The Star Wars universe is more than just a handful of blockbuster films and animated television shows. The sheer volume of material is a double-edged sword: it provides dedicated fans plenty of new material to immerse themselves in, but it can also deter newcomers who just want to dip their toes in the water.
With the new series of films from Disney, Lucasfilm decided give filmmakers a clean slate. The tie-in novels are still being published, but they’re not part of the official canon. That doesn’t mean those books aren’t worth reading: recently, Timothy Zahn returned to the Star Wars universe to tell the origins of his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was recently brought back into the canon via Star Wars Rebels.
Since that book hit stores, a lot of people have asked about how to start in on the mountain of material that is Star Wars, canon or not. Since The Force Awakens, that question has gotten a little more difficult to answer, because the books are split into two continuities: the non-canon Star Wars Legends (otherwise known as the Expanded Universe) and a new series of books that fall in the official canon.
That’s a lot of reading. But where to get started? This isn’t a comprehensive set of book recommendations, but it should serve as a good starting point.
Expanded Universe / Legends
In 1991, Del Rey Books launched a new novel from author Timothy Zahn: Heir to the Empire, kicking off the enormous Expanded Universe publishing experiment. Since Disney decided to wipe the slate clean and label these stories Legends, you can think of it as a sort of alternate Star Wars universe. Dozens of authors wrote hundreds of novels that explored the spaces around the films.
If you’re just getting started:
- The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. Ask any Star Wars reader what book to start with, and nine times out of 10, you’ll get the same answer: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command kicked off the Expanded Universe, written as the third trilogy decades before The Force Awakens arrived. They’re smart; they introduce some amazing figures such as Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, a former Imperial assassin who eventually becomes Luke Skywalker’s wife; and they hold up extremely well years after they were published. If you only ever read a couple of extra novels, make it these.
- The X-Wing series by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston. Based on the old PC games, this series takes an interesting direction: Stackpole only sparingly uses the franchise’s lead characters, and introduces a whole host of his own. The series follows the efforts of the New Republic as it takes on the Empire in the years after Return of the Jedi, and if you like military science fiction, there’s plenty to love here: there’s lots of X-Wing fighter dogfights, espionage, and a whole cast of great new characters. Aaron Allston’s entries follow another unit that’s geared more toward espionage, and they’re sidesplittingly funny. There’s a final installment that came years later, Mercy Kill, which takes place after the Legacy of the Force series (see below), so some additional reading might be needed for context. The entire 10-book series is worth picking up.
- The Han Solo trilogy, A.C. Crispin. We might be getting a standalone Han Solo movie soon, but A.C. Crispin trilogy is about a teenager named Han Solo who finds work as a transport pilot for a cult. The trilogy recounts how he met Chewbacca, got booted out of the Imperial Academy, and how he ended up losing some cargo owned by Jabba the Hutt. It’s a good example of a prequel novel that sets up its own story, while serving a larger narrative.
- The Jedi Academy Trilogy, Kevin J. Anderson / I, Jedi, Michael A Stackpole. These books are hit or miss with fans, but if you want to read on, they’re pretty essential. The trilogy is about Luke Skywalker’s efforts to try and restart the Jedi Order. He tracks down a number of Force-sensitive recruits, only to have his most promising student fall to the Dark Side. While the series isn’t the best out there, it does introduce a ton of characters who will become pivotal later on, such as Han Solo and Leia Organa’s children, Jacen and Jaina Solo. Stackpole’s novel I, Jedi is set during the events trilogy, cleverly working in a character from the X-Wing series after the fact.
- The Republic Commando series, Karen Traviss. Of all the Clone Wars novels out there, none are more essential than the Republic Commando series. Based on the video game series, Traviss introduces Delta Squad as they’re deployed to a remote planet with a bioweapons research facility. Traviss does an amazing job giving depth to the faceless clone troopers well before The Clone Wars animated show did, and she creates some extremely interesting and complicated characters along the way.
- Shatterpoint, Matthew Stover. In addition to Karen Traviss’s series, one of the best Star Wars novels out there is Shatterpoint. This one is about Mace Windu during the early days of the Clone Wars, and it punches above its weight, thematically. Stover drew on Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness to create an unusually dark and intriguing novel about the seductive nature of power.
If you want to take the next step:
- Thrawn Duology, Timothy Zahn. After starting the Expanded Universe, Zahn took a couple of years off, but when it came time to bring the central conflict (the fight between the New Republic and Empire) to a definitive close, he wrote the Thrawn duology. The novels bring back Thrawn (in a fashion), and help tie off some loose ends, but also leaves the door open for the next chapter of the Star Wars universe.
