Quick Years: What Star Wars Novels Have Been Getting Wrong

quickyears

One of the first adult Star Wars novels of the new canon was Tarkin, by franchise veteran James Luceno. Many of Luceno’s books have been “biographical” in nature, choosing a subject and covering a large swath of their existence in one story. Sometimes this works well, as in Darth Plagueis, which had a pretty open canvas to work with and, perhaps most importantly, a definitive climax and resolution that had never been told in detail. Other times, notably when alternating between backstory and events in the “present day”, Luceno has had trouble maintaining a balance between the primary plot and the wide-ranging flashbacks (do you even remember what Millennium Falcon‘s framing story was? I don’t).

This was the case with Tarkin, I felt—“the central story of Teller and his group of renegades stealing the Carrion Spike and cutting a swath through the Empire with it was actually pretty interesting,” I wrote at the time, “but ultimately I think I would’ve preferred a novel of just that.” Unlike with Falcon, I was more interested in the present than in the past, but the issue was the same—an imbalance wherein the thing I really wanted to read was constantly being interrupted by something far less interesting and only nominally related.

I thought then that a good solution would be to just jettison the alternating structure and tell overtly biographical stories, but wouldn’t you know it? Over the last few years, Star Wars has repeatedly followed that very advice—and I’ve come to see things very differently.

Since Tarkin, several other books have been released by both Del Rey and Disney-Lucasfilm Press that span a number of years in their protagonists’ lives, to what I’d call varying success:

  • Thanks to its early time jump, Rogue One received two prequels—Catalyst, also by James Luceno, told the story of Galen and Lyra Erso from the onset of the Clone Wars through their falling out with Krennic and flight to Lah’mu, then Beth Revis’s Rebel Rising filled in the gap between Lah’mu and the beginning of Rogue‘s main story. Between these two books we’ve followed the Erso family across more than two decades, from shortly after Attack of the Clones to shortly before A New Hope.
  • Despite having written somewhere between nine and fifty Star Wars books, Thrawn was Timothy Zahn’s first to cover a huge span of time itself, following its titular Chiss from his “discovery” by the Empire to shortly before his introduction on Star Wars Rebels. While the book serves a very similar function to that of the Rogue prequels, Zahn gives it a distinct throughline in the form of Eli Vanto and his and Thrawn’s struggle against the mysterious criminal Nightswan.
  • Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars occupies a special place in this category as the one book to feature an original cast and not have to support a film or TV show; while it offered an early look at the Battle of Jakku, the actual events and characters have nothing at all to do with The Force Awakens.
  • Next on the docket is Delilah Dawson’s Phasma, which appears (if my impression of the synopsis is right) to be the first book since Tarkin to feature a substantial “modern day” framing story—discounting Rebel Rising‘s handful of prison sequences, which were effective but too minimal to be considered an arc of their own in my estimation. Whether Phasma‘s final form will be closer to Tarkin or Rebel Rising remains to be seen, but at the very least it shows that Del Rey and Lucasfilm remain interested in telling this kind of story.
phasmanovel

I’m hopeful Dawson can balance Phasma‘s past and present better than Tarkin, but should she need to?

The thing is, with the exception of Lost Stars every one of these books was tough for me to get through. None of them have been outright bad, in fact all have had parts that I really liked, but when a novel spans five or ten or twenty years, sooner or later the part you find most interesting is going to give way to something else entirely.

There’s been no rhyme or reason to this, really—I liked the Clone Wars parts of Catalyst more than the Imperial parts, I liked Jyn’s solo adventures more than I liked her time as a partisan, and I loved Thrawn until he became an admiral and Pryce a governor. What they did all have in common was that during each one it struck me that I’d have preferred a novel that focused solely on a particular event or time period rather than having to move on every two or three chapters.

