According to what is generally upheld in Star Wars canon, there are only about six months to one year between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. On the other hand, a lot can happen in that time, and clearly has happened by the time Han’s friends come to his rescue. Luke has gone from Rebel grays to Jedi blacks, the Alliance is stepping up their game plan, and the Emperor is suddenly interested in what’s going on.
So how did all that happen? It was Shadow’s of the Empire’s job to tell us, thirteen years after Jedi hit theaters. And it was expected to fulfill that job in more than one medium. Now it’s time to talk about the book by Steve Perry. (And the soundtrack. I love soundtracks.)
It’s really not possible to talk about this book without discussing the emergence of the Black Sun as a major component of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Love Prince Xizor or hate him, his criminal organization was a smart world-building move. Yes, we have the Hutts and some may have expected Nal Hutta to become the major underworld center once we started learning about the underpinnings of the galaxy. But while Jabba and his brethren are scary, they’re running a different kind of underworld. Basically, the Hutts are a large network of drug cartels. They all have their territories and they live in hedonistic splendor wherever they camp. But they’re not taken seriously by the likes of the Empire or the Old Republic. They know they have to stay out of the way to survive.
The Hutts are bad news, but not one of them is Al Capone.
And that’s where Xizor comes in. The Black Sun provided a criminal class that had not been exposed in Star Wars, one needed to exist for a healthy dose of realism. What’s threatening about Xizor has nothing to do with the ways in which Jabba seems threatening. Xizor is a problem because he’s in with powerful people, the ones who matter, the ones who keep the galaxy running. The higher he moves up the ladder, the more everyone has reason to be nervous.
Shadows of the Empire is smart because it makes it perfectly clear that the Emperor is not an idiot. It’s not that Xizor deserves the respect he’s being given, but that the Palpatine knows that Vader has become a liability ever since he found out about his kid running around out there, playing at becoming a Jedi Knight. He’s concerned enough about it that he lets Xizor closer, particularly because he knows it’s the perfect opportunity to rev up antagonism between the two of them. (Not only does the prince wants Vader’s job, but he’s got a vendetta to settle between them because Vader is responsible for the destruction of his people, the Falleen.) The reveal that Xizor is watching the personal communique between Vader and the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back at Palpatine’s behest and without Vader’s knowledge is chilling. Vader is on much shakier ground than he realizes.
Speaking of Vader, the Dark Lord comes off more human in this book than any rendering of him in the EU or elsewhere. We get a rare peek inside his head and find that he is just as conflicted as the Emperor suspects. We also see how difficult it is for him to maintain his health, another factor that makes sense out of Palpatine’s desire to upgrade for the younger Skywalker model later on. We also see those first glimmers of conscience, find out how he comes to terms with the thought of having a child he doesn’t know. It’s a little heartbreaking.
Other characters are jumping hoops as all of this plays out. Lando is going through the ringer willingly in trying to make up for his mistakes, and we find that Han’s last words to Chewie before being frozen are binding to the point of irritation—the Wookiee never wants Leia out of his sight. Chewie is another character who we don’t often get insight into, but here we find out just what his Life Debt to Han means to him; he cannot let anything happen to Leia after failing his friend. The disguises that he and the princess don are also undeniably badass as they move deeper into the underworld for a chance to find out who is trying to kill Luke. (Answer: Everyone. Obviously.)
Which leads to awkwardness of the event known as “the Seduction of Princess Leia.” Because Prince Xizor seems to view women as little more than pleasure toys (his bodyguard is literally a sultry lady robot whom he likely has sex with; think Caprica Six, but programmed to serve) and has pheromones at his disposal that are so strong, he is basically a walking roofie. I’m not so sure “seduction” is the proper term here—it seems a lot more like rape. Thankfully, Leia shakes off the influence and gets out of dodge before the prince can get himself together. Who knows why it was needed to put Our Lady Organa in that position in the first place... the only thing it has going for it is how handily Leia defends her own honor, once Chewie surprises her with a well-timed knock that is.
Weird side note: I would like to point out that this book scarred me for life in the bit where Luke and company are trekking through the sewers below Xizor’s palace to get Leia back. While noting the awful smells reaching their noses, Luke recalls the fact that scents are the result of actually inhaling a bit of whatever you are smelling. Meaning that he smells the sewage because it’s actually entering his body. I don’t think my life was ever the same after that, so thank you, Steve Perry?
It’s not to say that there’s nothing odd about this tale—Dash Rendar really is just a Han Solo stand-in, and it does seem as though the plot could do with a couple less twists. Maybe one less space battle. But as a bridging chapter, Shadows of the Empire delivers in a way that it shouldn’t have been able to, by all accounts. It feels like a relevant story, not just some random filler. It deepens our knowledge and understanding of the characters unlike, say, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
About the soundtrack by Emmy Award-winning composer Joel McNeely... you should buy it. And listen to it. It is amazing. In addition to using the melodies that all Star Wars fans will be familiar with, it’s got some great original themes. Xizor’s music is majestic and creepy. The Battle of Gall track feels like a blow by blow without visuals. The “seducing Princess Leia” music is a waltz. There’s so much more. I cannot recommend it enough, as strange as it is to get a soundtrack for tie-in media novel.
So that is Shadows of the Empire. Full of new characters, careful explorations, and lots of helpful material to diminish those between-movie gaps. Which makes it fun, plain and simple. Exactly what we want from Star Wars.