(Originally published Sept. 25, 2017)
April 25, 2014, marked a new era in Star Wars fandom. It was the day that Lucasfilm, now under overlords Disney, declared everything but a few preceding pieces of Star Wars content “Legends.” In other words, content Disney wants to continue to make money off of, so long as it doesn’t impede its ability to make money off more new content.
Many of us fans grew up with dozens of Star Wars video games and novels, most of which were high-quality experiences that deepened the lore of the Star Wars universe set by the original trilogy (and to a lesser extent, by the prequels). But with all that relegated to Legends, it was time for Disney to continue the film franchise and its own take on new content free of the shackles of decades of old supplemental reading materials.
This, for some fans, myself included, was bittersweet. Gone was the excitement of the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, a Star Wars story perhaps tenfold better than the original films. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to so many beloved characters, such as Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, and Shadows of the Empire’s heroic Dash Rendar. On the other hand, we’ve gotten to see Han, Luke, Leia and our other friends from the original films back in action on the big screen — something we’d come to believe would never happen again, relegated to dreams, much like the beleaguered Ghostbusters 3.
Once Disney authorized more brand-spanking-new Star Wars novels, comics, TV shows and video games, it was only a matter of time until the waters were really, really muddied by a mix of outstanding, so-so and OMFG-please-get-out-of-here-with-this stories.
In fact, as of the time I’m putting this out, there have been a whopping 18 novels released in the new canon — this does not even include new story content considered canon from the Marvel comic books, Rebels on Disney XD or any junior novels or video games. (The Clone Wars, the animated series that predates Disney’s takeover, actually did remain canon and is one of the best Star Wars-related pieces of content ever made, by the way.)
OK, so where do I start?
As I mentioned, not all of the new stuff is great. Heck, some of it isn’t even good, and I’m just about the biggest Star Wars fanboy this side of the forest moon of Endor. Below is my recommendation of which books fans should read. They are not in order of what’s best, but instead they are in chronological order (by Star Wars timeline, not release date). It’s worth noting that, although Legends content goes way back to before the time of the Old Republic, the current canon starts at Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the earliest novel begins 22 years before the Battle of Yavin (BBY).
If you’re interested in more discussion about why I didn’t like the other books (including that one at 22 BBY), I’ll provide that even farther down the page.
Read these (the audiobooks are also nice, with great Star Wars sound effects and John Williams scores):
- Dark Disciple (19 BBY): If your favorite part of the prequels was that a lot of Jedi were still alive, this book might be for you. Also, it’s for fans of The Clone Wars because fan-favorite Asajj Ventress is explored here as an actual character with emotions and varied motivations for her actions. Although the story focuses on Jedi Knight Quinlan Vos, there’s plenty of Obi-Wan and other staples from the franchise weaved throughout, and Count Dooku serves as the main antagonist.
- Lords of the Sith (14 BBY): Rarely have we ever gotten a glimpse of Emperor Palpatine in action, and never like this. Palpatine and Darth Vader head to Ryloth to suppress a Rebel cell, and their relationship is tested throughout the story. I can’t think of any other Star Wars material that better explores Anakin Skywalker’s inner struggle between the Jedi he used to be and the Sith he has become.
- Tarkin (14 BBY): When an Imperial asset is attacked by Rebels, the Emperor tasks Wilhuff Tarkin and Darth Vader with investigating the incident and bringing those responsible to justice. Not only does this book further develop the complete personal history of the man we have come to know as Grand Moff Tarkin, but it’s also a buddy cop story with Vader as the sidekick.
- Lost Stars (11 BBY to 5 ABY): If I had to recommend a single story in the new canon to start with, it would be Lost Stars. There are two reasons for this: First, the character development is such that I can’t name any two other original characters in the new canon who I came to care so much about. Second, this book contextualizes everything else going on in Star Wars since the end of the Clone Wars all the way up to the Battle of Jakku. It lends insight into what the Empire and Rebel Alliance were up to through the eyes of normal human beings aligned with each side.
