Which Star Wars Novels Are Worth Reading?

When Disney took over the Star Wars franchise, they rebooted the novel line. The publication of A New Dawn in September 2014, not only saw the abandonment of the earlier “Expanded Universe,” but also a much tighter integration between the novels and new movies. This had the effect of making me interested in the novels to a degree I hadn’t before.

That said, these remain shared universe fiction, which has never had a reputation for literary merit. For the most part, that reputation holds . With one exception, none of the new Star Wars novels would be worth reading if they weren’t Star Wars–if you took the same characters, story, and prose, and put it all in an original universe. But they are Star Wars, and so some are worth reading for those of us who love the movies and want to know the events happening around them, who those background characters are, or what the major characters get up to when they aren’t on screen.

The question is, if you’re going to read Star Wars novels, which ones should you read? If you’re dedicated enough, you read them all, of course. But if your time is limited or your tastes not quite so focused, which ones are worth your time? Here’s my stab at answering.

Highly Recommended

Lost Stars

The first genuinely interesting novel in the new canon, and the first that’s an unquestionably recommended read. Star Wars: Lost Stars gives us a bit of new information on the post-Return of the Jedi era, mostly regarding the Battle of Jakku, but its good stuff comes in presenting a thoughtful, realistic look at the events of the original trilogy from an Imperial perspective. We get to see the Rebels as terrorists–“If we don’t rebuilt it, the terrorists will have won.”–and the Imperial rank and file as sympathetic true believers.

My only knock against the book is that as a YA novel, it shoehorns in largely uninteresting teenage drama and romance. But that’s easy enough to overlook when the rest contributes so much to a story I thought I already knew inside and out.

Battlefront: Twilight Company

The thing about Star Wars novels is that if you took away the Star Wars branding and set them in an original universe, we fans probably wouldn’t see much value in reading them. Top-shelf scifi they’re typically not. Battlefront: Twilight Company‘s a rare exception.

Not much new in terms of worldbuilding or secrets revealed, but this story of grunts fighting for the Rebellion is just so damn good, with compelling and adult characterization, meaningful emotion, and excellent, if a little workmanlike, prose. If you read just one of the novels in the new Star Wars cannon, make it this one. Though you run the risk, as happened to me, that Alexander Freed’s book will ruin a bit whatever else you read in the series, because it’s that much better than its peers.

Before the Awakening

Oh man, do I wish I’d read this before seeing The Force Awakens. A collection of three short stories set just before the events of the film, Before the Awakening answers a few of the most confusing things about Episode VII while not spoiling the introductions of Rey, Finn, and Poe. Rey’s story tells us why she’s such a good pilot if she spent her life landlocked on a single planet. Poe’s tells us what the Resistance is and its relationship to the New Republic. Finn’s… Okay, there’s not much in Finn’s. But it’s still good.

The book arrived from Amazon a few days before Episode VII’s premier and I held off reading it, fearing spoilers. That was a mistake. I would’ve enjoyed the movie more if I’d read this first.

Recommended With Reservations

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Tarkin

Okay, if a little unfocused. It fills in a good deal of Tarkin’s backstory, but I found it didn’t do much to change my sense of the character or make me appreciate him more. Lucino’s a decent enough writer, but there’s just not enough here to make reading the novel worth the extra time over just reading Tarkin’s entry in Wookieepedia.

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Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

Catalyst is a difficult novel to slot into this list. On the one hand, it’s pretty dull and largely plotless. On the other, having read it before seeing Rogue One, I’m convinced it make me enjoy that movie more than otherwise. Introducing Galen Erso and Orson Krennic, it strengthens the characters and relationship of both men, and so makes the events of Rogue One better resonate. Recommended for that, but not much else.

Not Recommended

Aftermath

The first novel to give us a peek at events between Episodes VI and VII, Star Wars: Aftermath is mostly about dropping hints. It also suffers from a problem common to many of the new books. Namely, because big reveals must be saved for the movies, reveals in the novels are necessarily small. A such, Aftermath spends most of its time following a rather inconsequential story, though it does give a decent sense of what the galaxy looks like immediately following the Emperor’s death. Is it worth reading? Maybe. Though perhaps it would be better, if your interest is mostly in the state of the universe stuff, to just read the “Interludes” spread throughout the book, instead of the whole thing. Still, like BloodlineAftermath probably falls in the category of novels to read only if you’ve got nothing better. Otherwise, the Wookieepedia coverage is just as good.

