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Paul's Top 10 Expanded Universe Works

Posted By Paul on April 23, 2008

I was looking around my hard drive the other day, and I discovered this little list: my own individual selections of the best Expanded Universe works.

It was designed as a follow-up to the Top 100 countdown and a compainion piece to Adrick and Stephen's personal top tens.

Somehow, I never quite got around to posting it... until now!

Honourable Mention. The Official Poster Magazine

The start of the Expanded Universe is normally associated with the "New Perils" arc which began in issue #7 of Marvel's Star Wars comic in January 1978, or with the release of Splinter of the Mind's Eye in March of that year.

The real start of the Expanded Universe, however, was in October 1978, with the first issue of the Official Poster Monthly: a fold-out poster with magazine articles on the back. The first issue added just a few backstory points beyond what was established on the screen -- things we'd take for granted now, like the fact that Han was a Corellian, and that Tarkin wanted to seize power as Emperor.

Over the years, though, the series would invent alien planets, describe the training of clone stormtroopers, and present psychological profiles of Tarkin and Vader. As it did so, it introduced a lot of the basic backstory continuity of the "Galaxy far, far away". Transmitted through The Star Wars Encyclopedia and the RPG sourcebooks, this would eventually come to serve as the very basis of the Expanded Universe as we know it.

The series continued through eighteen issues until 1979, then returned for five issues as the Empire Strikes Back Official Poster Magazine, and for four more installments in its Return of the Jedi version. You can read all eighteen issues of the original series in Arcana Historica section of TheForce.Net's own TimeTales chronology.

10. X-wing: Rogue Squadron

Now this was what a Star Wars comic was meant to be.

The setting of the stories in a starfighter squadron combined a focus that was fundamentally human, a cast that was small enough to be manageable, and enough firepower to take on a Star Destroyer, or set free a world.

The early story-arcs worked from this principle, and the odd thing was how effortlessly right worlds like Eiattu and characters like Sixtus Quin felt in a Star Wars context. Then, as the story gathered pace, it started to become more epic, revealing Ysanne Isard's twisted machinations to seize the Empire, and showing the Rebellion grow in stature, to become a liberating power that could set the heart of the Galaxy free.

More subtly, XWRS developed a fundamental theme about the strengths -- and the limits -- of forgiveness and friendship. These principles were incorporated into the moral core of the nascent New Republic, and contrasted very effectively with the duty and desires that drove their Imperial opponents.

The scripting was intelligent. The art was extraordinary: It looked and felt exactly like Star Wars should. When the series was cancelled, we lost the resolutions to the running plotlines; we lost "The Mandalorian Candidate" and the other planned stories that would have continued the arc.

And I think we also lost one of the clearest illustrations of what Star Wars is all about.

9. Dark Empire

If Rogue Squadron was an evolving fusion of work from a large creative team, the original Dark Empire limited series was a much more focused form of brilliance, forged by the combination of just two complimentary talents.

On The Light and Darkness War, the creative team of Cam Kennedy and Tom Veitch had already shown an ability to combine military machinery, the human soul, and the epic clash of light and dark into a compelling story about a Galaxy at war.

But Star Destroyers and Rebel fighters seem to fit effortlessly into Kennedy's dramatic vistas of war and technology, and the grandeur of Veitch's vision was the perfect way to depict the clash of Skywalker and Palpatine.

Even now, it's hard not to be amazed by the sheer inventiveness with which Dark Empire explodes forward from page to page: World Devastators, E-wings, details cramming every panel, flashing past as the narrative races by.

The story twists and turns at the same time, building in a crescendo until Leia travels alone to the Empire's latest superweapon -- alone except the unborn baby in her womb -- to confront Palpatine and the weapons he has enslaved to his will, not just the military might of the whole Galaxy, but the mind and body of her brother Luke as well.

At the time, some readers, myself included, were annoyed by the return of Palpatine as a clone, and disoriented by the abrupt change in tone and texture after the arrowhead-sharp arrival of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy.

But bringing back Palpatine enabled Dark Empire to do something that's been all-too-rarely seen in the past twenty-five years. It revitalized the central theme of Star Wars -- not the battle between Jedi and Sith, or Empire and Republic but the intersection of the hope and life represented by the Skywalker name, and the tyranny, control and corruption embodied by the shadow-cloaked figure of Palpatine.

And they did it brilliantly.

8. Specter of the Past

In 1997, Star Wars was in a mess. There were good stories out there, but they were mainly in the paperback sequences. The central hardcover plotline taking Luke, Leia, Han and the New Republic forward was provoking apathy and scorn.

People were also starting to realise that giving Luke Skywalker so much power hadn't been a good narrative decision. He either needed to be beaten up or made to act really dumb -- and at the end, he still normally whipped out his lightsaber to beat the bad guys and used the Force to restore the series to more-or-less the place it had been at the start of the book.

I, Jedi deserves part of the credit for putting the whole thing right, but that was a careful, nuanced, and character-focused reaction to the "Jedi Academy" trilogy.

It was the confidence with which the Chimaera shouldered back into view in chapter one that told me Specter of the Past would be different. Familiar characters walked across the deck, and started speaking common sense. Instantly, the reader recognized that Star Wars -- and the Expanded Universe -- were back how they ought to be again.

At its heart, Specter is a thoughtful story about the end of war, and the importance of recognizing the humanity in ourselves and others: tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner.

But it made Luke Skywalker human again, and a human Luke wields his lightsaber with charm. The final scenes was a reminder that an Imperial Star Destroyer could still hand out a barage of multi-coloured whupass against the enemy, and left me hungry and impatient for more.

I've never felt as ineffably happy about my Star Wars as I did the night I read that book.

7. Exile

In the 'Legacy of the Force' series, Troy Denning is meant to be the tricky, challengingly ambiguous one, and Karen Traviss is meant to be the one whose character POVs are dangerously misleading. But with Exile, Aaron Allston proved that he could play to both strengths, too.

It's a depiction of a Galaxy on the brink of destruction, through a novel on the edge of deconstruction. It's also the first place that Ben Skywalker stands up on his own as a character, and I suspect that in retrospect, it'll come to be seen as his defining moment as a hero.

Assuming he does become a hero, that is. You never can tell these days....

6. "Simple Tricks"

The irony is, I don't think that Tish Pahl and Chris Cassidy's short story was ever meant to be the last word on the Bantam era.

But the Star Wars Adventure Journal disappeared, and the Tales from the New Republic anthology was delayed. So, in the end, it appeared a few weeks after R.A. Salvatore's Vector Prime, which marked the start of the New Jedi Order and the DelRey contract.

As the last story in TftNR, "Simple Tricks" became a perfect piece because of its context, looking back at what had gone before, and, in the act of doing so, changing it for the better.

The 1990s were the decade of Mara, and KJA, and Warlord of the Week, and kidnapped, precocious Solo kids. In hindsight, they were a golden age, before the underwhelming and over-designed Prequels and the DelRey material, where the story arcs and character-psychology often feel like they were decided by a committee.

At the time "Simple Tricks" was an object lesson how you could take all the mis-steps that had annoyed so many fans, and make something exquisitely right out of them. Now, nearly ten years later, it's also a reminder of how much potential there had been in the Bantam-era stories.

I don't see a DelRey equivalent appearing any time soon, unfortunately -- though I'm sure the potential for one exists. And there are even some people out there who think Fen and Kyp would make a cute couple, which still just cracks me up....

5. Inferno

I love this novel. I was labouring under a really bad toothache at the time I started to read it, and the pain was gone before I finished the prologue.

Luke Skywalker tells his knights to saddle up, and leads an X-wing attack that changes the entire balance of the war, then challenges a Sith Master in a lightsber duel. Princess Leia has a knock-down, drag-out fight with an Ewok in front of a crowd of cheering Wookiees. Alema Rar travels to Korriban, and discoveres that the Galaxy is far more complex than she'd realised.

There are also effective echoes of both Dante's Inferno and Matt Stover's Traitor. There are subtle jokes that made me laugh out loud. There are more space battles.

The only thing that stops this book from appearing higher in the list is that it's also, very clearly, a chapter in a wider work. That means that it doesn't deal in easy conclusions, or even the sort of subtly unresolved endings that Troy Denning is so good at; instead it hands the characters on to the other authors to develop further -- a process that, with 'Legacy of the Force', hasn't always been flawless....

4. Traitor

It's not just the insanely tight focus that makes this book so powerful. It's the fact it stands up on its own, even after all the potential and energy it provided has been squandered by the twisted inertia of Jacen's characterization.

