A no-bullshit beginners guide to Star Wars books

A fraction of my own half-organized Star Wars book collection. I Have Opinions about many of these, but I will spare you.

A fraction of my own half-organized Star Wars book collection. I Have Opinions about many of these, but I will spare you most of them.

I know far too much about Star Wars. And so, so much of this is in relation to the Expanded Universe (aka the EU,) which is basically the official uber-geek term for Star Wars books and comics. Don’t call it ‘extended,’ please, because I’m totally the kind of geek who’ll write a style guide on the terminology.

So, let’s say you like Star Wars, and you’re curious, and that area of the bookstore is crazy, so you ask me what you should read to catch up with some of these folks after the movies.

You may have overlooked them because the covers are AWFUL.

In all fairness you may have overlooked them because the covers are AWFUL. 1991, man.

My answer is pretty simple: You read the Thrawn trilogy, aka Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. And then you stop.

“But,” say the other Star Wars fans, “what about…”

No. Just stop. It’s not worth it, man. Don’t go any further. The Thrawn trilogy may not be perfect, but they are pretty much as good as it gets.

If you’ve been to that area of the bookstore at all, you’ve probably realized that there are a lot of Star Wars books. I’ve read maybe a hundred novels and that is by no means everything. (And I won’t even get into the comics. Well, maybe a little bit later.) Some of them are good. Many of them are just kind of mediocre. And some of them are absolutely balls-to-the-wall awful. ‘Snobbery’ is not the only reason licensed fiction has a bad rep: Some of them actually are that bad. If you just pick one up off the shelf at random, the odds are NOT in your favor.

Unless you’re 12. If you’re 12, just go for it. There’s no better time. Of course, then you end up, years down the line, admitting that you’ve read about a hundred Star Wars novels and that only a small fraction of them are worth recommending to anyone who can’t already tell you what a Bothan is. (I was 13.)

The EU is a bit of a beast – there are parts that are deeply intertwined, and then there are offshoots like books based on video games and if I hadn’t been following these things in real time, I’d be confused as well. But my point here is that for a casual fan, for someone who doesn’t want to dive neck-deep into the Expanded Universe – I honestly think these three are the only books you really need.

Fair warning: My own focus is and has always been what happens after Return of the Jedi. I do have some recs from other eras below if Luke, Han and Leia aren’t your thing, but theirs is what I know best.

There's also the 20th anniversary annotated version from 2011, but the regular paperback is fine.

There’s also the 20th anniversary annotated version from 2011, but the regular paperback is fine.

History lesson! The Thrawn trilogy were the first Star Wars books of the modern era. In 1991, before the prequels, before the video games, when everyone in the world thought Star Wars was dead, Bantam published Heir to the Empire and it went to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. And it spent something like 20+ weeks on the list, which is pretty crazy, even back then. This trilogy is basically the entire reason your local Barnes & Noble (and the Borders before them) has an entire case devoted to the things. Almost everything published since then is building on that foundation. (Quite literally, in the case of everything set after them.) Lucasfilm announced they’d be making the prequels in 1993, but Heir to the Empire was the first canary sent down into the mine.

Heir starts about five years after Return of the Jedi. (Yes, there are some other books in those five years. You can read them later, if you want.) Luke’s trying to be a – the! – Jedi, Han and Leia have got married and are sprouting some twins of their own, the Rebellion has grown up into an actual government and the Empire is a shade of its former self… Until it isn’t. The ‘Thrawn’ of the series’ unofficial title is the Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the EU’s more notable villains.

Back when the whole Episode VII thing was announced, you may have seen some stuff about how the new movies were totally going to be based on these specific books. That’s just fan talk, though: Lucasfilm has given us no basis to believe that and honestly? It’s probably just as well. The Thrawn trilogy aren’t really set up like movies: They’re novels. They’re plotted like novels. They’re paced like novels. They are very much not movies and that’s okay. They’re not trying to be movies: They’re books about people who we met in movies, and that’s why they work as books. They’re sequels to the Original Trilogy, but they’re not THE sequels.

And I’m not going to beat around the bush here, either: The new movies are in no way, shape or form obligated to follow what’s been set out in the Expanded Universe. (No matter how much whining you hear.) They could use some of the books or none of the books as background/inspiration. We really don’t know yet what’s they’ll do, but as a book fan I’ve made my peace with it – and as a book fan increasingly disappointed with the directions the things have been going – my view on the latest one actually boils down to kill it with fire – I actually welcome it. (And if it really matters to you, you probably don’t need my advice anyway.) But I still recommend reading the Thrawn trilogy, just for the hell of it.

