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Author Universes, Sales and Mini-Eras: The End of the Line!

It’s generally quite tricky to get truly accurate sales figures for Star Wars books but Publisher’s Weekly has some that make for an interesting read:

Year Title Author Sales
1999 Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Terry Brooks 1,419,852
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, Vector Prime R.A.Salvatore 200,000+
2002 Star Wars: Attack of the Clones R.A. Salvatore 784,750
  Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Destiny’s Way Walter Jon Williams 100,000+
2003 Star Wars: The New Jedi Order—The Unifying Force James Luceno 107,775
2005 StarWars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Matthew Woodring Stover 431,426
  Star Wars: Dark Lord, the Rise of Darth Vader James Luceno 137,661
2009 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Sean Williams 103,232
  Star Wars: The Clone Wars Karen Traviss 101,146
  Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible Troy Denning 101,034
2012 Star Wars: Darth Plagueis James Luceno 31,543
Star Wars: Apocalypse Troy Denning 26,140

Source: Publishers Weekly

First, it would appear if you want big sales ensure you have a Star Wars movie to adapt – failing that, a cartoon will do.  But even in the case of the latter, the bump is notably reduced when you compare Clone Wars to the Prequel novelizations.

What is of more interest are the books by Luceno – both can be said to form part of what has come to be the Lucenoverse.  This is not a new development but rather the latest in a long tradition.  It has something of a companion in what has been dubbed the Reavesverse.  There should be nothing surprising in that authors like to build a sense of mini-continuity between their works.  It also can make for a more satisfying reader experience as they spot the links between works.

An early EU collaboration was between Veitch and Anderson in creating the Tales of the Jedi series, with Anderson using the villain Exar Kun in a trilogy set millennia later.  Veitch had set up the TOTJ project via the Dark Empire story that alluded to his fate.  In comparison to another creative partnership, this fizzled out quite quickly while the Zahn-Stackpole one was considerably more successful.  This saw the plots of Bantam’s run drawn together into a more cohesive form, with the authors sharing characters between them and working together on a couple of short stories.

Nor is it limited to books.  The work of John Ostrander, with his frequent artistic collaborator, Jan Duursema, demonstrates how it can work in comics.  Having done a very successful run on the Republic comic, they followed that up with the controversial Legacy comics and are now working on Dawn of the Jedi.  They linked their first two works via the device of long-lived alien characters amongst others.  Will they find a way for their latest work to tie in despite 25 millennia?  I would not bet against it happening!

But why do these mini-verses matter at all?  In every franchise there is a top-tier of works that receive the most attention.  For DC Comics it is Batman and Superman; for Marvel, Avengers and X-Men.  For Star Wars, it is the further adventures of Luke, Han and Leia.  However, just as comic fans find the more innovative and more creatively experimental works in the second-tier titles, so is it true for Star Wars.  Stackpole had his greatest success with a little corner of the EU called X-Wing.

That set of books worked by appealing to readers who were far more interested in the world of the EU than just that which the films presented.  It is for these people that the author universes really take off – Ostrander built an entire epic around the character of Quinlan Vos.  Michael Reaves, with a couple of collaborators, takes a handful of characters across the years and series.  It starts off in Shadow Hunter, continues into the Clone Wars series of MedSTAR and then into Coruscant Nights, with the latest book being The Last Jedi.  Do they sell big? Not at all, but that Reaves keeps being able to write books says they sell well-enough! Why?  Reaves’ work is quite traditional at heart – he gives you a set of characters to back, support and follow and then has various adventures happen to them.  He is also credited with doing Darth Vader justice which is an accomplishment in itself.

Luceno’s work is more subtle, but the major reason for why his work is praised is because it takes the quite rancid political plots of the Prequels and does something quite extraordinary with them.  He starts off by making Cloak of Deception raise Episode 1 up considerably, he then follows that up with Labyrinth of Evil, a Clone Wars story and very effective prequel to Episode 3, that in turn is followed by Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader.  Yet these 3 books are but the prologue to his finale, Darth Plagueis.  This was once deemed a step too far by Lucasfilm, the project got put on ice then got defrosted.  Why? Because it focuses on Sidious’ master!  This represents heights undreamt of for a miniverse book!

