01/09/2009. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Titan Books. 243 page softcover. Price: £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84856-276-9.
check out website: www.titanbooks.com
'Star Wars: The Essential Atlas' is an attempt to catalogue the 'Star Wars' galaxy as presented in both the movies and the Expanded Universe of books and comics. For the most part, it manages to do this rather well, although the preponderance of material is drawn from the Expanded Universe rather than the films. This imbalance will delight or disappoint the reader depending on their appreciation (or otherwise) of the Expanded Universe.
As is increasingly the case with spin-off guidebooks, 'The Essential Atlas' is a collaborative work pulling together the efforts of no fewer than six different people, two writers and four illustrators. Inevitably, this results in a certain unevenness to the thing and this is particularly obvious with regard to the artwork.
The four artists are Ian Fullwood, Modi, Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas. It isn't always clear which artists were responsible for which pieces of artwork, though Modi is stated as having been responsible for the maps. As you'd expect for an atlas, the maps are a major part of the presentation, and they are, unquestionably, very nice.
Those with even a modicum of scientific knowledge will, of course, note that galaxies are three-dimensional structures, so any attempt to present them as a flat disc will be a fudge, but the text that introduces the book conveniently points out that most of the inhabited star systems in the 'Star Wars' galaxy lie in on a plane running through its middle. A cop-out perhaps, but it's a sign that the authors have given some thought to the illogic of what they're doing and come up with a workaround.
Besides showing you how the various star systems and planets are arranged, the maps also reveal things like trade routes, the boundaries of political organisations and the paths taken by different fleets and invasion forces. For those that like this kind of thing and especially those who've enjoyed the Expanded Universe books, exploring the detail in the maps will be a real treat.
If the maps work rather well, the 'Planets Of The Galaxy' is more of a near miss. The ingredients are all there, but the thing just doesn't quite gel. One problem is the fair-to-middling quality of the artwork presented here. Unlike most of the other illustrations in this book, the planetary portraits betray their computer-generated origins.
They just don't look realistic and one or two of them have such obvious Photoshop textures dumped on top of them that it isn't even funny (Nar Shaddaa for example). Another problem is that the text doesn't seem to match the illustration. Byss is described as being covered with lakes and plateaux, yet the illustration is quite obviously a gas giant like our own Jupiter.
The remainder of the illustrations comprise relatively small (column-width) paintings dotted about in the text. These are often excellent and it's a shame that the publishers decided to reproduce them here at such a small size. On the other hand, there is a lot of artwork here to enjoy, making this a book that's fun to flip through and peruse.
If the artwork can be summarised as good but variable, the text is perhaps best described as copious, competent, but often rather dry. Neither of the writers are known for their fiction and what you have in 'The Essential Atlas' is really a couple of hundred pages worth of précis. To be fair, trying to summarise the vast 'Expanded Universe' literature in a way that remains internally consistent was a Herculean task, but it's something Fry and Wallace have carried off sufficiently well that the 'The Essential Atlas' more or less works.
It's not gripping reading and it's hard to imagine anyone reading 'The Essential Atlas' from front to back, but if you flip open the book and dive in, the text is certainly more than adequate for the task at hand. The only real flaw is the absence of footnotes or a bibliography to each section, so that readers who found, say, the uprising of the Mon Calamari against the Empire interesting would be able to find out which of the 'Expanded Universe' books or comics they'd need to read to learn more.
The only other issue worth mentioning is the quality of the binding. For a book of this size and length, the trade paperback format isn't ideal and within days of reading this book the covers were already starting to curl.
Overall, 'The Essential Atlas' is an impressive piece of in-universe scholarship. Quibbles about the variable nature of the artwork and the lack of a bibliography aside, this isn't a difficult book to recommend to the serious 'Star Wars' buff. It's nicely put together, competently written and remarkably comprehensive. The maps are consistent with the events in the 'Expanded Universe' books and comic and the inclusion of stills from the movies will help to draw in casual fans as well as the more hardcore 'Star Wars' geeks. Recommended.
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