Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath isn’t just a new Star Wars novel. Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto’s Star Wars: Shattered Empire isn’t just a new Star Wars comic. They’re actually a pretty big deal – they’re the first stories in the new canon to take place after Return of the Jedi, which mean they are the first stories to hint at what we’ll be getting in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If you’re a more casual Star Wars fan, that make sound like a bunch of confusing nonsense. But it’s actually very simple. In fact, it’s deliberately simple by design. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the new powers-that-be wiped the entire “expanded universe” of Star Wars novels and comics and video games from existence. This move angered longtime fans, but it meant that future movies wouldn’t be beholden to a deep and complicated canon created by countless writers and artists over several decades. The movies could be whatever they wanted to be.

It also meant that a new expanded universe, a new canon specifically built around the plans for future movies, could be put into place. Aftermath and Shattered Empire aren’t the first entries in the new canon, but they could be the most important. They tell of what happened after the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of Darth Vader. And it’s 100% official and everything.

If you’re a Star Wars fanboy, you’re probably going to read these things yourself. But if you just really like Star Wars and want to know the broad strokes, we’ve got you covered. Both set the stage for a Star Wars universe that is very different than the one we’ve seen in the six previous movies. Here’s everything you need to know.

Naturally, spoilers for both Star Wars: Aftermath and Star Wars: Shattered Empire #1 follow. If you plan to read them, consider coming back later. If you just want a knowledge dump, read on. 

The War is Far From Over

Aftermath and Shattered Empire tell very different stories, but both are in service of making one aspect of the new canon as crystal clear as possible: the Battle of Endor was not the end of the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. Far from it. The events of the original trilogy were mere skirmishes compared to what was to come. The decades separating Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens won’t be filled with barbecues and lighthearted adventure – they’re going to be filled with endless conflict between two opposing forces that won’t back down. Ever.

Shattered Empire has only begun to hint at this in its first issue, which concludes with a grave Han Solo stumbling across some Imperial intelligence that informs him that the war is far from over. Aftermath devotes many one-off chapters (dubbed “Interludes”) to exploring the turmoil of the galaxy. Cheering crowds topple a statue of Emperor Palpatine on Coruscant, only to find themselves under fire by local forces still loyal to the old boss. Young people still venture to the Stormtrooper Academy hoping to join cause, even after Rebel forces have burnt it down. Families are torn apart as siblings pick different sides. The big picture isn’t pretty – a headless superpower is still plenty powerful to take on a “New Republic” that’s still finding its feet.

Without Palpatine and Vader around to focus the Empire’s evil efforts, chaos truly reigns. Neither side is capable of putting the genie back in the bottle. The universe of The Force Awakens will be one tainted by decades of non-stop war and misery.

Shades of Gray

Nothing in the new Star Wars canon excuses the actions of Emperor Palpatine. The guy was a dick and getting thrown down a seemingly bottomless pit in the middle of his massive space station was exactly what he deserved. But Aftermath doesn’t immediately assume that every agent of the Empire is as bad as its leader. Many of the soldiers and pilots and officers are just people doing a job, playing the cards that life dealt them. Others are downright sympathetic. Heck, there’s even a wizened Imperial general who isn’t shy about saying the Empire got what it deserved. If you build something called the Death Star, you should take a good, long look at the image you’re presenting to the galaxy, she says.

Aftermath has no shortage of relatable characters with ties to the “bad guys.” There’s Rae Sloane, the captain of the Star Destroyer Vigilance, who is presented as a practical leader with a level head who wants to save the Empire from itself. The Rebels, the “good guys,” are the enemy, but she’s no genocidal monster. She’s just a soldier on the other side ... and she’s the best, most entertaining character in the entire book. There’s also Sinjir Rath Velus, a former “Loyalty Officer” (think military police) for the Empire who now spends his days drinking and trying to forget his past. Although the book itself holds his true loyalties close to the vest until the climax, he’s more complex than your average Star Wars villain. He’s haunted by what he did for the Empire. He’s not a faceless villain – he’s just a guy who made some bad choices.

The humanizing of the Empire makes the decades of upcoming war all the more complex. While the original trilogy of movies were able to fall back on a basic “good versus evil” story, The Force Awakens looks to take place in a galaxy where there are good people on both sides of the conflict. Villains sees themselves as the heroes of their own story. Heroes can become monsters in their quest to crush the enemy. The cackling, hooded Sith Emperor is gone ... only the all-too-human men and women under his command remain.

A More Diverse Universe

With the exception of Lando Calrissian, the Star Wars universe has spent the past 40 years being awfully, well, caucasian. And, uh, mostly male. That looks to change in The Force Awakens, where the three new leads are female, black, and Cuban/Guatemalan. However, the new canon hasn’t been shy about injecting diversity into the universe. In fact, it’s radically setting the stage for the movies to come.

The above-mentioned Rae Sloane? She’s described as having dark skin. Sinjir the Loyalty Officer? He turns down the advances of a female comrade because he bats for the other team. Neither of these details are treated as a big deal. Sloane is black. Sinjir is gay. No one judges. No one (and that includes the author) feels the need to make a big deal about their minority status. They’re just people. Perhaps the most socially revolutionary aspect of Aftermath is two minor characters, both women, who are introduced as being married to one another with zero fuss or explanation. Your skin color and sexual orientation don’t matter in the Star Wars universe. There’s a war on! Who cares who you love or what you look like?

