A few other books came up in the course of things, and of course you can see some of them in the comments on the original post, but a lot of Zahn fans would rec the Hand of Thrawn duology. That’s two books (Specter of the Past and Visions of the Future) that kind of close out the era that the Thrawn trilogy began. The reason I didn’t include them is because they reference a lot of what happened between these two sets of Zahn books, and a lot of that is… Not very good. Diminishing returns and all that, hence my reasoning behind the last post. But if you liked the Thrawn trilogy, you’ll probably like them, too.
And I don’t know why I forgot Yoda: Dark Rendezvous, a novel set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. I really like this one, though it’s rare for me to even pick up a prequel-era book.
Anyway, I’m not going to use this post to recommend yet more specific novels, because I put almost everything I’m willing to foist onto a newbie in that last post. Instead I’m going to give you a key building block to find what you like on your own without having to try dozens of books at once, as well as what the new movies may mean for the existing EU and a bit of background on the publishing program.
One guide to rule them all. You could read summaries of all the books on a certain wiki*, of course, but if you really want to commit to this thing I’d instead recommend picking up a copy of The Essential Reader’s Companion by Pablo Hidalgo. It’s a reference book that came out late last year and has short descriptions of pretty much all the books published to that point. I know a lot about Star Wars books, but Pablo is one of Lucasfilm’s in-house experts.
(* The Wookieepedia can be a wonderful resource, but it’s also run by people who take the “every sperm is sacred” approach to everything Star Wars. It’s super dense and detail-oriented and I’m pretty sure there are individual entries on there longer than War and Peace. I’m not keeping it from you, I’m just sayin’ – it’s not really geared towards anyone new to all this.)
What about the movies? A significant chunk of these books came out before the prequels, so there will be the occasional inconsistency with them. Because they were both focused diametrically different ends of the timeline back then, this isn’t really a huge deal. (Since Lucasfilm knew they’d be making the prequels when they started the publishing program, they simply blacked out that whole period: No one was allowed to write in it, but there is the occasional reference.) Yes, there are inconsistencies, but they’re not really that major, can often be easily worked around, and my advice is to look at publishing dates and just roll with it.
The sequel trilogy is going to be a much, much bigger deal as regards the EU, as they are taking place in the same time period. We don’t know much about the sequels yet, but it’s all but confirmed (thanks, George) that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford will be making appearances, so that makes it a minimum of about 30 after Return of the Jedi. The latest book in the timeline featuring movie folks is 45 years after A New Hope (yes, this is the dating convention they use, and it drives me batty,) which makes it about 41 after ROTJ.
They’re almost certainly not going to directly adapt anything in the books. I wouldn’t be surprised if they borrow some elements – certain things from the books and comics did make it into the prequels – but all fairly minor stuff.
So where is Lucasfilm? All these books – not just the novels – are produced by the various publishers under permission from Lucasfilm. The publishers license the Star Wars franchise, and a Lucasfilm division called LucasBooks oversees them. When it comes to the adult novels, there have been two publishers thus far: Bantam Spectra and Del Rey.
Bantam Spectra is the one who restarted the Star Wars publishing program in the 90′s. They published Heir to the Empire and other novels until they lost the license to Del Rey, around 1998. (Ironically, this was right around the time that Bantam’s parent company, Bertelsmann, bought Del Rey’s parent company, Random House. So Spectra and Del Rey are now both imprints, or divisions, under the same company. Publishing be crazy.) So, for the most part, the ’90s fiction is published by Bantam, but the ’00s and beyond by Del Rey, although they’re all part of the same continuity so it really doesn’t mean much to the casual reader beyond different logos on the spines.
The end of the Bantam ‘era’ is what gave us Hand of Thrawn. Bantam mostly stuck with trilogies and standalones, and some of their post-Return of the Jedi books were not released in chronological order. (A non-issue now, but confusing at the time!) Del Rey focused on big series’ for post-ROTJ and thus released them in order, with the occasional standalone from a different time period (often prequels in the first few years, to tie in with the movies as they were released.)
[Del Rey actually had the original Star Wars book license back in the 70s/80s, and they published 'nonfiction' (guides and encyclopedias) during the '90s while Bantam had the novels, in addition to reprinting their earlier stuff. Publishing. Be. Crazy.]
Del Rey currently holds the license through about 2014, although the years are a bit nonspecific just because the contracts are actually for a certain number of books so there is some overlap. For instance, Bantam’s official last book, a short story collection called Tales from the New Republic, came out in December 1999, while Del Rey’s first, The Phantom Menace novelization, came out earlier that year, in April.
We don’t know if Lucasfilm will chose to renew their contract with Del Rey again, which they last did in 2008, or if they’ll go with another publisher. Disney just sold their most likely candidate, Hyperion, to Hachette – and Del Rey is a much bigger player than either of them when it comes to adult sci-fi. I don’t think they’re going to stop publishing books or comics – the new movies will get novelizations, certainly – but we’re already seeing more books in ‘safer’ time periods. Reportedly the novels featuring original trilogy folks sell better, but with the generation that was raised on the prequels and The Clone Wars growing up, who knows?
In any case, everything that Bantam and Del Rey do and did with Star Wars is in collaboration with Lucasfilm. They can’t just play willy-nilly with the franchise: Things like authors and storylines and such are discussed and approved. (So no, nothing major ‘slips by’ Lucasfilm or goes in without their knowing, as some fans occasionally claim.) If something is big enough (major character marriages, deaths, births, etc.) they actually had to get permission from George Lucas. Not sure how that works now, with him out of the picture… The sequels were a lot of more a surprise than the prequels were, and that means that a lot of long-term plans at Lucasfilm and beyond are currently in flux.So what counts? Hardcore fans love to argue about ‘canon,’ but I find it beyond tedious. Lucasfilm has a whole system on this, but to break it down for you: Almost everything that’s not a movie counts until a movie or something on a higher level contradicts it. This is a movie based-franchise, so the movies come first. Then TV, like The Clone Wars or the upcoming Rebels. Then everything else.
Personally, I don’t give a crap. If I enjoy a Star Wars story, I enjoy a Star Wars story. If the sequel films directly contract Heir to the Empire and etc., that doesn’t mean we still can’t enjoy Heir to the Empire – or even prefer it, or any other Star Wars novels. Lucasfilm and Disney can own Star Wars, but they don’t own your opinion or view of it. Like whatever you want to like, or don’t. It’s up to you.
A few additional notes:
→ The folks at the blog ElevenThirty-Eight have a series called The Expanded Universe Explains that’s kind of a neat read.
→ The EU is far more than books, though that’s what I’ve focused on. Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics are on exactly the same ground as novels – they are under LFL supervision and they don’t ‘count’ any less – but I simply haven’t read as many of them. A lot of video game stuff has made it into other venues, and the first tabletop roleplaying game from West End Games actually had a huge influence on the early EU, providing a lot of the background information on the galaxy for the authors.
→ Could I do this for any other giant series? Not really. After a sufficient time on Star Wars I kind of swore off other licensed fiction. It’s not so much ‘dance with the one that brung ya’ as it is I lack the interest in any other series with this kind of backlist. That said, I did write something kind of like it on my (earlier) childhood favorite series, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern.
→ If you like Star Wars, but you don’t have the stomach to read a ton of it, I recommend the space opera series Mageworlds by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald. One day I’ll write a full post on it – though Nanci got there first – but for now just let me say they’re in the same wheelhouse as Star Wars, and pretty clearly inspired by it, but they are floor-to-ceiling fantastic. And there are only seven! You’ll want more, but you won’t end unsatisfied. They’re all available in eBook, or as used copies.