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Like the rest of the Star Wars franchise, the bevy of novels set in a galaxy far, far away vary quite a bit when it comes to both quality and tone. There's everything from exciting thrillers that take you through the underbelly of planet-sized megacities to horror stories filled with zombified stormtroopers. But for me the best stories are the ones that help fill in some of the gaps left by the films, particularly the original trilogy. That's one of the reasons why I consider Shadows of the Empire the best of the bunch. The other reason is Prince Xizor — easily the best Star Wars character to never appear on the big screen.

'Star Wars' tales regularly feature organized crime, but Xizor represented something much different

Shadows covers the events in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Han is frozen in carbonite and in transit to Jabba, while Leia is busy planning a rescue mission. Luke, meanwhile, is off on a sort of Jedi spirit quest, hanging out in Obi-Wan's old shack and practicing his Force skills. But getting in the way of all of this is Xizor. Star Wars tales regularly feature some kind of organized crime element, but Xizor represented something much different than, say, the Hutts. He wasn't a gross looking blob living in a shifty-looking club in some desert, he was a refined, articulate, and exceedingly wealthy crime lord with a massive palace on the most important planet in the galaxy.

And just like Darth Vader and the Emperor, he was the kind of guy who liked to operate in the shadows, pulling strings and using his considerable means to make events unfold the way he wanted them to. He didn't have the Force, but he did have a cold, reptilian sense of cunning that was a pretty good substitute. There were times when you almost thought he would succeed in his quest to supplant Vader at the Emperor's side. Of course, since the book came out in 1996, more than a decade after Return of the Jedi, that obviously didn’t happen. Still, you can't help but root for the guy.

A fast-paced thriller made of equal parts intrigue and action

Aside from introducing you to a great new character, Shadows also does an excellent job of putting familiar faces in new and interesting situations. For much of the book Luke in still in a sort of awkward adolescent Jedi phase, on his way to becoming a powerful figure but not there just yet. The typically composed Leia, meanwhile, finds herself in at least one precarious, pheromone-induced situation. The book even manages to turn Lando into a sympathetic character, no small feat after his actions in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s also just a great read — a fast-paced thriller made of equal parts intrigue and action. The climax is the sort of escape sequence that you really just can't put down until you're sure everyone is safe.

Though it came out more than 15 years ago, Shadows was actually part of a rather ambitious multimedia project. There was a first-person shooter of the same name, and a series of comics that followed Boba Fett's quest to get a frozen Han Solo to Jabba. And of course there were plenty of toys. But while it lacked the flash of the impressive — at least for the time — game and slick comic books, the novel is really the core of the Shadows project, and it tells the most important and engaging tale. It takes place in between two movies but it also stands on its own as a great story. And with a trio of new movies on the way, it's a great way to remind yourself just how fun the Star Wars universe can be.