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Aftermath: Life Debt

The second in the Aftermath trilogy, Aftermath: Life Debt is more of the same. We get to see the liberation of Kashyyyk, but it’s less interesting than it ought to be. We get to see the remnants of the Empire continue to sputter, intrigue, and seek to regain control. But, again, there’s not enough good here in terms of storytelling, characters or prose to make reading 400 pages worth it–unless you really liked Aftermath.

Bloodline

A grown up novel fro the author of the much better YA Star Wars: Lost StarsBloodline ploddingly tells a story that should’ve been better, given the importance of its premise. Episode VII begins with the new that Leia is no longer a senator but instead back in a military role leading “The Resistance” against the “First Order,” and this Resistance is somehow distinct from the Republic Navy. So what gives? That’s the story Bloodline sets out to tell. But it’s just not all that interesting when the events are all out on the table. And while the author handles the tragic love affair in Lost Stars with the necessary YA ham-handed starry-eyedness, when she’s writing adults engaged in what’s supposed to be political intrigue, she lacks the chops to make it at all convincing. Simply put, the book is boring and not worth the time. Better to just read about the events and characters online.

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A New Dawn

The novel that started it all doesn’t have a ton to offer, even for fans of Kaden and Hero from Star Wars Rebels, whose introductions it tells.

Here’s where they meet, in a story about an evil corporate overlord in cahoots with the Empire, and his plan to blow up an inhabited moon to speed up mining operations.

The book took me a while to get through because I just didn’t care much about what was happening. We don’t need to know how Kaen and Hera met, especially given how little both of them in A New Dawn remember their Rebels versions. This reads like it was written by someone who’d never seen the show.

I was on a homicide jury and Michael Slager’s mistrial doesn’t surprise me

Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer, shot Walter Scott several times in the back as Scott, unarmed, fled. We know this because the whole thing’s on video. Now Slager’s temporarily avoided conviction when the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Given what looks, from all the evidence, like a pretty clear-cut case of murder, people on social media expressed bafflement at how anyone couldn’t see Slager’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilt. But if early reports are accurate, this sounds like a case of something I experience first hand. Report indicate that the deadlocking resulted from a single juror refusing to vote for conviction. If true, it fits my experience when I was a juror on a homicide trial–though in the other direction.

This was the summer after my first year of law school. The summons arrived during finals week. During jury selection, I didn’t hide the fact that I was a law student, and the issue only came up once. “Will your legal training get in the way of you applying common sense to interpreting the facts?” an attorney asked. “I certainly hope not,” I said. They passed me through.

The case was a double homicide at a Halloween party. A bunch of kids at a house in Denver, something happened, someone got mad, and a couple of guys started shooting. Two people died and a third was injured. One of the shooters fled shortly after, probably to Mexico. The other, our defendant, got picked up by the police.

The trouble for the prosecution wasn’t in proving that the defendant fired into the partygoers. He admitted as much. The trouble was they didn’t know which gun was his and which was his absconded buddy’s. In other words, it’s possible the defendant fire the shots that hit three people, killing two. It’s also possible he fired all his shots into the air, and the bullets that actually hit came from his friend. The evidence didn’t point either way. Which means reasonable doubt had to win out for the two homicide charges.

My peers on the jury chose me foreman. The first thing I did, once we’d been sent back to reach a verdict, was conduct an anonymous poll. “Not guilty” all around, except one.

The one didn’t disagree on the evidence. She didn’t disagree that it failed to exceed reasonable doubt about the homicides. She acknowledged the prosecution hadn’t made its case. But she voted “guilty” nonetheless because “nice people don’t bring guns to parties.”

That was enough for her to send the defendant to prison. She didn’t care that the jury instruction were clear. That the trial was about whether he killed two people and injured a third. What she cared about was that he carried a gun and young males who carry guns deserve to be in cages.

Fortunately, I was willing to be rather stern with her. I explained in very clear terms what our role was as the jury and just what kind of person she would be if she sent a kid to prison because she didn’t like his lifestyle. I wasn’t going to let her commit an injustice and, with the help of the others in that room, I didn’t. She eventually backed down, but it was close. We found the defendant not guilty of any of the three major charges.

