Prequel Problems: Michael Stackpole, The Continuity Strikes Back

By Tom Anderson

Some time ago, I penned (keyboard-ed?) a series of articles looking at the old Star Wars Expanded Universe of (mostly) novels, which has now been de-canonised under the post-2015 Disney regime and is known as Star Wars Legends. The first of these articles examined the earlier Star Wars works of Michael A. Stackpole. Stackpole, best known for the X-wing novels (and comics) is noteworthy because he entered the fray as part of a second wave of Expanded Universe (EU) authors, and was the first among them to make a serious attempt at trying to weld together parts of the often-inconsistent continuity of existing books. As I described in that article, these books often came out in a publication order which bore no resemblance to their position on the timeline (which, as a Star Wars EU hipster, I will define in terms of years after Return of the Jedi and not the Battle of Yavin as became the norm later on). As a young reader I was oft irritated by this inconsistency; it is only as a writer myself that I now look at that fusillade of publications so close together in disbelief and realise it is a miracle that the authors did not go haring off in completely incompatible directions altogether.

I’ve already described in that article how Stackpole took elements from the Thrawn books of Timothy Zahn (with whom he became a friend and collaborator), set +5 years after Return of the Jedi, The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton (+4) and the Jedi Academy trilogy of Kevin J. Anderson (+7), among others, and incorporated them into his X-wing books, the initial run of which were set earlier than any of them (2.5-3+). This admirable attempt at knitting together a coherent picture of the Star Wars galaxy was slightly undermined by Stackpole sometimes sacrificing logic on the altar of continuity nods. To take one example, in Wedge’s Gamble our Rogue Squadron heroes infiltrate the Imperial capital of Coruscant, and as part of a nefarious scheme by politician Borsk Fey’lya (from Zahn’s Thrawn books) they go to the prison world of Kessel and negotiate for the release of various master criminals they can release into Coruscant’s underworld to distract the Imperials from their own infiltration. This does serve a plot function, and serves to introduce the characters of Fliry Vorru and Zekka Thyne, two such criminals and old enemies of our ex-cop protagonist, Corran Horn. However, it’s also there so the Rogues can encounter Kessel’s new management, Moruth Doole, as a nod to his appearance in Anderson’s Jedi Academy books, set about four and a half years later. The problem is that said appearance is part of a sequence where Han Solo goes to Kessel in the vain hope of a friendly reception at the start of the books, yet he should already know from Wedge (who he works with in the Thrawn books) what Doole and Kessel are like before he starts. This sort of logical problem unfortunately strikes a few of Stackpole’s well-intentioned continuity nods, which I detailed more of in the earlier article.

The first four X-wing books, Rogue Squadron, Wedge’s Gamble, The Krytos Trap and The Bacta War, form a coherent story with a satisfying conclusion, as the Rogues’ enemy Ysanne Isard (former Director of Imperial Intelligence) is defeated and dies in a shuttle explosion. Corran Horn goes from ‘merely’ an ace fighter pilot to discovering he is descended from Jedi and has the power of the Force himself, though he refuses training from Luke Skywalker and his own attempts to use it do not meet with great success. He also finds love with Mirax Terrik, daughter of smuggler Booster Terrik who his own deceased father, also a cop, put behind bars – making things a little awkward. Booster obtains one of Ysard’s Star Destroyers at the end of The Bacta War and turns it into a mobile smugglers’ base under the name Errant Venture. After this ending, the X-wing series was turned over to Aaron Allston (q.v.) with his own characters, and it might seem Stackpole’s contributions were ended. However, as well as collaborating with Zahn on novellas like “Side Trip” and “Interlude at Darkknell”, he went on to a new kind of Star Wars novel: I, Jedi.

I, Jedi (+7) is a very unusual Star Wars book. It is the only one I’m aware of that is told from a first-person perspective (perhaps the title is a subtle pun), the person being Corran Horn again. This narrative shift arguably helps balance the character, who is often accused of being a Mary Sue, via an inner monologue and self-doubt. As Zahn notes in his acknowledgements for his simultaneously-written books Spectre of the Past / Vision of the Future (+15), Stackpole made a major effort to interlink I, Jedi with them and build continuity links; the books share characters such as Elegos A’Kla, allusions to galactic events such as the destruction of Caamas, and much more. More obviously, I, Jedi is set simultaneously with Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy and covers some of the same events from Horn’s perspective. Many fans regard it as a ‘fix-fic’, as Stackpole is able to respond to some of the criticisms made of plot, characterisations and motivations in Anderson’s books, as we’ll see.

