If there’s one thing any fan of pop culture knows, it’s that the Star Wars movie is coming out in a month and a half. Every tiny little detail in posters, teasers, trailers, games, what have you, is being dissected and analyzed for plot points and theories. The biggest reason this is happening is because nobody knows what’s going on with the new post-Return of the Jedi plot.
I say new because, as some or many of you may know, the old Expanded Universe was defenestrated by the new story group after Star Wars was acquired by Disney. This decision was either the best thing to happen to Star Wars or the worst, depending on whom you ask.
(I happen to be one of those people who spent a ridiculous amount of time and money on the EU as a child—and older than a child—so I’m not too thrilled about it.)
Anyway, the result is that the EU is now “Legends” and there are tons of theories and rumors out there about what might happen in the new movie. Personally, I’d be stunned if they didn’t pull at least some things from the EU for ideas.
On that note, Star Wars fans should know what the history is. They should know what came before. They should understand the heritage that was built over decades before being unceremoniously tossed out the window like a literary Bran Stark.
What follows are the 10 books that every Star Wars fan should read before seeing The Force Awakens.
10) Betrayal by Aaron Allston
The first book in the Legacy of the Force nine-book series, Betrayal is not only an important book for the EU, but also one of the better-written installments to come from the much-maligned post-New Jedi Order era. Featured are some of Allston’s trademarks: pilots, good dogfight sequences, a hefty dose of humor, and most importantly, dynamic characters with real stakes. Jacen Solo, the oldest son of Han and Leia and twin to Jaina, takes the first steps toward his destiny.
9) Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn
First referenced in Zahn’s iconic Thrawn Trilogy (more on this in a bit), Outbound Flight is the story of an ill-fated attempt to explore beyond the boundaries of the galaxy, led by the Jedi Jorus C’baoth. This book ties in neatly to both the prequel movies and the post-RotJ Expanded Universe, with Zahn’s typical flair for the dramatic and the always-satisfying inclusion of extensive Thrawn POVs.
8) Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole
Michael Stackpole’s X-wing efforts were some of the formative blocks of the EU. Focusing on fan-favorite character Wedge Antilles and the new Corran Horn, the Rogue Squadron books helped launch video games and were inspired by the popular comics. While Stackpole isn’t the most talented writer in the EU, he is in the bunch I would call “good”, despite his flaws, and Ysanne Isard is one of the great villains you’ll ever read. Come for the starfighter battles, stay for the Imperial politics.
Oh, and the 181st Imperial Fighter Group. We can’t forget the 181st.
7) Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
There is no book more important to the legacy of the Expanded Universe than Heir to the Empire. Star Wars was a dying brand in the early 90s, after the debacles of the Ewoks comics and made-for-TV movies. Zahn’s work brought back the magic of the original trilogy and introduced some of the very best characters in the whole EU: Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Talon Karrde, Gilad Pallaeon. This book (and trilogy) informed pretty much the entire post-RotJ EU, and is required reading for Star Wars fans.
6) Wraith Squadron by Aaron Allston
If by this point you’re noticing some familiar names, that’s not an accident. There are a few authors who are a clear step above the rest, and Allston’s Wraith Squadron installments in the X-wing series land him firmly in that group. The first book tells the story of Wedge Antilles’ efforts to create a new X-wing squadron, made up of screw-ups and washouts, to form a new kind of commando/pilot threat and hunt down the Warlord Zsinj. Allston’s trademark humor is all over this, but the characters are what really make it stand out. Protagonist Kell Tainer is a great character with real problems and a dynamic arc. Garik “Face” Loran is fantastic, as is the irascible Wes Janson (of Empire Strikes Back fame). The plot is full of adventurous twists and memorable settings.
5) Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover
I know what you’re thinking now. Episode III? Really? The prequels were terrible! The plots were garbage and the characters wooden!
You’re right, for the most part. The prequel movies were pretty bad. And that’s what makes this book so good. Stover turns the terribly written characters into real, round, understandable people. Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side makes way more sense. The plots behind plots behind plots that are only hinted at in the movies come to full life on these pages. There’s one particularly fantastic scene with Yoda that might fly under the radar but is actually monumental to the plot of Star Wars overall. Stover is one of the premiere writers in science fiction—not only in Star Wars—and he shines with a challenging story.
4) Survivor’s Quest by Timothy Zahn
What’s this? More Zahn? You don’t say.
Survivor’s Quest is, chronologically, the last Zahn addition to the EU, as he refused to work on the New Jedi Order series. Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, newly married, end up in the Unknown Regions, working with the Chiss Ascendancy and Empire of the Hand, along with other factions, to uncover the remains of the infamous Outbound Flight Project. Unlike the ham-fisted attempts at zombie horror like Death Troopers, this book is actually scary and has many moments of heart-pounded tension. Zahn nailed it, and the way it ties in with his other works is very neat. Read Outbound Flight first, then this, and enjoy the result.
3) Allegiance by Timothy Zahn
Tired of Timothy Zahn yet? I hope not, because this is the best of the bunch. Allegiance falls into the story soon after A New Hope, and follows the stories of Han/Luke/Leia, Mara Jade, and the renegade Stormtrooper squad known as the Hand of Judgment. In one of the rare instances that non-Jedi are the focus of a book, Zahn humanizes the Empire and provides a profound look at what it’s like to be one of those guys in the faceless legions. With absolutely great characters and a very satisfying conclusion, Allegiance is simply one of the best books in the entire Expanded Universe.
2) I, Jedi by Michael A. Stackpole
I’ve covered this one before, as one of my Books of the Week. A unique, first-person story, I, Jedi is the perfect Star Wars adventure book. It contains everything you could want: Jedi, bounty hunters, pirates, huge space battles and back alley gunfights, mysterious Force users and ruthless Imperials. Read this book.
1) Traitor by Matthew Stover
This is the only book on this list that’s neither a standalone story nor the first book in a series. I normally don’t recommend books in the middle of a series, but Traitor is an exception. Landing smack dab in the middle of the sprawling New Jedi Order series, Stover delivered what is, without a doubt, the single best-written Star Wars novel out there. The characterization is deep, driving the story through the dual POVs of Jacen Solo and Ganner Rhysode. While Jacen is a captive of the Yuuzhan Vong and being tortured for unknown reasons by the enigmatic fallen Jedi Vergere, Ganner is attempting to reconcile his ego and image issues with what really matters as a person. This book plants the seeds for Jacen’s eventual transformation into Darth Caedus—something that, if many theories are correct, will inform the character of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens.
On top of that, Traitor contains a truly epic climax, featuring Ganner Rhysode and this outstanding sequence:
They come at him one at a time, an endless stream, each warrior in turn charging toward honorable single combat.
They come two at a time.
By the time they begin to come in groups, they have to scramble over bodies of their dead comrades to reach him. A pile of bodies.
A pile that becomes a wall, a rampart.
Ganner Rhysode builds a fortress of the dead.
If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what can. Traitor is the result of a master getting the chance to write the focal point of a character arc that spans dozens of novels. It’s the lynchpin of the NJO, as well as the foundation for the Swarm War and Legacy of the Force series.
This is the heritage that is being left behind in favor of the new Star Wars movie. We can only hope that the writers pay attention to their roots, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some familiar themes and stories in the years ahead.