By Tom Anderson
In two previous articles in this series, I discussed the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels released by Bantam between 1991 and 1999. To briefly recap, these novels covered an in-universe period of about 15 years (from Return of the Jedi onwards) but were released in a completely anachronic order by different authors, many of whom were writing simultaneously with only vague knowledge of each others’ plans. For this reason, the setting naturally has a number of inconsistencies—though these are often surprisingly subtle (to do with things such as the government structure of the New Republic and what warships are ‘current’) because the writers tried to minimise them by sticking to their own favourite characters, villains and settings. This did lead to a rather disjointed take on what should have been a coherent universe, however, and naturally there remained the problem that almost every book had to involve the main cast of the films everyone knew and loved: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, and usually also Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2.
Authors that came in later sometimes made an effort to try to weld links between the previous disjointed books and cross over characters and settings; as I discussed in a previous article, Michael A. Stackpole was the first author to attempt this seriously. His intentions were good and some of the results were praiseworthy, but in the process of trying to forge links and feature cameos, sometimes he ended up creating plot holes like characters meeting before they should have done. At the end of that article, I stated that while Stackpole was the first to try it, he was not the best. The best attempt at this throughout all the original Bantam Star Wars books came near the end, and oddly enough, the books in question are among the few of the series I didn’t read at the time, and only read recently. They are the ‘Han Solo Trilogy’ books by A. C. Crispin, three books titled “The Paradise Snare”, “The Hutt Gambit” and “Rebel Dawn”. The first two of which sound much more like the titles of original-series Star Trek episodes than anything to do with Star Wars, and indeed Crispin also wrote for Star Trek. Apparently she was once dissuaded from writing about a return to the Mirror Universe because the tie-in comics ‘had already done that’, a peculiar decision considering it didn’t stop other authors writing about it before the TV show itself followed suit.
Other than this Trek anecdote, I did not know much about Anne C. Crispin before reading her Han Solo books; I only recently learned that she tragically and prematurely passed away of cancer in 2013. Sadly this article series seems to have unintentionally become a tribute to Star Wars authors who passed away too soon, given the same was true of Aaron Allston.
I should say why I did not read her Han Solo books in the 90s when I read most of the other Bantam books. In the back of each Bantam Star Wars book was a series of synopses of the other books, and sometimes an excerpt from near the start of the first book in a series (I did not grasp for a while that more of these were filled in in some books than others because the books were being written at the same time!) The editors did not always pick an excerpt that gives a particularly representative sample of the book in question, and the Han Solo Trilogy preview suffered from this: it depicts a very young Han growing up miserably on a pirate ship in orbit of Corellia, abused by the pirate captain Garris Shrike, with his only ally an aged Wookiee named Dewlanna. While fictional characters (like real life heroes) may often have these kind of rough backstories, I have never been too keen on actually reading about them, and this put me off reading the books. What I did not know at the time was that this status quo is actually dealt with in the course of a few pages, with Han escaping and making a new life for himself as a pilot with the Hutts.
Another misconception I had was that the ‘Han Solo Trilogy’ would only deal with Han Solo’s earliest life. My reasoning for this was that there had (confusingly) already been a trilogy of books about Han Solo by Brian Daley penned back when the original films had been coming out, and so Crispin would have to wedge her books earlier in the timeline than that. I was assuming that, like the other Bantam authors, she was going to keep to a particular time period and setting so she didn’t have to worry about using characters introduced by other authors or bringing in inconsistencies. I had badly underestimated what her ambition was with the books. They were not simply past adventures of Han Solo; rather, they were an attempt to come up with a single cohesive, comprehensive backstory biography of this iconic hero of twentieth century cinema.
