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Which Star Wars Novels Are Worth Reading?


An ongoing list of the new canon books I’ve read, the ones I’d read again, and the ones I wish I’d never read in the first place.

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 for each of the new Star Wars novels I’ve read.


A New Dawn

By John Jackson Miller. The novel that started it all doesn’t have a ton to offer, even for fans of Kaden and Hera 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 Kaden and Hera met, especially given how little both of them in A New Dawn resemble their Rebels versions. This reads like it was written by someone who’d never seen the show.

Recommendation: Skip it.

Aftermath

By Chuck Wendig. 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 Emperors 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.

Aftermath: Life Debt

By Chuck Wendig. The second in the Aftermath trilogy, Aftermath: Life Debt is more of the same. We get to see the liberation of Kashyyyk, but its 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, theres not enough good here in terms of storytelling, characters or prose to make reading 400 pages worth it unless you really liked Aftermath.

Battlefront: Twilight Company

By Alexander Freed. 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 sci-fi they’re typically not. Battlefront: Twilight Company’s a rare exception.

Not much new in terms of world-building 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 its that much better than its peers.

Before the Awakening

By Greg Rucka. 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. Okay, theres not much in Finns. But its 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 Id read this first.

Bloodline

By Claudia Gray. A grown up novel fro the author of the much better YAStar Wars: Lost Stars,Bloodline ploddingly tells a story that shouldve 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? Thats the storyBloodline sets out to tell. But its just not all that interesting when the events are all out on the table. And while the author handles the tragic love affair inLost Stars with the necessary YA ham-handed starry-eyedness, when shes writing adults engaged in whats 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.

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

By James Luceno. Catalyst is a difficult novel to slot into this list. On the one hand, its pretty dull and largely plotless. On the other, having read it before seeing Rogue One, Im 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 ofRogue One better resonate. Recommended for that, but not much else.

Lost Stars

By Claudia Gray. The first genuinely interesting novel in the new canon, and the first thats 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 thats easy enough to overlook when the rest contributes so much to a story I thought I already knew inside and out.

Tarkin

By James Luceno. 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 theres 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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Star Wars: Lost Stars — A terrific Star Wars story dragged down by unfortunate YA-ness


Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Lost Stars caps off my reading of the five novels in the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series. On the whole, they’ve been quite good — and much better than the old EU stuff. Part of that, I’m sure, is their canon-ness. These books — and I know this is silly — are about what actually happened in the Star Wars universe. The EU, on the other hand, always had a whiff of fan fiction.

Gray’s novel is, on the one hand, a terrific look at the events of the three movies (plus a few years more) from a different and fun direction. But, I really wish it hadn’t been YA. Or rather, I wish it hadn’t been YA romance.


This is, I’ll admit, the first YA “boy-and-girl-fall-for-each-other-and-run-into-troubles” book I’ve read. Though I take it that genre’s kind of a thing among a pretty big set of readers. (Twilight and all the other supernatural romances fall into this category, I guess?) But, so far as I can tell, what it meant in practice is that we got basically a war story with a bunch of teen drama and teen romance shoehorned in, both of which were at best boring.

And, while the events of the novel were a ton of fun to read about, the two main characters, Thane and Ciena, were so totally flat, so totally without interesting features, that I didn’t care a jot about their budding love or tortured loyalties. Maybe that’s a romance thing. That you want the readers to be able to imagine themselves as one of the two leads, as so you have to make them sort of empty vessels and totally non-threatening, so there’s nothing where the reader’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to imagine myself as thatguy or girl.” For someone who didn’t find the drama/romance compelling, though, the flatness leaves the characters feeling, well, flat.

But, anyway, that aside, I quite enjoyed Lost Stars. Seeing how Imperials reacted to things like the destruction of Alderaan and then of the first Death Star was pretty neat. As was the Battle of Jakku.

I just wish it hadn’t been a novel about kids acting and talking like really bland kids.

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


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.



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A Quick Take on Peter F. Hamilton’s “The Reality Dysfunction”

Summer before last, I finished the Mass Effect trilogy and it left me wanting more space opera. I’d read a ton of science fiction in high school and early college, but then drifted into crime novels. Mass Effect gave me a newfound appetite for spaceships, galactic mysteries, and epic storytelling.

This took a bit of research, given how out of touch I was with the space opera genre. But I found Peter F. Hamilton, decided his Night’s Dawn trilogy was the place to start, and ordered The Reality Dysfunction. That was in July 2012. I finished the book this week. It’s a long book, but not that long.

Thing is, between starting my first Hamilton novel and finishing it, I read five-and-a-half more of his books: the two books of the Commonwealth Saga, the Void Trilogy, and the first part of Great North Road. In fact, from the time I picked up The Reality Dysfunction and today, Hamilton has accounted for a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. I’m hooked. I’ll likely polish off his entire corpus soon enough.

This book has everything that makes Hamilton great. Amazing world-building, economically-defined but still intriguing characters, terrific plotting. The pacing’s good, too, if you aren’t turned off by setting detail. (As a guy who grew up reading fat RPG books obsessively, I dig the stuff.)

