I give the Expanded Universe a lot of flak. If you've been following me online, you know I've got an kind of passive-aggressive rivalry with Clone Wars, a resounding "meh" toward Fate of the Jedi, and feel rather like I got jipped when the TOR books were neither good nor about characters from Knights of the Old Republic.
But the fact that I care enough to sling all these acronyms around does show a long-lived love for all things Star Wars. In an effort to remind myself where that love came from, and to do something of a retrospective, I'm going to do some short reviews of my favorite Star Wars fiction. These are the books I'll read over and over again, and the scenes that comes to mind when I think of the EU.
A little less than halfway through writing this, I packed up to move across the country (temporarily), leaving most of my books at home. Therefore, some are quoted directly and some are not. Sorry. The open road calls.
In chronological order:
1. Darth Maul: Shadowhunter
"Through the hatch's port he could see the Sith's face-- a sight to chill the blood. Then, faintly, he heard the sound of metal beginning to melt and saw a faint blush of red building in the hatch's center.
The Sith was using his lightsaber to melt through the hatch.
Lorn turned and started pulling himself frantically along the corridor he was in. He didn't know where he was going, or how he was going to escape the vengeance of the monster behind him. There was no room for anything-- not even the pain of his severed wrist as the shock began to wear off-- except raw, red panic."
That's pretty scary. Michael Reaves takes Darth Maul and makes him into what George Lucas wanted the Jedi at the beginning of The Phantom Menace to be-- inhuman, unstoppable entities perfectly happy to bust through doors designed to withhold the vacuum of space.
I fully admit that I was in the throes of my initial fandom back when I read this book, and would have enjoyed anything with Maul's face on the cover. However, I still respect this novel for its structure too; a fast chase with memorable, flawed characters. It's a chase we know the good guy can't win -- Darth Maul's identity has to remain secret for TPM to work. But there's still this great, horrible tension about whether Reeves (and Maul) are really going to go through with their lurking, unspoken promise to kill everyone. It is, like The Empire Strikes Back, the sort of thing where every time you experience it you have this vain hope that it might all turn out okay this time.
And it started the grand tradition of Reaves recycling his own characters. I-5, the dented old protocol droid with hidden lasers, comes back in slightly modified form in MedStar, where the reader is treated to the joyous experience of both being surprised to see him, and knowing better than he does where he came from.
"War is a horror, she said. Her words: "A horror. But what you don't understand is that it must be a horror. That's how wars are won: by inflicting such terrible suffering upon the enemy that they can no longer bear to fight. You cannot treat war like law enforcement, Mace. You can't fight to protect the innocent-- because no one is innocent...
The innocent citizens of the Confederacy are the ones who make it possible for t heir leaders to wage war on us: they build the ships, they grow the food, mine the metals, purify the water. And only they can stop the war: only their suffering can bring it to a close."
"But you can't expect Jedi to stand by while ordinary people are hurt and killed--" I began.
"Exactly. That is why we cannot win: to win this war, we must no longer be Jedi."
There. Musings on the nature of war, all set in a part of the Star Wars universe that is so far from Coruscant that Matthew Stover can make it his own little sandbox to play around with people and see how he can break them. Add Mace Windu as the heart of it all, delivering lines worthy of Samuel L. Jackson while still acting like...a person instead of an action hero. Consider the fact that the page immediately prior to the above quote involved a barbarian Force user removing brain-eating parasites from his troops' heads with his mind...
3. The Cestus Deception
"Cloak fluttering around him like some bird of prey, Obi-Wan Kenobi dropped down into the car. The tan-clad Desert Wind soldier was the first to reach him, and therefore the first to go down in a brief flicker of a lightsaber. He stumbled back, the shoulder of his jacket smoking and spitting sparks.
"Jedi!" the Nautolan snarled.
Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed to slits, his courtly manner a distant memory. In an instant he had transformed from ambassador into the deadliest of warriors. "Nemonus," he hissed, then added, "Not the first time you've tried blood diplomacy."
The appeal of this one should be pretty self-explanatory. Kit Fisto pretending to go dark and fight Obi-Wan as part of an elaborate political ruse amused me so much that it inspired my online moniker. Moreso than the other books so far, I admit that I like Cestus Deception for the characters. The plot is pretty straightforward action, sometimes getting bogged down in intrigue and insectile aliens. But Steve Barnes' Obi-Wan is a spot-on reflection of Ewan McGregor's, Kit Fisto gets a lot of screen time and is established as both jovial and intense, and Asajj Ventress flows through the whole story like an elegant, elegant creeper. Good stuff. Oh, and there's Nate, who has fans.
4. The MedStar Duology
“Siting in the mess hall and eating a breakfast of grainmush cakes, poptree syrup, and dried kelp strips, Barriss Offee suddenly sensed a disturbance in the Force. The energy of it was that of impending combat--something she had learned to recognize. She stopped and tried to focus on a direction.
