a top-5 guide to Star Wars lit

I fancy myself a connoisseur of Star Wars.  I’ve been sampling everything from the franchise–legacy?–since the 6th grade.  And one of the elements of Star Wars that has always been a guilty pleasure of mine is the Star Wars books.

From the novelizations of the films to what is considered Expanded Universe (EU), I’ve read a fair chunk of Star Wars literature.  And I’ve managed to rope in a few faithful readers on my quest to consume it all.  One of the most frequently asked questions I encounter is What is the best Star Wars book?

I will answer that.  But I’ve also been asked on occasion to recommend a few Star Wars books.  Both of these requests prove difficult.  There’s so much to take into account–continuity, action, philosophy, whether it’s part of a series or stands alone!

I mean, the New Jedi Order series is great–who doesn’t love the Yuuzhan Vong?–but I wouldn’t consider any of the books standout great literature, except maybe Traitor.  But if you picked up Traitor without reading the others, you’d be lost.

Thus, I present to you my Top 5 Favorite Star Wars books.  Let’s take this into Hyperspace, Chewie.

#5 : SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE by Steve Perry

Empire Strikes Back                          <–  Bookends –>                                  Return of the Jedi

Back in my college days, my cousin and I were staying at my parents’ house for the 4th of July weekend.  For lack of much else to do, he found my collection of Star Wars books and I pointed him in the direction of Shadows of the Empire.  He stayed up most of the night and nearly finished it in one sitting.  From then on, it’s been our go-to book for getting people hooked on reading Star Wars.  It’s not the best Star Wars novel, but it’s placement fits snugly (and chronologically) between the films Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Even the most casual of Star Wars fans will have seen these films, and thus makes it great stepping stone for the Expanded Universe–the authorized continuation of the original movies.

The plot very ingeniously revolves around Luke Skywalker training to become the Jedi we see in, well,  Jedi and everyone else is working on getting a Carbonite-encased Han Solo back before he becomes the property of Jabba the Hutt.  Shadows has a great cast of characters–familiar and new–that will keep you turning the pages; most notably the criminal Underlord Prince Xizor and charming scoundrel Dash Rendar (who takes the place of an absent Han Solo).  Underworld dealings, political conspiracies, and high-stakes action abound!

The Shadows of the Empire project was meant to have all the staples of a big movie release–books, comic books, action figures, video games–but without the movie.  It’s well-conceived place in the trilogy makes it a perfectly universal doorway into the EU.

#4 : I, JEDI by Michael A. Stackpole

The Jedi Academy Trilogy                          <–  Bookends –>                                Children of the Jedi

For the longest time, I, Jedi served as my ‘Force Bible.’  Anything I wanted to know about how to train as a Jedi was encapsulated in this book.  Stackpole took one his best characters (Corran Horn, from the Rogue Squadron books) and inserted him as a phantom character in Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy.  It acts as almost a parallel novel to that trilogy and very cleverly gives you a different perspective on the events of those books.  Most notably, it is one of the only Star Wars books written entirely in 1st person, giving the reader a hands-on feel as Corran learns the ways of the Force in order to rescue his wife.  A very personal story, great descriptions, and a funny, likable protagonist make I, Jedi a great read.  Definitely one of a kind.

#3 : LABYRINTH OF EVIL by James Luceno

Attack of the Clones                          <–  Bookends –>                              Revenge of the Sith

Now we get into the well-written literature greats that also happen to be Star Wars.  For example, Labyrinth of Evil is written by a recognizable name in the Star Wars EU community, James Luceno.  The thing that makes this book so much fun, so fast-paced, and so unique is that it is written in the near-noir style of a detective novel.  We find a Clone Wars-hardened Anakin Skywalker (soon to be Darth Vader) and his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi racing to track down the Sith Lord that might just be pulling all the strings in the Republic.  It’s a nonstop chase scene that leads right up to the first few minutes of the Revenge of the Sith film–with a few must-read plot points that reveal the origins of one of the movie’s major villains, General Grievous.

Let me put it this way, it’s hard to believe there is a novel in which you as a reader know the truth and know how the overall story ends and are still interested–but Luceno’s novel kept me riveted and plays a delicate game with what you know and what you don’t.

