The Bantam age of the EU is probably what I think of most when I think Star Wars books. Not that it had the most books–Del Rey has them beat by far–but that when I think of Star Wars books, I think of the solid epics released by Bantam. The works churned out by the EU in this age were by and large decent tomes. Great? You rarely got there. But good seemed the order of the day.
I’m taking these books in chronological rather than release order because either order is arbitrary and I chose this one at random. As with before, not covering everything. The Black Fleet Crisis and The Correllian trilogy feel forgotten now. Why dredge them?
The Han Solo Trilogy: If there is anything I specifically hate about the new canon overwriting the old, it’s this series being deleted and replaced with the forthcoming movie. This is a pitch perfect origin saga for Han that shows exactly how he became the rogue we know. There’s no need to change any of it. A.C. Crispin even worked around the Brian Daley books, slipping interludes to stop and read them in. Seek these out.
Tales: There were a number of anthologies covering the backstories of every extra ever shown in the Star Wars saga. Surprisingly, these anthologies tend to be pretty great. They’re uneven like every anthology but the hit rate is much higher than the norm. These were jam sessions for the first rate talent floating around Bantam’s offices and usually quite fun at that. Highly recommend Tales from Jabba’s Palace & Tales From Mos Eisley Cantina.
Shadows of the Empire: What a strange multimedia product this was. Basically the novel amounts to a novelization for a movie that never happened. That’s given evidence by tie-in specialist Steve Perry stepping up to write the book. As a result, can I even review this? Well I have to. It’s fine as a novelization. It’s honestly what I’d hand to someone leery of any other Legends books simply due to how safe it is. It’s not great writing or a great story but it feels like Star Wars all the way. Personally I think the corporate stench wafts hard over it but it’s not bad. It’s worth reading as a timekiller.
The Bounty Hunter Wars: Boba Fett is the Poochie of Star Wars. These aren’t very good.
The Truce at Bakura: If you want a non-canon book that still feels like it could fit, this is probably your best bet after Shadows of the Empire. This is also one I dig quite hard. It’s a solid done in one look at the characters struggling with the aftermath of a very traumatic moment. The main plot is less engaging but still fun.
X-Wing: This is a series I’ve always been a little bit cooler on than most but not because they’re bad. They’re just a bit more military driven than my taste. That said, Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston did a fine job on the books. The members of Rogue Squadron are solidly interesting characters. There’s a nice energy to the books that sets them apart. One of the true high points of the series.
The Courtship of Princess Leia: I love that this blissfully goofy book became the cornerstone of the EU almost as much as the next entry. This is Star Wars at its pulpiest, weirdest, and most fun. This book gave us the Nightsisters of Dathomir (who became important on the Clone Wars), Prince Isolder and his future wife, and the warlord Zsinj who was retconned heavily in X-Wing. This book rocks.
The Thrawn Trilogy: The first 3 books to be published in this era and the best regarded. I’m not going to buck the trend. Timothy Zahn wrote arguably the three greatest tie-in novels ever here. There’s a reason so many people had the headcanon these were Episodes 7-9. Every element hums from the action to the characters. There’s a real sense of consequence here. Thrawn joining canon isn’t an accident. We all know they’re great. Next.
The Jedi Academy Trilogy: There are a lot of trilogies in this series. I know, shocking. This is a pretty mid-tier one honestly. It’s more functional than anything else, covering the dawn of the new Jedi order. It’s fine but really feels closer to a standard tie-in work than anything uniquely SW. The tropes are getting hard welded in here. Kevin J. Anderson is at least a solid writer who knows how to knock you around.
Children of the Jedi/Darksaber/Planet of Twilight: This is a weird quasitrilogy. The 1st & 3rd books are by Barbara Hambly while Kevin J. Anderson wrote the 2nd. The three books more or less stand alone but are connected through the character of a force ghost Luke falls in love with, helps regain human form, and ultimately loses contact with. As I said, they’re weird with Darksaber widely considered one of the worst SW books ever. My take? They’re quality pulp reads. The connected but not too connected quality means you can jump in and out as you choose, though for my money Darksaber’s probably the best with a gloriously intense SW feeling throughout.
The Crystal Star: Unlike most of these books, I hadn’t revisited this one in years but I vaguely remembered hating it for reasons I’d forgotten. Then I revisited it. Yeah, this is the absolute worst SW novel ever. Filled with fantasy elements like a strange alien abomination, werewolves, centaurs and child sacrifice, I have no idea what the licensors were thinking. It’s actively unpleasant. Not dull though!
The New Rebellion: If you were to ask me what the dullest SW novel is in this era, I would point to this technically fine but just tired novel. There’s a Dark Jedi. There’s political crap. There’s some smuggling. Look, you can get everything you’ll get here in other books. Pass.
The Hand of Thrawn Duology: Timothy Zahn began the Bantam age of the EU and he ends it not as well as he started but for my money even better. I inhaled Vision of the Future faster than any SW novel ever despite it actually being longer than any of the others. I just had to know where Zahn would end the series and he nailed the landing. In my opinion, if you were to read this as the definitive finale to Star Wars, you’d do just fine. I love, love, love these books.
And thus the Bantam age ended and another Random House imprint, Del Rey, would step in for the future.
So how do I feel about this era overall? I really love it. There are some bad books and even a few gaps I have yet to double back on but this was Star Wars for me as much as the movies. This was where the characters grew and matured. There were a number of solid villains throughout the series. But I think the greatest strength of all was showing how utterly messy the post war period would be. In the books, it’s 15 years after Return of the Jedi that the war actually ends. That’s really a nice touch.
The books benefitted big time from space. There’s only a few short novels in this age–The Crystal Star is one–which meant that when you read a Star Wars book you truly felt like you were reading a book. Contrast that with the wafer thin Star Trek books from this time. The space allowed for some truly expansive stories. Yes, they tended to be, well not the deepest plots, but you always checked in on everybody.
Perhaps the best thing about these books was just how much they added to SW lore. Planets, aliens, starships, you name it, it was here. The truly best thing the books added though, was the characters. Mara Jade. Thrawn. Talon Karrde. Corran Horn. Callista. Zsinj. Admiral Daala. These were characters I came to love/love to hate no different from the canon characters. Thrawn has already joined canon and I hope at least a few I listed follow suit. (Jacen Solo’s arc in later books also became canon, albeit given to a character with a different name but the same role.)
Were there flaws? Sure. The big one was how safe the books played it until Vision. You knew A) the war wouldn’t end definitively, B) any canon characters were safe and C) Luke Skywalker was trapped in a status quo of perpetual failure that Peter Parker would mock. There was also slight burnout with books like The New Rebellion, The Bounty Hunter Wars, and Tales From the Empire at the end. Tropes were hardwired in with that. Plenty of dark Jedi, superweapons, and planets with complicated political crises.
But this really was as solid as any licensed property could ask for. It didn’t insult the source material. It expanded it and made it better. If this was all we ever got as a continuation of Star Wars then it would’ve been worthy.
As is stands, I still have one more entry to go along with a bonus entry covering various odds and ends. You’ll have to read those to see why I actively cheered a wipe of canon.
Tomorrow: The Del Rey Era: 1999-2007