Okay, fine. You REALLY want to keep reading? Here’s some other stuff to get you started:

The X-Wing Series by Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston
You know the squadron Luke flies in throughout the movies? That’s these guys, a few years later. Luke’s retired to Jedi-dom, but his buddy Wedge Antilles – the only other X-wing pilot to survive all three movies – is running ‘em. Hijinks ensue!
Do you need to read anything else? Thrawn trilogy, but you can go without. These actually start out before Heir, and there are some set after The Last Command and there’s even a new one set much later.
Expert opinion: I’ve only actually read a handful of these, but everyone I trust loves them. The first book can be a slog, but things pick up after that. And yes, there are 10 of these, but they are by nature fairly self-contained. You can break them down into sets of four (Rogue Squadron, Wedge’s Gamble, The Krytos Trap and The Bacta War by Stackpole,) three (Wraith Squadron, Iron Fist, and Solo Command Allston,) a couple standalones (Isard’s Revenge by Stackpole and Starfighters of Adumar by Allston) and then the latest, Allston’s Mercy Kill.

Horrible tacky cover, great book.

Horrible tacky cover, great book.

Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover
It’s a novelization, but it’s a freaking amazing novelization. It fleshes out the movie with some downright amazing details and motivations.
Do you need to read anything else? Not read, no, but you should probably be familiar with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. You don’t need to bother with those novelizations though, there’s nothing particularly special there.
Expert opinion: Stover is perhaps the single best writer in the EU stable, and this is his most accessible Star Wars book. His other standalones include Shatterpoint, headlined by Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, and Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, which is one of those books set in the period between Return of the Jedi and Heir to the Empire. You can read Mindor as a standalone, and it’s probably my favorite Star Wars book of the past 5 years, but the thing is I’m not sure if it works as well if you don’t remember the real dregs of mid-90′s EU, because it’s a weird kind of love letter to them. (And yes, you will hear other geeks rave about Traitor, but Traitor is the 13th book in an exceedingly tedious 19-book series and that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to warn you about here.)

Star Wars Tales by various writers and artists
For my money the finest Star Wars comic offering was the Tales anthology series. These are the comic equivalent of short stories, and they’re all over the map. My favorites are the funny ones, and I live for the day when they produce a trade collection that only includes those. (They’re currently only collected as Star Wars Tales Volumes 1-6. You can start pretty much anywhere.) Speaking of funny, also look for Tag & Bink Were Here by Kevin Rubio.
Do you need to read anything else? Again, they’re all over the map, but for the most part, no.
Expert opinion: Dark Horse is responsible for the Star Wars comics, and they tend to go for a lot more variety than the novels do. They are much-beloved by the other geeks, but most of the stuff they do is not to my tastes at all (lots of Boba Fett, for instance) so there’s not really a lot I can recommend.

Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
Look, it’s Zahn again! After Star Wars and before Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo gets a bunch of folks together for a little heist.
Do you need to read anything else? Nope!
Expert opinion: After being bogged down in those giant series I mentioned, Del Rey has finally started putting out more standalones. This one just came out last fall. Just out now is Kenobi by John Jackson Miller (Obi-wan on Tatooine, between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars.) And coming soon is Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells, a Leia book that’s set between Star Wars and Empire, that’s pretty decent. There’s a Han Solo book from James S.A. Corey in the pipeline for next year as well, but if you want to read about Han now, check out the Brian Daley novels from back during the Original Trilogy days: Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy. They’re set before the original Star Wars and probably your best bet when it comes to the oldest stuff.

You can ask any Star Wars fan and chances are they’ll give you other options, ones that are sure to make me put my judgey face on, but hey: Everyone has different tastes. You don’t have to trust me, but these are my picks for someone who’s not well versed in this terribly geeky, overly specific sphere of Star Wars fandom. Though chances are that most people will still tell you to read the Thrawn trilogy, too, so at least go for those first.

Note to Star Wars fans: No, I probably didn’t name one of your favorites. That doesn’t mean I forgot them: My post, my recs. Sorry, not sorry.

(Psst. There’s more.)

21 thoughts on “A no-bullshit beginners guide to Star Wars books

  1. Great post. The only thing I’d disagree with is that I think the A.C Crispin Han Solo Trilogy is far better than the Brian Daley ones.

    • The Thrawn comics are okay – they do start out a bit rough, but the adaption and the art get better as they go along. But I wouldn’t recommend reading them instead of the books. Maybe as a refresher course. Man, we were so happy to get all that art back in the day!

      The thing about Dark Empire: I love the concept of Luke going dark, but the execution of DE leaves a lot to be desired. (And the fact that they crowbarred it into the book continuity… Ugh.) My favorite Dark Luke story is actually fan fiction, which is where I think the trope really belongs. It’s #3 on my best of 2009 list over at CJ.

      That said, one of the most wonderful things about Stover’s Shadows of Minor is how he ‘foreshadows’ Dark Empire.

  2. I definitely agree with the Thrawn Trilogy and Revenge of the Sith novelization parts. However, I must say my favorite parts of the EU are New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force, which may be an unpopular opinion. The LOTF books were actually the first EU books I read (they interested me because I heard one of Han and Leia’s kids turns to the dark side). After reading that series I fell in love with post-ROTJ EU and kept reading more EU and haven’t stopped since. I’m also a sucker for a good-guy-turned-bad story. Now Jaina, Jacen, Anakin, and Ben are some of my favorite SW characters.

