Star Wars fans remain divided over the critical reception to The Last Jedi; some are ready to declare it the greatest Star Wars film ever made, and others would rather watch the prequels than dive back into the eighth chapter of the Star Wars universe. In the 40 years since the release of A New Hope, fans have been engaging with the Star Wars Expanded Universe (and the recent Marvel revival of comics) in some way or another, whether reading the 1978’s quasi-sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, or playing one of dozens of tie-in games.
But saying The Last Jedi is the worst of the Star Wars stories is vanity, can’t you see that? There have been dozens of narratives in the Star Wars Universe over the years that are truly stinkers. But as the darkness rises, so does light to meet it; when the world thought the tie-ins had outstayed their welcome, they were revived with a flourish by a string of New York Times bestselling novels. We’ve pulled eight of the best stories and seven of the worst to illustrate our point — The Last Jedi isn’t the last Star Wars story, and it doesn’t have to be the critical end-all, be-all either.
15. WORSE: CHILDREN OF THE JEDI CYCLE
A complicated sequence of novels that result in a whole that is equally as unimpressive as the sum of its parts, Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi, Kevin J. Anderson’s Darksaber, and Hambly’s capper to the cycle, Planet of Twilight, are among some of the worst Star Wars stories ever committed to paper. And that’s saying something, considering the wave of popularity that Kevin J. Anderson rode in the Star Wars Universe, raising his profile to the Dune level where it currently sits.
The novels themselves are a loosely connected storyline, centered mostly around Luke’s relationship with Callista, the ghost of a Jedi Knight who sacrificed her life to stop the Eye of Palpatine, a Dreadnought ship, from destroying a planet. Eventually, she is able to take the body of a non-Force user so she can date Luke, which is totally not creepy at all.
14. BETTER: THE GRAND ADMIRAL THRAWN SAGA
The series that quite literally made the Star Wars Expanded Universe what it is today (or rather, what it was before it became “Legends”); the rise of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 1991 heralded the arrival of more, and better, Star Wars stories than the world had seen in decades. The original Thrawn trilogy introduced major elements to the Star War Expanded Universe, not the least of which would be Thrawn himself and his species, the Chiss; it is also one of the first major depictions of Leia and Han’s children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin.
Throughout the trilogy and into the sequel duology, Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, Luke wrestles with the corrupted legacy of the Jedi, some of which has been weaponized by Thrawn — a nice corollary to the themes of The Last Jedi.
13. WORSE: EWOKS/DROIDS
There’s almost nothing positive that can be said about the Ewoks and Droids cartoons and comics, produced in the wake of Return of the Jedi. Both set out to fill in parts of the Star Wars continuity that no one particularly needed to have explained to them — namely, what were C-3PO and R2-D2 doing before A New Hope, and what were the Ewoks up to before Return of the Jedi? The answers may bore you to tears.
George Lucas hired Nelvana to create an animated segment for the Star Wars Holiday Special, and was so impressed with their work that he hired them to create Ewoks, airing concurrently with Droids. Unless you really want to know what Threepio and Wicket W. Warrick were up to before they showed up in the Star Wars movies, there’s nothing for you in here.
12. BETTER: NEW REBELLION
Taking several story beats from the original trilogy (an entire planet getting massacred at the beginning stands out as the most obvious lift), The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is what a Star Wars novel should be — fun. The whole book moves along at an adventurous, anything-can-happen clip as Leia gives up the presidency to try and save the galaxy; Han, Chewie, and Lando go on a side mission to Smuggler’s Run; and Luke gets captured by another Dark Jedi (Sith?) who wants to turn him and tip the balance of the galaxy.
New Rebellion lives and dies on its ability to tell a complete story, unlike The Last Jedi — where Last Jedi is an entry in the main chapters of the story, New Rebellion reads like a fun deleted sequence.
