May the Force be with you all! Geeks of Doom will be posting a couple of Star Wars articles today, May 25, for Universal Day of the Jedi, which celebrates the anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars movie.
This year, Universal Day of the Jedi also celebrates the anniversary of Timothy Zahn’s novel, Heir to the Empire. The initial release of this novel 20 years ago this month is significant, because it was quite literally groundbreaking: its impact would open the floodgates for an amazing deluge of Star Wars novels and comics – turning the Expanded Universe into an EXPANDING Universe.
Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, of which Heir to the Empire is the first part, is widely regarded by many fans as one of the best series of Star Wars books to ever have been released. Some fans even consider the trilogy to be the equivalent of the closest we may ever get to a Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Timothy Zahn has continued his journeys into the Expanded Star Wars Universe through the years – exploring deeper into the history and legacy of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the continual growing relationship between Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, and also the mysteries behind the enigmatic Outbound Flight.
I figured with this month being the anniversary of Zahn’s masterpiece, and also with today being Universal Day of the Jedi, it would be a good opportunity to take a look back at some of the finer examples of Star Wars novels over the years.
Bear in mind though, this isn’t really a “top 10” list. Consider it more to be a list for people who might not have ever jumped into the Expanded Universe before. So, if you’re new to the Expanded Star Wars Universe, any of these ten books would be good places to start.
Less than a year after the first Star Wars movie hit screens around the world, Alan Dean Foster released the first ever novel to begin the Expanded Universe, and is still regarded to be a classic to this day. Initially, the story was developed to become a low-budget sequel to Star Wars; but with the explosive success of the movie, Lucas opted to move onto the larger scaled Empire Strikes Back. The story focuses on an ancient relic of Jedi lore called the Kaiburr Crystal; a crystal that enhances and amplifies one’s sensitivity to the Force. The tale becomes a chase for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia to find and protect the Kaiburr Crystal from falling into the hands of Darth Vader.
It’s really a no-brainer to include this one in this list. I mean, let’s face it, how many of us became Expanded Universe addicts due to this book? Part 1 of the Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire is set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The former Rebellion is now in control of Coruscant, and is officially in the early days of consolidating the era of the New Republic. Luke Skywalker begins pondering the direction of his life as a Jedi, while Princess Leia finds herself increasingly being pulled back into the world of politics. But a new threat has emerged, in the form of Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Empire. Along with Admiral Pellaeon, and enlisting the powers of a crazed Jedi clone known as Joruus C’baoth, Thrawn sets about a plan that could potentially rip down the still fragile foundations of the New Republic. The novel and series are notable in introducing some very significant characters that would impact the Star Wars universe in years to follow, including Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Borsk Fey’lya. Obi-Wan Kenobi also makes his final ghostly appearance to Luke Skywalker.
While Steve Perry’s novelization is still brilliant, and one I often read, the fact is that what made Shadows of the Empire so special was the entire multimedia experience. There was also the comic, the game, the action figures, the trading cards, and there was even a soundtrack. It was a memorable time to be a hardcore Star Wars fan, but the central tale of Shadows of the Empire still stands tall to this day. Set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the story explains what happens with many of the characters during this time. There is the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire, but a new element is introduced in the tale: the underworld. The Black Sun is a criminal organization run by Prince Xizor, who essentially fulfils the role of an intergalactic “Godfather”, if you will. While still searching for Han Solo (frozen in carbonite at this point), our heroes get tied up with elements of the Black Sun, in an adventure that will place them right under the very noses of the Empire itself: on Coruscant! Other notable characters introduced in Shadows of the Empire include Dash Rendar and Guri.
This recommendation is more of a personal one, as I enjoyed (and still enjoy) this novel immensely. There’s a big reason for this too. Aside from the release of Shadows of the Empire during the same year, before The New Rebellion, a LOT of the post-Return of the Jedi novels during 1995 and 1996 were beginning to become somewhat repetitive and stock. The Corellian Trilogy and The Black Fleet Crisis were okay, but lacked the punch we were used to seeing in the earlier novels. The New Rebellion came out in 1996, and was a breath of fresh air for the post-Return of the Jedi novels. For me, it was quite literally a page turner. The character of Kueller makes for a memorable Dark Jedi, donning a skull-faced outfit that is reflective and reminiscent of Darth Vader’s suit. It’s a complex plot about this Dark Jedi with a convoluted terrorist-style plan that will test the strength and wit of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo.
The New Jedi Order series began with this novel, and while, yes, I will admit there are better novels in the series, what else could be recommended to new readers than the beginning? This story introduces the Yuuzhan Vong, an extragalactic alien species that abhor technology. Everything within their culture and society is biological and organic – from their weapons and armor to their ships. The characters of the Vong are essentially what you would consider to be the “Orcs” of the Star Wars universe, but mixed with the obscene and dangerous outlook of religious fundamentalism. What makes them so formidable is that the Jedi cannot sense the Yuuzhan Vong in the Force whatsoever. Additionally, their ships employ some kind of black hole / void technology that “sucks up” and absorbs any blasts fired at them. This novel, Vector Prime, begins the war and sets the stage for what will turn out to be one of the most devastating wars that the Jedi have ever faced. Losses are huge in this series, beginning with this story too, where we see the tragic fall of the mighty Chewbacca.
