Now is perhaps the best time ever for new fans to enter the wonderful world of Star Wars. With new movies on the way, a TV show in the midst of airing, and novels and comics coming out at a regular pace, there’s a lot of new stuff to ingest. Best of all, for new fans, is that those novels and comics are more accessible than ever, not relying on the colossal existing body of Expanded Universe work. Wanting to read every canon Star Wars novel and comic is, right now, a very manageable task. Now, that is all well and good, but it also means that the classic works of the EU are going pretty much ignored by new fans. Take my buddy John, over at Geek, Unchained for example. With the new canon, he’s actually been buying novels and reading the new comics, while in the past if he read an Expanded Universe work it was pretty much only at my suggestion. Now, even if I recommend an old EU novel, it takes the backseat to stuff from the new canon (and many other books, seeing as John has a far wider literary purview than myself). Again, this isn’t a totally bad thing. He, and the numerous other people I’m using him as stand-in for, are more invested in the franchise than ever. That said, I think that many people now interested in the franchise would enjoy reading the best of what the EU has to offer. Even though it’s non-canon, there are still plenty of excellent books and comics out there, forming a rich tapestry of characters and stories across a period of millennia. Of course, it’s the exact breadth of its scope that makes the Expanded Universe so daunting to new fans. As such, I thought that I would put together a list of works that I thought would make for a good introduction to the EU, suggesting at its wide scope while being manageable for a new reader. As it happens, I was recently doing some catch-up work in the EU, reading some novels that I hadn’t yet gotten around to, and I realized that the combined works of one particular author served as the perfect introduction to the Expanded Universe. That author, perhaps unsurprisingly to connoisseurs of the EU, is Timothy Zahn.
There are a few reasons why I think Zahn is such an excellent starting point. For starters, his books are really good, with some of them being regarded as classics within the Expanded Universe. He’s incredibly prolific, with 10 novels and many novellas/short stories to his name. He’s been with the modern EU since its inception, meaning that fans can see the evolution of the EU through his novels (the presence of Prequel technology, for example, helps fans place where in time these books were published). Perhaps his greatest asset, however, is that his books are largely self-contained, in that with knowledge of the movies the books are able to stand on their own. Novels series such as Legacy of the Force, Fate of the Jedi, or The New Jedi Order require a tremendous amount of Expanded Universe knowledge to really make sense. Zahn does bring in other people’s characters, but more often than not uses ones he’s created whenever he can. Grand Admiral Thrawn, for example, physically appears in five of Zahn’s novels, and casts a long shadow over three others. Mara Jade, perhaps Zahn’s largest contribution to the EU, plays a large role in eight of Zahn’s novels. Beyond that, unlike some EU novels that star EU creations (not at all a bad thing, mind you, but perhaps confusing for the uninitiated), Zahn’s novels all heavily feature characters from the movies. Not all of Zahn’s works are perfect, but collectively I think they’re one of the best introductions to the EU possible, especially for those who are primarily fans of the Original Trilogy (Zahn has only one prequel era novel). All that said, I do think that there is roughly a right order to read all of Zahn’s work. You could probably get by switching some of the orders up, but for the most part I think there’s a general structure to follow when reading Zahn’s work in order to best understand what’s going on. I’m not going to bother too much with Zahn’s short stories, but if a version of a novel comes with one attached I’ll mention it. I’ve spotlighted Thrawn already, so there’ll be a lot of overlap between what I covered there and what I cover here, but this will go a little more in depth. I guess there will be some spoilers, but I’ll keep it to books over a decade old at this point. Fair?
The Thrawn Trilogy: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command
The Thrawn Trilogy serves as both Zahn’s first foray into Star Wars and the first modern work of the EU. As such, it’s a pretty damn good place to start off. Zahn had to create these novels with pretty much nothing but the movies, a few decade year old, ambiguously canon novels, and a couple of role-playing guides, meaning that he needed to create works that could stand on their own. Many characters who would go on to be major players in the EU first show up here, with characters such as Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and Talon Karrde going on to be important figures in future Zahn novels. The books are a lot of fun, but they are also very much a product of their time: expect some of the time-line presented to be a little out of sync with the prequels. One of the things that sticks out the greatest in these novels is the use of cloning: while we knew there was a Clone Wars, thanks to A New Hope, we didn’t really know what the precise use of cloning was, so the idea of a clone being treated almost as a carbon copy of the precise original (to the point where he himself views him as such) is a little odd to more modern sensibilities. We see that mostly in the character of Joruus C’baoth, though perhaps the most controversial use of cloning, and of the trilogy as a whole, occurs in the climax of The Last Command. Despite minor missteps, I still can’t recommend these books enough. The books are perhaps the only ones in the post-ROTJ EU that require absolutely no outside knowledge to be fully enjoyed, and make for an starting point that really can’t be rivaled. If you can, track down a copy of Heir to the Empire‘s 20th Anniversary edition. Aside from some excellent annotations by Zahn, it features a short novella that serves as an immediate prequel to the trilogy, “Crisis of Faith.” I’d recommend reading it right after Choices of One, though if you read it immediately before it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. As for the other two books, I don’t believe that any edition has any extra content, so get what you will.