That would be a stark challenge even if one had only been writing with no content to incorporate but the original films, as Brian Daley had—and Daley had contented himself with the ‘more past adventures’ style of prequel, in which Han and Chewie are already the fully-formed characters we know and love. Yet Crispin’s books came out towards the end of the Bantam era, when she had to try to incorporate all the additions to Han’s character and backstory that other authors had already made. In order to explain just how challenging this was, I need to give a bit more detail about Han’s appearances in the Bantam books. The Daley trilogy (technically pre-Bantam but still canon at the time) were the only books to actually depict Han’s life before the first Star Wars film (a.k.a. A New Hope) but this is misleading, because countless books set later refer back to Han’s past. With the typical practice I mentioned of Bantam authors carefully sticking to their own pools of characters to avoid contradictions (or being straitjacketed by others’ ideas) a particular problem arose. Several authors used the plot idea of ‘Han goes to check on his old smuggler contacts to help with this problem’, but the issue was that it was always a different group of contacts depending on the author. While it wasn’t inconceivable in a big galaxy that Han Solo knew plenty of people, the segregation was quite obvious and undermined the suspension of disbelief.
To take a few examples: in Vonda N. McIntyre’s (very strange) one-off novel The Crystal Star (set 10 years after Return of the Jedi, which I’ll call +10) Han meets an old flame who’s a female stage magician named Xaverri; in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The New Rebellion (+13) Han goes to a place called Smuggler’s Run, where all the smugglers hang out, to meet an old friend named Sinewy Ana Blue (among others); in the Dark Empire comics by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy (+6), Han goes to a place called Nar Shaddaa, which is also where all the smugglers hang out, to meet old contacts such as Shug Ninx, Mako Spince and Salla Zend. In Daley’s Han Solo Adventures trilogy, Han runs into an old smuggler friend named Roa at one point. Naturally, none of these groups intersect, making the idea of someone writing a coherent, continuous narrative of Han Solo’s life to be a remarkable challenge. Yet Crispin set out to do it, getting permission from the other writers to use their characters, and the result was remarkable.
I should briefly digress to mention just how much the aforementioned Dark Empire comics borked the Bantam Star Wars continuity. They came out over a fairly extended period and seriously screwed with the new galactic status quo every other writer was trying to work towards—that the New Republic was advancing, was now the legitimate government but had its own new problems, and that the Empire was in retreat but either it or breakaway warlords could still be a threat. Veitch and Kennedy’s greatest achievement was, arguably, managing to prefigure all the major problems of the Disney Star Wars sequels decades early. “No, I want to write Star Wars where the Empire is big and the Rebels are scattered and Emperor Palpatine is the baddy with lots of superweapons and Boba Fett is chasing Han Solo! What do you mean this has to be set six years after both of them died and the galaxy changed? Well change it back then, for this story only!”
Countless Bantam novel authors had to expend considerable ink trying to reconcile all this with what came before and after; Kevin J. Anderson in particular had to change big parts of his ‘Jedi Academy’ trilogy, and K. W. Jeter, the man who coined the word ‘steampunk’, was brought on board for a new trilogy whose original purpose was simply to explain how Boba Fett survived the Sarlacc, purely so Kennedy could get to draw pretty pictures of him six years after he died. In fairness, I will say that one of the things Dark Empire does well is the sequences set on Nar Shaddaa, ‘the Smuggler’s Moon’ in orbit of the adopted Hutt homeworld of Nal Hutta. These nicely and authentically capture the grimy ‘used future’ feel of Star Wars. The characters introduced there are also strong; Han Solo’s scary ex-girlfriend and fellow smuggler Salla Zend, the talented part-human mechanic Shug Ninx, and his former friend and colleague Mako Spince, reduced to a miserable cyborg existence after an accident and willing to betray his friend to bounty hunters. It’s clear a lot of trouble could have been avoided if Veitch and Kennedy had just been persuaded to write a series set earlier on (though that might have caused its own problems).
To return to Crispin’s books. Another challenge she faced was that George Lucas had a particular interdict on one specific scene: that the Expanded Universe authors were not allowed to directly write about the scene where Han Solo rescued Chewbacca from slavery, throwing away his promising Imperial military career in the process. This was a peculiar (and now obsolete) decision, and in the end Crispin basically just put a brief time gap between books 1 and 2, yet was still allowed to write about the immediate aftermath of this incident in a way that was functionally indistinguishable from actually writing about it!
