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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Bloodline, Aftermath probably falls in the category of novels to read only if you’ve got nothing better. Otherwise, the Wookieepedia coverage is just as good.
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.
A grown up novel fro the author of the much better YA Star Wars: Lost Stars, Bloodline 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.
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.