I love Star Wars, and I love Star Wars Legends books maybe most of all. I love them so much that when I was 12, my English teacher actually staged an intervention with my family to try to get me to read other books. (Hi Sir! At least I built a career out of writing? Even if it is about Star Wars). It only sort of worked.
So, when someone suggested ranking the top Legends novels,I obviously had to jump at the chance. If you’re relatively new to Star Wars, more of a casual fan, or blessedly young enough to have missed the entire ’90s, you might be reading this wondering what the heck Legends actually is. Also known as the Expanded Universe, Legends filled in the gaps around, as well as good deal of time before and after, the first six movies (nine, if you count the two Ewok films and Christmas special).
However, when Disney took over, they wiped that all away, and while I’m sad that characters like Jaina Solo and Mara Jade didn’t make it into the sequel trilogy canon, we’ll always have Legends—so here’s the ten best novels it has to offer.
10. The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime by R. A. Salvatore
OK, I know. Chewbacca killed by a moon. It’s bad and I hate it, too, but if you ignore that part (how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? …) The New Jedi Order: Vector Prime actually a pretty decent book and a good introduction to the most fascinating species in the Legends universe. In it, we see Leia, her daughter Jaina, and Mara Jade heading off to prevent a conflict from breaking out between two New Republic member worlds, only to discover a far more dangerous and wide ranging threat to the galaxy underlying it: The alien empire of the Yuzhuun Vong, which has set its sights on conquering all the worlds of the New Republic and Imperial Remnant alike.
The Yuzhuun Vong are weird, they’re interesting, and they’re also really excellent as replacement antagonists for the Empire after the New Republic has worn it down into irrelevance. A species that abhors inorganic technology and worships pain, all of their technology, from their massive world ships down to the smallest medical implants, is made up of genetically engineered living beings, controlled and mastered by the Yuzhuun Vong.
Salvatore lays the groundwork for the rest of the series really well, pacing his reveal of this new enemy perfectly so you experience exactly how alien they are to the peoples of the known regions, as well as setting up the foundational cracks in Luke’s Jedi Order that are going to ripple out for years to come.
9. The Paradise Snare by A. C. Crispin
Full disclosure: I still haven’t seen Solo yet and I don’t know when I’m going to get around to it. It’s entirely possible that my disinterest in a movie that should tick all my boxes might come from this novel (and its sequels) providing me with a very clear picture of a young Han Solo that I don’t really need or want replaced.
In The Paradise Snare, we get a picture of his bleak, “wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi adaptation of Les Miserables” childhood, before he takes off for freedom, adulthood, and adventure. Getting a job supplying a religious colony, Han quickly realizes that it’s more of a cult than a religion, with the members being forced to mine drugs for the small group of cult leaders.
Of course there’s also a girl involved, and we all know Han’s conscience is more easily engaged when there’s a pretty girl around to stoke it, so it’s only a matter of time before he does something about it that sets him on his path as rebel war hero and the most famous smuggler in galactic history.
8. Vision of the Future by Timothy Zahn
The sequel to Spectre of the Past, which I actually found a little dull, Vision of the Future is all high stakes and ridiculous interpersonal drama because Jedi are really bad at talking about their feelings. The threats to the New Republic in this novel are twofold; one, the Bothans have been set up to take the fall for a series of terrorist attacks in order to destabilize the finally flourishing New Republic, and two, Grand Admiral Thrawn is rumoured to be back, risen from the dead and ready to bring the Empire with him.
While Han, Leia, and the smuggler boss Talon Kaarde rush to try to clear the Bothan state and identify the real culprit, Luke has gotten side tracked, responding to a vision of Mara laying face down in a pool of water by trying to find her before it’s too late. With Mara comes the discovery of an Imperial fortress hiding a deeply alarming secret, the truth behind the Thrawn rumors, and hints of a new, darker threat lurking just beyond the unknown regions.