So, if something similar happened with Michael Slager’s trial–if a juror refused to convict a cop, basically no matter what–that doesn’t surprise me. People can be deeply irrational and prejudiced about violence and criminal justice. The jury system has its advantages, but it often means putting serious issues in the hands of people not equipped to deal with them.

Walter Scott deserved better than this.

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The Secrets of America’s Elite, Revealed

America is divided. The coastal elites who have controlled Washington and much of the nation’s economy were, with the 2016 election, resoundingly defeated by a newly invigorated populism, personified in Donald Trump.

As a member of this demoralized elite–I live and work within the Washington, DC Beltway–I recognize that the rest of America has a low opinion of my social class, and also recognize that, when it comes down to it, America, the real America, just doesn’t get us.

So, in an effort to begin healing that divide through increased understanding, I’m taking the risky step of breaking the coastal elite code and revealing our secrets to ordinary Americans.

What follows, made public for the first time, is our core cultural artifact. It contains all of our most cherished beliefs and values and informs the whole of how we view the world. It’s our urtext and our secret handshake.

I will likely get in serious trouble for revealing what I’m about to reveal. But I can’t let that stop me. With an outsider administration ascendant, with populism shaking off its shackles, I feel I have no choice but to do whatever I can to help those now taking the reigns of power better understand the people they’ve overthrown.

So, apprehensive as I may be, I plunge ahead in exposing our secrets. Here goes:

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Dear Rust Belt Americans

Immigrants didn’t take your jobs. Technology and an industrializing world took your jobs. The simple fact is, the skills you have aren’t worth as much to people as they used to be.

Deporting peaceful immigrants, destroying their families and livelihoods, won’t bring back Americans being able earn comfortably middle class jobs via manual labor. But supporting deportations and severely limited immigration does make you callous and cruel and undercuts whatever claim to sympathy you might have. 

Instead of insisting the rest of the country owes you the anomalous and now impossible economy of the 1950s and 60s, maybe just try instead moving to where the jobs are?

The Contrasting Visual Styles of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes

Comparing what DC’s doing with their cinematic universe to what Marvel’s up to isn’t just about critics’ reviews or quality of scripts. Marvel has the leg up, at least right now, on both accounts. But there’s a more interesting divide, one that shows a fundamentally different approach to how a comic should make the transition to screen.

Let’s start with DC. Their style, so vivid in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, goes back to Zack Snyder’s first comic book adaptation, 300, and his first DC adaptation, Watchmen. Say what you will about their other features, but both are visually extraordinary and, more important to the central difference between DC and Marvel, both look like comic books. This isn’t just obsessive use of comic panels in composing shots, though that’s part. It’s that these movies, wherever they’re set, aren’t our world. They happen in one of the weird places that exist somewhere else. The landscape isn’t ours, nor the architecture. The colors are “wrong.” The sounds, too. These movies take the visual language of their source material and make it move.

DC continued this with Snyder’s first two movies formally in the new cinematic universe. Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have heavy color grading, stark lighting, conspicuously framed shots, and so on. The latter movie in particular feels often artificial, not in a negative sense (though some might argue it is a negative), but in the way that pencil and ink are artificial, that the art of someone like Jae Lee is artificial compared to the photographic style of Alex Ross or Timothy Bradstreet. The movie is explicitly designed to look like another world. It’s explicitly designed to look like a Batman comic book.

We might summarize DC’s approach as bringing comic books to the screen. The trailers for Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad look like it’s an approach they’re sticking with.

Marvel goes in the opposite direction. The Marvel Studios movies are shot to look like our world. In fact, they’re shot without much of a recognizable visual style, and they tend to attach directors not known for visual style, as good as they might be in other ways. Setting aside the few films that explicitly take place elsewhere (Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor movies), if you pulled the superheroes and the scifi tech out any given shot, you’d likely have no way of knowing you were watching a genre movie.

So if DC’s cinematic universe is intended to look like comic panels brought to life, Marvel’s style is showing what our world would look like if it had superheroes in it.

