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The Tragedy of Del Rey’s Star Wars

As discussion over the Great Reboot has raged these past few months, one particular strand of thought has become noticeable. This argues that the books that comprise the Denningverse – Dark Nest, Legacy of the Force, Fate of the Jedi and Crucible – practically ran the Star Wars Expanded Universe into the ground. It made such radical moves with the central characters – killing off a wife and a son for instance – that those developments could not possibly be upheld by Episode VII! I am reasonably convinced by it too.

So, if that is the case, then what is so tragic about Del Rey’s running of the Star Wars franchise? What is tragic is that those 22 books over the course of 2005-2013 have come to define the entirety of DR’s run and it is manifestly is not the case. Why does this matter? Because the evaluative criteria people are favouring in looking at the new books is with reference to that infamous set of books. With such a comparison standard in place the new cannot fail to be better than the old! But what if there were other books issued by DR that enable a very different contest? What then? It would be quite, quite tragic for those to be eclipsed by the Denningverse!

The first major achievement of DR that is overlooked due to that eclipse effect is what it did for the prequels. No one is going to award the prequel trilogy a prize for the brilliance of its plots – an opening crawl about a tax dispute? People groaned, but James Luceno went to work on making that work, he asked what sort of machinations Palpatine would have engaged in, how was that particular situation engineered? The result was Cloak of Deception and the Lucenoverse was born! He continued with a bridge book for Episode II and III, Labyrinth of Evil and did two further works, Dark Lord, which was focused on Vader and then, the grand finale, Darth Plagueis – nothing less than Palpatine’s origin. (Hint: it isn’t pretty.) These books wove themselves around the films, seeking to shore up their weaknesses and enhance the story further and they succeeded. That’s four.

In contrast to this was the work of Michael Reaves, with frequent collaborator Steve Perry. What marks this set of books out is that they are not concerned with the fate of the galaxy or creating big continuity waves. Rather, Reaves sets out to give us characters we can attach ourselves to, characters we can back, even when we know they have no chance of success. Lorn Pavan is one such character in Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, but years later, his Jedi son, Jax Pavan gets to defy the odds by surviving Darth Vader’s best attempts to kill him! Sacrilege, I hear you say! Not necessarily! In the Coruscant Nights books, it is always Vader that sets the agenda, Vader whose moves dominate the story and everyone else responds to. He has years to get around to killing Jax after all! But more seriously, Reaves understands that killing off characters the readers like a great deal tends to result in fan fury. If he had ever killed I-5, a brilliant droid creation, there would indeed have been much venom a-flow on the internet! Nor is this the entirety of what has come to be dubbed the Reaves-verse, which spans nine books.

Then there is the SW work of Matthew Stover! Stover has not done as many books but each had a substantive impact with Shatterpoint taking the realism of war to its ultimate degree and conclusion, while for many, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor provides one of the definitive portraits of the eponymous hero. Stover’s calling card was gritty action with philosophy to match. His novelization of Episode III is deemed a high point. Not bad for four books!

Timothy Zahn, one of Bantam’s main authors, also has a substantive body of work published by DR. From Survivor’s Quest to Outbound Flight to Choices of One and Scoundrels, Zahn has continued his exploration of what would appeal to people about the Empire, despite its vicious reality. What Zahn’s books demonstrate is the value of continuity to enhance a story, for instance Winter features in Scoundrels. That’s arguably an Easter Egg but it’s a damn good one.

There are the newer authors that DR has enabled various experimental tales. There’s Paul Kemp, whose Crosscurrent book followed up logically on what Thrawn’s attitude to the Force would be. There’s Scourge, a wonderful little tale of a Jedi tangling with the Hutts. There’s a Dawn of the Jedi novel, set some thirty millennia earlier than the films and the final SW work of Aaron Allston – X-Wing: Mercy Kill. There’s a little paperback deemed one of the best Clone Wars stories ever, with great portraits of both Yoda and Dooku in Yoda: Dark Rendezvous.