    • To me the NJO just went on and on and on… It was such a slog, and over 5 years! Five years! I generally don’t mind dark stuff – hi, A Song of Ice And Fire – but I think there were just a few too many cooks in the kitchen with that series. (LOTS of huge New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force spoilers at this link, but I think it encapsulates a lot of feel about those series’ in relation to the Solo kids.) I know so many people who quit reading SW somewhere in the middle of it, and I can’t blame them in the least.

      Though by the end I was so starved for something DIFFERENT that I actually rather liked the Dark Nest trilogy, which isn’t a very popular opinion, either!

      LotF started out well and had a much more sustainable concept in that there were people on both sides we care about, plus it was only (‘only’) 9 books, but I found it went off the rails pretty quickly, particularly with the random focus on the Mandos. (Which was probably better suited to separate books.) They did do a decent job with Jacen, except maybe towards the end… (Though the biggest problem there was probably more with Luke than anything.) And there were other some characters/actions that I felt were totally wasted.

      Basically I’m a big fan of turnover, and the big series’ – whether they’re 9 books or 19 – just tie up certain eras and it’s remarkably easy to get bored with them.

  3. Brava!

    I enjoyed both Daley’s and Crispin’s Han Solo trilogies. They did different things but I thought they both worked, and I was happy with how Crispin worked Daley’s material into her own. And in terms of the “oldest stuff”, the less said about the Lando trilogy the better.

    • Thanks!

      I found the Crispin books a bit overdone. Which, to be fair, is far from a Crispin-only problem, but… Meh. Lando and Splinter are both just,… Ugh.

  4. Good post! I totally agree (except the comics – I’ve never read any so I can’t agree or disagree!).
    I have a special place in my heart for the Corellia series, and all of the Timothy Zhan books that you didn’t mention, but they’re beyond what the ‘casual’ fan would ‘need’, except for maybe Luke and Mara FINALLY making a connection in Vision of the Future. :)
    The whole Yuuzhan Vong saga just about lost me, but Mercy Kill has given me hope for a new generation of books that are more like the first generation!
    (Huh…I JUST noticed the Zhan in Yuuzhan Vong. I wonder if that was meant to sound like Timothy Zhan?!)

    • In my memory, the Corellian trilogy was… okay? Mostly harmless, in any case.

      Not much of a tribute, though Zahn did kind of plant the spark of something bad in/beyond the Unknown Regions with a line or so in one of the Hand of Thrawn books.

  5. I know you said you’re more focused on post-ROTJ, but I’ve been slogging through the prequel era and have enjoyed the flesh they novels add to the movies. After the ROTS novel (now reading – you’re right, it’s very good) I’m looking forward to reading Darth Plagueis. I’ve found James Luceno’s prequel stuff to be the strongest in the prequel era and really adds to the polotical back-story and setup done by Palpatine to orchestrate the end of the jedi (almost) and become Emperor. Seeing as watching Ian MacDiarmid as Palpatine was the best part of the prequels, that i like this comes as no surprise to me.

    More generally, I actually started reading SW books early last year after 25 years of obsession with the movies and video games and have now read most of the ones you recommend. Definitely needed a post like this to help me work out where to get started though. That, and a library card, trips to 2nd hand bookshops and failing those, online shops. Must say I’ve enjoyed most of them, but the Thrawn trilogy was by far the most exicting. Maybe because I started with it and am now getting a bit worn after 30 novels over 18 months? Not sure.

    • Luceno doesn’t do much for me – I was pretty bored by Plagueis. He’s really big with the continuity-mad crowd but I’ve never been particularly impressed.

      And I am totally in favor of libraries and used bookstores, though pretty much everything is in eBook these days, too.

  6. As someone who has read most of the EU, including all of the comics, and is currently in the process of rereading all of it in chronological order, I agree with your recommendations for readers that might be just getting started. Reading the Thrawn books is all anyone really needs before jumping into the books that are coming out this year. And the X-wing books are good, if a bit repetitive.

    I would add that anyone who reads the first four X-Wing novels should also read I, Jedi, because it offers a sort of closure to Corran Horn’s story.

    And for comics I highly recommend Knights of the Old Republic by John Jackson Miller and Legacy by John Ostrander. Those are the most consistently entertaining of all the comics series. There are some other great stories in the comics, but they are generally part of much larger series.

    • I’m of mixed minds on I, Jedi – on the one hand, it’s a better way to deal with the Jedi Academy Trilogy than actually reading the Jedi Academy Trilogy, but on the other hand… Corran kind of annoys me and first-person means you are with Corran ALL THE TIME. So.

  7. Are you familiar enough with any of the children’s books to recommend any of those for beginners?

    I’m clearly not the best judge since the first Star Wars books I read were the Jedi Prince books and I wasn’t scared away.

    • I haven’t read a lot of the kid books, but the series that had the most buzz among adults – that I saw, anyway – were Jude Watson’s Jedi Apprentice books, the Qui-gon and Obi-wan ones. She had a few series after that and it seems like fan enthusiasm waned, but people love the JA stuff.

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