This of course fits each publisher. Marvel’s thing, going back to Stan Lee, is to present its heroes as regular people with super powers. DC’s characters — at least the most famous ones with the maybe exception of Batman — are instead creatures of myth, demigods not at all like mortal men.

This divide means the two universes are keyed to telling different sorts of stories, though I think Marvel’s approach better allows for the integration of cosmic level characters than DC’s allows for street level, personal stuff. Regardless, it’ll be fun to see how much this style continuity continues.

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Elites vs. the Working Class

Here’s two common “sides” in the argument about the current cultural and political showdown and divide between elites and the working class:

  1. Elites are unjustifiably condescending toward and dismissive of the working classes and don’t recognize how much their preferred policies may have made things more difficult for them, and this has legitimately angered the working classes.
  2. Segments of the working classes possess cultural pathologies that have hurt and continue to hurt them, pathologies that are not the fault of the elites, and some reactions of the working classes to the anger the elites have provoked—supporting and voting for certain candidates and public policies—are irrational, ignorant, stupid, bigoted, or hateful, and will in the near and long term do more harm to the working classes (as well as everyone else) than any of the policies the elites have supported or would prefer, or any of the policies and behaviors by the elites that have angered the working classes in the first place.

They’re generally presented as mutually exclusive. But both of these points can simultaneously be true—and, likely, both are true. To admit the truth of one does not, and should not, immediately entail denying the truth of the other.

Marginalizing the Marginalized

There was an argument a time back that said the best way to kill the religious right’s political influence was to let it nominate a presidential candidate and then get creamed in the general election. That’d show that there’s no there there, and then the country could safely ignore their feet stomping. (Instead cosmopolitanism triumphed in the culture war, which was overall good, but has also lead to quite a bit of carrying-it-too-far-ness.)

Could the same thing happen with the segment of the low-education, nationalist, white working class that’s gotten its irrational and childish way with the (probable) nomination of Trump? His campaign looks headed for an epic defeat, and one utterly of its own making. His support comes largely from a shrinking demographic, one the country is slowly leaving behind, for reasons both bad and good.

I’m pessimistic, because this is politics and politics is always a source of pessimism. But the values that represent the core of Trump’s support represent a massive threat to America, to our way of life, our economic future, and the principles at the heart of the country’s founding. If Trump goes down as spectacularly as it appears likely he will, the best that could come of it would be the further marginalization of what increasingly looks like a rightly marginalized voice for a set of beliefs and values America would be far better off without.

Fingers crossed.

Star Wars: Bloodline Isn’t Very Good, but It’s Star Wars, so That’s Okay

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Fans hold novels set in their favorite universes to a different standard than they would original works. At least, I assume they do, because if they don’t, people’s standards for quality fiction are even lower than I thought.

What I mean is, what passes for an “I’ll totally read this” book when it’s got “Star Wars” on the front and Star Wars characters and locations inside can get away with shoddier plotting, weaker dialog, and less polished prose. For me, at any rate.

If Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Bloodline hadn’t been Star Wars, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place, and I surely wouldn’t have finished it.

Not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. It’s just okay. But there are so many really great books out there I haven’t read that “just okay” isn’t enough place it above other titles in the reading pile. Except, again, that it’s Star Wars and covers events I want to know about, and has characters I want to spend more time with. So it gets a bit of a thumb on the scale.

Still, it could’ve been more. Alexander Freed’s Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company, the best book in the new canon, and by a country mile, managed the kind of nuanced and grown-up prose and characterization that makes Bloodline read like the work of a precocious high schooler.

Bloodline tells Leia’s story, as she slouches through a dull political career suddenly made livelier by uncovered secrets, unexpected betrayal, and a fall from grace. But the whole thing has a typically juvenile feel, like this is how an unworldly teenager thinks politics works or spying missions play out or adults talk to each other. There’s a lack of psychological plausibility, a lack of realistic emotional expression, and a lack of meaningful danger. And it’s all packaged in workmanlike prose that dulls the edge of whatever minor edge there may be.

Gray’s other Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, showed many of the same problems—though it was a good deal better than Bloodline. But that was intentionally pitched as a young adult book. Bloodline has the larger trim size and smaller type of a grown-up novel, yet it’s equally YA.

So, while not terrible, and certainly never outright boring, Bloodline gives little reason to actually read it, outside of that big Star Wars logo on the front. Which, I admit, for me, is reason enough.