It's hard for me to pick one NJO novel out of the whole. Without a doubt, Traitor is the best written, and Star by Star the most depressing. When I think of the NJO I think of Tahiri Veila ritually scarred and convinced that she was born a Yuuzhan Vong. I think of fuzzy little seedships clustered around Jedi like tribbles. I think of the Jaina Solo shipping wars, which raged while I watched in tentative confusion from my side of the screen. None of the books were all that amazing alone (except the previously mentioned emotional wringers). But as a whole, they inspired myself and others to see Star Wars as a vibrant, exotic, dangerous world. For those who like aliens, we get the Yuuzhan Vong and their array of biotech, strange words that flew off my tongue in high school as easily as band names; the nomadic Ryn; and a whole family of Barabel. I’m a fan.
“Something?” Jos said. He was sipping a mug of parichka a few seats away.
She turned to look at him. “You said we are well behind our own lines here?”
“There is some kind of confrontation happening close by.”
The surgeon looked at his chrono. “Ah. That would be the teras kasi match. Want to go take a look?”
The MedStar books are about characters. It’s not like big, war-affecting things don’t happen in them, but mostly they’re about personal struggles and temptations, and also about what capable people do when they’re bored. The conversations are fantastic, and bit characters shine. Michael Reaves and Steve Perry know that along with the Jedi and the soldiers there are also people in the Star Wars universe who heal or write for magazines or play sports, and he writes about those people and their personal priorities. Yes, they do tend to throw in a lot of jargon (what the heck is parichka?), but I think it just makes the Star Wars world feel all that more inventive and complete.
It’s hard for me to think of the two MedStar books and the short story (“Intermezzo”) between them as anything other than parts of a whole, so I recommend all of them.
5. Revenge of the Sith
I bought the RotS novel before the movie came out, and gave it to a friend to hold. I didn’t want anything spoiled. I came out of the movie disturbed and sad (because of the great world-shaking, lava-colored fall of the Jedi Order), and over the next few days got slightly more disturbed and sad (because of the quality of Lucas’s dialogue and Hayden Christen’s acting).
And then I read the book. And got sad again; but not because of the quality. I was in fact stunned, and think that I haven’t read a novelization in the same way since. I don’t know why all authors who are given a script to work with don’t do what Matthew Stover did; realize that half their work is done for them, and so do twice as much work on the wording itself. However, he also adds dialogue and scenes that make Anakin and company seem more like real people than the movie ever did. You won’t watch it the same way again. There’s a reason that “love ignites the stars” and “this is what it’s like to be...” became common phrases in the fanfic for a while. His writing is charged and steely and pulls no punches, fitting coming from a martial artist.
6. Coruscant Nights I: Jedi Twilight
Like MedStar, the Coruscant Nights series was written by Michael Reaves, and pretty much exists as a whole. The character arcs progress throughout all three (plus one upcoming) books. However, I thought that the first one had the clearest plot that best allowed for a fast-paced adventure story, and also contained the perfect amount of dialogue between interesting, varied characters. The latter ones lacked emotional high points at their conclusions, and sometimes had too much dialogue or block paragraphs or both.
However, Jedi Twilight introduces a series which is, in concept, similar to noir mysteries (or episodes of Angel). Former Jedi Jax Pavan (Lorn’s son, if you remember back to Shadowhunter) is making a life for himself in the post-Purge galaxy by working as a private detective. He’s joined by Den Dhur (the reporter in MedStar) and I-5 (Shadowhunter again), as well as a beautiful Zeltron (which is practically an oxymoron) and a scrappy Twi’lek (which fortunately isn’t). Both of the female characters start out as what seem like stock types until their actions explore those types further. The Zeltron is alternately manipulative and innocent, her hedonism warring with her friendship with the men around her who can’t help but be chemically attracted to her. The Twi’lek, a “gray side” Jedi named Laranth, is one of my favourite Star Wars characters. She’s tough and capable, but her life isn’t perfect; the not-quite-love story between her and Jax was infinitely more complicated than most Star Wars relationships, and both fail at multiple times to understand each other or themselves. At one point, Reaves writes that Laranth gave everything she had-- and it wasn’t enough. And, in context, that to me seemed to make her one of the most human characters in the EU.
Sometimes the pacing in Coruscant Nights is awkward, and the cameos by Darth Vader seemed to be simply that-- cameos to remind us that characters from the movies do indeed exist in the same universe that the book does. But the group dynamic is great, and I love a good group. And also there are lightwhips.
7. Yoda: Dark Rendezvous
Purportedly about Yoda, this tightly-written novel in fact follows three new characters through a fun, sometimes frightening investigation that does end up shedding some light on the titular Jedi Master without telling the reader much more about him than is mentioned in the movies.