From the description I have given so far, one might imagine that Crispin’s books were the ‘fix-fic’ form of prequel where it’s purely about reconciling other people’s continuities. Now there can be value in that form of story alone: arguably a comparably impressive effort was “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa, which created a coherent backstory for that comic character out of many references and flashbacks in earlier comics by Carl Barks. (It is a strange epiphany that now Star Wars is also Disney and Han Solo could theoretically cross over with the Scrooge comics…) An upcoming article by a guest writer will be looking at that very achievement, but for now, back to Star Wars.
Crispin was keen to tell a story as well as tie together references, and to provide motivations behind Han’s established character traits. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this is to summarise the plot.
In “The Paradise Snare”, Han (who doesn’t know his past) has had a miserable existence working as a thief for Garris Shrike since a young age, doing missions for him in which he infiltrates rich society such as schools, which led to him briefly meeting Senator Garm Bel Iblis (as mentioned in Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn Trilogy”, +5). As said above, he manages to escape at the cost of the life of his Wookiee protector Dewlanna. Having learned his surname, he briefly runs into his wealthy but abusive cousin Thrackan Sal-Solo on Corellia (in order to fill in some backstory in Roger MacBride Allen’s “Corellian Trilogy”, +14). In the process we hear about his family’s alleged royal connections, as mentioned by Wolverton in “The Courtship of Princess Leia” (+4) and by no-one else ever since. Han then becomes a pilot, working for the Besadii clan Hutts. These Hutts and their t’landa Til allies run fake religious retreat colonies on Ylesia, which are actually a scam designed to attract pilgrims to work as slave labourers processing the addictive ‘spice’ drugs (see Dune), with the t’landa Til using natural mate-attracting abilities to induce euphoria in the pilgrims. The Hutts don’t trust Han initially and have him followed around by a Togorian, a powerful bipedal cat-like alien named Muuurgh, as his ‘bodyguard’. Han is successful in his job bringing supplies to Ylesia and fighting off pirates hired by the rival Desijilic Hutt clan (which includes a young up-and-coming Hutt named Jabba). However, he becomes sympathetic to a young female pilgrim slave from his homeworld of Corellia and eventually manages to persuade her to break with the cult, though she struggles with addiction to the t’landa Til’s euphoria. He also finds out and reveals to Muuurgh that the Hutts have been keeping his mate captive as a slave, winning Muuurgh over to his side. Han and the slave, whose real name is Bria, fall in love and manage to escape Ylesia quite a way before the end of the book (which surprised me as I was expecting that to be the climax). Muuurgh and his mate return to their homeworld, while Han meets Bria’s wealthy parents on Corellia but is then chased off the world due to pursuit by Inspector Hal Horn, Corran Horn’s dad (as mentioned in Stackpole’s books). Han and Bria then go to the capital planet of Coruscant, with Han planning to enrol in the Imperial Academy as was his dream. However, Bria leaves him with a note saying she still needs to beat her addiction and she doesn’t want to drag him down. A broken-hearted Han ends the book fighting off a revenge attack by Shrike, who finally tracked him down, and joins the Academy.