What is even more surprising is that Luceno’s 2 books – this and the prior Dark Lord one – both out-sold their Big 3 counterparts according to the Publishers Weekly figures.  Dark Lord beat the finale to the Legacy of the Force series, Invincible and Darth Plagueis went and stomped on Apocalypse, the Fate of the Jedi finale.  One reason might be that while the series finales have Luke, Han and Leia, albeit around 40 years later, the Luceno books have Darth Vader, the man who would be Emperor and the mysterious figure who instructed him!  In certain select instances then the film boost can be tapped in more subtle ways than just being a novelization or using the big 3.

Nonetheless, a large part of the thrill and enjoyment of author miniverses resides in the sense that they are a secret.  That not as many people know about them, so you, the reader, are privy to cool information that other people are not.  In this respect, like second-tier superhero books, they will continue to exercise appeal, regardless of whether this is reflected in sales.

Will there be such opportunities available to future authors?  Very hard to say given the Episode 7 announcement.  It does require too a certain confidence on the publisher as well.  One incentive for publishers is such sets of material, once they have gained a positive reputation, can sell very well and keep doing so.

 

Star Wars and Genre: Romance

This Valentine’s Day special is about as blatantly romantic as Star Wars gets

To bring up romance as a genre may summon visions of trite romantic comedies and Harlequin novels with names like The Italian Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride and Reluctant Mistress, Blackmailed Wife. Yet romance has a long and distinguished history. Whether it be the chivalric romances of medieval bards, the theatrical comedies of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, or classic film romances like Casablanca, stories focusing on romantic relationships have been central to literature and drama throughout time.

Love is a powerful emotion, fundamental to the human experience, and it is no surprise that so many writers have tapped its potency to enrich their stories. Romance as an element stretches well beyond genre walls, and has its presence in nearly every story. Therefore, for this Star Wars and Genre entry, both romance as a genre — stories that focus closely on one or more romantic relationships — and as an element added to other stories will be an important part of the analysis.

In an action-adventure franchise, it is true that room for pure romances realistically would be limited. A distinctively genre novel focused purely on romance, in the manner that Death Troopers and Red Harvest were distinctively “Star Wars does horror” novels, would be possible but would be unlikely to become a model for frequent storytelling. Valentine’s Day tie-ins like the one-shot comic A Valentine Story and the honeymoon short stories Judge’s Call and Corphelion Interlude demonstrate that publishers are willing to put out explicitly romantic material when there is little commercial risk, but publishers tend not to see the market for pure romance stories and space adventures overlapping. This perception is probably not accurate, as the proliferation of romantic fan fiction suggests that the market is real but thoroughly underserved by official outlets, but it seems unlikely that publishers would seek to go “pure romance” as more than an occasional stunt when it is easier, and friendlier to the franchise’s overall image, to integrate romance into traditional adventure tales.

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Soontir and Syal Fel’s honeymoon

Publishers are not wholly resistant to romance, however. Important and marketable central-character marriages spawned Union and The Courtship of Princess Leia, and an outcry for more focus on main-character relationships generated the dual Han-and-Leia and Luke-and-Mara novels Tatooine Ghost and Survivor’s Quest, respectively. Combined with the recent trend toward genre experimentation, there may well be a “Star Wars does romance” novel in the future. I have always thought that the relationship of Soontir Fel and Syal Antilles would make an ideal romance story: young runaway becomes one of the galaxy’s biggest movie stars, finds a handsome country boy from home in the middle of the Imperial court (who just happens to be an ace fighter pilot and, later, a baron), falls in love, overcomes her angst over her secret identity as the sister of his outlaw fighter-pilot rival to marry him, and lives happily ever after. There is rich emotional material there to explore in Syal’s feelings, and a satisfying arc to their story. It is easy to see how a novel could tap into that and be both compelling romance and identifiably Star Wars story. An attempt at a romance novel might shoot for more recognizable characters — Han and Leia or Luke and Mara would be the most likely targets, followed by Anakin and Padmé — or seek to tap into an “event” in the manner of Union, such as Jaina and Jag’s recent marriage or setting Ben up with his future wife, but the potential for that kind of relationship-centric novel is there.

Indy and Marion: Just part of the story

More likely, however, is material that does not focus on a relationship in such depth, but incorporates romance into an adventure story. This is the most common way we see romance in entertainment — whether it be Bogart and Bacall’s characters coming together in the middle of The Big Sleep‘s noir mystery, the love triangle in The Departed, or Indiana Jones flirting with Marion Ravenwood, romance is often a component of a larger story. Both trilogies had their own romance component, and many stories since have incorporated both the romances seen in the films and new relationships between original characters.

