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.
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 a 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.
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.