#2 : REPUBLIC COMMANDO: TRIPLE ZERO by Karen Traviss

Hard Contact                          <–  Bookends –>                              True Colors

This book really does have it all.  Republic Commando was a pretty popular video game that took the idea of Star Wars and made it a contender in the ring of serious first-person shooters.  Karen Traviss was commissioned to write a novel based on the video game.  With backgrounds in both military and writing, Traviss sought to create a realistic army experience that didn’t focus on Star Wars’ usually ‘Jedi-centric’ storytelling.

Gag me.  Everything about it screamed “Not interested!”  But, my buddy Geoff was pretty hooked on the video game and I was desperate for a new Star Wars book so I picked up the first book Hard Contact on a whim.

Wow.  Imagine my surprise when I fell in love with everything about this book.  From the deep characters to the moral ambiguity to the gripping, non-sugarcoated feel of being a soldier, I was hooked.  Imagine my surprise when it branched into a 5-book series, carried on into a Clone Wars YA novel and wrapped up in a series set some 40 years later in the Star Wars universe.

I speak of the Republic Commando series as a whole, but the second book specifically is the gamechanger.  Not only does this book take all the characters from the first novel and team them up with the characters made popular in the video game, but it takes the whole cast from a warzone into a setting of black ops conspiracies and undercover operations.  I firmly believe Triple Zero holds up to most spy novels and proves to be one of the most gripping reads of all time.  Traviss molds characters beautifully and adds a sense of realism to the Star Wars universe.  She also created a culture for the Mandalorian race from the ground up that feels truer than most real-life tribes.

Traviss is one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read.  She added a lot of emotion to a franchise that was starting to lose its connection to humanity.  And though her novels were ousted from the Star Wars canon very rudely, her books remain the very definition of what makes Star Wars great–a mythology grounded in what it means to be a human being.

#1 : EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH by Matthew Woodring Stover

Labyrinth of Evil                            <–  Bookends –>                    Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader

Well here it is, folks.  My #1 pick for the best Star Wars book of all time.  And I was as surprised as you are to realize it was a novelization of one of the films.

For the most part, book versions of movies bore me, and yet I continue to read them out of love for whichever film was the ‘Flavor of the Week.’  Stover is one notch above Karen Traviss in my book.  His Star Wars books are a little….different.  But they’ve always stood out in my memory and left me pondering.  I’ve never ventured outside Star Wars to explore an author’s non-Star Wars works until I read Stover.  And truthfully all his books are stunning.  I even ventured into the middle of a Magic: The Gathering series just to read his work (which I reviewed on my Short List: Wizard Books post).

But while I adored Stover’s Star Wars collection, I was surprised they commissioned him to write the novelization of the big screen release of Episode III, Revenge of the Sith.  Ecstatic, but surprised.

When I cracked open the book, I was treated to a Star Wars novel like no other–even I didn’t think Stover had that in him.  Unlike any other Star Wars book I have ever read, Sith wasn’t just a film-to-paper translation.  It was music–a tear-jerking opera.  Stover seemed to be writing in between the lines of Episode III, fleshing out the story and filling in all the cracks that George Lucas didn’t seem to see in his unique vision.  There are passages about the nature of light and dark–good and evil–that will leave you reeling like a powerful sermon.  There are excerpts done in tasteful 2nd-person that literally put you in the shoes of the characters.  There’s even a scene told through a transcript of a data-recording…then retold as it truly happened, letting the reader see the truth!  These elements are not only unique to Star Wars literature, but unique to fiction in general.

These are the powerful cards that Stover deals on a regular basis but to the max.  He truly is at the top of his game here.  And while Sith is bookended by two Luceno novels, it also serves as the second act to a sweeping space opera written by Stover.  The first act being the Heart of Darkness-esque Shatterpoint and the final act being the more recent Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor–all are phenomenal and definitely worth reading.

Long story short, Stover’s Sith contains the missing pieces to the puzzle that is Episode III.  Not just a perfect complement, but a must-read epic that completes the story.  You haven’t truly seen Revenge of the Sith until you’ve read this book.

There you have it.  I hope this not only inspires you to venture out of your usual literature bubble but also give Star Wars a shot.  In my opinion, these are the best places to start.

On the flip side, I wouldn’t start with anything written by Troy Denning.  He is the #1 ball-dropper when it comes to Star Wars literature and ironically is sitting at the helm of the Expanded Universe, carrying it deeper into a black hole.  Seriously, I’ve tortured myself to finish his books just because they connected other series.  He doesn’t get it.  Steer clear.

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