That’s very subjective, of course; saying “just tell the stories I happen to find interesting” is hardly a useful criticism, as your preferences might be the exact opposite of mine. But I think it is useful to contrast these books with the several others—Ahsoka, Bloodline, Guardians of the Whills, and others—that could have taken a similar tack but instead focused on one significant part of their protagonists’ backstories at the expense of covering a huge swath of time. I think it’s fair to say that these have been stronger books overall because they have clearer arcs; they take a major shift in their characters’ circumstances or states of mind and build a plot around that rather than just painting from Point A to Point B with a broad brush.

I’d guess Lost Stars is the exception to this because it’s telling its own story—Thane and Ciena have an arc that’s allowed to begin and end in an organic way despite taking several years to do so; it’s not saddled with the task (admittedly inevitable with tie-in fiction) of explaining how a preexisting character changed from one thing to another thing. That being the case, it’s important to note that I don’t think the timespan is the entire ballgame here—it’s a good signifier of what you’re getting into, but Lost Stars shows that the arc is what really matters, and a well-told story should be free to take as much time as it needs to. But there’s another consideration as well.

“Kiri Hart, our boss at Lucasfilm Story Group, really believes in finding where a story wants to be told as opposed to starting from the position of having a gap. […] We have a long-term plan and we understand what the cinematic content is aiming to do, and so we have a better picture [of] what spaces other content could fill. [And] we’re totally against the idea that novels just fill gaps.”

That’s Pablo Hidalgo, speaking in the “One Big Story” panel at Celebration Anaheim in 2015. Within that ellipsis (it’s actually two separate comments hitting the same point) he specifically cites the “Bounty Hunter on Ord Mantell” as an situation where in the old days everyone would want a shot at explaining a stray movie reference without any consideration for what else was going on, sometimes resulting in several overlapping stories—a hallmark of the Expanded Universe that I’ve been documenting here for some time.

The EU's idea of "evolution" was giving the Big Three a few more grey hairs

The EU’s idea of “evolution” was giving the Big Three a few more grey hairs.

But “filling in gaps” was a common feature even of the EU’s wholly original storytelling; only rarely would novelists be given the freedom to jump far ahead and create something of a new era beyond Return of the Jedi, so instead the story crept along a year or two at a time with very little of an overall plan in motion—just a series of unconnected (if occasionally great) adventures that didn’t really evolve the galaxy or the Big Three in a clear direction.

Once a couple decades’ worth of plot had been laid down, the late EU did manage to tell a handful of what you might call “canon-style” novels, maybe the most well-received being Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor. While the “main” story was occupied with Luke raising his teenage son and debating whether to kill his evil nephew, Mindor did something truly unique at the time, yet perfectly explained by Hidalgo—it went back to the older material and found a story that had somehow happened between the lines without ever being directly related, that being Luke’s departure from the New Republic military structure, and went ahead and told that. Rather than just take the next notch in the timeline and force a story to fit it, Mindor set the standard for what canon novels should be.

In my opinion, focusing on specific important events, like Leia founding the Resistance or Ahsoka becoming Fulcrum, creates stronger novels that are harder to put down. Ahsoka shows us a huge piece of how its title character became who she is on Rebels, but it did so without coming within a decade of Rebels itself—if Thrawn, on the other hand, had focused solely on his discovery and time in the academy, curious Rebels fans would still have a lot of new info to chew on but there’d be many years left to explore. I could easily see an, ahem, Thrawn trilogy that unfolded much like the Aftermath books, introducing new puzzle pieces as it went on but leaving the Battle of Batonn largely a mystery until the final book. There’s nothing stopping them from going back and telling a new story within Thrawn, I suppose, but it wouldn’t be the same now that we know the character’s (and Eli Vanto’s, and Nightswan’s) overall trajectory.

But beyond my personal taste, it’s also better suited to the nature of tie-in fiction as support for the films and television. I began my EU Explains series by answering real questions from a friend of mine, and those questions were usually story-oriented rather than gap-oriented; when the films raise compelling questions like “why is Leia running a paramilitary organization?” the novels are the best way to answer those questions—and you don’t need a 30-year story to do that. One might watch Rebels and wonder “how did an alien get into the Imperial military?”, but you don’t need a decade of content to know that either; better, I think, to start with the most newbie-friendly part and then let the level of interest dictate how in depth you get.

