Welcome to part two of my guide to navigating the world of Star Wars canon novels! By now you’ve (hopefully) read my previous post outlining what I consider to be essential works in the new canon, which will give you a rock-solid foundation as you begin your amazing journey deeper into all things Star Wars! Now we are going to delve deeper into the expanded universe so buckle up. In part two, I am outlining the next tier of Star Wars novels, and many of my favorite works are included. Now that you have a great foundation to build upon, the books listed below will be super-enjoyable, as you’ll explore the Star Wars canon in greater detail, including many of your favorite characters! Real quick, let’s review the basic terminology just in case you skipped part one and/or you’re still confused about what Star Wars considers ‘canon’ and ‘legends’…
- CANON: by definition, the word canon as it pertains to our discussion is “a collection of sacred books or texts which are considered genuine”. Let me just lay it out like this – anything in the rebooted collection of Star Wars expanded universe materials, whether it’s novels (both adult and young adult), comic books, reference books, and animated series’ are considered canon, therefore THEY REALLY HAPPENED and all future stories and storytellers must take this into account. This is a huge deal, as the old Legends ‘canon’ was not always considered by George Lucas and, later, Dave Filoni as having happened. So in short, if you read it then it really happened. Got it, good. WE WILL ONLY BE DISCUSSING CANON MATERIAL IN THIS ARTICLE!
- LEGENDS: in the mid-90’s author Timothy Zahn and comic writer Tom Veitch kicked off what we now call ‘Legends’ with their inaugural works into what many call the golden era of Star Wars fiction with Heir to the Empire and Dark Empire respectively. Over the next two decades, hundreds of stories were told in both novel and comic form, and the Star Wars universe became a sprawling behemoth that quite frankly, couldn’t get out of its own way. There were some great stories told (Zahn’s aforementioned Heir to the Empire trilogy, James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith adaptation, Kevin J Anderson’s Jedi Academy Trilogy and AC Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy to name a few), but there was a lot of forgettable work along the way as well (The Courtship of Princess Leia, The Truce at Bakura, and the end of the New Jedi Order series, which put the final nail in the coffin). When Disney bought Lucasfilm they wiped the slate clean, giving authors and fans a clean start in this exciting future of Star Wars storytelling.
Alright fellow Star Wars fanatics, let’s start exploring!
Thrawn, by Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn’s main antagonist from his original trilogy in the 90’s (and the series of books credited with straight-up jumpstarting a new era of Star Wars fandom) had been relegated to Legends status after the canon reboot, only to be resurrected as it were by Star Wars Rebels showrunner and the god-emperor himself Dave Filoni for the third season of the animated series. It was only natural that Zahn himself would return to write an updated, new-canon origin story for the titular villain, the blue-skinned/red-eyed Chiss, Mitth’raw’nuruodo, loving known by his shortened name, Thrawn. In this updated tale we see Thrawn’s rise through the ranks of the Empire, as he deals with the constant jockeying of lesser-minded Imperial officers and quite frankly a healthy dose of racism. There is never a moment in the book you aren’t rooting for this anti-hero, who is without a doubt one of the most colorful characters in Star Wars history (no pun intended). The audiobook, narrated by Marc Thompson, is strong as well, and his portrayal of the main character picks up where voice actor Lars Mikkelsen’s performance in Rebels leaves off. Zahn also introduces a new cast of memorable characters, including Thrawn’s younger sidekick Eli Vanto, the mysterious insurgent Nightswan, and an origin of Arihnda Pryce (also from Rebels) that thoroughly fleshes her character out.
As I’ve mentioned on the podcast many times, Thrawn is my favorite novel (so far) in the new, rebooted canon. It’s written and paced almost perfectly, and Zahn does an exquisite job of making you care about each and every main character. I mention this because one thing the new canon has executed perfectly is putting the readers in the shoes of not only the traditional heroes we are used to rooting for but also the agents of the Empire. Thrawn is just one of many examples in the new canon that you find yourself actively rooting for members of the evil Empire. Lastly, we did a book club episode on Thrawn for The Exhaust Port, and I provided a Canon Casting feature for the novel as well.
Tarkin, by James Luceno
Oh boy, Tarkin, by veteran author James Luceno, is bonkers-good. One of the very first novels to help to kick off the new, rebooted canon, Tarkin is an engrossing origin tale of one of the Star Wars universe’s most evil figures – Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin himself. The story bounces back-and-forth between Tarkin’s upbringing on his homeworld of Eriadu to the early days of the Empire, before he’s the Grand Moff. We also get some insight into the workings of the Empire as well as the Emperor himself. And (are you ready for this?) an all-star team-up of Tarkin and Darth Vader. There are lots of references to prior and future canon works in Tarkin, including information about the Death Star project and some anecdotes from The Clone Wars. Once again we find ourselves rooting for both the villains that we have learned to hate as well as the antagonists in the story (a band of resistance fighters that are helping to plant the seeds of what will become the Rebel Alliance).