“The Hutt Gambit” opens after a time skip, with Han having successfully become an Imperial officer, but (as mentioned above) throwing away his career to save Chewbacca when he saw him being abused as a slave. He’s unable to persuade Chewie to leave him; the Wookiee owes him a life debt and will now stick with him as his new partner. (Note how Crispin establishes 1) Han’s particular empathy with Wookiees, and speaking their language, due to growing up with Dewlanna and 2) him being comfortable with a big and physically powerful alien as his first mate due to his prior working relationship with Muuurgh). Han charts a new career as a smuggler, often working for the Desijilic Hutts (and meeting Jabba, who genuinely likes and respects him, though the Hutts are an ancient civilisation who look down on humans as upstarts). He often works out of Nar Shaddaa, where he meets up with Mako Spince—whom he knew as a fellow cadet, as he was the son of a privileged Imperial family but who eventually got thrown out of the academy after a prank which blew up a moon. Spince becomes a capable fringe operator and master of much of Nar Shaddaa’s trade, taking his friend Han under his wing (dramatic irony for his eventual fall and reduction to a cat’s-paw in “Dark Empire”, +6). Han is also mentored by the older smuggler Roa, and helps give Shug Ninx a chance to help establish his repair operation, when others look down on him because of his mixed ancestry. He acquires a ship from Lando Calrissian, which he names the Bria in Bria’s memory. He meets Xaverri after she impressed him with her magic show, and briefly becomes her lover when he accompanies her on a tour. Eventually Han ends up going to Smuggler’s Run for some missions, where he meets Sinewy Ana Blue (from The New Rebellion, +13). The two Hutt clans carry out their titular gambit of intrigue against each other, while the Empire sends a force to enforce law on Nar Shaddaa, and Han and Mako are called upon to lead the smugglers in a fight against the force. While infiltrating an Imperial ship, he is shocked to find Bria seemingly as the Imperial leader’s mistress—in fact she is working for the Rebel Alliance and is also infiltrating. The smugglers manage to beat away the Empire (with help from an illusion by Xaverri, Imperial internal intrigue and Hutt bribery) but the Bria is destroyed in the process, leaving Han without a ship. Roa retires at the same time to travel the galaxy with his new wife.
In “Rebel Dawn” Han goes to Cloud City on Bespin for a sabacc gambling tournament that goes very high-stakes, and in the end manages to win Lando’s prestigious Millennium Falcon from him—which Lando had previously disappeared from the books for a while to go on an adventure with his strange droid companion Vuffi Raa (thus slotting in the Lando Calrissian Adventures books written by L. Neil Smith). Little does he know that Bria, in disguise and there as a Rebel agent, watches him win the tournament and roots for him. This book is also interrupted by a couple of time skips (with brief linking asides in italics) as Han and Chewie take the Falcon to the Corporate Sector to seek a legendary starship mechanic named Doc (and to escape Salla Zend, who’s decided to marry Han against his will). This, similarly, slots in Daley’s Han Solo Adventures books into the timeline (including his encounter with the retired Roa). Over the course of the book, Han’s relationship with Jabba the Hutt sours a bit and Jabba’s uncle/aunt (Hutts are hermaphroditic) Jiliac is killed by the Besadii rival Durga, who is a major villain of Kevin J. Anderson’s novel Darksaber (+8) and becomes a subordinate of Prince Xizor of Black Sun (from Shadows of the Empire, -1). Han carries out the ‘Kessel Run’ a number of times to smuggle spice, over which smugglers compete for who can shave the most time while getting dangerously close to black holes. (Salla Zend loses her own ship in the process). He finally meets up again with Bria as a fully-fledged Rebel commander, and they join forces to attack Ylesia and destroy its exploitative colonies. However, though Bria promises Han and his smuggler allies they’d have a share in the looted spice wealth, the Rebels take it all to pay for their activities. Betrayed again, we can see the origins of Han’s values expressed in the first Star Wars film: that he doesn’t care for ‘hokey religions’ (like the exploitative cult on Ylesia he formerly enabled himself as a desperate young man), and that he’s distrustful of Rebel idealism, ‘not in it for your revolution’ but just wants to be paid—or so he says, but his heart’s in the right place. His scepticism about the Force later on also fits with him knowing Xaverri and her command of stage magic illusions on a grand scale. The book ends with Han having to jettison his cargo to dodge Imperial inspectors on a Kessel run so legendary that he claims he’s actually shortened the distance in parsecs (though Chewie is sceptical) and Jabba is not happy. Han ends up on the backwater desert planet of Tatooine, only to receive a message that Bria is dead: she died among other Rebel agents fighting on the planet Toprawa to ensure the plans of a new Imperial superweapon (the Death Star) are smuggled away. (Note that a similar plot would be used in the Disney Star Wars film Rogue One with a tragic end, and some fans compare the character of Jyn Erso to Bria). Han is distraught despite his complicated relationship with Bria, and goes to drown his sorrows in a bar…only to find a strange young kid and an old man in a robe who want to buy passage to Alderaan. The last book therefore ends with Han’s first appearance on screen in the first Star Wars film.