These romances are easy to stage; traditionally, two characters meet during the course of whatever action is occurring and fall in love. Wartime compatriots, Jedi on a mission or in training together, a smuggler rescuing a princess or picking up a passenger — the variations are endless, but the setup simple. Writers may want to look into methods of variation in romantic stories — imagine a story in the vein of a medieval romantic epic, about a Jedi Knight whose boyfriend is captured by pirates whom she must chase across the galaxy. Her thoughts about him could drive flashbacks to the earlier days of their relationship, while her commitment to him might be tested by the stress of her quest or a handsome warship captain aiding her search.

“So you’re the main character, right? Do me!”

The greatest challenge facing Star Wars romances, though, is not lack of variety in format; it is shallowness. Too many stories treat romance superficially rather than placing it as an integral component of the story and digging into it. Too often, the common convention of the lead character’s romantic interest is treated so routinely as to be almost perfunctory. Call it Bond romance — as seen in so many Bond movies, it’s taken as sufficient to justify a romance that the male lead be handsome, the female lead be beautiful, and they be in the same story. Little thought is given to making the relationship itself compelling, realistic, or genuinely romantic in the sense that it would evoke romantic feelings in the audience. Luke, for example, had a long string of brief romances due to the women who kept falling for him, but most of them were not particularly well-developed relationships. No one is going to remember the depth of his feelings for Tanith Shire, and Protagonist A finding Pretty Lady B attractive won’t keep genuine romance alive in the Expanded Universe.

It is the deep, strongly developed, lasting romances that readers remember and that genuinely add to the story, transcending the trope of the love interest or damsel in distress. It is these sorts of relationships that writers and editors should be looking to focus on more.

Wedge and Iella

The X-wing series offers a solid model for romantic subplotting. The series created multiple relationships of different natures, treated female characters as important and fully developed them rather than pigeonholing them as love interests, used the relationships to raise issues relevant to the narrative, explored the emotions and attitudes of the characters, and delved into the functioning of the relationships rather than treating them superficially. The relationships were treated as an important part of the whole. Corran’s love for Mirax was part of who he was, and he devoted considerable thought and self-reflection to it. Gavin and Asyr’s interspecies relationship reflected the difficulties of bridging differences within a couple, inspired resistance from Borsk Fey’lya, and affected the decisions they made about their lives. Tyria Sarkin and Kell Tainer’s love exposed the shallowness of so many fictional romances when Tyria rejected Kell’s initial superficial infatuation and waited for his feelings to blossom into a genuine and intimate person-to-person connection. Wedge and Iella’s long flirtation was often interrupted by life events, culminating in an extremely cathartic scene in which they finally spoke openly about their feelings and the hurt they had caused each other before Wedge worked up the courage to reject excuses and overcome that pain. The result of this serious and thorough treatment of romance and emotional depth was a slate of strong romances that moved readers to invest in them and remained an important part of the Expanded Universe.

Many stories end with the blossoming of a romance, but in an ongoing franchise like Star Wars, romance cannot simply end at the altar. Keeping the romantic element alive beyond the courtship can be a challenge, but the Expanded Universe should make an effort to continue the romances of its main couples. Relationship storylines can get at emotions and romantic feelings even after the first blush. The New Jedi Order did a reasonable job of keeping romance alive in its main couples by giving each of its married couples relationship storylines. Luke and Mara came together to battle Mara’s illness, helping put their marriage front and center, then conceived, bore, and began raising a son, moving their marriage into a new phase. Han and Leia’s relationship was strained by Han’s grief over Chewbacca’s death, allowing for exploration of difficulty in a relationship and for their reconciliation and bonding, especially as they then shared the burden of their son’s untimely death and came out with their marriage stronger than ever. The couples got plotlines that emphasized them as couples and brought their feelings for each other to the fore.

From Han and Leia, through Anakin and Tahiri, down to Revan and Bastila, romance has been an important component of Star Wars stories. It deserves fair, full, and thoughtful treatment as a major element of the universe, and creators looking to expand the boundaries of Star Wars’ “genre” offerings could do much worse than attempting a Star Wars romance novel. They might be surprised at how many fans would respond.