Performance-wise, the audiobook is one of the very best in all of Star Wars, with veteran stage actor Euan Morton stepping in and knocking it out of the park. Lastly, discussion about the Tarkin novel was included in an episode of The Exhaust Port, where Dave, Katrina, and I go in-depth on both Thrawn and Tarkin.
From a Certain Point of View
From a Certain Point of View is a must-read for any Star Wars fan. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, Lucasfilm tapped 43 authors (!!) to pen 40 short stories set during the time period of the events of the first Star Wars film. The stories range from the serious and essential additions to the canon, to the heartbreaking, to straight-up hilarious. The book more-or-less follows the events of A New Hope chronologically, so it really feels like the reader (or listener in my case) is reliving the movie from a different point of view (see what I did there?). Almost every story is amazing, which is saying a lot for a book for 40 stories in it, and it never feels slow. Standouts for me were the Qui-Gon centric (yes, Qui-Gon) Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray, Born in the Storm by Daniel Jose Older, Laina by Wil Wheaton, An Incident Report by Mallory Ortberg, and Grounded by Greg Rucka. Again, these are just my own personal favorites, and one thing about From a Certain Point of View is that almost everyone I talk to about it has their own favorites, which tend to differ from mine!
The audiobook is a tour-de-force itself, with ten different narrators tackling the various stories, including a mix of newcomers to Star Wars narration Neal Patrick Harris, John Hamm (hopefully for the last time), and the reliable stalwarts we know and love like Jonathan Davis, Marc Thompson, and January LeVoy. Even if you’re one of those “I only READ books” kind of people, this is the one book I would recommend also tackling in its audio format, as the performances are so varied that the listener really feels like a part of the Star Wars universe!
Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed, and Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, by Christie Golden
Even though they are vastly different works, I’ve decided to group both of the Battlefront installments – Twilight Company and the more recent Inferno Squad – together for the purposes of this article. Let’s start with what is quite possibly (at least for me, anyway) the most surprising entry into the Star Wars canon, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Not necessarily surprising in terms of story, but surprising in how under the radar it is – especially given how incredible the writing, characters, and story are. Released to coincide with the release of EA’s first Battlefront game, Twilight Company follows a ragtag and overmatched battalion of Rebel soldiers as they do what they can to take the fight to the Empire. What makes this story so great to me is how real it feels. Even though there are literally no main characters from the Star Wars saga featured, it doesn’t matter. Hell, it may even be what makes Twilight Company so good and fresh. I love getting a chance to get into the trenches (literally) with the soldiers of both sides of the war. Lots of standout characters here, especially the main protagonist Hazram Namir, the mysterious Everi Chalis, and the youthful (and evil-as-they-come) Prelate Verge (who is a great nod and precursor to General Armitage Hux of the First Order). The audiobook is narrated by the incomparable Jonathan Davis, and he hits a home run here once again. This book is highly, highly recommended once you have a great foundation of new Star Wars canon under your belt, trust me.
The more recent Battlefront II: Inferno Squad tells a tale on the other side of the war. The Elite Special Forces unit is led by Iden Versio, an incredibly capable and charismatic character. For a little background, the Battlefront II game by EA features a campaign/story module, with a canon story in-and-of-itself that involves the members of Inferno Squad. The novel is a prequel of sorts, detailing the formation of Inferno Squad and one of their first missions – infiltrating the remnants of Saw Gerrera’s Partisan Rebel cell. Once again the lines are blurred as we get a look under the hood of the war and how it affects combatants on both sides. The book does an amazing job of setting up the events that will unfold in the game, as the future actions of all three of the main members of Inferno Squad – the aforementioned Iden Versio, along with Del Meeko and Gideon Hask – are beautifully foreshadowed. The audiobook is narrated by Janina Gavankar herself, the very capable actress who did the voice and motion capture for Iden Versio in the game. In my opinion, when actors from the stories narrate audiobooks it’s very hit-or-miss, with the finished product being much closer to a miss than a hit. Not here, as Gavankar gives a very worthy performance of every character in the novel – from the members of Inferno Squad to their leader (and her father, Garrick Versio), to the members of the rebels (especially the sultry Dahna and the mysterious ‘Mentor’). I’ve completed a Canon Casting for the book, but there is a pretty big spoiler included, so please read/listen to the book first.