The Bittersweet Abundance of Our New Star Wars Era

I was reading news about the casting of the new Han Solo movie and it struck me. As of December last year, we’ve fully entered an era of Star Wars abundance. An original Star Wars movies every year. Star Wars on television. Books and comics advancing the canon.

That’s good. Wonderful. We’re not just staring down the firehose new Star Wars, but what we’re getting is good. Lucas is out of the picture and the franchise is in the hands of people who grew up with it, love it, and–here’s where Lucas stumbled–understand why we all love it.

But I’ve got three kids, of ages where they’re just dipping their toes into what I hope will be a lifelong love affair with the franchise, and something about this abundance–irrationally perhaps–makes me a little sad. Because abundance means their relationship with Star Wars, assuming they get hooked, will be in important ways different from my own. Part of the magic of those movies, especially before the still-birthed prequels, was their scarcity. You got three films. That was it, really. (Because I’m not counting the inconsistent, high-gloss fan fiction of the Expanded Universe.)

It’s similar to how unlimited streaming changes the relationship to music. I grew up saving my allowance or tiny, part-time paychecks for an album, then buying it, and then listening to it over and over and over, because it’s what I had. This created a relationship to the music, a permanence of memory maybe, that won’t happen when you can listen to anything any time at zero marginal cost, and so wander more.

Part of my Star Wars experience is long term and frequent immersion in the original trilogy. Learning it inside and out. Memorizing it, basically. With a new movie every year, one or more TV shows, etc., that won’t happen. Which, even though the abundance is wonderful, also makes me a little sad. Will they have every line of every movie memorized? Of course not. Why would they?

Now is the best time ever to be a Star Wars fan. No doubt. But it’s a different kind of fandom, too. Abundance is awesome. But it’s not without effects. In the case of Star Wars, look with bittersweet anticipation on a future where my kids have so much of it that no single movie is a special and central as those original three were for me.

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What the Star Wars Prequels Did Right

They’re terrible movies. Let’s get that out of the way. But watching The Force Awakens again, and then again the divine Original Trilogy, I got this weird and unsettling flash of appreciation for something Lucas had done in those stillbirths of CGI and suffering actors and dialog usually confined to airport novels written by ex-advertising executives. He built a universe and showed it to us.

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This is a place people live.

Of course, he’d already done a bit of that with the Originals. We had an Empire and its Rebels. We had spectacular aliens and even more spectacular spaceships. But what we saw of it was only so much as needed to give the characters somewhere to be. Very little came off as existing without them. Luke’s farm sits like as movie set in the middle of nowhere. Alderaan is just a blue sphere until it’s not. Hoth’s a Rebel base and nothing else, and Dagobah is Yoda’s hut and a murky pond.

Not that we don’t get tastes. Tatooine in Episode IV has Jawas, a pass through Mos Eisley, and that wonderful cantina. Cloud City in Episode V features hallways with doors behind which people presumably live and earn a living. Jabba’s palace and Endor in Episode VI show denizens up to things unrelated to the struggle for a new Republic.

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But those are small. Just tastes. The prequels gave us the whole meal. Planets and citizens. Civilizations from screen corner to screen corner. We knew about this stuff, some of it, going in, because we could imagine it in the Originals’ lacuna and had been told about it in novels and comics and games. Still, the prequels widened, radically, the scope of Star Wars.

That’s what I missed from The Force Awakens. It’s a great movie, a return to form, a revitalization and a demonstration of faith on Disney’s part that they get it, that they’re fans, too. But it’s a return to form, too, in narrowing that scope. Again we’re in a universe of isolated sets, of points of light in otherwise wilderness. Even Maz’s castle seems to exist without neighbors. There are no cities in The Force Awakens, save for a single shot, and only two villages, if we can call Niima Outpost that, and if we count Lor’s tiny settlement, which we only witness dying and never living. The wide angles of the prequels have become tight.

Perhaps this was intentional, meant to remind of us A New Hope, as so much else does, or to keep us focus on fresh faces as a way to establish them in our consciousness the way Luke and Leia and Han are. The fresh worlds will come. But after the expanse of the prequels and then the Clone Wars TV show, The Force Awakens feels a little small.

The prequels feel big.

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