Imagine (or remember) being a Star Wars fan in the 1990s. The post-Return of the Jedi years in the wilderness were pretty grim (all apologies to Caravan of Courage). Very few outside of Lucasfilm knew that George Lucas, waiting for technology to catch up with his ideas, wanted to return to the franchise. Fans were desperate to return to a galaxy far, far away.
Looking for a way to keep the films in the public’s eye, Lucas opened the Star Wars universe to a variety of books, comics, and video games. This golden age of the Expanded Universe was kicked off by the excellent Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, who created a villain so dastardly that he’s been resurrected into the excellent Rebels. Some of these outings in the EU were very good, and some were very, very bad, but nerds were just glad to have more Star Wars in their lives. None of these, however, would compare to the all-out multimedia blitz of Shadows of the Empire.
Spanning a novel, a video game, an official soundtrack, a toy line, and multiple comics, SotE was a Star Wars movie in every way except the whole movie bit. Many nerds fondly remember the game, which was one of the Nintendo 64’s launch titles and blew minds everywhere with its cutting-edge graphics. The best part of the entire project, though, was the novelization by Steve Perry (no, not that Steve Perry).
Filling in the blank space between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, SotE tells the story of Luke, Leia, Chewie, R2, 3PO, and Lando’s attempts to rescue Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, from the notorious Boba Fett. They themselves are pursued—by Darth Vader and the Empire, as we know from the films, but also by the icy, reptilian Prince Xizor. Xizor wants to be the Emperor’s right hand man, and spends the novel trying to kill Luke, knock Vader off his perch, and generally scheme like the head of the Black Sun criminal syndicate should. (Black Sun has made its way into the new canon as well, playing an important minor role in the excellent Ahsoka).
We are also introduced to Dash Rendar, gun-for-hire and inheritor of Han’s laid back swagger, who helps the gang hunt for Han and, later, to rescue Leia from Xizor’s slimy clutches. Some of the interesting, quirky, and strange bits to come from Shadows of the Empire:
The origins of Boushh: We learn where Leia acquired the clothing and gear of the bounty hunter Boushh. While trying to sneak onto Coruscant for a secret meeting with Prince Xizor, Leia is given some robes and helmet that truly stink. After trying to gouge Black Sun for more credits, he has “recently retired.” Chewie is also forced to disguise himself by shaving his head and painting up like a giant raccoon, which just makes me giggle.
Revenge on the dianoga: Luke gets revenge for the embarrassing dianoga attack he suffered in the trash compactor of the first Death Star in A New Hope. Coming across one of the vile creatures in the sewers underneath Xizor’s palace on Coruscant, Luke cuts its eye off before slicing the whole creature in half. Overkill? Maybe.
Weird words: Perry has characters say things that jar readers right out of Star Wars and into 1990s pop culture. Dash tells Luke at one point, “That’s how things work out here in the real galaxy.” Vader, engaged in a verbal sparring match with Xizor, actually says, “I’ll have my agents check it out.” We can believe a rogue like Dash Rendar talks like a character on a bad 90s sitcom, but picturing the phrase “check it out” coming out of Vader’s mouthpiece is too much.
Vader: Everybody’s favorite villain has a huge role in SotE. He is constantly grumbling to himself about the indignity of having to compete with the dissolute Xizor for the Emperor’s favor. By the time Vader finally brings Xizor down at the novel’s insane end, we’re half-cheering for the Dark Lord of the Sith. We also get a glimpse into his attempts to overcome his catastrophic injuries at the hands of Obi-wan Kenobi.
Throughout the book, Vader attempts to leave his meditation chamber (medically enhanced to allow him to remove his suit) butt naked. Convinced that he can overcome his injuries through the power of the Dark Side, Vader can last a few minutes in the buff each time, but he must maintain his anger to do so. It’s a surprisingly human, down-to-earth portrayal of the once and future Anakin Skywalker.
Released late in 1996, the Shadows of the Empire project was Lucas’s warm-up for the Special Editions of the original trilogy and, farther down the road, the prequel trilogy. Taken on its own merits, it’s a fun romp through Tatooine, Coruscant, and other favored haunts of Star Wars fans, and one better served by reading than a play-by-play summary of the novel. You can pick it up here.