Top Shelf: Shatterpoint

Shatterpoint, hailing from the era of prequel Photoshop-collage covers that had actual effort put into them

I can remember when I first read from Shatterpoint. It was a preview, in the back of Force Heretic: Refugee, for the first-ever Clone Wars book. At the time, my enthusiasm for Star Wars was at a low ebb; I’m not sure it was for any particular reason, but I had been sustaining an all-consuming fandom for six years, and The New Jedi Order had been dominating the Expanded Universe for years and changing the universe in ways I wasn’t sure I was ready for and was mired in the particularly dull Force Heretic Trilogy. I was just starting to get a little burnt out and needed a breath of fresh air. That Shatterpoint preview was it.

Immediately, the prose was punchy, atmospheric — it radiated attitude. As I read, Mace Windu — a guy we had seen in the movies but didn’t know that much about — landed on his homeworld, a new planet that leapt from the page with unique character, a jungle world so rancid its cities must live under sterilization fields. Then the action hit. Windu, naked after going through the probiotic showers required after arrival, finds a couple thugs harassing the other naked travelers in the locker room, stealing their valuables. Coldly, indifferent to the vulnerability of his nudity, Windu tough-talks the thugs, a supremely confident badass warning off weaklings he doesn’t want to bother with — but kind of does. When they go for him, he knocks them senseless in a vivid, expert action scene. It turns out they’re the local cops; that’s the kind of world this is. Windu goes on to meet his Republic contact; on the street, they’re caught up in some sort of riot, a fast-expanding street battle, and she’s hit with a blaster bolt. As Windu kneels over her, trying to help her, the local militia come up.

The militia behind him clattered to a stop. “You! Korno! Stand away from that woman!”

He glanced back. Six of them. Firing stance. The lightpole at their backs haloed black shadow across their faces. Plasma-charred muzzles stared at him. “This woman is wounded. Badly. Without medical attention, she will die.”

“You’re no doctor,” one said, and shot him.

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Top Shelf: The Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebook

The Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebook collects the material from the Heir to the Empire Sourcebook, Dark Force Rising Sourcebook, and The Last Command Sourcebook

Top Shelf has already celebrated the Dark Empire Sourcebook as one of West End Games’ best sourcebooks and an excellent entry point for the fan interested in gaining familiarity with the roleplaying game sourcebooks. The sourcebooks WEG released for Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, however, may be an even better introduction to the sourcebooks for the beginner. Rich in Expanded Universe lore, they flesh out Zahn’s trilogy with backstory and background information vetted by Zahn himself, providing an excellent avenue for those familiar with the Thrawn trilogy — and who isn’t? — to dip their toes in the sourcebook pool, while offering much to the experienced fan as well.

The West End Games sourcebooks are worth exploring for anyone interested in the Expanded Universe — ultimately, they’re the foundation of it. Though the books, comics, and Ewok paraphernalia produced around the movies are the earliest Expanded Universe material, they were largely ignored during the Expanded Universe boom of the nineties. It was WEG’s Star Wars roleplaying game, produced after the films concluded in the eighties, that began the task of building a systematic Expanded Universe, a dense web of background information, in the pages of its RPG sourcebooks. When Timothy Zahn kicked off the EU renaissance, he used the sourcebooks as reference material, building on an existing base. West End Games returned the favor by releasing sourcebooks expanding on each novel of the trilogy; the three were later collected in The Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebook, with relatively minimal cuts to the collected material.

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Top Shelf: Rogue Planet

Rogue Planet, by Greg Bear

There are very few Star Wars books that really hold up as great works of art. Many are great genre entertainment, fun and excellent by the standards of tie-in fiction or pulp space opera adventure. But few are the kind you’d care to show a snooty friend to make the case for the literary merit of the Expanded Universe. One of the few novels to pass that bar is Rogue Planet, written by multiple Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Greg Bear, and that’s why Rogue Planet belongs among Top Shelf’s collection of the best of the EU.

When I speak of literary quality, I don’t mean that Rogue Planet is comparable with Hemingway. Rather, that it examines deep themes with maturity and sports excellent characterization and prose. It is a serious, rewarding portrait of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s relationship that explores ideas about life, morality, and responsibility in a grand, mystical science-fiction setting.

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Top Shelf: The Dark Empire Sourcebook

The Dark Empire Sourcebook. One of its only weaknesses is the lack of original art.

Everybody knows Dark Empire. Well, not quite everybody, because, as a comic, it has the tendency to fly below the radar of newcomers to the universe — until they read something about Emperor Palpatine’s resurrection and Luke’s turn to the dark side, prompting outcries of, “Whaaaaaaaaat?” But among those fans who have graduated to familiarity with the web of the Expanded Universe, Dark Empire is among the highest-profile comics. Less familiar is the Dark Empire Sourcebook.