This casual diversity is also seen in Shattered Empire, which focuses on the parents of Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac’s character in The Force Awakens. His father was one of Han Solo’s commandos on the moon of Endor, present when the shield generator was destroyed. His mother was an A-Wing pilot who fought alongside the Rebel fleet, brushing shoulders with Lando and Luke Skywalker along the way. Both are drawn with slightly darker skin, looking to be of Hispanic or Latin descent. They certainly look like they could be the parents of the racially ambiguous Oscar Isaac. In any case, it’s a quietly remarkable choice. The Battle of Endor was won by an ethnically diverse team composed of men and women. Leia and Lando are no longer the token woman and the token black guy in a sea of white, male faces.

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy wasn’t messing around when she promised to make the Star Wars universe a more diverse place at this year’s Star Wars Celebration. We’ll see it in the movies (the currently filming Rogue One features Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish characters), but we’re also seeing it in the new expanded universe. Watch out Star TrekStar Wars is coming to take your crown as the most socially conscious science fiction series out there.

Sith Myth and Darth Vader Fanboys

The characters in Aftermath don’t know what to make of Palpatine and his late enforcer, Darth Vader. Even the admirals and commanders of the Imperial fleet can’t agree on whether or not they were actual Sith warriors or con men who used a veil of mysticism to make themselves appear more powerful. We know the truth, but the Force is treated as mythology and/or religious mumbo jumbo by the bulk of the cast.

One thing is made clear, though – both Palpatine and Vader have passionate fans who are willing to go to great lengths to show their devotion. There is an Imperial commander, described as being something of a Sith cultist, who proposes that the key to defeating the New Republic is a journey to the fringes of the galaxy, where they can tap into the powers of the Dark Side of the Force. There are Darth Vader aficionados, who paint “Vader Lives” graffiti on walls and buy a red lightsaber from a sleazy vendor claiming to have found the late Sith Lord’s weapon.

Right now, we still don’t know much about the villains of The Force Awakens, but we do know that Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren isn’t a Sith – he’s a fan of the Sith. He’s a memorabilia collector who built his own lightsaber and fashioned his clothing choices after the example set by Darth Vader. In death, the villains of the original trilogy have become more powerful than ever. They now have fans and followers. The cult of Vader and admirers (if not actual practitioners) of the Dark Side is only in its infancy in the months after Return of the Jedi. It looks to be a force to be reckoned with in The Force Awakens.

The Return of Boba Fett?

In one of Aftermath’s strangest diversions, we journey to the desert planet of Tatooine, where a self-appointed lawman discovers the armor of the late Boba Fett for sale in a Jawa sandcrawler. Although we don’t see him don that famous Mandalorian armor, he makes his intentions clear – he’s going to use the power vacuum created by Jabba the Hutt’s death to clean up the planet and this battle-tested outfit will keep him safe.

It’s ... weird. More importantly, it may suggest what Lucasfilm plans to do with Boba Fett going forward. Rather than resurrect the legendary bounty hunter from his hilariously lame Sarlacc-related death, a new character, a good guy, is going to take up his mantel to dispense justice. There have been rumors of a Boba Fett spin-off movie for quite some time, but there have also been rumors of Disney and Lucasfilm being unable to grapple with the character’s inherent villainy. Well, here’s one weird way to get around that. Just put a heroic character in that armor. And why not? Boba Fett isn’t even a character outside of his cool armor.

A Generation Raised by War

After the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star (and after that big musical Ewok party), Kes Dameron and Shara Bey share a night of intimacy. Although it hasn’t been confirmed in any way, we’d put good money on this being the night Poe Dameron was conceived. Which means he will be born and raised by two Rebel soldiers in a galaxy at war. It’s no wonder we see him flying an X-Wing in the trailers for The Force Awakens. Conflict is all he’s going to know.

Aftermath leans heavily on the concept of younger generations being drawn into this war. A father places a stone in his young son’s hand in the middle of an anti-Empire riot. Orphaned children form an underground resistance to battle Imperial holdouts on Coruscant. Even one of the novel’s main characters is a 15-year old boy drawn into the war by his Rebel mother. So when we look at young characters like Poe and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) and even General Hux (Domhnall Gleason), we are looking at people raised during the most tumultuous time period in the entire Star Wars saga. It remains to be seen how they feel about the war – Engaged? Bitter? Apathetic? — but their entire existence will certainly be defined by it.

Everything Gets a Whole Lot Worse

By the time the events of The Force Awakens roll around, we know that the Rebel Alliance and the Empire are no more. In their place are the Resistance and the First Order. So that brings us to the biggest unanswered question of the new canon: how do we get there?

During Aftermath and Shattered Empire, the Rebels have formed the New Republic. Senators and politicians are already in the new senate, working to bring democracy to the galaxy. The Empire is wounded, but it is far from defeated. It’s entrenched and ready to fight to the bitter end. That means that, at some point, the Empire and the New Republic fall. Any hope for a democratically elected government crumbles. The Empire will be defeated. But when? And in what order?

Both of these new stories begin with hope. Hope that the war is coming to an end, that good has triumphed over evil. But both end with a note of darkness. We know from the very existence of The Force Awakens that things do not go well for anyone. That is terrifying and that is fascinating and we cannot wait to see just how bitter this makes Han Solo and Leia Organa and the rest of the old crew. There’s no way they are the same people after this.

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