Last Shot, by Daniel Jose Older
The Han & Lando (or rather Lando & Han, as Lando is really the main character here) novel, Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older is a magnificent look at everyone’s favorite rogueish good guys. The novel spans three timeframes, telling stories that occur both before the events of Solo, A Star Wars Story and after Return of the Jedi. Older does an amazing job of capturing the personalities of both Solo and Calrissian, probably better than any author before him, while telling a story that unbeknownst to both of our heroes is connected to their pasts. Older also introduces us to a litany of new characters, with the standouts being the young Taka Jamoreesa and Lando’s Twi’lek love interest and all-around badass Kaasha Bateen. Both of these characters bring a lot to the table in terms of both storytelling and making our leading men take hard looks at their lives and where they wanna be post war with the Empire. There are one or two more amazing new characters, but for the sake of not spoiling some rad surprises I’m going to let you find them on your own. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention L3-37, who has great moments in the Lando flashback sequences. Last Shot serves to flesh out some of her storyline from Solo, and she really shines in the book. Fans of the free-thinking, activist droid really need to read this book. While the story of Han and Lando as it unfolds in Last Shot is spot-on, the villainous Fyzen Gor is a little lacking. His storyline reminded me so much of the villains of the old EU / Legends, serving as a reminder (at least to me) as to why it’s great those stores are no longer canon. Having said, that, he certainly doesn’t ruin the book, which is a must-read for all fans.
The audiobook for Last Shot is narrated by Marc Thompson for the most part, with Han’s flashback part narrated by the author himself, Daniel Jose Older, and Lando’s flashback sequences narrated by the always amazing January LeVoy. If you follow Book Club you know Dave and I can be a little hard on Mr. Thompson, but DAYUMMM, he crushes this book. He does a spot-on older Han and a Lando that’s to die for. In my opinion, this is his best performance to date in a Star Wars book.
Dark Disciple, by Christie Golden
By far the most heartbreaking entry in the reading guide is Dark Disciple. Making her second straight appearance, author Christie Golden delivers a beautiful love story set against the backdrop of the end of the Clone Wars. Dark Disciple was actually based on eight unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars television series after it’s untimely cancellation, following the former Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress and rogue Jedi Knight Quinlan Vos. There’s certainly a part of me that wishes this story had been told on the screen, however, I don’t think that medium would have allowed the story to unfold with the emotional gravitas needed, and Golden delivers mightily in this department. Asajj Ventress has one of the most complete arcs of any character in the Clone Wars era, and the chemistry between her and Vos is amazingly fleshed out by the author. You really root for Ventress during this story, and you root hard. Lastly, the failures of the Jedi Order are laid to bare here as well, and Dark Disciple is a must-read for this reason as well. It seems all but Kenobi and Yoda have lost their way, resorting to assassination and potential dark side alliances to achieve victory in the war. It was also great to be able to revisit characters from the TCW and prequel era, as if I have one complaint about the new-canon era of Star Wars storytelling it’s that this era is too often overlooked. I have a feeling we are moving closer to getting past this hangup, but we aren’t there yet…
The audiobook, narrated by Marc Thompson, is solid if not great. I would’ve liked to have had one of the ladies of Star Wars narration take a crack at it, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Do not overlook this book, as everyone I’ve turned on to it has thoroughly enjoyed it. Just have a box of tissues handy…
Phasma, by Delilah Dawson
The last entry in this article is Phasma, by Delilah Dawson. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it as well when the title was announced in the leadup to The Last Jedi. As I mentioned in my review – DAMN WAS I WRONG! This book is so essential to any fan of the Star Wars universe’s bookshelf because of how fresh and different the story is. Author (and a self-admitted Star Wars supergeek) Delilah Dawson took what many would view as at best an underutilized character and at worst a complete throwaway and crafted an amazing origin story for her. Equal parts Star Wars, Lost, Dune, and Lord of the Flies, Phasma goes above-and-beyond in not only giving the Captain of the First Order’s Stormtrooper division a great origin, but also aids in explaining why she would take the shields down on Starkiller Base during the events of The Force Awakens (something that many fans, including myself, simply didn’t understand). Put simply, she’s a ruthless, selfish bitch – and that’s OK! We also get an extended look at the elder General Hux (Armitage’s father, Brendol), and a bevy of wonderful new characters like Resistance member Vi Moradi, the First Order’s Captain Cardinal, and Phasma’s tribemate Siv.
The audiobook is narrated by January LeVoy, who turns in one of my favorite performances so far out of all the audiobooks I’ve absorbed (which is all of them). I can’t give LeVoy enough praise as, like Jonathan Davis, she always delivers!
Whew, so that wraps up the second part of my Essential Star Wars Reading Guide. If you haven’t check out part one, please do so now, as just like with my Essential Guide to The Clone Wars it aims to give any Star Wars fan the info they need to cut through the crap and get into the new Star Wars canon and expanded universe. I’ll wrap things up next week with the third and final installment of the Reading Guide, but in the meantime, get to reading (or listening).