I, Jedi opens with Corran and the Rogues – years after we last saw them, remember – fighting the Invid pirates of an ex-Imperial warlord named Leonia Tavira. In this battle, it’s noted that Tavira has an unerring ability to not show up with her Star Destroyer Invidious only those times when the New Republic has set a trap (though consigning her mercenary allies to a dire fate). Afterwards, Corran has a discussion with his old friend Ooryl and decides he finally wants kids with Mirax, who’s back on Coruscant. But no sooner has he returned for shore leave that he finds her gone from their apartment, having been abducted while on a trading run, and is traumatised. With help from his old police partner Iella Wessiri, Wedge Antilles and Luke Skywalker himself, they discover that his trauma is not only psychological but has a Force component; Mirax is being held captive by enemy Force-users. Corran knows this is an opponent he doesn’t know how to face because his own abilities were never trained, so – though he hates the idea of wasting time – he joins Luke’s new nascent Jedi academy as an apprentice under the alias Keiran Halcyon.

During this sequence, Stackpole attempts to fix the Kessel continuity glitch I mentioned by inserting a scene in which Corran briefly meets Han Solo having a discussion with Wedge, with Wedge warning him about Kessel but Han cockily shrugging it off. Unfortunately, as I alluded to in an earlier article, this actually breaks the continuity worse, because it’s written as the first time Corran’s ever met Han (who had a run-in with Corran’s father) when in the Allston X-wing books, Corran and Rogue Squadron had been under Han’s command on his flagship! Allston had to write a wry throwaway gag into Solo Command to explain this new glitch, with a running joke on said flagship that Han and Corran are the same person because they’re never seen in the same room. (Of course, it makes sense that Corran might avoid him due to the aforementioned bad blood with his father, but Stackpole clearly hadn’t thought of this when he wrote the I, Jedi scene).

The Jedi Academy sequences, as I mentioned, are liked by many fans because they not only try to fix continuity (such as adding characters like Brakiss who were retconned into being among Luke’s first students but not mentioned in Anderson’s books) but also address fan complaints with plot and motivations. The execrable ancient Sith Lord Exar Kun gets a more satisfying teardown, as Corran and Zahn’s character Mara Jade work together to have his evil temple blown up while Anderson’s protagonists are going the ‘hippie’ angle, and Jade takes the opportunity to describe at great length how he is a forgettable nothing compared to Vader and the Emperor (who she formerly worked for).

Part of the plot of the Jedi Academy trilogy involves one of Luke’s students, angry young man and former Kessel slave Kyp Durron, being tempted by Exar Kun into turning to the dark side, stealing a superweapon and blowing up a star that kills billions of people (many of them innocent victims) on the old Imperial boot-camp planet of Carida. Corran speaks with the voice of the fans when Luke, speaking with the voice he’s given by Anderson, seems to let Durron off with a slap on the wrist. Corran points out that Kun only influenced Durron, not controlled him, and it was still his decision to slay so many. Corran disagrees with Luke's decision so much that he promptly leaves the academy and turns back to his old cop instincts to approach Mirax’s abduction as a police investigation instead. (The writing team Chris Cassidy and Tish Paul would go on to write the short story “Simple Tricks”, in which their protagonists are forced to team up with Durron and similarly ask why he wasn’t executed or imprisoned for the murder of billions, with the implication that it hasn’t done much for the Republic’s image, or the Jedi’s).

I should also mention The Great Shipping Wars, which in Star Wars is very much not limited to the fanfiction fringes. Anderson had previously decided to try to pair up Zahn’s Mara Jade with Lando Calrissian, and featured scenes in the Jedi Academy trilogy to that end; he had also paired up Wedge Antilles with Qwi Xux, a naïve alien scientist who had obliviously worked on the Death Star and other superweapons. Stackpole, Zahn and Allston were having none of it, and painstakingly worked to tease all of this apart and put it back together again. I, Jedi features Corran pointing out to Wedge that he already had an on-again off-again relationship with Iella (which Stackpole had previously established) and Wedge confiding that he really sees this as more of a protective thing with Qwi. Allston would go on to have them break up and Wedge get back together with Iella in Starfighters of Adumar, released a year or so later. Meanwhile, Stackpole also uses I, Jedi to feature scenes with Mara and Corran in which Mara explains that any of Lando’s ambitions towards her are coldly received and it’s purely a business partnership, thus freeing her up for Zahn to have her get together with Luke in Vision of the Future. This is serious business, alright?

