I do have to double back and cover a few books that don’t fit as neatly into the narrative but which deserve attention. The universe was far from limited to just the heroes of A New Hope and their stories weren’t always told in order even after the EU started going in chronology.
The Prequel Novels
It’s almost impossible to reference anything relating to the Prequels without stirring up the anger people have towards these films. Thankfully I don’t care. Del Rey has published a number of pretty solid novels set in this world. They deserve attention too.
Darth Plagueis: Rarely does a tie-in feel like it actually provides new information but this one does. Darth Plagueis fills in countless blanks while telling a gripping story of the mentorship of Emperor Palpatine. This is what one hopes for when they read a book like this. The revelations are so shocking that I understand why they’re no longer canon–Anakin Skywalker’s virgin birth is explained–but they’re still canon to me. Definitely a vital book.
Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter: Here is a fun if fluffy book. Think of it as a slasher movie in the SW Universe. While the book is sold on its focus on Darth Maul, he’s really the looming threat that hunts the heroes. It’s silly and odd but it works.
Cloak of Deception: I don’t hate the focus on politics in the Prequels the way others do but this book was a bit of an overdose even for me. It’s a lot of dithering and conspiracy. It’s not badly written, coming from the skilled James Luceno, but it’s just not interesting at all.
Rogue Planet: The first story to focus on Anakin Skywalker being trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi is logically a prequel…to The New Jedi Order. Seriously. It works too. This is a solid, rollicking tale of the Jedi when they were functional. The setting is interesting and Greg Bear has fun creating a pulpy fantasy tale.
The Approaching Storm: Alan Dean Foster pens the direct prequel to Episode II. I strongly hope by now that’s enough to convince you to read this. This isn’t a major story but it gives a glimpse into why the Jedi were so exciting and legendary in this era. It’s political but not dull like Cloak of Deception.
The Cestus Deception: One of the areas writers had great success in exploring was the experiences of the clone troopers. The existential question of warriors who lived without being treated as human makes for good storytelling. This book was a prime example. While the book focuses on a fairly generic but gripping war story, it’s the subplot of a clone trooper learning to be human that elevates this book. It stands out.
Jedi Trial: This book is sheer filler but it does show something unfortunate: Making Anakin Skywalker your lead is a bad idea for a book. I don’t hate him in canon but here he’s a pain. Throwing in a newly created Jedi to serve as a “Mary Sue” doesn’t help.
Shatterpoint: One of the great letdowns of the prequels was how rarely Mace Windu felt like a Samuel L. Jackson character. He’s frustratingly muted aside from one battle in Attack of the Clones. This book is the corrective. A truly potent, intense read that echoes Heart of Darkness at times. You want a read that’ll wake you up? This does the trick.
Yoda: Dark Rendezvous: It’s Yoda going on a mission to confront Count Dooku. The book is loaded with their interactions. I really doubt I need to sell much harder. It’s inconsequential but fun.
In trying to separate the books into order, I’m left with the frustration not every book fits into the narrative. These books were either by different publishers, released at different times, or just didn’t fit in the other entries.
Death Troopers: Technically a prequel but just barely. This is the much hyped zombies in Star Was book and it’s just okay. It’s much more about the novelty of a Star Wars horror book. Not ghastly but really overhyped.
Scoundrels: Timothy Zahn’s reputation as the greatest SW writer ever is well deserved. It’s so well deserved I’m letting this complete whiff of a book slide. Zahn feels out of his element trying to do an Ocean’s 11 plot. The book tries to be fun but it’s more overly complicated than anything else. Pass.
Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor: The most recent read for this project, a book I actually read while writing the first two entries. I’m glad I did. This is a rollicking stealth deconstruction of the entire EU. Matthew Stover, arguably the MVP of the Del Rey era, pens a book entirely about propaganda and and mythology and does so while delivering a pure dose of the joy unique to Star Wars. This is on my must read list.
Tatooine Ghost: The first Del Rey novel to double back into the EU timeline as well as the first moment of connection between the prequels and the EU is one of the true best novels set in this world. The book depicts Leia struggling with the question of having a family during a trip to Tatooine. During this trip, she makes several discoveries about Anakin Skywalker and develops a fuller understanding of the man. It’s a fascinating read that ponders questions of morality.
Union: I haven’t touched much on the comics for a very good reason: I don’t really like the comics very much. They tended to focus on side characters I was bored by and they didn’t matter. Union is a lovely exception. It’s hardly startling or needed but it does depict the marriage of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade. It’s a fun story.
Survivor’s Quest: A solid if decidedly continuity heavy book from Timothy Zahn. I wasn’t a huge fan but it does the job.
Junior/Young Jedi Knights: Normally the kids books don’t matter in tie-in series. Not here. The characters we meet come to matter and matter hard for the future. These are vital books and also quite fun. Many people my age entered with this series. It’s a different but cool angle on Star Wars.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe initially looked like a simple set of books to study but even with giant omissions such as the Scholastic series, this didn’t prove easy. I revisited a great number of books over many months in the hopes of reaching some firm conclusions about the series. This was both a fun and tiring thing.
Overall I feel like if you’re a fan then you definitely need to dip into this series. The books may not be canon anymore but they’re well worth your time as a fan. Taken as a whole, the EU provides a version of how the universe went after Return of the Jedi. It enriches the characters greatly while providing them with fates I found at least reasonably satisfying.
It has its flaws. By the end, it’s an unbearable continuity mass. The later books require far too much knowledge to be easily accessed. The books overall tend away from the light pulp origins of SW in favor of a style between fantasy novels and scifi military works that does get a bit atonal save for a few books. The central characters from the films gradually drift out of focus the further the books move along, restricted by Lucasfilm’s refusal to allow any major changes save for a very few.
But what makes the EU so great is ultimately the new. The characters, the worlds, all of it. It’s the wealth of what’s added to Star Wars lore that makes the EU great. Fans responding to the films and adding their own to it.
Ultimately, the question of canon starts to feel silly in light of how great the best works in it are. Do they fit a corporate defined “canon?” No, they’re outside of it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still matter. The sweep of the Thrawn novels, the excitement of the Han Solo trilogy, the sheer drive of The New Jedi Order. Those are stories I experienced and fell in love with. They “didn’t happen” now but you know what? They never happened. It’s all fantasy.
Mythology is after all fundamentally at its most entertaining when we have multiple versions to choose from. If Star Wars is to be the grand myth of the 20th century (and I think it is), why shouldn’t there be multiple versions? Why can’t we have both Jacen Solo and Ben Solo, two variants on one concept, to contrast? Why must we stick with just one set of stories that’s the only interpretation of this world?
Lucasfilm has officially titled the EU as Legends. I like that idea. They’re stories of the universe that may not count. But they’ve still got truth to them.
After all, a wise man once said “what I told you was true, from a certain point of view. You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”