is, “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” All living things. That an entity could develop the ability to repel the Force is, I think, a stupid idea. No better than midichlorians (yes, I said it). Obviously, I am in the minority.
Additionally, though people love Thrawn as a villain, I think he’s a Mary Sue (or perhaps a Marty Stu). Zahn is clearly in love with his own creation and doesn’t give him any noteworthy flaws. That he wanted to create a villain superior to even Darth Vader is clear. But Thrawn, to me, is largely boring. Give me Vader any day.
However, I have to give Zahn credit—he kicked off the Expanded Universe in a big way. He captured (mostly) the feel of the movies and he got people excited about Star Wars again.
Though it was considerably shorter than any of the novels, I have a lot of fondness for Dark Empire, the first Star Wars comic series to come from Dark Horse Comics. Though it doesn’t mesh as well with the rest of the Expanded Universe, Dark Empire feels, for me, more spiritually aligned as a sequel to the original trilogy. It features a resurrected Emperor (using cloned bodies to keep himself alive) and involves Luke going to study with the Emperor to learn about the Dark Side, both to try to understand it from within and to somehow understand his father. Leia also comes to understand her powers better and it sets up the events of the later expanded universe. It had two sequels--Dark Empire II and Empire’s End.
I’d heard that this series was good and on checking it out, I have to agree. This trilogy helps explain how the Sith ended up sticking to master/apprentice pairs by the time of the New Trilogy. The beginning is a little slow, but I was amazed at how I sympathized with the main character, who eventually goes on to train with the Sith. Drew Karpshyn does a great job here getting us in the viewpoint of Bane, showing his trials, why he makes the choices that he does. Hell, I was ready to sign up with the Sith while reading it. The series begins with Path of Destruction and continues with Rule of Two, concluding with Dynasty of Evil.
The concept for this is so simple I’m surprised it took until 2009 for this to happen—it’s a Star Wars horror novel. Set before the Classic Trilogy, it is set on the Imperial Prison Barge Purge. When the engines on the Purge start to break down, the ship sends an expedition to a derelict Star Destroyer nearby. Of course they encounter something, an infection, and bring it back on board the Purge. What follows is basically zombies aboard an Imperial prison barge with a few guest stars thrown in for good measure. A prequel, Red Harvest, set in the Old Republic era, was released in 2010.
Han Solo is my favorite character from the Classic Trilogy. Hell, he’s lots of people’s favorite character, so this trilogy, which sketches in his backstory, pleases a whole lot of people. It spans the time period from when he was a young kid on Corellia to his joining the Imperial military to his smuggling days, including his winning the Millennium Falcon. The series actually ends with Han sitting down at the cantina table in Tatooine to meet with Obi-Wan and Luke, just before his entrance in A New Hope.
This book, written by fan favorite Forgotten Realms author R. A. Salvatore, begins the New Jedi Order series. It’s particularly notable for killing off a popular movie character and for introducing a new enemy, the Yuuzhan Vong. And they’re not just any enemy. They tear through the galaxy killing and destroying. As you might expect from the title, it also involves the new Jedi order that Luke Skywalker has created. The New Jedi Order series that resulted from Vector Prime spawned 19 novels, 3 eBook novellas, and 3 short stories. Our usual heroes are back along with the offspring of Han and Leia and other notables from the EU. A bold new direction for the EU books.
This novel kicks of the Legacy of the Force series, the follow up to the New Jedi Order series. The new Jedi Knights have been established and the Alliance is still seeking to unite the galaxy. Unfortunately, the Corellians don’t seem amenable to that plan. Corellia and others see the Alliance as a new Empire and war seems inevitable. What’s really interesting about this and the Legacy of the Force series is that it chronicles the fall of Jacen Solo, son of Han and Leia, to the Dark Side, bringing the Skywalker story full circle. Betrayal is followed by 8 other novels continuing the story.
A more recent release, this novel happens only about a year after the events of Return of the Jedi. As the title indicates, it has more of a pulp-adventure feel than many of the EU novels, and the reason for this is woven into the story itself. Luke is the focus of the story, and we see some of his character’s growth, but it also includes Han, Leia, Chewie and Lando. It begins with Luke, as general, leading an attack on Mindor, the base of a large Imperial force. This force is led by a strange man called Shadowspawn, who seems to have a special interest in Luke. The battle soon goes awry and Luke is forced to crash land on Mindor. Han, Leia, Chewie and Lando attempt a rescue but get pulled into the hijinks, which, of course, ensue. Because of its pulpiness, Shadows has a lighter feel than other EU works even, though it deals with some serious situations. A fun, standalone novel.
I’m not above sneaking a video game onto this list, and for me, the best Star Wars RPG is the original Knights of the Old Republic. Set many generations before the beginning of the movies, at the height of the Old Republic, you start out as an amnesiac trying to figure out who you are. Later you start learning Jedi powers and begin racing to stop the Sith Lord Darth Malak and figure out what is happening with the Star Forge. The game was made by Bioware, makers of Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. For me, the Old Republic is one of those eras of the Star Wars universe that never gets old. The Jedi are plentiful, the Sith are, too, and there’s a kind of retro future thing going on with technology. Dark Horse Comics put out a number of series set in the Old Republic, but they tend to be short, rushed affairs. To me, Knights of the Old Republic is my favorite example of that era. There’s a sequel as well, though it’s not as good as the original. Both games are available on Steam now.
Another comic series, Legacy took the bold approach of detailing the period almost 100 years after any of the other EU works. Written by one of my favorite comic writers, John Ostrander, and with art by Jan Duursema, Legacy follows Cade Skywalker, descendant of Luke, who has turned his back on the ways of the Jedi and taken up the life of a bounty hunter. Many of the elements are familiar, derived from the earlier EU time periods, but because of the time difference, there are also many changes. The remnants of the Empire are now known as the Fel Empire. There is also a new Sith Order. References are made to other parts of the EU, but if any part of the EU was blazing a new trail, it was this.
Yes, this novel (and those that follow it ) are based in the Clone Wars era. And yes, they tell the story of a bunch of clone troopers. And yes, it’s ostensibly based on a video game (Republic Commando). But Karen Traviss does such a great job with the source material here. Does it get extra props because it should have been crappy? Maybe, but Traviss is a capable writer and she manages to inject a lot of life into a bunch of clones. I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Traviss went on to write three more books in the series, as well as several other EU books. If you like military SF, these are the books for you
Those are my picks. Which do you like? Which do you take issue with? What would you add or subtract to the list? Let me know in the comments.
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