Everything Disney Needs to Know, it Can Learn from I, Jedi

IJEDI

Michael Stackpole’s novel I, Jedi has many qualities and ideas that Disney can learn from for the Sequel Trilogy. For those that know me it should come as no surprise that I am writing this article. Corran Horn is one of my favorite characters in Star Wars and part of the reason for that is what I experienced while reading this book. Stackpole wrote a book where he wasn’t afraid to be different, he correctly used a wide array of characters, his inclusion of romance and put together a fantastic journey for the reader to follow along with.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Different

On the surface Stackpole’s main character, Corran Horn, sounds a lot like Luke Skywalker. Corran is an excellent fighter pilot in training to become a Jedi. However, as Horn goes through training we discover that he lacks one of the most basic and most utilized force powers we see from the movie Jedi, telekinesis. On screen this would make for some less than spectacular fight scenes, but I greatly enjoy the concept of a Jedi with a handicap. It was refreshing to see how Stackpole wove this lack of skill into the story and how Corran was able to overcome his inability to do telekinesis. Disney should develop unique Jedi for the ST. Read More

The End of Illusions: Part 2: Big Three? We Don’t Need No Big Three!

Some riffs just can’t be avoided and the title’s one of them. My experience with the Big 3 can be considered to be a 3-phase one. Phase 1 was Bantam’s run that, along with Dark Horse Comics, got me interested in the EU in the early 1990s, around 1992. Phase 2 was the NJO / Prequel era of 1999-2006 and phase 3 is very minor due to a sense of despair at the late era direction favoured by Del Rey.

(That as fine an editor as Lester Del Rey’s name should become a kind of curse-word for SW fans is a sad outcome whichever way you slice it.)

I returned to SW in 1992, watched the films again, this time in Widescreen – yes, once upon a time that was something special – and was hooked. But where now? Zahn’s Thrawn books, only 2 of them, beckoned, as did Dark Empire and the rest was history. Bantam’s run was, by its nature, experimental – they had an unexpected universe they didn’t know what to do with so they experimented. Some of it worked, some of it did not, the former was raised up and the latter quietly forgotten.

Leia’s arc of rebuilding the Republic, dealing with numerous political hurdles, succeeding Mon Mothma and then making peace with a reformed Empire that she once despised was a triumph. Han’s arc was patchier, but his turn as General Solo in Allston’s X-Wing books was a high point, Zahn and Stackpole generally used the character effectively too. Where there is a void is once the kids are born! If Leia is too busy rebuilding the Republic then Han should have stepped in, I don’t see any reason for him not to except that children and their upbringing was perceived – and perhaps still is – as a woman’s job and men should not butt into that!

Why is this a big deal? One of the more rubbish plots in the later NJO had Jaina Solo, in a fit of teenager attitude, lay into Leia for not being around when she was younger. This never worked for me. The reason was simple. As a kid, my Dad was out at evening meetings a lot, the job demanded it – my Mum ensured my sisters and I knew why it was so. My parents had their own arrangement, my Dad looked after the bills, my Mum looked after us and it worked for them. Due to that, I had no reason to really resent him for being absent in that respect. I was old and smart enough to understand. Therefore, the notion that Jaina would not have been looked after, either by babysitters or Han, did not work. Plus, if she’s supposed to be smart, she’s smart enough to know why too. It would have been very satisfying for Leia to snap back she didn’t have to be, Han was! The only way Han and Leia’s marriage could work with two strong individuals is to divide up who’s doing what – Leia goes out for the career, Han is more free-wheeling but more in charge on the domestic front. Alas, the EU, at this early stage, lacked the courage to take this radical step. In many ways it’s understandable, but still a missed opportunity.

Luke’s arc of rebuilding the Jedi was not all that well-planned out, but, nonetheless, worked out well as the new Jedi play a key role in extinguishing the flames of the Caamas crisis depicted in the Hand of Thrawn books. It also, with reference to my fellow conspirator Lucas’s article on Jedi, Sith and Tunnel Vision, had Luke pull a blinder of a move. With the bulk of the information on the Jedi destroyed, Luke revives an ancient Jedi tradition he learns of from a rare Jedi holocron. In this tradition, one Master trained several students and often on a world where the Master had defeated and contained the dark side, with those places serving as testing grounds for apprentices.

