By Tom Anderson
In a previous article in this series, I discussed the Bantam era of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, and how many of them coming out in a short period – with their chronological setting at odds with their publication order – could lead to confusing inconsistencies and disconnected, author-specific settings and characters. One of the first authors to make an effort to try to weld these together and establish links was Michael A. Stackpole, whose initial four “X-wing Series” books were set earlier than most of the already-published works and could therefore foreshadow and reference them. In that previous article, I discussed Stackpole’s good intentions, together with the limitations of the approach he took.
After those first four X-wing books, the series continued under new author Aaron Allston. Rather than writing more about Rogue Squadron, Allston had Wedge Antilles set up a new spinoff group which would double as a commando unit, Wraith Squadron. Also unlike the cream of the crop, politically symbolic membership of Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron, the Wraiths would be recruited from the washouts, the down-and-outs, the pilots who hadn’t quite made it for whatever reason. Allston therefore already established an interestingly different concept even if he hadn’t been a talented writer—which he was. His first SW book, “Wraith Squadron”, in my view is a contender for the crown of best SW book ever written. Allston’s characters are likeable, flawed and incredibly funny. They range from the PTSD-ridden sniper Myn Donos to the former child actor Garik “Face” Loran to the failed Jedi Tyria Sarkin. Allston’s action scenes read like a series of exciting heist movies, yet he isn’t afraid to contemplate tragedy and loss. “Wraith Squadron” is a book I would recommend to people who have no knowledge of or interest in Star Wars, as it stands so neatly on its own merits.
The Wraith series continued in two more X-wing books, “Iron Fist” and “Solo Command” (the characters are seen again later but not in Bantam books). Whereas “Wraith Squadron” had a deliberately narrower focus (like Stackpole’s “Rogue Squadron”) and followed one team rather than trying to depict grand galactic politics, the other two books, especially “Solo Command”, shifted towards larger-scale conflict. Perhaps not for unrelated reasons, I find them to be not quite as good as “Wraith Squadron” although still very good books overall. They also involve much more of Allston’s own attempts to plug holes in the Bantam Star Wars continuity, as Stackpole had before him.
“Wraith Squadron” mostly follows Allston’s character Kell Tainer as its protagonist, though also having many scenes written from Wedge’s perspective and others. As established in Stackpole’s books, while Rogue Squadron had (appropriately) gone rogue to hunt down Ysanne Isard after the New Republic captured Coruscant, the Republic had focused on Warlord Zsinj. Zsinj now becomes the main antagonist of Allston’s books, though in the first one he only appears briefly, with the Wraiths’ starter villain being Zsinj’s lukewarm supporter and former Isard loyalist Admiral Apwar Trigit. Zsinj’s power stems from his possession of the Super Star Destroyer Iron Fist, which he renamed after his first command as a young officer (this becomes important in an interesting moment in “Solo Command”).
In “Wraith Squadron”, Trigit’s ship Implacable bombards the training moon of Folor (previously featured in Stackpole’s books) and the Wraiths are thrust straight into combat before their training is complete. Showing off their commando skills, they are able to capture a corvette loyal to Zsinj sent to capture their fighters from a minefield that disabled them. Audaciously, they are then able to pose as the corvette’s crew and go undercover, learning information on Zsinj and Trigit: for example, that Zsinj’s empire is supported by his surreptitious investments in corporate concerns on many planets not theoretically part of it, and that he is attempting to recruit pirate groups as cannon fodder for a mysterious mission. The Wraiths are ultimately able to trap Trigit and destroy his ship, with unknown help from an Intelligence agent named Gara Petothel who turns against him after he plans to abandon his ship, crew and all, and escape.
In “Iron Fist”, Gara goes undercover in turn to infiltrate the Wraiths, but ends up having a change of heart which confuses her training (which essentially creates multiple personalities). Meanwhile, the Wraiths are assigned to imitate one of the pirate groups that Zsinj is recruiting to learn the nature of his mission. It turns out he plans to double his firepower by stealing a second Super Star Destroyer from the Imperial shipyard planet of Kuat. Once again, the Wraiths – with help from Han Solo’s fleet chasing Zsinj, as previously mentioned by Stackpole – are able to foil his plans and take out the second SSD.
In “Solo Command”, the plot points are wrapped up in a series of fleet engagements, with intrigue as Gara’s secret is discovered and she seemingly returns to serve Zsinj. The book ends with the note that “the story of Han Solo and Warlord Zsinj concludes in The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton”. And this is where the trouble begins.
Ultimately it’s my own fault. I committed the cardinal sin I described in my article “Sharpe’s Reading Order” and read part of a series in chronological rather than publication order. However, I have an excuse. “The Courtship of Princess Leia” was one of the earlier Bantam EU books published, and I never felt the need to read it – everything important in it was summarised in compendium guides and the title felt rather off-putting for someone who reads Star Wars books for shooty bangy vwum-zhyum (that’s my lightsaber onomatopoeia, do not steal). But when I read “Solo Command” I realised I had to see how the story ends. The answer: anticlimactically. Firstly, “The Courtship of Princess Leia” is not really about Zsinj or Solo’s fight with him, that’s just a bit of rarely-referred to background. Secondly, it has...problems. Like Stackpole would do with “I, Jedi” fixing some of the problems with Kevin J. Anderson’s “Jedi Academy” trilogy, Allston was attempting to fix some of Wolverton’s problems in the later Wraith Squadron books—but, of course, having read them in the ‘wrong’ order, I did not appreciate this at the time.