It’s a really satisfying conclusion to the Thrawn saga and sets up the possibility of a whole new range of threats to both the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant really well. It’s also the book where Luke and Mara shout at each other about their feelings while battling the forces of evil together before coming out victorious and engaged, which is frankly great.
7. Betrayal by Aaron Allston
The first of the The Legacy of the Force series, Betrayal picks up the threads seeded in the New Jedi Order and Dark Nest Crisis and brings them to fruition in a new set of conflicts that once again threaten the stability of the entire galaxy and the continued existence of the Jedi order. With the threat of extinction at the hands of the Yuzhuun Vong behind them planets are looking to leave the half Imperial, militaristic Galactic Alliance, starting with that bastion if independence Corellia.
But this is no longer a voluntary coalition of planets and the Galactic Alliance is unwilling to let Corellia go, building up to an armed conflict that sees friends and family on opposite sides. Meanwhile, Jacen Solo, a ticking bomb after his time in captivity with the Yuuzhun Vong and the Dark Jedi Vergere, takes his first steps onto a dark path that could tear down everything his family has built.
Betrayal is great because it sets up a new yet classically Star Wars epic saga, where the effects of unhealed trauma, the ways that once revolutionary institutions like the Jedi Order can become bloated and bureaucratic, and the ease with which tyranny can reestablish itself are all explored.
6. Jedi Search by Kevin J. Anderson
I’ll be honest: This was my first expanded universe novel and I got my hands on it when I was nine, so I can’t tell you if it’s actually good or not. It’s entirely possible that my love of the Jedi Academy trilogy is built on sheer nostalgia and my pre-teen fantasies of becoming a Jedi knight. I don’t think so; I’ve reread it a couple of times as an adult and think it stands, but I’ve been told pretty firmly by other fans that I’m incorrect, so there we are.
On the other hand, this is my list, so I get to put it where I want, so it’s coming in at number six. In Jedi Search, Luke feels compelled to restart the Jedi Order and manages to persuade the New Republic Senate to give it their official blessing. Balancing Luke’s quest to gather all the wild force users he can find is Han and Chewie’s diplomatic mission gone wrong, to the Spice-mining prison planet of Kessel.
Captured by its corrupt ruler, they’re forced to work in the mines until they find a powerful force user of their own down there, only to discover an even bigger threat when they break out. Introducing Admiral Daala, one of the most fun female villains in Star Wars, as well as a wide cast of new Jedi apprentices, Jedi Search features some of the best character creation in Legends, and it makes a great base for a tabletop roleplaying campaign, too.
5. The Crystal Star by Vonda N. McIntyre
While on a diplomatic mission with their mother to Munto Codru, Han and Leia’s children are kidnapped. With the local authorities convinced it’s simply one of the traditional ritual kidnappings that play a part of local politics, insisting on waiting for a ransom demand rather than taking action, it’s up to Leia and Chewie to find them on their own.
Meanwhile, Luke and and Han are investigating reports of a Jedi enclave on a distant world, only to find something altogether stranger—a sinister cult dedicated to a being known as Waru and a dying star that’s slowly turning crystalline. I genuinely love The Crystal Star and would actually have ranked it a little higher if not for the fact that a large part of the novel is told from the perspective of Han and Leia’s five-year-old daughter Jaina, and I know some people find that kind of thing aggravating.
It worked for me both because it was interesting to see a Sith organization through the eyes of a profoundly loved and protected child for whom everything about it was entirely alien, and because the section involving the children’s uprising was fun and cute. It was also kind of great watching Luke completely lose his mind under the consciousness-altering effects of [spoilers], and the ending is one of those emotional “power of love and friendship” moments actually done well that gets me every time.
4. The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The rise of a dark Jedi capable of destroying entire planets sees history threatening to repeat itself in The New Rebellion. When the bombing of the New Republic senate that follows coincidentally ends up killing most of Leia’s allies, she’s forced to step down as president, which turns out to be a good thing as it frees her up to go chasing after Luke, who’s bitten off more than he can chew on the backwater world of Almania.
