The Essential Reader's Companion showed up on my doorstep a few days ago. It's a pretty book, and the art is fantastic. I'm glad I got it.
But here’s a secret: I don’t think the Essential Reader’s Companion is essential.
In the days of Wookieepedia, few things are if you want reference to the Expanded Universe.
Star Wars has been putting out Essential Guides anyway.
But if you want some fantastic art of never-before-seen characters, and DVD-extra style snippets about the making of books and series, the Essential Reader’s Companion is pretty cool. Pretty Cool Reader’s Companion just doesn’t flow as well.
The book’s art, by Brian Rood, Chris Trevas, and others, is a big part of the appeal. Images of the X’Ting from The Cestus Deception and the Haruun Kal soldiers from Shatterpoint were thrilling to see, and readers should have fun comparing the images to what they imagined their favorite characters to look like. Characters like Scout and Admiral Daala who may not have gotten full-page art appear in yearbook style throughout. Other images showcase exciting action and weapons. Still others, like a sabaac game from MedStar I, are more sedate but reveal new faces. (Speaking of MedStar, it was nice to be reminded of the jokes in that book: pause for a moment to appreciate that there is a Star Wars book that references a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.) Almost every page has some kind of art, whether it’s new or a book cover.
The other half of the Essential Reader’s Companion is, obviously the text, which talks about the plot, characters, and behind-the-scenes of most of the existing Star Wars books. The discerning fans have probably already figured out the chronological placement of some short stories, like Darth Maul: Saboteur, that refer a lot to the universe around them. It’s still satisfying to see Pablo Hidalgo write it all out, like a person finishing a jigsaw puzzle.
One of the more interesting entries was for the novel Rogue Planet, which shows an gap in continuity when it describes how the book was set up to introduce the Yuuzhan Vong. These aliens were intended to be a call forward to the futuristic New Jedi Order series, but since the book was written before Attack of the Clones was released, it mentions married Jedi. This discrepancy feels sightless now that AotC has been out for so long, but in 2000 there was no way to know that would become an issue.
Hidalgo describes some outdated texts as “historically inaccurate”, lending an interesting third reality to the elsewhere detached narration. It seems that there is the real world, the Star Wars world, and some third timeline, possibly also in the Star Wars world, where the books are seen as questionably accurate history. The beginning of the Companion also has a succinct explanation of what the Keeper of the Holocron called “G-canon”: George Lucas’s vision of the movies, which over-rides but does not prevent the existence of the Expanded Universe. Along the way, Hidalgo clears up some continuity questions.
At its best, the ERC is a timeline not only of the books but of how Lucasfilm and its various partner publishing companies handled the growing Star Wars universe. Sometimes they were drawn into mistakes that made some information apocryphal, and other times one book connects like spokes to five or six others, perfectly in synch. The former appear as nostalgic, and as I read I found myself remembering when I first read each book. The ERC succeeds as both an art book and a reference document. When you take into account the mass of information for free on sites like Wookieepedia, it also serves as a behind-the-scenes guide and an authority. It’s even satisfyingly weighty, worth the price if you’re really into art and continuity.
If you’re not, it probably doesn’t have a lot of re-read value, serving more as a teaser for other books. It doesn’t offer a hint at where to begin with the EU, so is suited more for completionists than new fans. I still would have called it something other than essential.