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8 space opera books to read while you wait for The Mandalorian season 3

Star Wars shows are few and far between — but novels have you covered

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A pile of books on a table Photo: Andrew Liptak for Polygon

When Star Wars first hit theaters back in 1977, it was clear to a number of science fiction fans that George Lucas had gone far and wide for inspiration to build his world. The film pulled from books and comic books, as well as Japanese samurai thrillers and war films.

As a result, the larger Star Wars franchise is a bit of a hodgepodge of genres, all blended together. It’s set in a massive, mythical space universe that we’ve seen with big space-opera worlds like that of Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which span epic distances and time periods. But then there’s the dirty Western aspect of the world that defines The Mandalorian, the brutal war stories that we saw in The Clone Wars, or the heist film that we saw with Ron Howard’s Solo. Looking at the Expanded Universe, there are even more experiments, from pulp homages (as seen in Matthew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor) to weird cyberpunk (Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi), to straight-up military sci-fi (Michael A. Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron). The sheer scale and size of the Star Wars franchise means that there’s something for everyone.

With The Mandalorian season 2 out on Disney Plus, I’ve found myself reaching for books that remind me of that big, gritty world that is Star Wars, where spaceships run from port to port, where there’s a big, evil Empire to resist, and adventure to be had.

Dark Run cover Image: Saga Press

Dark Run by Mike Brooks

I feel like the cover of Mike Brooks’ debut novel Dark Run captures everything I love about this style of science fiction: a spaceship floats near a giant space station, a smaller starfighter-looking ship escorting it. The story has everything I wanted as well, following the crew of the Keiko as they pick up a mysterious cargo to transport across space.

Captain Icabode Drift is used to those sorts of jobs, so when he’s asked to pick up a package and deliver it to Earth, no questions asked, Just business as usual. As is to be expected, problems ensue, and from the get-go, Brooks injects plenty of action into the story as we meet Drift and his diverse crew, and as they deal with mercenaries, gangsters, and other denizens in a variety of galactic ports.

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh book cover Image: DAW

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

It’s impossible to think space opera without thinking of C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union series. Kicking off with Downbelow Station, it’s set in a universe where humanity has expanded far beyond Earth thanks to commercial space companies, and living not only on alien worlds, but on space stations and interstellar freighters.

Many of those stations have broken away from Earth after a massive interstellar war, and as that conflict draws to a close, Signy Mallory, captain of the Norway, is working to bring a fleet of ships from two damaged stations to Pell’s World, and its station, Downbelow Station. But the war has already put a strain on the station’s resources, and to try and get some more space, its leaders send people down to the planet’s surface, where they run into problems with the planet’s original inhabitants, the Hisa.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee book cover Image: Aspect

Warchild by Karin Lowachee

When humanity spreads out into deep space, their encounters with other aliens don’t always go well. In Karin Lowachee’s debut novel Warchild, Earth is fighting a war against an alien civilization known as the striviiric-na, while also dealing with a criminal underworld that raids colony and trading ships. When eight-year-old Jos Musey’s ship is attacked and his parents killed, he’s captured by an infamous pirate captain named Vincenzo Marcus Falcone, who wants to keep and train him as his successor.

When the station he’s on is attacked and he’s wounded, Jos is eventually captured by the striviiric-na, and trained to be an assassin, someone who can infiltrate human systems and wreck havoc. Lowachee’s book and its sequels, Burndive and Cagebird explore a really fascinating universe in which Jos and his counterparts exist, while also examining the steep psychological cost of war and interstellar criminality.

Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns book cover Image: Saga Press

Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns

What’s one way to escape from crushing student loans? Hijack a space freighter and link up with a group of notorious pirates sequestered away on a malfunctioning space station. That’s the premise of R.E. Stearns’ Barbary Station, which follows Adda and her girlfriend Iridian in the aftermath of a massive war in the solar system.

The system is now ruled by mega-corporations, and the pirate gang that the pair have fallen in with have been targeting their spaceships for profit. There’s a significant problem, though: the station that they’re holed up in is run by an artificial intelligence that’s gone homicidal, keeping everyone onboard trapped and barely alive. Adda is a researcher who studied AIs, and if she can convince it to let them leave, they’ll be home free.

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers  book cover Image: Orbit

Behind the Throne by K.B. Wagers

K.B. Wagers’ debut novel has a fun elevator pitch: a rogue gunrunner named Hail Bristol discovers that she’s suddenly the heir to the massive Indranan Empire. She was a member of the royal family who escaped the imperial palace to forge a career as a smuggler. But when her sisters are murdered, Bristol finds that she’s next in the line of succession to take the throne.

Her mother sends out two Trackers to bring her home, but home is the last place that she wants to be. Once she’s back in the palace, she discovers that there’s far more at play than she thought: the people who murdered her sisters might have also been responsible for the death of her father years ago, and that they might be coming after her next.

The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells  Image: Tor

The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells

In Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red, we meet an expedition on a distant world that finds itself under attack, and which is saved by their SecUnit, a cyborg that calls itself Murderbot. The cyborg is secretly free, and yearns to leave the humans under its protection. It doesn’t mind humans, but it would rather be left alone to binge-watch hours of soap operas that it pulls from local data nets. After it rescues its fellow expedition members, it discovers that there’s a deeper plot at play surrounding the planet and expedition.

In the volumes that follow — Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, Network Effect, and the forthcoming Fugitive Telemetry — Murderbot begins to make its way out to the larger universe on its own, only to find that it has to come to the rescue of various humans as it jumps from station to station, and planet to planet. It’s a fun, snarky series of books set in a much larger world with plenty of more stories left in it.

The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne Image: Aethon Books

The Salvage Crew by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

In Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s latest novel, an artificial intelligence is tasked with overseeing a crew sent down to the surface of the planet Urmahon Beta to locate and salvage a UN spaceship that crash-landed decades ago. It’s a thankless job, and it doesn’t exactly have the best and brightest assigned to getting it done.

Things get complicated when it turns out that the planet isn’t uninhabited as they previously thought. There are massive, dangerous creatures that live on the surface, and there’s another, dangerous crew that’s after their downed ship that they have to contend with. A bonus for those who check it out the audiobook version: Firefly’s Nathan Fillion is the narrator.

The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn book cover Image: Spectra

The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is certainly well-known for his Star Wars novels, especially for creating the master tactician Grand Admiral Thrawn. Zahn came to reboot the franchise back in the 1990s on the back of an already successful career as a science fiction author with books like The Blackcollar and Cobra.

But if you’re looking for a Star Wars-esque romp through space, I’d recommend his standalone novel The Icarus Hunt. A smuggler named Jordan McKell and his alien partner Ixil are hired by a wealthy industrialist to take a starship, The Icarus, across space to Earth, and to evade an alien civilization that has an iron grip on interstellar trade: it turns out that they’ve got an experimental stardrive that could allow humanity to flourish. They jet across the galaxy with plenty of people on their heels. By the end, Zahn flips the story with an outstanding twist (which I won’t spoil here), and leaves readers with an excellent adventure in a universe that feels so much larger than its single volume contains.

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