Five long years.
Not since Disney bought Lucasfilm; rather, it has been five years since the new canon started in an official capacity. For whatever reason, Star Wars nerds have had a wild preoccupation with what constitutes canonicity, as if each and every one of us were our own personal version of Athanasius. The old Expanded Universe (the “EU”), that timeline of events that had been produced in the Star Wars universe outside of the films up until 2012, had gotten nearly out of control. It stretched thousands of years before the films and several hundreds years after they ended. While there was much to enjoy in the EU, there was more dross than silver. But after five years, we now have an acceptable vantage point to start asking:
Have we gotten any better?
If we take all of the novels written within the Star Wars universe since 2014 and review them in an analytical manner, as well as compare them to a selection of EU novels and even non-Star Wars material, how does the new canon hold up? What are the highlights and low-lights, and since there are 35 novels for a total of 12,824 pages that make up the new canon, has it been worth it?
Before we tackle the challenge of rating, organizing, and analyzing which novels are the best or “least best,” we must establish a few ground rules that will help ensure we are all swimming in the same pool.
This analysis considers entries listed “Original Novels” and “Novel Adaptations” from Wookieepedia’s Timeline of Canon Books which excludes the novelizations of Episodes I through VI as well as Junior Novels and Young Readers. That gives us 35 titles as of March 1, 2020, to start with.
When we get to the portion of comparing them to the EU, it becomes much more challenging. The EU is composed of standalone novels, trilogies (and duologies), nine-entry series, and at least one stunningly-long term nineteen-entry series. There are video game novels, contradicting entries, adaptations of comic series, and all sorts of strange novelties. Perhaps one day we can review the EU in a similar manner, but for purposes of reviewing the new canon, we needed a smaller sample size.
Then the question of how to actually rate them. Thankfully, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic do not host aggregate ratings for books, otherwise we might be forced to dwell amongst the most depraved and disgusting pits of humanity in digital form. Amazon allows for star ratings which might be somewhat helpful, but the data feels polluted by a general population with easy access to it (and similar tendencies towards review bombing and revenge-rating); there is actually one source of ratings that proved more valuable when mining for data: Goodreads. Here, you can find publication dates, page numbers, and of course user ratings. The issue with these user ratings is no different from any other source’s user ratings: they are subjective based on the appetites and displeasures of its user base. While you might want to imagine some hierarchy of responsibility and sense of communal nature among humanity’s most elite members casually known as book readers, as opposed to say video gamers, you would be sorely disappointed. There is still a fair share of hate-rating, pre-publication rating, counter-rating, rating bombing, etc. However, despite the inherent difficulty in relying on crowd-sourced information, it is still the best we can find. User ratings are made on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being the worst and 5 being the best, and are taken out two decimal places. So, with that in mind, we tracked the following categories of entries:
- All 35 eligible novels of the New Canon (no highlight in below chart);
- 10 novels of the Expanded Universe of the author’s choosing, subjective as it may be (more on that below) (light blue in below chart);
- The top 5 Most Popular novels of each year from 2014 to 2019* in order to match the publication years of the new canon (yellow highlight in below chart), for the purpose of illustrating the overall rating of Star Wars material to non-Star Wars material published in the same time span.
This analysis includes ten novels of various degrees of quality in order to put the New Canon up against some of the most well known novels of the EU. I am aware of the completely subjective nature of this pull and hope that it will not prejudice or pollute the results unnecessarily. The ten novels chosen were:
- Heir to the Empire (1991)
- Dark Force Rising (1992)
- The Last Command (1993)
- Truce at Bakura (1993)
- The Crystal Star (1994)
- I, Jedi (1998)
- The Phantom Menace (1999)
- Vector Prime (1999)
- Revenge of the Sith (2005)
- Darth Plagueis (2012)
These were pulled because a) I have read them in the past and can speak with some degree of certainty on their overall quality, b) appear frequently on lists of either best or worst of the EU in other publications, and c) represent certain types of books within the EU such as first of a series, film adaptation, part of a trilogy, standalone, etc. You may note that there are a limited number of novels that occur during the Old Republic time frame; those texts are mostly comic books or game adaptations or influences (or in some cases, novels based on trailers for videogames…) and thus not particularly influential here. Again, these ten serve more as barometers for the new canon to be measured against as opposed to representing the whole of the EU.