- The Corellian Trilogy, Roger McBride Allen. This series delves into Han Solo’s past as his home system comes to the brink of war, with the emergence of a new superweapon. This trilogy is an entertaining one, with some fun action and espionage.
- Black Fleet Crisis, Michael P. Kube-McDowell. This trilogy is set in a remote star cluster as tensions between the New Republic and a local government explode into war. The trilogy is dark and well written, but feels a bit like an ignored story in the larger continuity arc that makes it a good standalone set of adventures.
- The rest of the Clone Wars novels. When Attack of the Clones hit theaters, Del Rey launched an ambitious, multimedia project: novels, video games, comic books and the first animated series all tied in to one another closely. The result is a huge number of novels that cover the Clone Wars: books like Jedi Trial, Cestus Deception, Battle Surgeons, Jedi Healer, and others helped fill in the Clone Wars that were first mentioned in A New Hope. Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars animated series conflicts with this a bit, but there’s some good gems in here that stand up alongside the best episodes.
- Honor Among Thieves, James S.A. Corey and Razor’s Edge, Martha Wells, Scoundrels, Timothy Zahn. These three novels were some of the last published in the Expanded Universe, and were designed to be a bit more of an entry-level read to the franchise. They’re straight-up adventures that channel the feel of the films.
- Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, Michael Reaves. While The Phantom Menace earned mixed reviews, it did introduce fan-favorite character Darth Maul. This novel leads up to the film, and helps explain the origins of Maul as he completes a series of trials on Coruscant.
- Shadows of the Empire, Steve Perry. An experimental, multimedia series, Shadows of the Empire novel ties in with the game and comics, and follows the main heroes as they work to track down Han Solo. The book goes into the Star Wars criminal underworld and fills the space Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
- The Young Jedi Knights Series, Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. This 14-book series are aimed at slightly younger readers, but they’re pretty foundational for the later New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force novels that come later. They follow the adventures of Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin Solo as they begin to train to become Jedi, getting into a whole bunch of adventures along the way. Some, like Heir to the Force, are quite good, while others are just okay.
- Darth Plagueis, James Luceno. This novel goes into the backstory of Darth Plagueis, who was mentioned briefly in Revenge of the Sith, a Sith Lord who figures out the trick to immortality, before he’s killed by his apprentice. This book explains the reference, and helps explain the rise of the Sith just before the prequel trilogy.
- Kenobi, John Jackson Miller. People have been clamoring for a film about Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in the meantime, this book goes into Kenobi’s life on Tatooine after the events of Revenge of the Sith. Some of that’s been changed with Obi Wan Kenobi’s appearances in Rebels, but it’s a solid book.
If you absolutely have to be a completist:
- The Castilla Trilogy: these three books haven’t aged terribly well, but they introduce some interesting concepts: Children of the Jedi and Planet of Twilight by Barbara Hambly, and Darksaber by Kevin J. Anderson. They’re ponderous reads, introduce some new superweapons, and introduce a love interest for Luke Skywalker, Callista. She is a long-dead Jedi Knight who was trapped in the computers of an abandoned Imperial cruiser with a deadly mission.
- The Truce at Bakura, Kathy Tyers. This book is notable because it takes place right after Return of the Jedi, and follows a New Republic task force sent to help a planet under attack by strange aliens called the Ssi-ruuk who are stealing the life energy from people to power their ships.
- Death Troopers, Joe Schreiber. Like horror? Like zombies? Stormtrooper zombies. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this book. There’s another horror novel called Red Harvest that serves as a prequel as well.
- Courtship of Princess Leia, Dave Wolverton. Han Solo drugs and kidnaps Leia Organa when she considers marrying someone else. Yeah. It’s a book that hasn’t aged well, but it has some familiar, canon locations and characters. Dathomir and the Nightsisters, which were seen in the Clone Wars, originated here
- Bounty Hunter Wars, K.W. Jeter. If you like bounty hunters, this might be a fun series for you: following Boba Fett and a couple of other bounty hunters after the events of Return of the Jedi. It’s sort of an underworld take on the Star Wars universes, but it never quite lives up to its potential.
- The New Jedi Order, various authors. While Timothy Zahn capped off the conflict between the New Republic and the Empire, Del Rey had to figure out what to do next. With a group of authors, it plotted out an ambitious, 19-book, multi-author series that sees the entire galaxy invaded by an alien race known as the Yuuzhan Vong. There are some bright points in the series, but it’s a long series, and the multiple authors makes it pretty uneven, quality-wise.