1999 saw the start of the New Jedi Order project and it’s an undertaking that, even in hindsight, I can’t help but see as a missed opportunity. For all its successes, it still has a vast amount of untapped potential that it failed to tap due to squandering time on needless other plot strands. In some respects, the moves made for NJO were subsequently used again but with far less success for the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. For me where it went wrong was in seeking to emulate Babylon 5’s 5-year TV arc in book form. It was also, despite setting them up as a truly terrifying adversary that was far beyond the ability of the Jedi alone to defeat, far too protective of its villains, the Yuuzhan Vong. Cue the Republic that Leia had restored to working order demonstrating suicidal incompetence to the point of being utterly destroyed, then the same plot that required the heroes to be ineffective for 2 years, permitted them to be effective for 2 years and win. In the end the only thing that really made NJO work for me was the utterly unexpected success that was its finale, The Unifying Force. It did what all strong conclusions do – finished well but in doing so raised up its predecessor volumes as well. I’m never going to be a big fan of it, but the success of the finale and how well it used Luke, Han and Leia along with other, newer characters cannot be denied.

Onto phase 3 then and here all those flaws that blighted NJO, yet were held back enough to prevent them taking over, are permitted to bloom in all their poisonous glory. After reading the Dark Nest trilogy, one of the most blatant set-up series I’ve ever read, my interest in the big 3 was severely reduced. The first Legacy of the Force book went and destroyed it completely within the specific era. I simply could not credit or buy into the events and characterisations being depicted.

So the end of the line? Not quite. There have been a handful of earlier set books over the last 6 years. There were 2 books by Zahn, but while sold as being Luke, Han and Leia I don’t consider them to be so, they’re more supporting cast. No, the big release for the trio in recent years has to be 2009’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover. It’s a masterclass in how to do a complete story, without giving any character in a large cast short shrift and convince the reader that, all appearances to the contrary, their heroes are in real jeopardy! Sadly, there has been no further Stover Star Wars books.

So what does it boil down to? The characters need to develop without leaving their essential aspects behind. Luke as a Jedi who won’t surrender to the dark works fine, as does Leia as the one politician you can actually believe in, with Han as the ultimate wild card agent. There have been attempts in recent years to move them away from this, to making Leia a Jedi (she was already as of 1992 but that got forgot!) and Luke more of a manager but neither has really worked for me. That and the amount of time that has passed – around 40 years!

Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision

Jedi vs. Sith is a fantastic comic, but its title should not be applicable to the entire EU

No, Force Tunnel Vision isn’t a Force power you’ve never heard of. It’s the tendency that has emerged ever since the release of the prequels to focus stories on the Jedi and emphasize the Jedi-vs.-Sith conflict as the core of storytelling. This has compounded the issue of supporting cast underuse in the post-Return of the Jedi era, as the focus has become too narrow to take in much of the wider universe. In all eras it has resulted in repetitive storytelling as the Sith are trotted out again and again to fight Jedi protagonists. In this post, I will cover how the prequels transitioned Star Wars from stories that included Jedi and Sith to stories that were about Jedi and Sith, just how monotonous this has made the Star Wars universe, and how this has damaged the Star Wars universe by excluding non-Force-sensitives from the story.

The way it was

Jedi and Sith were both present in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was central to the films’ story that Luke Skywalker learned to become a Jedi Knight from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda so that he could defeat the evil Force-user Emperor Palpatine and redeem his father Anakin Skywalker from life as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. How, then, can I say that the prequel trilogy changed Star Wars’ focus? The difference is between stories that include Jedi and Sith as a component and stories that are centrally about Jedi, Sith, and the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. The issue is the context in which the Force elements of the storyline are placed.

In the original trilogy, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, and later the Emperor, was vital. The introduction of the Jedi Knights and the light and dark sides of the Force were key components of Star Wars’ unique universe. The story, however, was not simply about the Jedi. Luke’s conflict with the dark side’s servants was one component of a much larger storyline concerning the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the light and dark sides were merely elements of the struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil in the broadest sense. Luke did not fight alone, but as part of the Rebellion, alongside the gunslinger Han, political leader Leia, scoundrel-turned-administrator-turned-Rebel Lando, and ordinary warriors like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and General Rieekan. He and his allies fought not only Darth Vader and the dark side, but also Forceless manifestations of tyranny like Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Stars, and stormtroopers; and Forceless agents of criminal corruption like Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett. Jedi and Sith were one component of the bigger story, which included ordinary soldiers, political figures, and the criminal underworld.
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