As for Corran rescuing his own romance, for his next step in his quest for Mirax he goes to his father-in-law Booster Terrik, whose first impulse is naturally to deck him for ‘wasting his time’ for months when he should be saving Booster’s daughter. Booster has now converted the Errant Venture into a true paradise for the fringes of the law. Three levels, called Black, Blue and Diamond, carry cantinas and casinos at different levels of prices and unsavouriness or sophistication, with a circular gallery coring through all three in the middle. The converted Star Destroyer is described in detail and becomes a compelling new setting, something that feels very appropriate to Star Wars.

Corran has mainly come to Booster because he needs help to get back to his home planet of Corellia, which he’s avoided due to its increasingly authoritarian and isolationist rule making him somewhat unwelcome as a Republic officer. Stackpole takes this opportunity to link in elements of the Corellian trilogy (+14) by Roger MacBride Allen, such as having Corran visit the famously disreputable but iconic Treasure Ship Row in Coronet City, having decayed somewhat from its height but not yet having reached the dead state that Han sadly sees it as in MacBride Allen’s books. Corran visits his grandfather Rostek (whom he now knows is actually his adoptive grandfather) and gets backstory about his real grandfather and father and the Corellian Jedi (which was, of course, all immediately obsoleted by the prequel films deciding Jedi weren’t supposed to have children). Making use of Han Solo’s alias ‘Jenos Idanian’ (an anagram of ‘Indiana Jones’) from the Horns’ past run-in with Han, Corran’s grandfather creates a new identity for him and manages to get him inserted into one of Tavira’s mercenary pirate squads, letting him infiltrate them from within.

I won’t go into the infiltration sequence in detail, only say I think it’s some of Stackpole’s best writing and a very fun adventure. Corran (or ‘Jenos’) rises through the ranks of the pirates, has to fight his own side in a TIE-derived ‘Tri-fighter’ (putting a very different spin on Stackpole’s X-wing sequences when now he’s quoting dismissive callsign nicknames for Rebel fighters) and rescues a mysterious Caamasi named Elegos A’Kla. Elegos becomes Corran’s ally, as his own uncle (a Jedi) had known Corran’s Jedi grandfather and was there when he died. Corran has a crisis of conscience at what he’s been doing as part of the pirates and decides, with Elegos’ help, to become a masked Jedi vigilante going after the various pirate gangs on their planet, hollowing out Tavira’s forces from within. This sequence is also a lot of fun.

Eventually Corran arouses sufficient attention to find himself confronted by several lightsaber-wielding foes, Tavira’s Force-sensitive allies finally having arrived. Fortunately, so has Luke Skywalker, helped by Corran’s friend Ooryl, and they are able to subdue them. Making use of the Force-suppressing animals Zahn introduced in his books, the ysalamiri, they are able to interrogate the young ‘Jensaarai Defenders’ as they call themselves, and discover Tavira’s hidden base where the master of their order dwells. Though descended from Dark Jedi whom Corran’s grandfather, Elegos’ uncle and (implied) Obi-Wan Kenobi fought on that planet, the Jensaarai are not truly evil, as they have used their powers purely for defence – though based on those warped passed-down memories, they believe the Jedi are evil. This also introduces the idea of armour lined with cortosis ore fibres, which deactivate lightsabers – Zahn also uses this in Vision of the Future, tying the books together. The Jensaarai are helping Tavira mostly reluctantly, as she threatened to bombard their planet otherwise. Luke and Corran are able to defeat them and convince them, with Elegos’ special transferrable Caamasi memory, of the truth. Tavira flees before an illusion, no longer a threat without her Force-capable allies (notably her death or defeat is never actually described or shown). Mirax is rescued, and she and Corran resolve to start a family together.