The coiled spring that drove the story has clamped down tight again. That doesn't mean that the demonstration of the mechanism wasn't a perfect proof-of-concept.

It produced this diamond of a novel, after all.

3. Star Wars: Legacy, "Claws of the Dragon"

This was a really tough call to make. The initial "Broken" arc was a superb introduction to a new era of Star Wars, and also contains some key characters lacking in this later sequence - Roan Fel, Princess Sia, Antares Draco; but in the end, "Claws of the Dragon" wins out because it dives depeer.

Even if the climactic 'revelation' of Darth Krayt's identity at the end of #15 was a surprise to very few people, the internal structure and narrative thrust of the issue took my breath away -- it's the focus on Cade Skywalker's journey that's the key, and it's what Krayt's origins mean for him that's the real suckerpunch of that installment.

And then there's that cover for #16. Oh boy. If there's one single image that defines Star Wars, that's it. The phrase "instant classic" is a cliché, but that's what it does, offering moments and images that have a defining quality for the entire saga, and proving that the stories of the Galaxy far, far away can retain as much life and depth and breadth of vision as they did in 1977.

And then there's the final twist in #19: no-one saw it coming, but in hindsight, it seems to have been carefully prepared since issue #0. It leaves us delighted, and eager for more

2. The Thrawn Trilogy

Star Wars, pure and simple. Maybe it was easier to find that clarity and confidence in 1991, before the Prequels added their own very different rhythms and aesthetics to the series, before the dramatic expansion of the amount of continuity that shapes and defines each story.

Be that as it may, the Thrawn trilogy still works.

Han, Luke and Leia, wrestling with being members of the new elite - and with a sense, perhaps, that the New Republic thinks it doesn't need its heroes any more.

An Empire stripped of its inhuman military strength, and in doing so, stripped in large part of its evil - no Death Stars, no Sith Lords, no Executor; an iconic adversary who was utterly distinct from Palpatine and Vader, perhaps not even a 'bad guy' at all - but no less dangerous.

New worlds, a Galaxy of endless journeys.

As I said: it's Star Wars.

1. Edge of Victory: Conquest

Conquest is, for me, the perfect Star Wars novel.

Anakin Solo represents a distillation of Han, Luke and maybe Leia - and as such, he's not just a brilliant focusing of the essence of Star Wars heroism, but a return to the original purity of George Lucas's vision. In the original rough draft script for The Star Wars, the hero was a cocky Jedi pilot called Annikin Starkiller, who ended up being split into two contrasting characters in later rewrites, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

I don't know if Greg Keyes knew about this, but if it's a coincidence that Anakin is later caught by his Jedi Master making out with a blonde in an equipment locker (just like Annikin in The Star Wars), it's a striking and appropriate one.

And then there's Tahiri, vulnerable and dangerous all at once, the perfect counterpart for our young hero. The obvious "hero's journey" may be Anakin's, full of mythic resonance and striking transformations of expected paradigms, but ths was also the novel where Tahiri flourished first as an adult character, defined both by the author's skill, and by a faithful honesty to her own canon backstory.

Keyes is a rare writer who can create subtle nuances of meaning out of detailed background research, and the use of continuity - both from the movies and the Expanded Universe - has never been better in a Star Wars novel. Characters from Luke Skywalker to Talon Karrde are presented with both sympathy and subtlety, and human vulnerability. And for the first time, the Yuuzhan Vong appear as more than warriors, and as people who human beings can understand and perhaps even communicate with on their own terms.

Considering that one of the key themes of the "hero's journey" is the ability of the protagonist to reach into a wider world, perhaps it's no surprise that the metaphysics of Conquest are among the least dualistic of all Star Wars novels. Anakin and Tahiri's parallel transformation into "something new" is the key theme of this story, but the characters retain their integrity and their humanity.

Anakin's vision of the Force as a tool - something that communicates and enables, rather than dictating and defining - is perhaps the Expanded Universe's greatest step into a wider world, and yet at the same time, it also reiterates, and even explains, the essence of the Jedi philosophy in the original Trilogy: the difference between light and dark, between freedom and slavery.

The novel ends with the new generation of Star Warriors busting out to safety aboard a Corellian pirate ship. Then, on one of my many re-reads, I realised that the hero and heroine are almost completely naked, and suffused with the shared, blissful afterglow of taking down capital ships with just their innate ability to feel the Force - at once transformed, and still themselves.

It's perfect.


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