Shadows of the Empire is not new to me. Back in the days of my youth when books were still taboo, I caught wind of this new Star Wars game coming out for the Nintendo 64. You couldn’t get me to even stay occupied in a bookstore for five minutes, let alone pick up a novel and read it, but I had no issue spending dozens of hours flying a snowspeeder through the Battle of Hoth or riding a speeder bike down the streets of Mos Eisley instead.
Later, I knew of the novel but never sought it out because I had felt that I had already played the game, how much more interesting can the book be? It wasn’t until a few months ago when I saw Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire sitting on the shelf of a Goodwill that I decided to give it a shot. It’s been over a decade since I’ve played through the Nintendo 64 game, and I’m a much more avid reader now.
Shadows of the Empire is somewhere around the twentieth Star Wars novel that I’ve read; all ranging from fantastic, Lost Stars by Claudia Gray comes to mind, to pretty disappointing, sorry Aftermath. The pre-Disney novels were always hit or miss as well. Some included clever ideas and interesting paths for our heroes to take, others added in questionable plot points that just didn’t feel right for the Star Wars universe. I would say that Shadows of the Empire falls squarely in the middle of that spectrum.
Shadows of the Empire is written by Steve Perry and takes place in-between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Our heroes; Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie, and newcomer Dash Rendar, are trying to track down Han before Boba Fett delivers him to Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, criminal organization, Black Sun, and their leader Prince Xizor, plays a game of galactic chess with Darth Vader to earn the Emperor’s favor, and gain an upper hand in the conflicts to come.
Because of it’s placement in the Star Wars timeline, I felt that Shadows danced too much inside of established movie canon. In the first few chapters, we are given two flashbacks to scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, which felt like they were intended to remind the reader of how great a film it is. But in turn, it took away from it’s own lore in Prince Xizor and Black Sun that it was trying to create.
Our introduction to Xizor takes place in Star Wars fans first interaction between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back. While the movie viewer is in Vader’s room with him, Xizor happens to be in Palpatine’s room on the other side of the hologram. I feel that this was in part meant to give the reader an indication of how powerful Xizor is, being in the room with Palpatine as he speaks privately with Vader, but it feels too close to the film and didn’t sit very well with me.
Like most post story written additions, there is a lack of suspense when it comes to anyone besides new characters we are introduced to like Dash and Xizor. Any time Luke, Leia, Lando and every other character we know and love is in danger, we already know the outcome, and that becomes rather boring. Shadows of the Empire continually wants you to be fearful for the fates of our heroes, but there are no stakes due to when in the timeline the story takes place.
With that point, the story can still provide added layers to these characters and give us something else to think about as we watch them in Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately, Steve Perry sticks close to the chest when it comes to the pre-established personalities of our characters, and does not take the risk or chance to deviate. Luke is still training to become a Jedi and honing his skills, Leia is still a diplomat with connections and love for the Alliance and Chewie acts as Leia’s protector and Han’s faithful friend.
What we are left with, are a handful of new characters that I believe Steve Perry does deliver on. Dash Rendar at first glance, is a copy/paste of Han. The further we delve into the story, we see different shades of the mercenary shine through. One scene, Dash is hired to help Leia and Lando go after a target on a planet that he knows well. He does that, for a price, then as soon as they reach the target, Dash takes off citing that he fulfilled his agreement, much to Leia and Lando’s surprise, who expected him to help assist with an attack. Further, Dash’s arrogance gets tested as he makes a mistake that costs the lives of half a dozen Bothans. That doubt that he expresses is something different and welcomed from his character archetype.
Prince Xizor, leader of the criminal organization Black Sun is a breath of fresh air when it comes to Star Wars villains and a good foil to Darth Vader in this novel. Xizor is cold and calculating like his Sith Lord buddies but with that, he’s attractive, suave and physically able to defend himself with his bare fists. These might not seem notable, but name another Star Wars villain that expressed any interest in relationships and having positive physical qualities up to this point in Star Wars history? Xizor had that different nature going for him in Shadows of the Empire than we have previously seen.
By far the most interesting aspect of Shadows, is watching Xizor and Vader dance around each other as they try to garner favor from the Emperor, all while controlling the fate of Luke Skywalker. Gaining access to Vader’s inner thoughts of the Emperor, his decisions, aspirations and plans is also something new, especially before the prequel era began a few years after its release.
The caveat to Xizor, is that Grand Admiral Thrawn was introduced five years prior with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. Thrawn is just superior to Xizor in every tactical way. If Xizor is cold, calculating, smart, terrifying, Thrawn is twice that and more. Xizor does take the attractive villain trophy in place of Thrawn if that’s a consolation for him. Also, if you’re not aware, Thrawn was just re-canonized in Star Wars Rebels much to my excitement.
Though it may seem that I’m being overly harsh towards Steve Perry’s efforts with Shadows of the Empire, I did enjoy reading it. Being a big gamer and fan of the Nintendo 64 iteration of the novel, it was interesting to read through and see where missions lined up to story beats. Most of the games levels, where the player controlled Dash Rendar, were not included in the novel, or even alluded to in any way. It makes me even more impressed with how the game turned out and with the freedom the developers had with Dash and his adventures.
Shadows of the Empire is now a relic left on the shelf after Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars universe. Like we’ve seen with Grand Admiral Thrawn, there’s still hope that we get to see Dash or Prince Xizor in some way again soon.