But Hamilton made a poor decision in structuring the book, and it’s what caused me to take so long to finish it. While his later books feature lots of characters, he puts the focus on typically three or four. In The Reality Dysfunction, I lost count. Often, a lengthy section will be from the point of view of a character introduced for that section and then never seen again.

Anyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy — which, again, are what prompted my plunge into Hamilton’s books — knows that beyond anything else those games worked because of their characters. No matter how strange events got, they were grounded in a group of people you came to care about. Hamilton’s later books are the same. After finishing the Commonwealth Saga, I didn’t realize how much I missed some of the characters until they reappeared in the The Dreaming Void and it felt like bumping into old friends.

That’s what’s missing from The Reality Dysfunction. The world is excellent, the plot engaging, and I want to know how it all ends. But it reads like a series of events instead of the experiences of people. We’re not with any particular character enough to feel attached. Which made the book easy to drift away from. I liked it while I was reading it, but when I put it down for something else (a habit I appear completely stuck with), I didn’t feel much draw to go back. It’s one thing to find out what happens next. But what makes a book un-put-downable is wanting to find out what happens next to characters you care about.

Buy The Reality Dysfunction from Amazon

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Some Crime Fiction Recommendations

A friend asked me for a list of crime fiction he should read. Then he suggested I turn it into a blog post. So here goes. The list isn’t comprehensive. Nor is it a bunch of hidden gems. If you’re a crime and mystery fan, you’ve probably read these already. It’s more just the works that have defined the genre for me. Everything and everyone on here is worth reading, I promise.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

This short story is where it all begins. Wilkie Collins gets credit for inventing the mystery novel with The Woman in White and The Moonstone, but Poe invented the detective story. C. Auguste Dupin is the model for every detective to come, including Sherlock Holmes. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is short and great and atmospheric—and very weird. One of the most memorable, if a bit nonsensical, “solutions” ever. Poe’s other Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” is much shorter—and much worse.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Holmes’s adventures really begin with two short novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. But those pale compared to the short stories. So start with this first collection, and read as many as you enjoy. (Which means you’ll likely read them all.) Raymond Chandler dismissed Holmes as “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue,” and he’s partially right. The mysteries are often silly, but they’re always intriguing. The appeal of Holmes, for me, is mostly the atmosphere of the stories, but what atmosphere it is. These stories are fantastic.

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

I’m not a fan of Christie, for reasons Raymond Chandler expresses far better than I could. I find most of her novels trite, the characters dull, and the crimes and their solutions too neat. She writes crimes that have never happened and never could happen. And her novel lack the atmosphere to get away with it like Poe and Doyle can. In short, Christie’s books are boring.

But And Then There Were None rocks. You’ll want to read it in one sitting. Great setup, great conclusion. And no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot in sight. Yes, the book still suffers a bit from being maybe too precise in it’s happenings, but that’s forgivable.

It’s also a perfect mystery, one of only two on this list.

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man

There’s a reason I named one of my children after Hammet and another after one of his characters. Of the major, early hardboiled authors, he’s the finest writer. He didn’t write many novels. All of them are worth reading.

The Maltese Falcon kicks all kinds of ass. Sam Spade’s an icon for a reason, and this is very likely the best MacGuffin story there is. Red Harvest gets called Hammet’s best novel. There’s little mystery, and what there is ends up solved in the first few chapters. Then it’s just double dealing, brutality, and tough guy (and gal) dialog like nobody’s business. Plus, Red Harvest features the Continental Op, my favorite of the hardboiled detectives. (Sorry, Marlowe!) The Thin Man gets a mention because it’s funny as hell and has the best married couple in all of literature.

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Dashiell Hammett invented the hardboiled detective. Chandler made him unforgettable. Hammett’s prose is simple and straight and wonderful in a Hemingway sort of way. Chandler’s is lush and funny— and has better similes than anyone’s ever written, except for maybe Roger Ebert.

Philip Marlowe is one of literature’s great creations. Like Hammett, Chandler didn’t write many novels, and all of them are worth reading. The Big Sleep is his first, and introduces Marlowe. The Long Goodbye is his last (finished) work, and many consider it his best. I may agree, but it’s also quite a bit different from his usual stuff. So I recommend starting withFarewell, My Lovely. It’s probably the best mystery of the bunch.

James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity

So far, everything on this list has been a mystery. Cain wrote straight up crime. Both are stories of bad men getting involved with bad woman and things going south very quickly. Cain writes spare prose and wonderful dialog.

Ross MacDonald, The Chill

MacDonald is the heir to Hammett and Chandler. His Lew Archer (named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon) is more melancholy than his predecessors, and MacDonald’s books are more novel-ly. His mysteries focus on corruption within families and rot hiding under the facade of high society. The Chill is widely regarded as the best in the series.

Ed McBain, Cop Hater

I chose Cop Hater because it’s the first in the 87th Precinct series. But, really, you could grab any of them (there are a lot) and be good. With this book, McBain invented the modern police procedural. His books feature fun mysteries, a terrific and huge cast of characters, and the best dialog this side of Elmore Leonard.