That should set the stage. 75 titles, their Goodreads’ user rating, and publication dates. Take a look at this monstrosity:
These are organized in descending order of User Ratings, highest to lowest. Take a moment to just scan for your favorite titles and see where they land. Also, fun exercise: check out the Most Popular books for each year and see if you have read them. I can think of at least one member of the CS team who will have strong feelings regarding a certain 2016 entry. Again, the inclusion of the Most Popular entries are to line up the New Canon titles against other books released the same year. This demonstrates the general quality and rating of Star Wars books to non-Star Wars books.
When we consider top and bottom Star Wars entries, the titles likely do not come off terribly surprising. The Top 5 New Canon novels are Thrawn (4.27), Lost Stars (4.25), Thrawn Treason (4.25), Rogue One (4.15), and Master & Apprentice (4.15). The Bottom 5 New Canon novels are Aftermath (3.21), Heir to the Jedi (3.35), Last Shot (3.36), Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate (3.58), and Most Wanted (3.72). Thrawn being the best rated title may not come as a huge surprise since Timothy Zahn is probably the most influential writer in the Star Wars universe, both new canon and EU. Claudia Gray should be crowned Queen of the New Canon. She has the most entries (4) with the highest average rating (4.15). Timothy Zahn has the next best record with 3 entries and an average rating of 4.14. What stands out as interesting is that while Zahn has the highest rated title (Thrawn, 4.27), Gray has the most consistently well-rated novels: her 4 titles range from 4.06 to 4.25 whereas Zahn’s range from 3.89 to 4.27. Of the rest of the authors who have multiple entries, the average scores in descending order are:
- Alexander Freed (3, 3.90)
- Chuck Wendig (3, 3.58)
- EK Johnson (2, 3.91)
- Christie Golden (2, 3.90)
- Delilah S. Dawson (2, 3.87)
- James Luceno (2, 3.75)
All remaining authors (Fry, Lafferty, Revis, Miller, Kemp, Roanhorse, Scott, Foster, Shinick, Carson, Cordova, Older, and Hearne) have a single entry, making their average ratings their only ratings. If you want to consider average rating without consideration for how many entries the author has, your top 5 contributors are Claudia Gray, Timothy Zahn, Jason Fry, EK Johnson, and Mur Lafferty. Using the publication years, we can also identify the rating for each year of the new canon:
- Average Rating: 3.77
- Inheriting from the EU and establishing the New Canon with Tarkin and A New Dawn
- Average Rating: 3.72
- Finding its footing with Heir to the Jedi, Lords of the Sith, Dark Disciple, Lost Stars, Aftermath, and Battlefield: Twilight Company
- Average Rating: 3.91
- Claudia Gray and EK Johnson start cleaning up with Ahsoka, Bloodline, Catalyst/Rogue One, The Force Awakens, and Aftermath: Life Debt
- Average Rating 3.93
- Highest year on record with Aftermath: Empire’s End, Thrawn, Inferno Squad, Leia Princess of Alderaan, Phasma, Rebel Rising, and From a Certain Point of View
- Average Rating: 3.77
- Branching out and trying new things with The Last Jedi, Last Shot, Most Wanted, Solo, and Thrawn: Alliances
- Average Rating: 3.86
- Old favorites return with Master & Apprentice, Thrawn: Treason, Black Spire, and Queen’s Shadow.
The last thing to consider is how the new canon stacks up against the EU. Again, since the selections from the EU for this exercise were inherently prejudicial (though hopefully not overwhelmingly influential), this is not a complete analysis of the ratings between the two sets. To properly consider the data behind the EU, more pruning needs to be done of the available data so that it contains a proper delineation of entries as well as identification of rule-sets (for inclusion versus exclusion). So I suppose that sets up the inevitable Part II of this exercise.