West End Games, the original masters of Star Wars lore, effectively built the Expanded Universe in the eighties, releasing a wealth of foundational information about the Star Wars galaxy and its many characters in their role-playing game sourcebooks. When Timothy Zahn revitalized public interest in Star Wars, he did so by building on the base of WEG’s material, which remained a crucial and ever-growing part of the fabric of the galaxy, even though its effects were mostly behind the scenes to those only reading books and comics. In response to the EU flurry of the early nineties, WEG released sourcebooks tailored to the big new novel and comic releases, providing a wealth of background information about the characters, worlds, and events of the stories for gamers to use. These resources are also invaluable to the true devotee of the Expanded Universe. Anyone interested in digging beyond the books and comics into the backstory and nitty-gritty of universe-expanding facts will find tremendous joy in WEG’s sourcebooks, and the Dark Empire Sourcebook is among the best of those releases.

Dark Empire was a seminal comic, but its timeline placement was always awkward; it was conceived as a directly post-Return of the Jedi storyline, only to run into Zahn’s trilogy during development. The comic was booted past Zahn’s trilogy, six years after the end of the films, creating some issues. Most significantly, the flourishing New Republic of Zahn’s trilogy was now a ragged Rebellion once more. Rather than dance around that issue, the sourcebook tackles the matter head-on, going into great depth to explain precisely how the resurgent Empire under Palpatine’s secret guidance drove the New Republic back before its factions split into the messy civil war seen in Dark Empire‘s opening.

That is only one aspect of the rich fabric that the Dark Empire Sourcebook weaves. Want to know the secrets of Palpatine’s recovery, about his secret machinations behind the scenes while he regained his strength, about his arcane explorations of the dark side of the Force? All there. Want to read about his mysterious throneworld Byss and learn its story, or that of the criminal warren Nar Shaddaa? They’re there. The sourcebook takes pains to set up the background of the entire New Republic era, explaining the New Republic’s rise and fall and the Empire’s fragmentation and inner workings. The treasure trove of background goes beyond that, all the way to Han’s past in the Imperial Academy and as a smuggler, the state and nature of the criminal underworld, and ancient Jedi history. If the ships appearing in the comics are your interest, there are profiles full of interesting facts. The book includes fleshed-out and poignant biographies for minor characters with tiny appearances in the comic. General Veers’s Rebel son, a New Republic soldier’s doomed college romance, a speeder thief conscripted into the Imperial motor pool, Palpatine’s personal assistant Grand Vizier Sate Pestage; all get their stories told. And let’s not forget its use of Ars Dangor, the most important yet most obscure political figure in the Empire.

“Fat, drunk, and blowing up moons is no way to go through life, son.”

The Dark Empire Sourcebook offers more than pure information drops, too. It reprints a New Republic proclamation explaining why it continues to battle the Empire in its darkest days, complete with signatures from senior officials. There is a personal letter between New Republic historians. The sourcebook contains Ackbar’s inner thoughts about the struggle against the Empire and the rebuilding of his homeworld after the attacks shown in Dark Empire. There is a transcript of expulsion proceedings against Han’s Academy friend Mako Spince (featuring a “Dean Wyrmyr”) for blowing up a moon during a prank gone wrong, and an extract from a book by Palpatine. Vignettes tell short stories, including one about Boba Fett’s escape from the sarlacc. And that is only a sampling of the in-universe and narrative delights available nowhere else.

Richly packed with all kinds of fascinating and obscure information, laying out crucial background for the entire setting, and offering all kinds of curiosities for the dedicated fan, the Dark Empire Sourcebook is a must-read. Even among the many excellent West End Games sourcebooks, it stands out for its ambition, scope, and excellent job tying together and setting down the foundation for the then-infant New Republic era. It makes the comic itself a far more rewarding and intriguing read, meshing it into the rest of the stories around it. Any fan interested in the nitty-gritty of the universe owes it to him- or herself to look into the WEG sourcebooks, and the Dark Empire Sourcebook is among the first ones to seek out.

Top Shelf: The Han Solo Trilogy

Ann C. Crispin

Many of you may have heard the sad news that Ann C. Crispin passed away of cancer at age sixty-three last week. One of the small comforts when an author passes is that she will be able to live on through her writing. To Star Wars fans, that means The Han Solo Trilogy, her main work in the universe. I don’t feel qualified to offer a eulogy to Crispin, who had an extensive career in the science fiction and fantasy community, but I can pay tribute to her Star Wars books, which were among the first I read as a boy stepping into the Expanded Universe.

Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy is one of the great achievements of the Bantam era. It’s unique in being the only story designed to be a more-or-less complete backstory of a major film hero. A side benefit of this, at least for someone with my taste for synthesis, is that the HST is one of the first major works of EU continuity synthesis, drawing from all over to build a story on what had gone before. Crispin draws characters, backstory, and details of the setting from The Han Solo Adventures; the Thrawn trilogy; The Jedi Academy Trilogy; the Marvel comics; Darksaber; The Corellian Trilogy; Shadows of the Empire; the X-wing books and comics; The Lando Calrissian Adventures; The New Rebellion; I, Jedi; The Crystal Star; the Glove of Darth Vader series; and Dark Empire — and that’s just off the top of my head — and weaves them together into a powerful story that stands on its own merits as an examination of Han Solo’s character, a chronicle of his adventures, and a record of his maturation via a rich character arc. It’s quite an accomplishment. Crispin’s writing is mature, dealing with relationships, death, addiction, and depression honestly and seriously, but it never loses the sense of hope and adventure that distinguishes Star Wars. The books are rich but fun.

The Paradise Snare

The Paradise Snare

The first book of the trilogy, The Paradise Snare opens with Han’s escape from the cruel con artist Garris Shrike, who, Fagin-like, runs a gang of child thieves and grifters. Han’s past with Shrike is established via backstory, but the novel focuses on nineteen-year-old Han’s efforts to define himself as a man outside the stifling, repressive confines of Shrike’s custody.

Han strikes out to get a job as a pilot on Ylesia, a religious colony, in order to earn enough money to accomplish his real dream: gaining admittance to the Imperial Academy. A mixture of streetwise and naive, young Han grows through his partnership with his copilot Muuurgh, his budding romance with the young religious pilgrim Bria Tharen, and his growing realization that Ylesia is not a peaceful paradise, but something far more sinister.

The climax of the book is astonishing, putting the young, still-idealistic Han through triumph and all-too-real heartbreak. Crispin brings great emotional depth and realism to Han’s story and takes on the issue of addiction head-on, growing Han as a character — something all too rare with the major protagonists — and giving the reader tons of space adventure. It definitely makes the most of its position as Han’s origin story.

The Hutt Gambit

Skipping past Han’s time in the Imperial Navy, The Hutt Gambit opens with a depressed Han mourning the death of his dream, kicked out of the Fleet and blackballed from legitimate shipping jobs. His idealism crushed by the ugliness of the Empire and his dashed hopes, he retreats into the cynical shell we see in the films, reluctantly taking on Chewbacca as a partner.

The Hutt Gambit

Just as The Paradise Snare was the story of Han’s maturation, this is the story of Han’s recovery of hope as he takes back control of his life, is drawn into the criminal underworld, and finds success there. Crispin deftly draws from all kinds of sources to build a portrait of Han’s early career as he takes on smuggling jobs for the Hutts and establishes himself in the smuggling communities of Nar Shaddaa and Smuggler’s Run. His friendships with Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian blossom, he is introduced to the Millennium Falcon, and he begins working for Jabba.

The deadly criminal politics of the Hutt clans provide a meaty background for the action, into which Crispin delves with aplomb. The machinations of the rival Desilijic and Besadii clans underlie the trilogy, while tensions between the Hutts and the Empire lead to the book’s climax, in which Han and his Academy-dropout friend Mako Spince organize the smugglers and pirates of Nar Shaddaa into a defensive force that repels an Imperial strike that includes Soontir Fel. Han’s role as a military leader is an excellent example of the way Crispin foreshadows his inevitable development as a hero and his inherent nobility under the cynical exterior masking his emotional wounds without becoming too heavy-handed.

Rebel Dawn

Rebel Dawn

In Rebel Dawn, the narrative continues to follow Han as he wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando. He ends up taking a jaunt away from Nar Shaddaa, allowing Crispin to excellently integrate Brian Daley’s venerable Han Solo Adventures (themselves the certain subjects of a future Top Shelf), while the other characters around Han take over the narrative briefly. The Shakespearean machinations of the rival Hutt families remain riveting, while Bria gives the reader entry into the early days of the Rebel Alliance.

When Han returns to Nar Shaddaa, Bria draws him into a Rebel plan to raid Ylesia. Betrayal ensues, and between that and the failed spice run that puts him in debt to Jabba, we see Han increasingly alienated and angry, moved into place for A New Hope.

These three novels are examples of the Expanded Universe at its best. Not just for Crispin’s masterful synthesis of sources, but for their emphasis on mature character development, exciting adventure, and classic universe-building that turns the underworld and Hutt elements of the universe into a vibrant, vital setting. They not only develop a rich and endearing portrait of Han, but give Chewbacca and Lando more respect and development as characters than almost any other EU work. The Han Solo Trilogy is among the very best that the EU has to offer, and it is a great pity that I have to speak of it in the context of Ann Crispin’s death. Though she has passed on, it is a great comfort to her fans that she left behind such excellent and enduring work by which we can remember her.