11. WORSE: JEDI APPRENTICE SERIES
For those of you who have been clamoring for more Qui-Gon Jinn since the release of The Phantom Menace, your best bet is the YA Jedi Apprentice series by Dave Wolverton and Jude Watson, released between Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The series follows the pre-Phantom Menace adventures and hijinks of Qui-Gon and his headstrong, 13-year old student, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Obi-Wan is the nominal protagonist of the book (it is a YA novel, after all), and the books give a good answer why the Jedi Council wouldn’t have wanted to train another tween like Anakin: because when Obi-Wan was that age, he was a nightmare. He abandons Qui-Gon a few times, gets involved with a rebellion on a planet at the tender age of fourteen, and is generally annoying.
10. BETTER: SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE
Released in 1996 to whet audience appetites for the 20th anniversary Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, Shadows of the Empire was an experiment in marketing — what if they released everything they would release alongside a new, blockbusters Star Wars movie without actually making the movie? The main components to the story were released in a tie-in novel, comic book series, and video game, allowing Lucasfilm (and the fans) to fill in a never-before-explored time period, between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
The biggest crutch of the story was its gimmick, however — while all the stories under the Shadows banner were good, you had to read every one of them to get the complete story; not just the novel, but the comics, and the video game as well.
9. WORSE: TRUCE AT BAKURA
The concept for Truce at Bakura is good–the ascendant New Republic must enter into an uneasy truce with the struggling remnants of the Empire to defeat a reptilian threat from beyond the Outer Rim. The awfulness lies in the execution and the timing.
Rather than set the action a few years into the Republic’s attempt to remake the galaxy as a democracy again, the book starts literal moments after the destruction of the second Death Star; without the leadership of the Emperor, the part of the Imperial fleet guarding Bakura requires backup, and can only get it from the fleet at Endor, including the Rebels (they haven’t even had time to officially declare the Empire dead/the New Republic official). It undercuts the victory at the end of Return of the Jedi with the complete opposite of Star Wars-ian stark morality by replacing it with political machinations.
8. BETTER: I, JEDI
Michael A. Stackpole sits with Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson as one of the most prolific authors of Star Wars novels out there, but I, Jedi is a special entry for him. Rather than be part of a larger series, I, Jedi is a standalone novel that follows Corran Horn, a character who makes no appearances in the films, on his quest to come to terms with his Jedi heritage and either become a Jedi to save his wife, or become a Sith and lose everything.
Presented entirely from a first person perspective, I, Jedi is one of the most immersive works in the Star Wars canon, and presents the push and pull of both sides of the Force on an individual in a way that makes you feel like you could become a Jedi, too.
7. WORSE: THE YUUZHAN VONG INVASION
In the multiversal version of Star Wars where the Expanded Universe is still canon, about 30 years after the Battle of Yavin, the galaxy was invaded by creatures called the Yuuzhan Vong, who live outside the Force and have no connection to it. To the fledgling New Republic that had literally just finished either wiping out or absorbing the remnants of the Empire, the invasion was a massive blow — Chewbacca dies in the very first wave of the invasion, and the books don’t let up from there.
As the books go on, Jacen Solo becomes a Sith and Luke Skywalker starts to preach a more balanced approach to the Force, including elements of the Dark Side to become a Gray Jedi. Even in a different version of the galaxy far, far away, it seems like it takes about 30 years to burn down everything about the Jedi and rebuild them.
6. BETTER: X-WING BOOKS
The X-Wing book series is one of the longer cycles in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, clocking in at ten books (really more like 9, with an epilogue novel released 13 years later). Created by Michael A. Stackpole, who also wrote the Star Wars: X-Wing comics for Dark Horse, they expanded the military aspect of the New Republic by following the galaxy’s most elite fighter squadron. These books are the closest the Star Wars universe has to a Tom Clancy story, filled with military intrigue, wetwork missions, and defecting soldiers.