- Heir to the Jedi (0 ABY): I really enjoyed this story, set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. By the time we meet Luke on Hoth, he’s not an accomplished Jedi Knight, but he’s obviously learned a few things about the Force on his own even before meeting Yoda. This book explores that journey, Luke’s struggle with taking on the identity of a hero of the Rebellion, and there’s even a bit of a romantic interest for our hero (who isn’t his sister, thankfully). This book feels less heavy-handed than what some of the other authors have done and reads a bit like a swashbuckling adventure tale.
- Bloodline (Just before Episode VII): This book has been described as Star Wars House of Cards, and for good reason. It’s about the behind-the-scenes politics of the New Republic and rebuilding a system of democracy after the Empire. But of course, there are factions along the political spectrum, and Leia, Mon Mothma and other former leaders of the Rebel Alliance try to navigate the waters carefully before it all comes tumbling down again. Further complicating matters is the fact that it was never made public that Leia was Darth Vader’s daughter — until it becomes the ultimate political attack ad.
Don’t read this scum and villainy
OK, apparently you’ve ignored my warnings, and you’re interested in these other books. Fine. Here’s why I can’t bring myself to like them:
- Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel (22 to 17 BBY): If you really find that Rogue One left you loving the characters of either Galen Erso or Orson Krennic, and you want to learn more about their backstories, this book has a ton of that. There’s also some interesting content about the Geonosians from the prequels and how they contributed to the construction of the first Death Star. But overall, this story felt inconsequential to the larger Star Wars picture.
- Ahsoka (18 to 17 BBY): I love Ahsoka; she’s one of my favorite characters in Star Wars. But this novel does absolutely nothing to advance her character’s story, partially because the author couldn’t do much outside the context of Rebels, as her fate at the end of that series is not yet known. There are some interesting interactions here with Bail Organa, but nothing worth wasting time on the rest of the book for. Just watch Rebels, and you’ll know well enough what became of Ahsoka after she left the Jedi Order at the end of The Clone Wars.
- A New Dawn (11 BBY): This book serves as a prequel to Rebels, introducing us more to the backstories of both Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus. Unfortunately, it’s pretty boring, and it features a Vader-clone, half-machine, half-man villain named Count Vidian (wasn’t Grievous already that rip-off?). We also get our first chronological introduction to Rae Sloane, who will play some import in the new canon down the road but does not much here. The only reason to read this book is to learn that Kanan Jarrus is really Caleb Dume, presumably the lone surviving youngling from the Jedi temple slaughter in Episode III. (And there, now you know.)
- Battlefront: Twilight Company (6 BBY to 3 ABY): Ugh. Just no. The characters and events surrounding them are too tired and vanilla to even matter. Only for super fans of Nien Nunb, who makes a cameo.
- Thrawn (around 2 BBY): One of my favorite characters and authors from Legends really let me down here. This book just seems to serve as fluff to add more lore to Grand Admiral Thrawn, Governor Pryce and Colonel Yularen, presumably so they seem like more than minor antagonists in Rebels, which was severely lacking of Vader in its third season. Although we learn some about Thrawn’s cunning and rise through the Imperial ranks, the more interesting story is probably about his time in the Unknown Regions (we know from the Aftermath trilogy that Thrawn helped with Palpatine’s knowledge of wild space beyond the Outer Rim), but we don’t get that here. I also couldn’t get out of my mind just how viciously good of a villain and successor to Palpatine that Thrawn was in Zahn’s now-Legends Thrawn trilogy.
- Battlefront II: Inferno Squad (0 ABY): This book is actually readable, which is a huge improvement from the first video game tie-in, Twilight Company. Just as the sequel game is expected to be better than its predecessor, the lead-in novel is a huge improvement. Iden Versio and her team are interesting characters, but in the end, I couldn’t help but feel like their mission to infiltrate the remnants of Saw Gerrera’s Partisans meant much. However, if you plan to play the video game, this prequel content will help establish additional context as to the main character’s motivations.