Although I think Zahn is the better author than Stackpole overall and that is reflected in his books, I think there’s a case to be made that I, Jedi is the best individual Star Wars novel; though full of references to other works, it can be read fairly adequately on its own and functions as a satisfying story, a sort of distant finale for the first four X-wing books.

Unfortunately, Stackpole then got hit by the exact same problem he’d worked hard to try to amend in the case of his peers; anachronic order. No sooner had I, Jedi come out, he was writing another X-wing book – from the perspective of his characters, an interquel. Entitled Isard’s Revenge (+5), in many ways this feels like a book in search of a reason for existing. Though it’s got its share of fun moments (and has a Star Wars-ified reference to ‘red wine with fish’ From Russia With Love, what are you complaining about), this book creates about as many continuity and narrative problems as Stackpole usually tries to solve in any other of his books.

My opinion here is intensified by the fact that I broke my own cardinal rule and read these out of publication order, as I foolishly thought it’d make more sense to read all the X-wing books in numerical/chronological order. One might imagine that only a year’s publication difference wouldn’t matter, but no. Isard’s Revenge reads very strangely if one hasn’t read I, Jedi first, and also manages to contradict the latter in several unfortunate ways.

Isard’s Revenge switches back to third person narration and opens with Corran Horn swearing to himself as his X-wing, and the rest of a New Republic fleet, crashes out of hyperspace too soon in the Bilbringi system, and they know Grand Admiral Thrawn has outwitted them once again with his trap. Essentially, this is Stackpole retelling the climactic battle at the end of Zahn’s The Last Command, but from Corran Horn’s perspective as the guy at the front rather than by people seeing the grander scale. It’s actually quite a good sequence, but near the start is an illustration in why this book has problems. Corran muses to himself that he’d like to meet Thrawn, shake his hand (before killing him). This is a reference to the Zahn/Stackpole novella Side Trip, in which a younger Corran indeed met and shook the hand of Thrawn, unbeknownst to him, as Thrawn was disguised as ‘I can’t believe it’s not Boba Fett’ bounty hunter Jodo Kast. In my view this goes beyond Stackpole’s usual taste for a-bit-too-far continuity nods and edges into ‘Ricky Gervais stupidly gurning at the camera while pointing at this reference and telling you what it is’ territory.

After the battle is won, Thrawn is defeated and we get a linking sequence to explain how Admiral Ackbar finally managed to wear Wedge down into getting promoted, the Rogues and others are assigned to take on the forces of Imperial warlord Delak Krennel and his Ciutric Hegemony. Krennel previously appeared in Stackpole’s X-wing comics (which I haven’t read) and the most this book does to justify its existence is in finishing up the story of this antagonist and the former Rogues who fought him, such as Nrin Vakil. Vakil appears in this one piloting an unarmed reconnaissance X-wing ‘snoopscoot’, which in a more typical Stackpole continuity nod, previously appeared in Michael P. Kube-McDowell’s Black Fleet Crisis trilogy (+12).

Other fans have noted that this concept feels a bit out of place – why is the New Republic, exhausted after the war with Thrawn and (we know) soon to face the renewed might of the Empire in the questionable Dark Empire comics, picking fights with unpleasant but neutral warlords? One observation – I do not know who first made it – is that Isard’s Revenge feels uncannily like an allegorical take on the 2003 Iraq War set in the Star Wars universe, despite being written four years before it happened. The New Republic embarks on a neoliberal, nation-building quest against the oppressive but unthreatening Ciutric Hegemony, Corran runs into a laboratory where scientists seem to be designing a mini Death Star weapon of mass destruction which turns out to be a fake, Krennel makes use of absurd propaganda, etc.

Most peculiar of all, however, are the choice of antagonists beyond Krennel. In his X-wing book Iron Fist, Aaron Allston had had his character Garik ‘Face’ Loran startle Wedge by suggesting a conspiracy theory that Ysanne Isard was still alive, suggesting that her blown-up shuttle had been remotely piloted. At the time I just took this as a throwaway gag, but either Stackpole decided to take it up or the executives forced him to. In fact, not only does Isard come back, but two of her do! (I admit, that is a plot twist, at least). Near the start, Krennel encounters Isard, her face marred by recovery from a blaster wound, and she helps him with strategies to fight the New Republic as it comes for him. One of these involves laying a trap for the Rogues, which, for once, actually works.