John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

I’m maybe cheating by putting this here because it’s espionage instead of strictly crime. But it’s also the second of only two perfect mysteries I’ve ever read—see above for the first—and it’s goddamn amazing. Le Carré is a hell of a writer. Plus it’s a book about bad people doing bad things and destroying each other in the process, which is crime fiction’s M.O.

James Ellroy, The LA Quartet

Crime fiction doesn’t get better than this. Hell, fiction doesn’t get better than this. Ellroy is my favorite author, period. And I’d argue he’s not only our best living writer (in any genre) but as quintessentially an American writer as they come.

The first book in the quartet is The Black Dahlia. It’s also the least mind-blowing. (But still mind-blowing.) Ellroy’s ambition and obsession choke every page—and the books only become more ambitious and obsessive as they go along. The prose evolves heavily, too, something most authors don’t try—and fewer still are capable of. But Ellroy updates his style with every book—and his prose in the latter half of the quartet is utterly unique. Most think he reaches his peak in L.A. Confidential, the third book. I prefer White Jazz, the fourth.

The L.A. Quartet are perhaps the four most masculine books you’ll ever find, and not at allin a glamorizing way. They’re about men destroyed by their masculinity, by their obsession with—but also power over and powerlessness in the face of—women. They’re violent, emotional, and angry books And, on top of all that, they’re incredible mysteries.

Even if it means reading nothing else on this list, read all four of these books..

Elmore Leonard, [Really Anything]

Leonard’s an easy writer to underestimate. His prose isn’t flashy, and his books aren’t deep. But I challenge any author to write as smoothly and elegantly. Reading Leonard is like watching one of those world class chef cooking shows and thinking, “Boy, that looks pretty easy.’ Then you try it.

I’m in awe of Leonard’s craft. And nobody writes better dialog. It’s difficult to pick a single book to recommend— in part because they’re all pretty much the same book. Take one or two good people, mix them up with a lot of bad and stupid people, throw in one or two bad and smart people, and have them all get into a lot of trouble. He’s written some very fine westerns, but you want his crime stuff. I love City Primeval. Lots of people think Killshot is his best. But grab anything from the middle period (i.e., stay away from his last five or six books unless you’re a serious fan) and you’ll love it.


This essay originally appeared at AaronRossPowell.com. I don’t just recommend fiction. I write the stuff, too. If you’d like a free ebook of my short story collection Animus, you can join by very low volume mailing list.

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“The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was a random find. I’d returned a handful of books to the library and was looking for something to listen to in the car. The title of this book caught my eye and, at only five CDs in length, I decided to give it a try.

The introduction is intriguing. Keller, a Methodist minister in New York City, sets himself the mission of breeding doubt for both the skeptic and the believer. As he rightly points out, even when doubt doesn’t lead to a renunciation of one’s position, wrestling with it — and understanding the arguments for it — will make that position stronger and more nuanced. In other words, you can often learn more about your own views by reading those who disagree with you.

Unfortunately, Keller’s book, both when he seeks to undermine skeptical arguments and when he tries to buoy Christianity, are thin. No atheist even moderately well versed in the philosophical basis for non-belief will find anything convincing, or even troubling, inThe Reason for God.

For example, Keller begins by tackling the objection that the evidence for Christianity (or God — Keller doesn’t often distinguish the two) is lacking and that the burden is on the Christian to prove his claim. Keller’s response is that all statements about what is true are predicated upon underlying assumptions. Thus, the skeptic is as “faithful” in his beliefs as the Christian. It’s just that what they have faith in differs. Keller extends this by defining religion so broadly (it’s any system of belief about how we ought to live our lives) that he can therefore label the skeptic’s views religious. Once the atheist is seen as just another religious believer, how is he to say his religion is better than the Christian’s?

The trouble is, Keller’s radical epistemological move opens him up to “true” meaning anything anyone wants it to. Clearly, as a Christian and as a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, this is unacceptable to him. His escape is to fall into a trap common to liberal Christians: he turns to C.S. Lewis. In arguing against the problem of evil, for instance, Keller quotes Lewis’s claim that, because we seem to have a universal moral sense, there must be a God who gave it to us. This tactic only works — and arguably still doesn’t — when there are no alternative explanations for human morality outside of God. But the mere fact that I can respond, “Nope, it wasn’t God, but evolution that gave us our moral sense,” means Lewis (and, therefore, Keller) fail. The burden is again shifted to Keller to demonstrate why his, and not my, explanation is the legitimate one.

Throughout the book, one gets the sense of Keller as a man who can’t really understand why anyone would reject his belief system. Thus the reasons he gives for such rejection are presented as obviously shallow because, if they had depth, they would mean genuine trouble for his Christian faith. Keller was born into a Christian family, was raised in the Christian faith, and never really deviated from it. Christianity is all he knows, and it is clear he can’t see how that faith looks to the legitimate outsider.

There are stronger arguments for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity than Keller presents. The Reason for God, then, is at best a friendly book for Christians who want to feel a little better about holding their faith. At worst, it is an example of why American Christianity is so defensive against the weight of the emergent atheist movement.