I really cannot overstate just how ambitious these books are, both as general prequels for the setting (they refer to broader galactic politics in an era few other authors had covered) and more obviously as welding together disparate chunks of an iconic character’s backstory into a coherent whole. And it is all the more impressive that Crispin succeeded. The general background stories are nothing world-changing but justify their own existence, and some of the Hutt intrigue is fun; but crucially, the books succeed in bringing together all the unconnected parts of Han’s past without it feeling contrived. I think these books would make sense to someone reading them as their first Bantam Star Wars work. Plot holes are ironed out, character inconsistencies and timeline gaps are avoided much more comprehensively than in attempts like Stackpole’s. Crispin even plausibly represents an ambiguous reaction from Lando when Han wins the Falcon, to justify the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han initially thinks Lando is angry with him after seeing him all these years later, only for him then to hug him.
Any flaws in the books are subjective and more thematic than concrete. As usual when reviewing any Star Wars book, I feel the words ‘Boba Fett’ and ‘unnecessary’ floating towards the same sentence. Crispin does depict Fett as less boringly and unjustifiably superhuman than many writers (as a reminder, Fett’s actual on-screen achievements in the films consist of briefly tying someone up with a ripcord before being knocked into a stationary monster’s maw by a blind man). There’s a nifty scene where Fett tries to kidnap Han, only to be kidnapped in turn by Lando (giving Lando a cool achievement to match his image). To my mind it still feels as though Fett is presented as a much higher-profile figure, and one with more history with the main gang, than the impression one would get from the films—but this is subjective.
There are a couple of moments that are a bit too cute, like Han going to Alderaan for the first time and seeing a welcome video of Bail Organa with his young daughter (i.e. Leia, his future wife) and reflecting on her—I can’t really picture Han in the original Star Wars film already knowing in detail who Leia was before he met her busting her out of prison on the Death Star. However, I think the biggest potential issue with the books is simply with Bria Tharen. As I discussed in the introduction article to this series, introducing a major lost love into a character backstory is a gamble fraught with problems. Ultimately one has to face the fact that, obviously, the character has never mentioned this love in any chronologically later story, so can they really have meant that much to them? I do think Crispin pulls this off well here, with Han’s complicated relationship with Bria and the sense that she left him for the Rebellion’s cause; it does make sense he doesn’t think of her most of the time later, but would be emotional when he did. I think this is only really a problem because Crispin wanted the book to end in such a pat way; can you really picture Han Solo in the bar in Tatooine meeting Luke and Obi-Wan, shooting Greedo, as someone who is fraught with grief over hearing of the death of his first love only hours before? I think with a slightly adjusted timeline this would have worked better.
However, this is nitpicking. Crispin’s work, like the rest of the Bantam books, has disappeared from the new Disney Star Wars ‘canon’, yet it clearly influenced the writing of the prequel film Solo: A Star Wars Story. That film instead has Han’s lost love being a girl named Qi’ra he grew up with on Corellia, but follows the same theme of divided loyalties and her betraying him for a cause—albeit for a crime organisation that’s clearly inspired by Black Sun, rather than the Rebels. The film is an adequate prequel with some interesting ideas and covering some similar ground, but inevitably is not as in-depth as Crispin’s work (for example, Crispin’s presentation of the ‘record-breaking Kessel run’ is done in such a way to make it clear Han’s description of ‘parsecs’ is debatable, explaining Obi-Wan’s polite scepticism in the original film, while Solo plays it straight).
Given all the criticism I have made of many prequels in this article series, it might be a natural question to ask me what I feel is the single most competently executed work of prequel fiction in literary history. I cannot speak of works I am not familiar with, of course; but given the challenges Crispin faced (not merely dealing with reconciling the disparate works of one author, like Don Rosa with Carl Barks, but many who often did not communicate much with each other) and the success of the result, right here and now it is my opinion that the “Han Solo Trilogy” takes that crown. It is, perhaps, a fitting epitaph for an author who was taken from us too soon.
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.