Comparing the new canon to the EU, it compares 22 authors to only 8. The average rating for a New Canon entry is 3.839 whereas the EU was 3.865, a difference of only 0.026 rating points, twenty-six one-thousandths of a point! The highest rated titles for each canon are Thrawn (at 4.27) and The Last Command (at 4.23), both Zahn entries, proving Zahn’s staying power and consistency over the decades as one of the best writers in the Star Wars writers’ room; if Claudia Gray is queen, then Timothy Zahn is king. The lowest of the two categories are Aftermath (at 3.21) and The Crystal Star (at 3.09). The last bits of trivia that I’d like to pass along are:
- Most pages (in original printing):
- New Canon: Lost Stars at 551 pages
- EU: I, Jedi at 464
- Least pages (in original printing):
- New Canon: The Force Awakens at 260 pages
- EU: Truce at Bakura at 246 pages
That’s right, you can fit TWO The Force Awakens novelizations inside Lost Stars. The average amount of pages is 366 for the new canon, with 2017 being the year with the highest average (412) due mainly to From a Certain Point of View and Thrawn; evidently, people simply couldn’t stop writing about Star Wars that year? Not so coincidentally, 2017 was also the year with the most posts on ClashingSabers.net, so there’s that.
The data, when taken as a whole, seems to indicate that the new canon is not monumentally better or worse than the Expanded Universe. This could be surprising depending on how one’s expectations were set at the time of the Disney-Lucasfilm purchase. If you had hoped that Disney’s new directions would right the wrongs of the EU and create something that stands above it, you may come out of this disappointed with these efforts since we still have things, like the Aftermath trilogy, which almost did more harm than good (in this writer’s opinion). However, if you also rooted for Disney’s new directions to fail spectacularly, you should similarly be chastened, since no such evidence would support that either. Rather, we are simply getting more of the same. We even have eight authors who made the jump from the EU to the new canon in John Jackson Miller, James Luceno, Paul S. Kemp, Christie Golden, Alexander Freed (sort of), Alan Dean Foster, Timothy Zahn, and Jason Fry. While we may never get the type of treatment of the Mandalorian culture or clone trooper psychology that Karen Traviss gave us in the EU, and we likely will not see the extragalactic invaders that R.A. Salvatore kicked off, what we have gotten includes more on Qui-Gon Jinn’s training of Obi-Wan Kenobi in a startlingly fascinating entry by Claudia Gray, E.K. Johnson’s high school graduation novel in Queen’s Shadow, and the ruthless upbringing of one Wilhuff Tarkin along with his rise to power.
What should stand out in Disney’s new canon is the lack of overarching plans within the new canon. The EU (almost) always had a forward-looking momentum with its design of trilogies, series, and entries. Things followed along a timeline (again, for the most part) which created a sense of engaged storytelling where outcomes were not certain and characters were not always safe (i.e. Vector Prime). However, the new canon has failed to provide that sense of continuing adventures. That sense of investment and continuation is what makes the EU compelling even in these days, where it finds no new support. We do not need to advocate for its support, though, either; the last major entry of the EU (Crucible) put on full display the problems of keeping Luke, Han, and Leia as the focal point for story-telling, given their god-like statuses. Crucible was intended to mark a delineation, where the classic heroes were finally retired and the new cast allowed to drive the major stories. It is easy to tell what the fear would be, though: would anyone consider it Star Wars if it didn’t have Luke, Leia, or Han? Would Jaina Solo-Fel’s adventures be enough to carry the torch forward?** Disney’s LucasFilm is not prepared for such an endeavor as to decide how to carry their newly created characters forward.
The reason for Disney’s reticence at long-form arcs and story-telling should be clear: the continuation of the filmic episodes as tent-pole investments. There was never going to be a threat to Rey, Poe, or Finn in any of the books until the movies concluded. If ever there was a danger to their survival, it was going to be onscreen, where it belonged (rightfully so). Now, with Rise of Skywalker being released, the movies are complete. The First Order has been eliminated and the Tragedy of Ben Solo has been told in its entirety. This should hopefully free up the Lucasfilm team to start giving us stories starring characters we’ve come to love through the films in new and interesting directions as they rebuild the galaxy again, the way their heroes did, and hopefully learn from their mistakes and forge new futu–
Well, alright then, I suppose.