A long time ago, in another millennium entirely, I had only just discovered Star Wars via the Special Editions and I was hungry for more. The Paradise Snare, book one of A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy, was my first SW book, but I didn’t actually choose for it to be—it was the summer of 1997, my fifteenth birthday was coming up, and I asked my mother to get me what seemed like the most exciting, natural entry point into the world of the Expanded Universe. No, not Heir to the Empire—Shadows of the Empire. I don’t even know how I actually managed to hear about it, since I didn’t own a single piece of merchandise at this point, but somehow there were enough remainders of its huge multimedia bonanza the previous year that it got through to my young, ignorant brain that this was an Important Story.
Exactly how hard my mother looked for it—it would’ve been out in paperback by this point—will forever remain a mystery, but one way or another she eventually settled on Paradise Snare instead. I can only imagine what was going through her head as she browsed through things like The Crystal Star and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye before deciding for some unknowable reason that that was the right call, but in retrospect, it actually was a pretty good call. Not only was the HST a great story, but Paradise Snare being set as early in the timeline as it was led to me reading the entire Bantam era pretty much in chronological order, which had a huge impact on how I ultimately became familiar with stories like Dark Empire, the Corellian Trilogy, and yes, Shadows of the Empire.
All this is to say that aside from being a dumb adolescent, my Shadows experience was hardly that of a “typical” EU reader. I spent those first couple years of my SW fandom powering through dozens of books, so aside from a few specific moments like Darth Vader attempting to heal himself in his meditation chamber, Threepio piloting the Falcon, and Xizor standing just off-camera during the Emperor’s appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, I haven’t really retained much of my initial impression of the book itself—except that I liked it a lot. Much, much more influential on my nineties SW education was the Nintendo 64 video game, which I’m currently replaying at long last thanks to GOG’s recent rerelease. I could write a whole other piece on nothing but the various thrills and aggravations of that stupid, stupid video game (and the frustrating translation of its control scheme to a mouse and keybaord), but none of that matters as much as the fact that I played the ever-loving shit out of it.
I have to assume I read the novel before playing it, but honestly, I’m not completely sure—my playing of Shadows wasn’t a point in time as much as an era. I’m a sloppy and inattentive gamer, but I had so few growing up that the ones I did have I eventually learned and mastered every single nook and cranny of—Super Mario 3 begat Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, which begat Starfox 64, which begat Shadows of the Empire, and I know each of those more intimately than I will ever know any single SW book or comic or, really, even some of the movies. My Star Wars upbringing was a whirlwind of material that I never really sat with and absorbed; thanks to one (again, stupid) video game, Shadows was my one constant.
If you were expecting this piece to be a sincere defense of Shadows of the Empire‘s treatment of female characters or its pernicious case of nineties syndrome or its bargain basement Han Solo understudy, I’m sorry to disappoint and/or relieve you. A lot about it, both the real-world multimedia campaign and the underlying story, ranges from slapdash to genuinely disheartening, and as an adult with critical faculties I’m completely aware of that. But I love the whole damn thing anyway. I love that aforementioned Vader scene for actually giving him something interesting to do in his meditation chamber, and for engaging with the conflicted post-Empire Vader in a creative way that doesn’t wink obnoxiously at his coming redemption. I love its exploration of the GFFA underworld, and its hypothesis that a highly-placed criminal would be no more or less valuable to Palpatine than a highly-placed Imperial. I love the Suprosa capture—for Luke’s rare moment of snark about his “big garden”, for one of the stronger on-foot levels of the video game, and for its meticulous recreation in my true favorite SW game, X-Wing Alliance.
A lot of people noticed a couple weeks ago when Heir to the Empire‘s twenty-fifth anniversary came along, and just this week people were even sharing their memories of Attack of the Clones on its not-very-noteworthy fourteenth anniversary, but I didn’t see a single person point out Shadows of the Empire‘s twentieth anniversary last month. Sources actually differ on whether it came out in April or May or even December (I’m choosing to go by this great retrospective from the official site in 2006, which says April), so I guess it’s hard to pin down a day even if one is inclined to discuss it. I’ve been pondering some version of this article for a while now; ever since late last year when I realized that anniversary was coming up. But what do you say about a book that, at a minimum, handily fails the timelessness test so crucial to Star Wars?
You may not think Shadows is very good, and if so I wouldn’t argue with you (much). But it was certainly important, and I think it bears remembering if only for that. Its merchandising blitz paved the way, rather literally, for The Phantom Menace‘s. It got a TV commercial before Vector Prime did. It gave us YT-2400s and ASP droids, which shortly thereafter graced A New Hope itself, and Black Sun and the Falleen, which earned a major arc in The Clone Wars, meaning that even though its events are now Legends, no other EU story (arguably) left more of an imprint on what is now the canon SW universe. Considering the period from whence it came, I think to shun the thing in its entirety is an indignity that’s disproportional to its flaws. And not for nothing, but that aforementioned merch blitz was a not insignificant factor in my own discovery of the EU—what could be more important than that?
Before I go, a quick bit of housekeeping: you may have noticed a “Fatal Faves” tag at the bottom of this piece. By pure happenstance, my compatriot David Schwarz has a piece very similar to this one coming on Friday, and I thought we’d take advantage of the synchronicity and make a thing of it. Where our classic (read: ancient) “Best of the Worst” group piece highlighted genuinely solid, or at least defensible, elements of largely crummy stories, Fatal Faves will be a place for us to luxuriate in our trashiest of darlings, with no excuses offered whatsoever. Enjoy!