- Aftermath (Between Episodes VI and VII): Hands-down the worst Star Wars thing ever written. Not only does it jump around from one unimportant event to the next, but also Chuck Wendig introduced a brand new cast of characters that I never cared about. It’s interesting that Snap Wexley (who was introduced as a very minor background character in The Force Awakens) has a bit of lifelong history with the Resistance and family history with the Rebellion, but it’s not interesting enough to justify the rest of the words on these pages.
- Aftermath: Life Debt (right after the first the Aftermath, duh): More garbage from Wendig. All you really need to know is Han and Chewie liberate Kashyyyk while Wendig’s new characters no one cares about lend some help, and everyone in the New Republic is still trying to hunt down the remnants of the Empire, led primarily by Admiral Rae Sloane Why the new canon creates a female character named Rae while also making a female character named Rey the star of the new film trilogy is another mystery entirely. It’s unnecessarily a potential point of confusion for newer fans.
- Aftermath: Empire’s End (after the second Aftermath, 5 ABY): Finally, this terrible trilogy comes to an end. The third book is much better than the first two, but in reality the dark character of Gallius Rax serves as a red herring as to the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke and not much more. We find out, after pages and pages of nonsense, that Palpatine had planned a contingency — the destruction of the Empire at Jakku was its punishment for failure. Using star charts of the Unknown Regions (obtained by Palpatine from Thrawn), Sloane and Hux set out to find the dark presence that Palpatine sensed there and establish The First Order. (Note: None of that interesting stuff is what this book is about; all of that stuff is just the epilogue, sadly.)
Calculating the jump to hyperspace…
I do my best to keep up, but you may have noticed there’s a whole bunch of content coming out any given month. These are the newer new canon books I am still reading, so they weren’t factored into the above lists:
- Rebel Rising (13 to 0 BBY): This is Jyn Erso’s story from the time Saw Gerrara plucks her out of her hiding spot in Rogue One up until we meet her again as an adult in that film.
- Leia: Princess of Alderaan (3 BBY): Leia is 16, she has her first kiss, hopefully it’s not a relative.
- Phasma (Prior to Episode VII): Captain Phasma has a hidden past, and someone is desperate to find out what it is.
From a certain point of view
I don’t deny that I bring a certain level of bias with me to reading the new canon. I have a special place in my heart for the Legends of yesteryear. But I deeply believe that Legends is stronger than the whole of what we have so far under Disney. While some of that is the fault of more recent authors (Wendig especially), the new canon is much more constrained than the old. Now, a writer has to be careful not to step on the toes of more films, more TV episodes, more video games and more comic books than before.
Furthermore, the new canon has shrunk the universe to a smaller period of time. Because there are future-timeline films in the works, the new books can’t look forward, and that often means they don’t include our favorite characters (and, spoilers: they wouldn’t include Han ever again if they did, a character who played heavily in Legends’ forward-looking stories). At the very least, I do hope Disney adopts some older (years BBY-wise) Legends stories into official canon because they’ve not explored anything predating the prequel films anyway. There’s especially a lot of great Sith lore there, including characters such as Darth Plagueis, Palpatine’s mentor.
Finally, I think the new canon glorifies, or at least vindicates, the Empire way too much and way too frequently. It’s OK to see the Empire through the lens of an Imperial who may have been brainwashed into service after growing up knowing nothing but Imperial rule. That’s somewhat interesting, as we saw in Lost Stars. But do I really need an entire book from a minor bad guy or gal’s perspective? Who am I supposed to cheer for? That protagonist or the unseen good guys? Often, the result is just cheering for neither and wondering if anything relevant to the bigger picture of Star Wars is going to happen (it usually doesn’t).
I’m not saying authors can’t create new Star Wars characters. But they have to introduce them slowly, develop them appropriately and give them meaning in such a large fictional environment (literally, the galaxy). Wendig didn’t do that in the Aftermath trilogy, but Claudia Gray did in Lost Stars. However, Gray’s success is the exception, not the norm. Star Wars books are more interesting when they advance the story of the characters we fell in love with in A New Hope and their compatriots from the new film trilogy.
The stories are more meaningful to fans when they fill us with hope, resolve and a sense of victory over evil, rather than a rationalized normalization of it.
We have enough that these days.