Where the books could have descended into jingoistic nonsense, they took a different tack, particularly when Aaron Allston took over the writing and created Wraith Squadron — an elite ground force, but made up of more diverse alien species than had ever been depicted on-screen.
5. WORSE: THE FORCE UNLEASHED
Trying to build on their earlier success with the Shadows of the Empire multimedia project, Lucasfilm tried to make lightning strike twice with The Force Unleashed. Another interstitial story, intended to fill in the story of Darth Vader as he grew accustomed to his role as the most visibly evil man in the galaxy after Revenge of the Sith, The Force Unleashed had good intentions, but did not stick the landing.
As part of the initiative, a video game was released, alongside a graphic novel from Dark Horse, role-playing game add-ons and a sourcebook; unfortunately, none of them were particularly good. The game itself is fun (if a little clunky), playing as Vader’s secret padawan, Starkiller, but the storyline ultimately doesn’t give you anything to bring to A New Hope that you didn’t already have.
4. BETTER: JEDI ACADEMY TRILOGY
The Jedi Academy trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson remains divisive to fans of the Star Wars novels; it could be three books worth of adventure, with a window into the creation of Luke’s Jedi Academy on Yavin 4 and their first real crisis to handle, or it can be a slog, starring a nobody named Kyp Durron who gets to be the king of the Emo Jedi (step aside, Kylo Ren).
In the novels, the ghost of a Sith lord named Exar Kun haunts the Academy and its students, attempting to turn them to the dark side; one of Luke’s students, a young ex-con named Kyp, falls victim to it and steals a superweapon called the Sun Crusher to go on a one-man rampage, destroying at least one star system in its entirety. Many parts of the story were retconned with the release of I, Jedi, but the books remain a great way to step back into Star Wars for a little while.
3. WORSE: THE CRYSTAL STAR
Among fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, The Crystal Star by Vonda N. McIntyre stands out as one of, if not the, worst Star Wars book ever written. Filled with high fantasy tropes like centaurs and “wyrwulves,” the book relies on Luke, Leia, and Han to be the dumbest versions of themselves. Meanwhile, Han and Leia’s children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin, are held captive by a Force-user who was supposedly trained by Darth Vader himself, but who ends up reading like a Keystone Kop, constantly tricked and befuddled by three children under the age of ten.
The best part is that the true villain of the book is a sentient jelly cube decked out in chainmail named Waru, who reveals at the end that he didn’t really need to involve the gang or their children at all — the perfect way to end a 400 page novel.
2. BETTER: SHATTERED EMPIRE
When Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, it created one of their most profitable synergies — Disney now owned the rights to all things Star Wars, including the comic books. It meant cancelling all the Dark Horse books and republishing them under the Marvel imprint, but it also meant Marvel could begin putting out “Journey to The Force Awakens” tie-ins, such as Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto’s Shattered Empire.
Sort of a mulligan on Truce at Bakura, Shattered Empire begins in the moments immediately following the end of Return of the Jedi, with Poe Dameron’s pilot mother and special forces father. It’s no wonder he’s the flying ace that he is; Rucka and Checchetto imbue the book with Rucka’s flair for military intrigue and Checchetto’s ability to render tender moments between the two as well as large-scale dogfights.
1. WORSE: SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE
Written essentially as a backup sequel to Star Wars for George Lucas to have on-hand, ready to film on a much more limited budget in case Star Wars tanked (an extremely pessimistic take), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye has gone on to enjoy some status as the elder statesman of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Originally written by Alan Dean Foster, the novel sends Luke and Leia, alongside C-3P0 and R2-D2, to a distant jungle planet that holds the Kaiburr crystal — a mythical gem that will greatly increase the holder’s ability with the Force.
Of course, Darth Vader is there and of course, Luke has to fight him; it goes better than their canonical duel in Empire, with Luke severing Vader’s arm and tossing him into a pit. The story ends with nothing lost, nothing gained, telling us nothing we didn’t already know about Luke, Leia, or Vader.
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