Han is dealing with his own problems, trying to figure out how the network of smugglers he used to work with are involved in this new threat, and trying to keep Lando alive as an old enemy comes back eager for his pound of flesh. I reread this book so many times in my early teens that at one point I realized I knew parts of it off by heart. It’s one of those great books that explores the potentially cyclical nature of revolutions and how, if the people aren’t vigilant, the same kind of tyranny can rise again—often with the justification that the violence is necessary to protect others from greater violence.
It also does a little, though admittedly not enough, to address the issue of droids in the Star Wars universe, and how immoral it is to treat a group of sentient beings that way, which is one of the big uncomfortable factors of the franchise.
3. Allegiance by Timothy Zahn
Set during the rebellion, Allegiance follows the adventures of a really unfortunate group of stormtroopers who end up cruising the galaxy in a stolen shuttle, righting wrongs and generally engaging in the kind of vigilante action that folk heroes are made of. One of my favorite things about the Star Wars expanded material is the way it explores the impact of propaganda, and how people react when they see the reality underneath it.
We already know from the movies that a lot of young people sign up for the Empire’s academy out of desperation or idealism, only to defect to the Rebellion when they learn how the Empire really operates, and books like this let you see how it happens and the choices people have to make in those situations. Then you add in Mara Jade, and you get to see her cognitive dissonance at work as her innate sense of justice and morality wars against her Imperial brainwashing when she runs up against these lads and tries to figure out what to do with them.
The insight into her contentious relationship with Darth Vader, which comes in when he thinks she’s responsible for that shuttle full of himbos, is also a nice little bonus. There’s also a second classic Star Wars Legends-style plot line in the novel featuring Han, Luke, and Leia, and even though it’s pretty standard fare, it’s always good to have them turn up, too.
2. Coruscant Nights 1: Jedi Twilight by Michael Reeves
OK so hear me out, it’s a story about Jedi who survived the Order 66 purge, but it’s also a noir detective novel set in the under city of Coruscant, and if that’s not the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard, then we can’t be friends. Jedi knight Jax Pavan and Grey Jedi Laranth Tarak have retreated to the Blackpit Slums below the city proper, in order to slide beneath Vader and the Emperor’s notice, and continue to help people where they can.
For Pavan, this quickly leads to him taking on the role of a private detective, aided by Tarak, the grizzled reporter Den Dhur, and an extremely un-protocol droid named I-5YQ. Pavan’s desire to survive in this dystopian new world comes into conflict with his sense of duty when the news of his former master’s death reaches him, along with a request that Pavan finish what he started—a mission whose success is crucial if the newly born resistance against the Empire is to have any kind of chance.
It hits all the beats of a classic Noir, except it’s been marinaded in gritty sci-fi. Coruscant Nights 1: Jedi Twilight is the genre mashup I never knew I needed until I read it, and provides a fresh new image of Star Wars that’s honestly delightful.
1. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
The book that started it all, it’s probably treason or heresy to put anything other than Heir to the Empire in the top spot. We wouldn’t even have most of the rest of Legends if Zahn hadn’t reawakened the fan base with his trilogy, not to mention Grand Admiral Thrawn or my beloved, Mara Jade. Heir to the Empire sees the rebellion, now transformed into the legitimate government known as the New Republic, occupying the galactic capital of Coruscant and trying to hold it.
As Grand Admiral Thrawn returns from his mysterious mission in the Unknown Regions, intent on salvaging and consolidating the remnants of the Empire, mysterious forces try to kidnap the very pregnant Senator Leia, with designs specifically on her unborn twins. Meanwhile, Imperial Hand turned smuggler Mara Jade hears the Emperor’s voice in her head again, repeating his last command of “you will kill Luke Skywalker” moments before their paths cross, and she finally has the opportunity to do just that.
Heir to the Empire and its two direct sequels really feel like they could have been another of the classic movies, so it’s perfect if that’s the vibe you’re missing and looking to recapture.
(featured image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
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