“The Courtship of Princess Leia” is a weird book. Han Solo returns home with his task force to Coruscant, celebrating the fact that “warlord Zsinj” (no capital letter) has been defeated and the SSD Iron Fist has been destroyed. He goes mad when he arrives because he sees the planet surrounded by Imperial ships, only to be told they are actually Hapan ones captured from the Empire. It turns out that Leia’s diplomatic mission (referenced in Stackpole’s books) resulted in a mission from Hapes with lots of gifts from their matriarchal monarchy’s various planets, but also the hand in marriage of Prince Isolder. Han is naturally not happy with this, or with C-3PO’s helpful claim that he is secretly the exilic King of Corellia so can marry Leia as a fellow royal. (This is literally the plot of the end of the Star Wars spoof film Spaceballs, by the way). He resolves to win a planet in a sabacc game (which he does, in one of the best sequences in the book), then attempts to invite Leia to it to woo her. When she refuses, he uses a ‘Gun of Command’ to make her come anyway, or as one commenter on the SLP forums put it, ‘a gun that shoots Rohypnol’. Later authors unaccountably failed to ever bring up the existence of such a thing again, or the idea that Han would use it on the woman he loved.
Turns out the planet Han bought, Dathomir, is actually in Zsinj’s territory – whoops. Luke Skywalker and Isolder pursue them there and discover it’s inhabited by Force-using ‘witches’, both good and bad. A Super Star Destroyer is in orbit with a fleet, Zsinj appears as a hologram and threatens the witches with a new ‘Nightcloak’ superweapon that will cut off the sunlight from Dathomir unless they give up his nemesis Han. He also sends his subordinate, a sadistic cartoon called General Melvar, who ends up getting himself killed. In the end, they fly the Millennium Falcon against a Star Destroyer identified as Iron Fist and blows Zsinj up, just like that. Meanwhile Luke finds that the planet is home to a crashed ship that was the mobile Jedi Temple, because, you see, nobody had ever found evidence of a permanent Jedi Temple on any planet. (Wolverton gets a pass for this because everyone was taken aback when the prequel films later just had one in plain sight on Coruscant). Then Han and Leia get married while Isolder gets it together with one of the witches he met on Dathomir and everyone’s happy (except his mother).
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted the fact that at the start of the book, the Iron Fist was destroyed, and yet it mysteriously appears to have reappeared by the end so it can get destroyed again with Zsinj on it. One does have to wonder about the quality of the editing.
This is what Allston had to fit his books to, and he achieved it remarkably well. Rather than the cartoonishly evil villains that Zsinj and Melvar appear to be in Wolverton’s books, Allston portrays them both as being cunning operators who deliberately portray themselves in this light to make others underestimate them, especially the pirates whom they are trying to recruit. The reader gets to see Zsinj’s stateroom in its usual sober state, then it being converted to a decadent, barbarian court when the Wraiths posing as pirates arrive. Melvar is portrayed as a coldly competent sidekick with bland, unmemorable features who enjoys dressing up as the evil-looking psychopath with razor-sharp platinum fingernails that he is presented as in Wolverton’s book. Zsinj’s Raptors, his elite troops barely mentioned in “Courtship”, get to appear a bit more and acquit themselves in a more impressive light. Zsinj is shown as a competent, if not spectacular, tactician and a match for Han Solo in fleet battles. His idea of a secret corporate shadow empire to fund his military activities is also impressive, until it is dismantled by a secret alliance between Han and an Imperial admiral leading the Empire’s fight against Zsinj from the other side. A planet mentioned once in “Courtship” as a target of Zsinj appears as a climactic battle site in “Solo Command”. We get to see a memorable scene mentioned in “Courtship” where Zsinj swears at Han in all the many languages he knows and Han invites him to kiss his Wookiee.
Finally, Allston just about manages to argue his way out of the absurd double destruction of Iron Fist: at the end of “Solo Command”, Zsinj uses a prototype of the Nightcloak to make it look as though Iron Fist has been destroyed, when actually he blew up what was left of the other SSD he attempted to steal in the previous book. Thus Han can think it’s destroyed at the start of “Courtship” but it can still reappear at the end. Which doesn’t get around Han not being surprised at this in that book due to the bad continuity, or how the Millennium Falcon is somehow able to beat an entire SSD by itself after Han’s entire fleet failed. But it’s a damn good try.
Allston would go on to write more Star Wars books, including the wonderful standalone book Starfighters of Adumar, before his untimely death. His work in the Wraith Squadron books is an illustration of the limits of someone tackling prequel problems. He successfully took an unpromising scenario from “Courtship” and was able to use it as the backdrop for a trilogy of books which are exciting both as military SF and as very human stories, fixing errors in the process. But if someone is unwise enough to read them in chronological order I did, ultimately “Courtship” feels like a let-down anticlimax. These great and subtle villains are reduced to cardboard stereotypes. Fantastic fleet battles are replaced with the author not being able to remember if the enemy flagship was destroyed or not. And, ultimately, “Courtship” is not about Zsinj, with him appearing only as a convenient secondary villain when required for plot reasons.
This is therefore another reminder to always read in publication order, as well as a tribute to a very talented author who was taken from us too soon.
More Prequel Problems articles will be arriving in time...
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.