And then there’s John Jackson Miller, a writer who has demonstrated that he is as skilled at telling stories via the novel form as he is at comics. Miller’s first prose SW work was the Lost Tribe of the Sith e-stories, which were later printed as a paperback omnibus. These stories managed, somehow, to break new ground for their portrayal of the Sith. (Too bad that said tribe got fed into the continuity meat grinder that was Fate of the Jedi!)

Miller’s next book surprised everyone, from its announcement to its execution. Kenobi was a wonderful work and a stunning addition to the EU. Its artistry also emphasizes exactly what tragic effect the eclipsing of DR’s other SW work by the Denningverse has. Kenobi gets utterly cast into shadow by the dross of Crucible! Kenobi was everything an EU story should be: it picks up the story of a character, it expands upon it, it casts new light on the later actions of that character and it invites others to take what it has done and build on it. For anyone who read Kenobi, it was little surprise that Miller was the one to do the first book of the new SW – A New Dawn.

So what’s the count? I have at least 27 books and, throwing everything into a list would likely take it past 30, to counterbalance the Denningverse’s 22! Arguably the same team that produced the ultimate, massive SW turkey also did numerous other-era works as well. Experimental all in one stories to author mini-universes of greatly different natures, set across a swath of time and space – it’s all there. Yet, the Denningverse books eclipse it all and will likely continue to do so. That’s the tragedy of DR’s SW!

13 thoughts to “The Tragedy of Del Rey’s Star Wars”

  1. And not only was Lost Tribe of the Sith not “Miller’s first SW work,” but you forgot about another of his novels, Knight Errant.

    1. I’ve edited the Miller line to clarify that it’s his first prose work; that said, the piece is meant to discuss highlights as Ben sees them and isn’t intended to be totally comprehensive.

    2. Depends on how you count the publishing date!

      Knight Errant novel was published 2011, Lost Tribe of the Sith Omnibus was published 2012 but the first story dates from 2009!

      So on that basis – Lost Tribe is his first book.

      Comics are quite a different story! And being fair, this is about DR’s books, not DHC’s comics, of which I could write loads!

  2. Denning is a very good writer from a technical point of view, but his stories are just too bloodthirsty and self-referentially obscure. In Crucible, the last book for the big three… you bring up as villains characters you made for a role playing game supplement? And then don’t bother to introduce them? Really?

    But I do think Denning’s bloodlust, and possibly the moral relativism that crept in (oh, yeah, let’s have Luke show he’s powerful and cast force lightning, because… carnage!) is what took the series in a way that didn’t fit with classic Star Wars themes. The Original Trilogy is good vs. evil (with a side order of redemption)… and that’s not really a Denning sort of theme.

  3. You make a ton of good points here and I agree with you on almost everything EXCEPT for one of the things you said about Reeves. True, he didn’t kill off I-5 but he did sacrifice one of the few female characters in TLJ for no reason other than to further Jax’s story. That never sat right with me.

    Again though, agreed on almost everything else. I dislike Luceno’s contribution to the NJO but what he did with the PT era was nothing short of fantastic.

    1. I’d see that as a fair criticism Bria, especially as Laranth was the gunslinger Jedi wasn’t she? (At least I think so, recall’s hazy.)

  4. The other complaint I had with Del Rey was that their stories NJO and following always seemed… one-uppy. It’s like they kept trying to make the battle bigger, the consequences even more dire, everything more chaotic. And it just got old. When you keep pushing the stakes higher and higher… it gets tedious.

    I think that’s part of why I liked “Kenobi” so much – it was just a story with fun characters… and that’s it.

    1. I think DR looked at the success of NJO and concluded people wanted more of the same, thus the one-upping effect on the subsequent stories.

  5. Very well done article as usual… good job to Ben. All the books and more that you’ve mentioned are what immediately come to my mind when I remember Del Rey. I haven’t even read Dark Nest and beyond, and have no great desire to.

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