What a weird project Shadows of the Empire was.
Conceived as a stopgap by Lucasfilm when it was clear the prequel trilogy wasn’t as far along as anticipated, Shadows of the Empire was a multimedia event missing only the actual movie that it seemed to be focused on. This had a soundtrack, toys, a graphic novel, a making of book, and two novelizations but no central film to cling to.
Admittedly it’s not that weird today as the video game was such a big deal everything related to the project seemed linked to that now classic game. If it happened today, that would be the fulcrum and we wouldn’t blink. But in 1996, this was designed around the nothing at the center.
So as I look at this project, mostly focusing on the novel, I’m looking at a paradox. A tie-in to nothing. Certainly one can piece together what the film that doesn’t exist is like. The video game and the graphic novel tell full side stories while the novel is a pretty full novel and the second novelization (by Christopher Golden) is a perfect condensation. But it only exists as this weird what if.
The thing to remember about this project is how vitally it relit the flame for Star Wars. I was 12/13 at the time. This made my friends stand up. Then the Special Editions and Prequels followed. But this? Everybody played that game. Everybody read the comics. And everyone read the book.
The plot is roughly, roughly this: In the wake of The Empire Strikes Back, crime lord Xizor learns of Luke Skywalker’s value to Darth Vader/The Emperor and sets out to destroy him with the blame placed on Vader so he can rise in power. Luke and Leia are forced to seek the aid of smuggler Dash Rendar as they hope to free Han Solo from an icy prison and the captivity of Boba Fett. Star Wars ensue.
As I read this book, I did my damnedest to forget that it was a tie-in to anything more than just the series itself. I read it as I read any other Star Wars book. I hoped I could reread this as just a Star Wars novel like any other. And there was no way in hell I could do that.
Shadows of the Empire is one of the most nakedly commercial works in a series filled with them. It exists entirely as a focus group approved series of beats. It is almost pathetic how obviously this wants to be Star Wars 1996 with all the nightmarish conclusions that leads to.
Why is this 90s Star Wars? Let’s begin with Boba Fett. He gets the focus of the graphic novel, which despite being by Judge Dredd cocreator John Wagner is pretty unbearable. Sure Fett fits this era of the story and his role in it, but Fett is a costume not a character. He looks Kewl.
Then there’s Xizor. Black Sun was a good idea and did join canon but Xizor is an EXTREME villain. He can seduce women through pheromones. He’s reptilian. He’s evil for the sake of evil. He is a 90s villain defined.
But then there’s Dash Rendar. Steve Perry would’ve gotten a graph letting him off the hook for Dash but damn if he didn’t create him. Admittedly he’s a minor character compared to the game (which decided to lift him as their lead) and did get killed off, but even Perry admitted he was just a fill-in for Han Solo which is irritating when Lando was right there in the nice guy rogue role.
It’s also so cloying how we get the beats we expect almost mechanically. There’s two space battles. There’s a speeder chase. There’s Leia in peril and Luke racing to save the day. Here’s me recommending Claudia Gray’s Leia novels. There’s scenes of Vader that go nowhere. If anything has ever exposed how formulaic Star Wars can be without the shine of good execution or purpose it’s this.
And I should stress something unexpected this deep into this review: I actually think this book is fine, even pretty good. All these beats do work. They are entertaining because they play on what I like. It’s fun to get these though seriously skip the GN. (The omnibus is great because of the other two awesome books in it.)
Steve Perry is really the reason it works and so in fairness I give him that paragraph. Perry wasn’t off to the side in the creation of the project, actually crafting key elements and rejecting others. His prose is actually among the best in the field. He’s invisible like he should be, clean and to the point. He knows exactly what details it needed. If this is to be the fulcrum, and it was in the end, it’s effective.
I just can’t overlook how safe this is. It’s tested to death. But that’s fine. This isn’t meant for an avid reader. It’s an airplane novel. It’s a pop culture artifact. Read it as that.