The Hand of Thrawn Duology: Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future
These books, I’d argue, require more EU knowledge than any of Zahn’s others. They were meant to serve as the grand finale of the Bantam Era of publishing, and Zahn tries to pay homage to a good deal of characters from that time. Now, if you plan on moving into the larger Expanded Universe after reading Zahn, then these will be a nice introduction to them. If not, know now that the major players are either movie characters or characters Zahn creates here or already created in the Thrawn trilogy, with perhaps one exception that I’ll touch on in a moment. Thrawn is dead at the start of these books, but his presence is certainly felt within them. One of the things Zahn starts to do as his work goes on is almost a mythologizing of Thrawn, casting new light on his existing actions and making him consistently more brilliant. That starts in these books, which show Thrawn had a contingency plan even for his own death. The one thing you might want to read between the Thrawn trilogy and this duology is a short story called “Hammertong,” found in the collection Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. Zahn contributes to several of these collections, and while a lot of the stories involve major characters of his, “Hammertong” fleshes out a minor character from The Last Command, Shada D’ukal. Shada goes on to be a fairly important character in the Hand of Thrawn books. I knew about Shada’s backstory, so I wasn’t too thrown for a loop, but without at least cursory knowledge of the character you’ll probably be wondering why the hell she’s showing up so much.
Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight
These two don’t form a cohesive duology like the Hand of Thrawn books, but they are very much related. Outbound Flight is a project first detailed in the Thrawn Trilogy, and both of these novels directly relate to it. Survivor’s Quest was released first, and features Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade investigating the crash of the ship by the invitation of the Chiss Ascendancy, the government Thrawn once belonged to before his exile. Outbound Flight, released later, is Zahn’s only work in the Prequel-era and deals with the early voyage and eventual destruction of the project (as it happens, these are Zahn’s earliest and latest novels in the timeline). Now, I think that you could read these books in either order, and you’d probably enjoy them just as much either way. There are elements in Outbound Flight that seem innocuous at the time but wind up having big ramifications in Survivor’s Quest. It ultimately depends if you want to see how those elements pay off down the line, or if you’d rather start at the end and then see how it all came to be. I read Outbound Flight first, and I think that it worked out pretty well, but there were certain characters who I would come to realize were far more important in Survivor’s Quest than in that book. If you start with Outbound Flight, you could theoretically read it before the Hand of Thrawn books, but I think there’s one character who’s better served by still keeping the duology first. If you want to start with Survivor’s Quest, I would definitely recommend reading the Hand of Thrawn books first. You could get by without it, but you might get thrown off by some of the early happenings, and I do think you’d enjoy it more with the Hand of Thrawn under your belt. I actually advise you get the paperbacks for both of these books. Survivor’s Quest comes with a short story called “Fool’s Bargain,” which details the backstory of several minor characters in the novel, and Outbound Flight comes with “Mist Encounter,” which explains precisely how Thrawn came to join Imperial service (it also really takes Thrawn to another level; I recall seeing one person note the story turned him in to Rambo, along with Rommel and Sherlock Holmes).
Allegiance and Choices of One
Truth be told, you could probably get by reading these two at any point after the Thrawn Trilogy, but since these books are more tangentially connected to the books I’ve already mentioned earlier I think this is a good place for them. Honestly, you could read these even before the Thrawn Trilogy and it would still probably be fine, but since those books function so perfectly as an introduction to Zahn’s work and the EU as a whole I’d advise against that. These books aren’t classified on Wookieepedia as being part of a series, and they do tell two totally different plots, but I’d definitely call Choices of One a sequel to Allegiance, for they feature pretty much the same cast of characters and take place pretty closely together. Both of them feature a group of Stormtroopers who go about calling themselves “The Hand of Judgement,” and the novels do a good job portraying them, and Stormtroopers in general, as a more credible threat than the movies give them credit for. Taking place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, they feature the Hand of Judgment, Han, Luke, Leia, and Mara Jade in major roles, with many other Zahn characters showing up. It’s for that reason that I think this is such a good spot for them. A new reader will understand pretty much everything that’s going on, but someone who’s read Zahn’s other work will take extra enjoyment from seeing Mara, Thrawn, Disra, Jorj Car’das, and Gilad Pellaeon show up during the Galactic Civil War, instead of seeing them in the aftermath of it. I actually read Choices of One before Allegiance, and I actively wish I hadn’t. The Hand of Judgement gets really fleshed out in Allegiance, and to just drop in after all that development was a bad idea.
Scoundrels is a bit of an aberration in Zahn’s body of work. While Zahn usually takes care to weave in characters he’s already created, there’s only one Zahn character making any sort of prominent appearance, and even then it’s only as part of a larger ensemble. It’s smaller scale than Zahn’s other work, not dealing with the galaxy at large, or even the three main OT characters, but focusing mostly on Han and Chewie. It’s a heist story, in the vein of Ocean’s 11 (the working title actually was Solo’s 11), and it’s really a lot of fun. It’s listed last, but it honestly can be read at any point among these works. If you ever want a literary palate cleanser from all the Thrawn and Mara Jade. this is the book to read. It draws somewhat heavily from existing EU material, but it’s all understandable to the layman, so there’s not much to worry about there. This is one where it pays to get the paperback, as it features an extra short story (“Winner Lose All”) starring Lando that ties right into the novel.
-Zahn actually has written a few comics starring Mara Jade, but as I haven’t read them they felt wrong to include.
-I recently made a very concentrated effort to read all of the Zahn novels I missed, which really is what inspired this post. In particular, I was caught by the way Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight interacted so well together. Fun, fun stuff.
-That featured image, if you didn’t know, is of Zahn and his two best known creations, Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn.