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The Bantam Era of Star Wars

After Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn was released, reviving much public interest in new Star Wars stories, there were a number of novels and comic series released to continue advancing the mythos. The comics were published by Dark Horse, and the novels, including Heir to the Empire and its two sequels in the Thrawn trilogy, were published by Bantam Spectra. While Dark Horse’s team began development on several stories, some of which like the Tales of the Jedi series took place thousands of years before Lucas’ films in Star Wars’ internal chronology, just about all of Bantam’s novels were set in the movie era or directly after it, exploring the idea of a New Republic coming into formation subsequent to the collapse of the Empire and a New Jedi Order to replace the one that had been destroyed.

Bantam’s Star Wars novels were not the first official Expanded Universe books though. Del Rey, who ironically gained the rights to publishing Star Wars novels again in the new millennium, had published Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster, who also wrote the novelization for A New Hope, and The Han Solo Adventures by the late Brian Daley. These books were few and far between and were never set to be written in quick succession the way SW books are today. But with the success of the Thrawn trilogy, there were quite a few EU books authored by quite a few writers set to be released through Bantam publishing spanning several years after Return of the Jedi. These books weren’t released in chronological order either. For instance, The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton, which precedes the Thrawn trilogy on the in-universe timeline by one year, was released a year after The Last Command, which concluded Zahn’s trilogy.

Now, I don’t claim to have an intimate grasp of the developmental process of Bantam’s novels. I have read a few interviews with authors here and there in SW magazines and the like and have been informed of certain back-of-house details concerning their progression, but from what I can gather, there was no overarching individual or individuals who spearheaded the project of authoring new SW novels with a clear, unified vision for where they were to lead the mythos narratively. This is in stark contrast to what we’ve seen under Del Rey’s publishing. The New Jedi Order series had complications in development, as it naturally would with as many creative talents behind its development as it had, but it did have some general outline as to what the series was meant to be from the editors’ standpoint. In the same way, the Legacy of the Jedi and the Fate of the Jedi as other cogent examples were also undertaken with a definite idea in the mind of the creative team as to what they intended the story to grow into. This isn’t to say that these creative teams never had changes of mind mid-development or that their goal was a perfectly realized product of how they first imagined it, but there was more evident communication and premeditated decision-making regarding what track the writers’ story was supposed to take.

In the case of Bantam, it would seem reasonable to assume this single-minded direction existed in their SW tenure to some extent, but it was less controlled and focused and allowed more liberties on the part of the individual authors. Del Rey of course does permit creative liberties, especially in the case of standalone novels, but when Del Rey’s editors and creative staff have taken in hand to produce a fluid novel series, their writers always seemed to have a more linear destination in mind (whether they always succeeded in creating that is another discussion). With Bantam, again, I say this not having too extensive an apprehension of their creative background or editing system, but their goal more appeared to be simply: generate as much continuation of the franchise as possible. This is not to suggest that they let anything pass without the editors’ notice, but at the very least, there was apparently little in way of an organic flow from book to book.

Like I said, part of the reason for this can be found in the fact that Bantam’s novels (and Del Rey’s for the record) were not released in chronological order, and neither should it be required of them to, in my opinion. With an open universe as expansive and with as much story potential as Star Wars, writers should hardly be confined to writing in successive order. If a gap in the lore history exists, that leaves opportunity for it to be filled in, and Bantam and then Del Rey have seen fit to do exactly that. With that said, whether read in chronological order or otherwise, Bantam’s Star Wars novels can often times feel disconnected from one another and overall somewhat directionless.

Bantam’s Star Wars novels have a noticeably distinct tone and mindset from Del Rey’s novels, and much of that disparity in narrative style is due to the release of the prequel trilogy. The PT made a number of additions to the SW lore, particularly in its history and philosophy, and had a fairly dramatic change in tone and focus compared to the OT. For this reason, some ideas that were investigated in Bantam’s SW novels were never given much attention in Del Rey’s SW novels, and Del Rey’s books began expositing on ideas that didn’t even exist when Bantam was publishing Star Wars.

For many EU fans or even casual readers, the Bantam books can seem a bit more removed from Star Wars as we know it today, especially in the EU, something similar to how Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics have a more concrete chronology and sense of story relevance as opposed to Marvel’s Star Wars series from the 70s and 80s. Much like Marvel’s older Star Wars series, Bantam’s novels introduced a few concepts and characters that don’t integrate very well with modern EU. Bantam Star Wars was for all practical intents and purposes the origin of the EU as it is today, but there were numerous settings, tones, concepts, and plots throughout Bantam EU, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. If I can express my own commentary on Bantam candidly, despite some of the failures in their stories and ideas, I personally think that testing the parameters of what does and does not belong in Star Wars actually helped shape it for modern readers’ benefit. Because of Marvel and Bantam, we now know what Star Wars’ Expanded Universe ought to be better than if we never had them.

If you begin reading Bantam’s novels looking for a sense of consistency or direction as you might find with some of Del Rey’s stories, you will probably be disappointed. Even though Bantam’s books set the stage in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi with the recreation of the Republic and the Jedi Order and most of their plots revolved around those two developments, there often is a sense of waning central drive in those books; this is especially palpable if you attempt to read all of Bantam’s novels in chronological order. As you read one book after another, the stories begin to come across as more and more disjointed. There is an idea of chronology in those novels, and many of them reference events in other books. But you could start asking what exactly the point of these stories is after a while.

To illustrate a contrast, let’s examine the Clone Wars in the prequel era. The Clone Wars were first mentioned sort of edgewise in A New Hope and of course were incorporated into the PT. Because there are some years spanning the divide between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, this left ample room for the EU to flesh out the events that took place during the Clone Wars, with The Clone Wars show being the latest addition. There are a number of novels that Del Rey published that tell some of the events in the Clone Wars. Each is a lore piece that fills out a gap in history between the films. Some of these stories you could argue are unnecessary, but nonetheless, the purpose of them is rarely lost: they’re moving singularly toward the climax of the war and the fall of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith. Although the characters in these stories are unaware of that fact, the point is never lost on readers. Even before RotS was released, this was still effective for a narrative flow because, although viewers didn’t know to a T what would happen in RotS, they knew because of the prior release of the original trilogy that somehow the Republic would be transposed with the Empire and Anakin would become Darth Vader. Again, there is a precise understanding of where it all leads, even if how the story arrives there is unclear.

This is also true for the events in the Galactic Civil War. Countless stories have been written in the EU inside the four years of the OT. Once again, someone could say that some of these stories are unnecessary and possibly be right, but we know what it all culminates in: the ending in Return of the Jedi. That grants the narrative with a more meaningful point. Of course, there are stories in the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War that are less than stellar, and some can just feel like filler. But if nothing else, they arguably have a little more reason to be written precisely because we know what the story is aiming at in the long run. As a result of essentially blazing new chronological territory, Bantam’s books lacked this more purposeful vision.

Now, suppose we aren’t reading these stories in a continuous fashion, not caring all too much for chronology or grander lore or anything, and are just wanting an enjoyable read worth our time: that actually is where Bantam is better suited. Because Bantam books can seem to want in momentum if read as a series of consecutive events, they can sometimes be more enjoyable if just read by themselves. There are actually some very worthwhile reads in Bantam’s Star Wars collection in my opinion, but if you’re expecting them to read the same way modern EU stories read, spoiler: they won’t. I don’t mean to exaggerate this difference as if Bantam is some weird alternate universe or something, because on the contrary, a good amount of the stories we enjoy today are either continuations of or based on stories from the Bantam era. So don’t start assuming that all Bantam books are as strange as that group of wizards inside an interdimensional space gate that Luke and Han met in Marvel’s old Star Wars series. They’re not that weird or that far-removed. They just read at a decidedly different pace and had a different reason for being written.

I spent a good deal of time discussing the flaws and obstacles that Bantam's novels had, but this blog is not intended to draw people away from them. I actually mean to do the opposite. In spite of what are some of its mistakes, many of the novels published through Bantam are worth reading. For some of the more unfavorable viewers of the PT, the fact that the last decade or so of EU material surrounding the six movies has been dominated by stories centered not on the OT but the PT might be offputting or uninteresting. In my humble opinion, the PT actually served as an entryway for many of the best Star Wars novels ever written, because the EU, at least in many of its stories, did a fantastic job with the prequel era and gave us some excellent reading material. However, if you really are opposed to buying into the PT tie-in stories, what the Bantam era can offer you is a selection of novels that follow the exploits of the big three from the OT, Luke, Han, and Leia. The authors of the New Republic era novels did, if nothing else, care quite a bit about the source material and the characters they were writing about and built their characters in ways beyond what was commissioned in the OT. If you prefer the OT characters, I would strongly encourage you to at least consider some of the New Republic era stories; there is sure to be at least a few you find rewarding.

There are some readers who as a whole are not fans of New Republic era, that is, Bantam SW novels. Speaking for myself, there were some definitely weak stories from them, but then again, not everything that has been published through Del Rey has exactly been classic literature either. Both have some hits and misses. To conclude, I want to recommend just five novels published through Bantam that I like. This list is varied in that it includes some books which are almost universally liked, some which are not so well liked, some which are well read, and some which are not so well read. But the reason I chose these particular ones to feature here is because I believe they deserve attention or because they’ve faded away from general recognition. This is not meant to comprise a list of my favorite novels, and these are just based on personal, subjective opinion. Also, this isn’t intended as a comprehensive review of these books, just a basic overview of why I appreciate them. Note: the Thrawn trilogy and the X-Wing series will not be listed here because those are well acclaimed for their quality; so if anyone’s wondering, yes, I do recommend the Thrawn trilogy and the X-Wing series too.

1. Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry: This book bridges the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and describes much of the preparation that went into Han’s rescue and Luke’s struggle with the dark side. It mainly focuses on Luke and Leia but features Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca, and Dash Rendar as other prominent characters. This book’s excellence to me can mainly be attributed to Perry’s very direct and almost-sardonic descriptions; Luke and Leia’s character development in light of recent events; discoveries and exposition pertaining to the Force; Prince Xizor and Darth Vader's intriguing and satisfying conflict; and the basic fact that it just plain feels like classic Star Wars. When an EU story is written in such a way that you could easily see it being one of the films, that speaks volumes about its quality. Shadows of the Empire is one of those stories and may possibly be my favorite out of all of these five and easily one of my favorite Bantam novels.

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2. The Truce at Bakura by Kathy Tyers: This will probably not win me much support. Bakura is a novel some EU fans have never bothered with, and from what I gather, most of those who have were less than impressed with it. For me, this book is gratifying, the primary reason being that Han, Leia, and especially Luke are three of my favorite characters in Star Wars, and Tyers made a point to evolve their character on the outcome of RotJ, mostly by her use of perspective-based narrative modes. Because of all the characterization and build-up that contributed to RotJ’s climax, there is a wealth of opportunity to explore Luke, Han, and Leia just afterward, and this book does exactly that. While the novel does suffer from some slow parts that can lose your interest and has some very strange and somewhat outlandish plot points, it delivers in enough meaty characterization to hold my interest. For that reason, in spite of its problems, I like it.

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3. The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton: This book sometimes borders on being a guilty pleasure of mine. Again, probably not garnering much support in this, but I actually really enjoy Courtship despite what I acknowledge are its flaws. Its basic story set-up and a few of its plot devices are a little improbable, similar to Bakura, but in my opinion, what Courtship does well is that it reads like a Star Wars story. Its not-so-subtle environmental message aside, it has good characterization, some interesting story turns, good antagonists, a kinetic narrative, and some fair discourse on the Force (for its time). To me, this is just a fun read, but I understand what many of the gripes about it are and agree with some of them.

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4. I, Jedi by Michael Stackpole: This book is actually fairly well-received among EU fans, to the point that I occasionally consider it a bit overrated; regardless, the hype is accurate, it does still hold-up well. Its first-person narrative, chronological awareness, and character development are well executed. I’ll say what many others have said in criticism of it that Stackpole does seem to go a little too far in trying to rectify what he sees as mistakes in previous stories through Corran Horn’s perspective, but that does nothing to detract from its quality in my opinion. There are very few flaws with this book, aside from maybe its pacing. What it does well though, it does very well: plot-line, descriptions, characterization, and so on are up to par. Well worth the read.

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5. The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: I have no idea what the general consensus on this book is, but for me, Rusch managed to succeed with this novel where many others in this era failed: what basically amounts to a filler book still felt like it had gravity. The events in this book are hardly continuity-shattering and can be labeled filler, and yet although the crisis that emerges here is just one of many in this era, it still comes across as serious and even threatening, in my opinion. What especially struck me in this book where others of its like failed was that it pushed the status of Luke as a teacher for the Jedi and Leia as an example for the Republic senate. It very quickly brought both into the foreground to personally deal with the immediate crisis, but by intentionally drawing narrative parallels to the OT (something too few stories do very well these days), it conveyed that much more how much Luke and Leia have grown and changed since the days of the Rebellion and thereby had them inherit roles previously occupied by their mentors. By doing this, in some ways it placed them in more danger because of their greater roles and saw them deal with greater consequences. That gives this book more weight, both in terms of narrative suspense and plot but also character, at least within its own narrative even if not in the broader continuity. I won’t describe what exactly happens (it would be rather underwhelming and unexciting for me to describe it to you anyway), but think of this book in context of the events that preceded it, particularly the OT, because the intention of the author is to deliver a generational tone, especially for Luke. It doesn’t hurt that this book features two of my favorite EU villains, Kueller and Brakiss, either. Don’t misunderstand, this is definitely not the best EU novel ever published or even close to it, but in my opinion, this is one of the better ones from Bantam. A good book.

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