- The Legacy of the Force, various authors. Made up of three trilogies from three authors (Aaron Allston, Karen Traviss, and Troy Denning), the Legacy of the Force trilogy takes place after the New Jedi Order. The upside is that it’s a tighter series than the NJO, but it comes with a pretty hefty stack of books to read first.
- The Han Solo and Lando Calrissian Adventures. Written by Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith, these books were written in the 1980s, and cover the formative years of the two titular characters. They’re fun books: lighthearted adventure mixed with a dose of 1970s / 1980s science fiction.
- The Crystal Star, Vonda N. McIntyre. This book is roundly mocked, and it’s probably worth skipping. But if you have to read them all? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
With The Force Awakens announced, Lucasfilm faced a couple of options: keep the vast EU, and build a story set in the same world, ignore it completely, or keep bits of it. It opted to render the entire storyline non-canon (much to the dismay of some fans), but kept the building blocks that made up the EU. As we’ve seen, there’s some parts of the EU that’s made its way into the regular continuity, and we’ll likely see more to come in the near future.
If you’re just getting started:
Aftermath Trilogy, Chuck Wendig. While not the first novels in the new continuity, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels were the first to begin covering the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The novels introduce some new characters, and explain how the Empire fell, and show off some of the big battles hinted at in The Force Awakens, in order to queue up the new trilogy.
Thrawn, Timothy Zahn. We’ve already covered Thrawn in some detail, but we’ll reiterate: it’s a fine book, one that works really well as an entry point for the franchise, but also serves as a good setup for the original Thrawn trilogy. Best of both worlds!
Bloodline, Claudia Gray. This novel takes place right before the start of The Force Awakens, and follows Leia Organa as she works to manage the rise of the First Order and the Resistance that comes to combat it.
Ahsoka, E.K. Johnston. Ahsoka has become one of the most popular characters to emerge out of the Clone Wars, and when she vanished from the series and later reappeared in Rebels, fans were wondering what happened to her. This book covers that lost time. The audiobook is actually voiced by Ashley Eckstein, who voices the character in the series.
If you want to take the next step:
Catalyst, James Luceno. This novel is begins at the end of the Clone Wars and helps to set up Rogue One. It follows Galen Erso during the formative years of the Death Star project, and explains why he left in the first place.
Lords of the Sith, Paul Kemp. Lords of the Sith is about Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, and sets up their relationship during the early days of the Empire, when both are trapped on a hostile planet.
Battlefront: Twilight Company, Alexander Freed. When Battlefront came back to consoles, Alexander Freed came in to write a novel based on the game, much like the X-Wing and Republic Commando books. The result is an action-packed book that covers the Rebellion between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. There’s another Battlefront novel coming out later this year that looks promising as well.
Lost Stars, Claudia Gray. Aimed at younger audiences, this novel begins eight years after Revenge of the Sith. Spanning the events of the original trilogy, it follows two friends Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree on their diverging paths as war overtakes the galaxy.
Tarkin, James Luceno. Grand Moff Tarkin has become a pivotal figure between A New Hope, Rebels, and now Rogue One. This book follows his origins to explain how he became a feared member of the Imperial government.
If you absolutely have to be a completist:
Dark Disciple, Christie Golden. The Clone Wars was famously cancelled before its time and rather than scrap one of the story arcs, Christie Golden went and adapted its events for a novel, one that follows former Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress and a Jedi knight named Quinlan Vos (who first appeared in the Expanded Universe).
A New Dawn, John Jackson Miller. This novel serves as a prequel to the Rebels animated show, and explores the origins of Caleb Dume, who would later become known as Kanan Jarrus. There’s a bunch of characters from Rebels that appears in here, as well as in other novels that take place around the same time.
Heir to the Jedi, Kevin Hearne. This novel was intended as the final Expanded Universe novel, but it was slipped into the main canon. Where James S.A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves and Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge follow Han Solo and Princess Leia, respectively, this would have formed the third part of a loose trilogy, following the final member of the franchise’s “Big Three” characters, Luke Skywalker.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Alexander Freed / The Force Awakens, Alan Dean Foster. If you really want to read all of the books, the respective novelizations are worth picking up. They’re breezy, and add a little extra to the films.
Star Wars reading list: where to start after you finish the movies – The Verge