Personally I think it’s better not to see things from Yoda’s point of view; this way I can continue to think that a slightly more mortal creature simply couldn’t handle it. Instead, we get three new Jedi characters: the scarred Jedi Knight Jai “Hawkbat” Maruk; the precocious Whie Malreaux; and Scout, a Padawan weak in the Force but strong in determination. She’s also strong in red-haired-ness, making her only, what, the hundredth Star Wars female of unusual hue? But I’ll stop there. I do love Scout. Again, I have to love the group.
This book also has what I realized later are faux-French gothic novel touches, but Chateau Malreaux and its insane keeper are legitimately frightening. Sean Stewart brings gravitas and grit to the Star Wars universe, and despite my first paragraph, it also sheds a lot of light on the Yoda-Dooku dynamic. A thousand-year-old hero who feels every one of those years as acutely as anyone has lost his protege to the dark side, and Yoda’s sadness toward Dooku is only less touching than his persistent belief that Dooku will return to the Jedi. Their dialogue is excellent. Like Stover’s RotS, Dark Rendezvous makes subsequent viewings of the prequels better.
8. Soup’s On
“Soup’s On: The Pipe Smoker’s Tale” is not a book. It’s a short story, featured in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. It’s about Dannik Jerriko, that guy with the pipe, classy collar, and weird nose in the cantina sequence. Jennifer Roberson, author of various fantasy novels, brings a poetically visceral writing style to the first-person musings of this guy. Turns out he’s a thousand-year-old brain-eating connoisseur of luck, looking to kill the strongest “soup” vessel he can find. Of course he’s going to have his own take on the heroes of the original trilogy. You can probably see the pattern; I love books (and fanfic) that make it possible to see the movies in new ways after watching them. This one certainly does that. It also has beautiful writing, and made me feel a little bit like an Anne Rice vampire was sitting in the cantina.
9. Jedi Search
I didn’t know until long after I’d read them that Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy was almost as maligned as, like, the Holiday Special. Read blogs, read the Amazon reviews-- somehow, people hate these books. And I don’t get it.
Mind you, I haven’t read them in a long time. My copy is at this moment about an hour car drive away; it will probably be a six-hour plane ride away by the time you read this. But based on what I remember, I maintain that the Jedi Academy series is awesome. Maybe the writing is bad, maybe the characters are bad, maybe Luke does get put in a coma for a while and Kyp Durron does blow up some star systems. But hold on.
Picture an old man, so old, he’s alone, he talks to bat-winged birds all the time. He lives on a floating platform thousands of feet up in the air among priceless gases, harvesting tiny bits for himself. He can’t go within miles of people because he can hear their voices in his head and that scares him. He thinks he’s crazy.
And then one day someone comes to him and says no, you’re not crazy, there are others. It’s okay. You’re gonna be a superhero.
Picture fissured ground where steam rises up like scalding curtains. This is your planet, this is your environment, it’s harsh and hard and always hot. People die in the smoke. They get lost and don’t come out. There’s always someone in town with burn scars winding their way across their face. Because you have to mine and live and die here; you don’t have the resources not to.
And one day you see someone walking through the smoke. A man in dark clothes with a billowing cape and thin hips. You think he’ll shy away or scream or burn, but he just keeps coming as calm as can be like the weather’s fine, or maybe there is some desert air but nothing to be afraid of. Nothing he can’t walk through with smoke just floating bronzey-pale past his face.
And you find out that this guy is Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion or the Jedi or the Republic whatever, it’s the hero part that matters. And you think, this is what being a Jedi Master means. It’s walking through fire looking like you own the place.
Picture a building older than most civilizations, draped and clutched with moss, tiered, cold. You know it’s Mayan, but you know that what that really means right now is ancient, magical, blood-bought. Also the Rebellion staged its first win here. The remains of the first Death Star came to ground here. The air is hot and humid and there’s a giant planet sinking creamsicle-orange into the jungle on the horizon.
And there, this hero, he’s going to teach you and the old man and lots of others to use the Force.
That’s what the Jedi Academy trilogy is.
10. The New Jedi Order
|The one with the extraordinarily|
pretty cover is also
the one where Tahiri's life
goes completely batty.
One last thing before I let you go. Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor isn't on here only because that is a book that doesn't really know what it is. I love it as a parody of camp, the EU, and Star Wars fiction in general. Therefore, it is nigh unreadable (or at best "meh") as a serious story, or at least that is what I took from it. If I ever meet Matthew Stover, I might ask him if that was his intention.
But it is the power of any one of these books to, no matter where I am on Earth, transport me back to a wonderful part of a galaxy far, far away, a part as familiar to me as summer camp cabins or my own home. I know the smells and the words and the people there. So no matter how much I complain about Star Wars, it all comes back to one soppy, crowd-uniting thing to remember.
I’m a fan.