If you're a longtime reader of Star Wars novels or have spent any time exploring the old Expanded Universe (now "Legends"), you're probably well aware that the books were … hit or miss. If we're being honest, the novels really covered the spectrum in terms of quality. But my goodness, there were a lot of them. As a new reader, it was nearly impossible to know where to begin.
As recently as 2013, the Expanded Universe was still being expanded. Star Wars had become a deep, intricate web of interconnected stories that spanned dozens of novels and hundreds of thousands of pages. It was a bit daunting, to be honest.
Then, in 2014, everything changed when Disney and Lucasfilm rebranded almost every story from the previous 30 years as "Legends." They were no longer considered "canon." This was hugely controversial among fans (still is), but it essentially cleared the deck to reboot the franchise, untangle the mess of conflicting stories that had been told, and develop a consistent, cohesive storyline in advance of The Force Awakens.
What began as a slow stream of new books dedicated to fleshing out specific aspects of the Star Wars universe has since become a raging torrent. In the last year or two, the Star Wars publishing machine (primarily spearheaded by Disney-Lucasfilm Press and Del Rey Books) has been turning out an impressive number and variety of new books.
The good news is that almost all of the original novels that comprise the new "expanded universe" have been surprisingly good—if not outright excellent. With almost every new release, the bar (along with expectations) gets raised for future releases. The bad news is that it's once again becoming difficult for a newcomer to know where to start.
The biggest questions new readers have are: How essential are the books, really? And will the books help me understand the movies on a different level?
That's fair. Not everyone wants to get lost in the Star Wars weeds and explore every nook and cranny of the universe. So if you want to crack the seal and see what's on offer in the world of Star Wars prose, where should you begin?
We cast a net over the "new-canon" original novels (YA and adult) with exactly that in mind. So as to not be too overwhelming (and to keep our sanity), we've excluded kids and young readers' books, film adaptations, and comics (some of which are remarkably essential). So where does that leave us? Well, there are still a lot of books, to be honest. It's time to strap in.
I'd love to recommend a long list of books, but even though some are downright fantastic, it's hard to justify them as "essential" reading (e.g., Christie Golden's Dark Disciple, Delilah Dawson's Phasma, and Alexander Freed's Battlefront: Twilight Company).
If you only want the best of the Star Wars pie, don't just nibble around the edges. Go straight for the center. Without further ado, here are the essential original Star Wars novels from the past few years (i.e., the new canon).
From a Certain Point of View
OK, so I'm starting out with a bit of a cheat, since this one isn't a novel; it's a collection of 40 short stories from 43 authors. From a Certain Point of View explores the characters and events (both on-screen and off) of the original 1977 film. Reading the book feels like you're watching an alternate version of A New Hope with dozens of deleted scenes added back in.
Some are laugh-out-loud funny; some are full of heartache. Some are written in the first person; some are in the third person. Several take creative risks with the short-story format, and one strains the very definition of "short story." But all of them provide a new understanding of time-worn characters and events.
It makes the list not only because it's the most refreshing and consistently engaging Star Wars book I've read in a long time but also because it introduces dozens of new authors to the franchise—authors who represent an incredible variety of backgrounds and worldviews and who inject the Star Wars mythos with fresh voices, unique perspectives, and stunning diversity.
I should be clear that none of the 40 stories is crucial to "canon." Don't look here for clues to The Last Jedi or beyond. That's not the point. The point is to celebrate our combined love of the original film and dig deeper into that mutual love. If you're a casual fan, don't much care for "expanded universe" storytelling, or are looking to only read one Star Wars book—it should be this one. Hands down.
Timothy Zahn caused all kinds of excitement last year when he returned to the character he created: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn reintroduces the character to the Star Wars saga and provides a bit of backstory for who he is and where he came from. As someone who fell in love with Thrawn way back in 1991 with Zahn's Heir to the Empire, I found the new book to be absolutely compelling, and I fell in love with the character all over again.
With Thrawn also appearing on Star Wars Rebels and the recent announcement of a sequel novel (featuring Darth Vader!) coming next summer—Thrawn: Alliances—his story is bound to only become more important as we see the pieces fit together.
Claudia Gray's YA novel is set during the events of the original trilogy but follows two new characters—best friends Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree—who give a unique perspective to everything we think we know. Their combined journey intersects with the major events of the original trilogy (and beyond) but puts a new, emotional, heart-wrenching twist on those events. Even though there's a sense of inevitability hanging over the events of Lost Stars, it still feels incredibly fresh and vibrant. Imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead set in the Star Wars universe, and you're close. This is "expanded universe" storytelling at its finest.
Again, I'm bending the rules a bit here, since this is actually three books. But across the Aftermath trilogy, Chuck Wendig explores the events that bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The books cover a lot of ground and introduce some critical (and compelling) new characters, events, and locations. It shines a new light on what you think you know, and it includes a surprising connection to the prequel films.
Claudia Gray's novel is set in the years before The Force Awakens, focuses squarely on Senator Leia Organa, and happens to be the best Leia story ever told. This is the most personal, relevant, and poignant Star Wars book I've ever read.
It's also required reading for the new Star Wars universe and answers several of the biggest questions you likely had after watching The Force Awakens, namely: Why is there both a Republic AND a Resistance?
Much of Bloodline concerns itself with the political machinations and bureaucracy of the New Republic Senate, which means it shares a lot in common with the prequel trilogy, but fear not: Claudia Gray writes backroom deals, partisan gridlock, and power-hungry politicians much more compellingly than Lucas did. And she does so in a way that makes the major events of Bloodline hit surprisingly close to home. There are uncomfortable parallels with the current U.S. political climate, which casts a disturbingly familiar pall over everything.
Gray writes with immediacy and intimacy but doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture. Her details build the world she's creating, and you'll find yourself swept along on a tidal wave of emotion.
More to come...
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. So where do we go from here? Like I said, each new release raises expectations for the next title, so the bar is set pretty high for Ken Liu's The Legends of Luke Skywalker (October 31), Elizabeth Wein's Cobalt Squadron (December 15), and Zahn's Thrawn: Alliances (June 2018). Perhaps most intriguing, though, is Canto Bight (December 5), which consists of four novellas written by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller. The book will explore the casino city of Canto Bight, The Last Jedi's version of the Mos Eisley cantina or Maz Kanata's castle.