Now, if you’re not interested in taking on the entire New Jedi Order series as a whole, but wouldn’t mind a taste of it in one book, look no further than Matthew Stover’s Traitor. This book was a complete departure from the normal Star Wars tradition. Instead of following our group of heroes, it follows the experience of one Jedi Knight: Jacen Solo, son of Han and Leia. Jacen has been captured by the Yuuzhan Vong warrior Nom Anor, and their familiar, a strange being from the known galaxy called Vergere (who claims to be a Jedi from the Old Republic). Vergere begins to break Jacen by keeping him in a Vong construct called the Embrace of Pain. The Yuuzhan Vong’s religious fever focuses on embracing pain and self-mutilation, and the first part of the novel focuses on the torture being inflicted upon Jacen in the Embrace. Vergere begins breaking, shaping, and training Jacen through the course of the novel. It’s an exciting tale, very graphic and very dark – and gives an incredible taste of what the New Jedi Order is all about. More importantly, it’s a key part of the Star Wars universe, which foreshadows what will happen with Jacen Solo in the future to come.
From the very beginnings of Zahn’s Star Wars writing, he had been hinting at this unusual event in the history of its galaxy called the Outbound Flight. Essentially, the pre-cloned and original Jorus C’baoth was leading a Jedi mission to begin an extragalactic journey of multiple purposes. While the main purpose of the project was to search out extragalactic life, Zahn does make some inferences and clues in the novel that Palpatine may be aware of the Yuuzhan Vong threat even as early as 27 years before the Battle of Yavin, and the Outbound Flight along with his eventual formation of the Empire were some of his plans to protect the galaxy from the Vong. This might seem that it diminishes his evil Sith ambitions on appearance, but in fact, it does not. It shows more depth to the character and adds to his other ambitions. The Outbound Flight aims to leave the galaxy, but in its process the flight crew come across the formidable Thrawn of the Chiss, who eventually (almost) destroys the ship. The Outbound Flight Project was doomed before it even left the galaxy. The story features Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as well, and highlights Palpatine/Sidious’ first early encounters with Thrawn, who would move on to become a Grand Admiral of the Empire.
Following the mammoth epic series that was The New Jedi Order, a lot of Star Wars fans wondered what could possibly follow. While the Dark Nest Trilogy was enjoyable, it lacked the punch of the NJO books… and then came The Legacy of the Force series. A trilogy of trilogies (or ennealogy, if you will), the series follows Jacen Solo after his breaking by Vergere and the Yuuzhan Vong as discussed in Traitor above. Solo becomes misguided, and begins his inevitable descent to the Dark Side under the teachings of Dark Lady of the Sith called Lumiya. Solo rechristens himself as Darth Caedus (a name actually suggested and voted upon by Star Wars fans), and begins to gather power and quite literally takes over the galaxy – in a war that will see the death of fan favorite, the much-loved Mara Jade Skywalker. In this novel, however, Betrayal, it is the very beginning of the story. We see Luke and Mara’s son, Ben Skywalker, coming into form – under the guidance of Jacen Solo. Jacen meets Lumiya in this novel, in a first step to the Dark Side of the Force. Wonderfully written, especially visual, and inspiring one to keep on turning the page, Allston’s Betrayal is a masterpiece that truly sets up one of the most ambitious Star Wars novel series ever.
After many years of following the post-Return of the Jedi years, and some new novels tying in with the Prequel era while those films were being released, Star Wars fans began hungering for more stories from other times in the Expanded Universe. Set a thousand years before the Battle of Yavin, the first Darth Bane novel focuses on the establishment of what has become known as the “Rule of Two”. Yoda speaks of this in The Phantom Menace, and establishes that the Sith Lords of the day only numbered two: a master and an apprentice. Drew Karpyshyn’s novel tells the tale of when the Sith Lords were many, of a time when a gigantic war raged between them and the Jedi. Bane becomes a Sith warrior, and learns that the sheer number of the Sith has thrown the galaxy out of balance. He establishes the Rule of Two, a tradition that would continue right through to the era of the movies. Bane is an imposing figure in this novel, and establishes some important moments of the “in-universe history” of Star Wars. The book was very successful, and has since spawned two sequels that are also just as enjoyable.
Okay, so maybe you only want to read one Star Wars novel. Maybe you’re a horror fan. Do you like zombies? Then this novel is the one you should grab. This is The Empire Strikes Back meets Dawn of the Dead. Essentially the plot follows members of an Imperial prison ship, which run into some problems, and seek out some assistance from a nearby Star Destroyer. The Star Destroyer turns out to be abandoned, and also the site of some very strange medical experiments, including an Imperial bioweapons project codenamed Blackwing. The “virus”, of course, reanimates the dead. And just like your favorite zombie movies, these guys are hungry for living flesh! I have no idea why it took so long for someone to say, “hey, let’s do a zombie story in the Star Wars universe”, but I’m so glad they did. Being both a Star Wars geek AND a horror fan, this novel was my cup of tea. It’s dark, gory, and frightening, and in some respects, disturbing. Death Troopers is perhaps one of the more exciting Star Wars novels released in the last few years. The response to the novel has been excellent, and resulted in the publication of a prequel called (appropriate) Red Harvest, which is set thousands of years before, in the time of the old Republic – in a situation that sees a whole group of Sith Lords become zombies!
So there you have it – a few suggestions of books to choose from if you’re about to jump into the Expanded Star Wars Universe. As I mentioned before, it’s not necessarily a top ten, but more of an idea of where you could probably start.
On that note, Happy Universal Day of the Jedi, and may the Force be with you!
To find out more about Universal Day of the Jedi on May 25, you can read more at Wookieepedia…