The trap in question is at Corvis Minor, a.k.a. the star system which Zahn had Mara Jade find a blaster in a set of datacards about its history hidden in every Imperial archives in his books, and then Stackpole decided to have Corran do the same in his books. If that wasn’t enough, now it gets to appear again here, and that incident is referenced, again. The Rogues get ambushed by Krennel’s forces, who outnumber them six to one, and a number of them are killed. Purely by coincidence I’m sure, the ones who die are mostly throwaway alien newcomers first introduced in this book, though there is an interesting plot involving the apparent death of Gavin Darklighter’s lover Asyr Sei’lar, who deliberately hides her own recovery to fight the prejudice against their mixed relationship undercover rather than (in her eyes) ruin his life by forcing him to undergo it alongside her. Anyway, the other Rogues are rescued at the last minute by pilots flying TIE Defenders, the fan-favourite super-duper Imperial fighter from the X-wing games. Who’s in command of these pilots? Why, none other than Ysanne Isard – the real, older Ysanne Isard, while the one helping Krennel is a clone, because of course she is.

The rest of the book is a bit incoherent, so I’ll skip to the main points. With the real Isard’s help, the Rogues infiltrate Ciutric and offer their help to Krennel, leading to an odd sequence where their disguises and fake identities are described in great detail and then appear for about five minutes before they discard them; the New Republic successfully attacks and defeats Krennel; Corran manages to kill the clone Isard after she tries the same remote-controlled shuttle trick again; and meanwhile, Iella and Mirax team up to try to track down the missing Rogues, and instead end up foiling the real Isard when she reveals her real plan to steal back her old prison/flagship Lusankya, now a Republic ship. She apparently dies, though there’s a possible implication she’s trapped forever in a cell buried deep in the heart of that ship until its destruction in a much later book. With the Rogues’ survival revealed, Mirax meets Corran and tells him that this is the second time he’s gone missing, and next time if one of them goes missing, it’s going to be her! (UGH.)

That is definitely one of the worst moments in the book (right before the end) but there’s plenty of other ways in which this contradicts and diminishes I, Jedi. Because it’s assumed the reader’s already familiar with what Booster’s done to the Errant Venture from the lavish description in that book, we get terms like Diamond Level thrown about without any explanation, remarkably confusing my unwisely non-publication-order-reading self. In I, Jedi, when Corran first flies a Tri-fighter (derived from a TIE), the pirates ask him if he’s flown a TIE before. He confidently says yes, quietly noting to himself that well, it was in a simulator, but that counts, right? Again, only a year after that book came out, we get this one inserted earlier in the timeline where he flew a TIE Defender in combat, contradicting that line.

A lot of the problems are more just symptomatic of the well-known issues (known to everyone other than the creators of The Rise of Skywalker, apparently) with bringing back an iconic villain for the sake of it. There is no reason for Isard to come back, and it spoils the satisfying conclusion of The Bacta War – that Isard was killed by an inadvertent collaboration between Corran and Tycho Celchu, the man whose life she ruined as everyone (incorrectly) thought she had brainwashed him into becoming a sleeper agent. What sits worst with me is that it means the vapid Isard outlives the brilliant Grand Admiral Thrawn (and is more successful at cheating death), which really does not feel right at all.

Isard’s Revenge, on the whole, just feels rushed. There are sequences that don’t really go anywhere, nice battle scenes that aren’t built on, Stackpole running out ship names and using variations on ‘Selonia’ (a planet that isn’t even in the New Republic at this point) three times in a handful of pages. It doesn’t live up to the standards of his other books. As I said, it does have its moments: for example, the characterisation of one of Krennel’s captains as an otherwise decent man who is nonetheless driven to commit acts of evil out of racist fear that his children will be put in school with aliens, feels like one of the most ‘real’ examples of anti-alien prejudice in science fiction as an allegory for real-world racism. Some fans may also like a cathartic sequence where Wedge gets to fight AT-AT walkers with more even odds than he did in The Empire Strikes Back, and wrecks them. But this is the exception rather than the rule.

Stackpole would go on to write other Star Wars books, some of them carrying on the same characters and similar concepts, as the series entered the New Jedi Order era. Let this pair of books stand in testament to how even an author who clearly thinks a lot about continuity, and making his works fit with others’, can fall victim to the perils of anachronic order.

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), 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.