Lest the last 1700 words give you the wrong impression, let me reiterate that most of the novels have been strong, despite my occasional struggles with them. But the new canon’s greatest strength is that it’s still quite open and unexplored, and every time a book fills in a big chunk of that territory, however vaguely, it’s closing off unforeseen possibilities, handicapping not just its own narrative but the future as well. As frustrating as the lack of context in TFA was in its immediate aftermath, that hunger only fed my interest in what came later. I think Star Wars publishing could learn a lesson from that film’s success: less is more.

9 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    I think what separates Lost Stars from the other books is the originality of the characters. We don’t know who they are – so we can watch the story unfold. Moreover, we KNOW the events going on – so they aren’t surprising. The second death star being destroyed isn’t a surprise — the only “history” we didn’t know came in at the very end, and even then that was so strongly tied to the two main characgers and their story that its revelation was sort of the background. Lost Stars was written just to slowly and slightly introduce a new sliver of post ROTJ material – along with some new characters.

    With a lot of these other biographical books, they have too much on their plate. They give a biography but they also fill in historical blanks. Add to this that they tie things together and explain plot holes (why is Thrawn suddenly involved in Star Wars: Rebels). These other books frankly just do too much – they have too much on their plate.

    What that means is the reader is rarely satisfied. If you wanted biographical stories, you get some – but there’s all that other stuff that takes up space. If you wanted history (as I often do), you get some, but there’s a bunch of filler. If you want plot holes filled, you have to read through a bunch of stuff to get to that explanation.

    It’s almost like going to a buffet, but you have to eat everything presented instead of getting to pick and choose.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Exactly—it’s the thing Pablo said they didn’t want to do, arbitrarily starting a book at the beginning of a gap and ending at the end of the gap rather than looking for the best story within it.

  2. chriswerms says:

    It’s a hard balance, which I may not have been able to voice without you: if the framework is weak, nothing feels connected, and the whole piece feels shallow, like Rebel Rising has to some. If the framework is “too good”, the ancillary pieces may suffer and be disinteresting or even distracting. (yeah, I’ve been discussing this all day but finally read it now.)

    • chriswerms says:

      I wonder if Rebel Rising could have supported an Ahsoka-type story. Did Jyn and Saw ever encounter that one planet, that one mission, which could have carried an entire novel? Would that single event change Jyn into the person we saw in Rogue One, or at least put her on that trajectory? It seems like a single event, like the one which made Ahsoka join the nascent Rebellion, is much more formative than “tragedy, tragedy, tragedy”, IMO. The Thrawn/Nightswan conflict may have been more interesting if it took place in a single event, perhaps. Maybe a few battles or a few closer hits?

      • chriswerms says:

        (and, if we’re being honest, I don’t like the roaming timeline idea because it suggests that Jyn had no growth between two events. I would rather see one formative moment than a string of what we are told to be formative moments.)

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        Well “single event” doesn’t have to be a week. It could just be about her time growing up with Saw, with the climax being when they separate. But sure, if Revis wanted to write it so that a lot of stuff comes to a head all at once—her first solo mission, say—it could certainly have done the trick. While still leaving several years for another book or three.

  3. Master Ki-Aaron-Mundi says:

    I see two major problems with the biographical novel approach: one is it simply leads to a lower quality story–which is most of what you focus on–but the other is the way it limits the possibility of telling future stories of consequence with the same characters. Thrawn falls into this camp, but the one I find most baffling is Rebel Rising.

    With a clear end point for the stories of Jyn, Cassion, et al., I would think The Powers That Be would want to leave plenty of room for earlier adventures, but new weighty stories about Jyn already feel surprisingly boxed in. It will be interesting to see the shelf life of stories involving the Rogue One cast, and at what point those stories stop coming.

  4. James M says:

    I think that you are going to be disappointed with Phasma.

  5. […] this episode of Echo Base, we discuss the idea behind this article from our friends at Eleven-Thirty Eight titled “Quick Years: What Star Wars Novels Have Been […]

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