It was a true underdog story!
The veteran in this competition was a recent newbie himself. But he had four wins under his belt, and that’s more than enough. It only takes five kills to make an ace. And he was good, too–his wins weren’t just wins; they’re still talked about today. How could any challenger think to take his crown away?
And yet, that’s exactly what happened. I’m speaking, of course, of the X-Wing series…or rather, its authors.
Not that it was a literal competition. In all the background reading I’ve done, I’ve never seen any indication that the two authors involved were anything but cooperative. The competition is all in the minds of us fans, who pick our favorites and make comparisons. And until recently, I was sure I had mine all figured out.
A little background here. To understand the X-Wing series, you need an idea of how the Star Wars Expanded Universe (today called Legends) was shaping up in the 1990s. Prior to 1991, it had been eight years since the previous novel, 1983’s Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka (not covered in this reread, but very entertaining–I recommend that entire trilogy). 1991, then, gave us a single novel–but what a novel! Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit the then-quiescent fandom like a bomb (that’s “explosive”, not “failure”). The results were instantaneous and far-reaching; and it’s no exaggeration at all to say that with a single book, Timothy Zahn launched the entire future of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. (He’s still doing it today–he’s published several books in Disney canon that essentially parallel the role of Heir to the Empire and its sequels from the EU.) We’ll get to Zahn’s work soon.
The next several years were packed with new releases. If you look at the list of novels by release date, you’ll find a number of adult-level novels, accompanied by a similar number of children’s and YA novels. Nearly all were set in the era we’re covering, the post-Return of the Jedi era (aka the New Republic era), because this WAS Star Wars. No new movies were yet in the works (although there was some early hints of the prequels), and so the novels were carrying the torch for the future. Many of the novels we will be covering here were published during that time; in fact, it’s surprising to me now, looking back, just how many important novels were published between 1991 and the end of 1995. First the remainder of Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, then The Truce at Bakura (which we’ve already covered), The Courtship of Princess Leia (coming up soon), the Jedi Academy Trilogy, the widely panned The Crystal Star (yes, we’re going to cover it), the early parts of the Young Jedi Knights series of YA novels, the Corellian Trilogy, and Darksaber (not to be confused with the hand weapon of the same name)–all of these novels launched in that short window. Most novels were released in a loosely consistent chronological order; there were gaps, but not much doubling back. The major exception was that the Thrawn trilogy had been set later than some of these novels; but it gets a pass, because it came first, and had such an impact.
Therefore, the X-Wing series was something of an insert. The first book, Rogue Squadron, was released on New Year’s Day 1996. However, it–and most of the series–is set in 6-7 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin, according to the out-of-universe dating system in common use). This predates everything thus far released in the 1990s except The Truce at Bakura (4 ABY). Thus it’s very early days for the New Republic–when the series begins, they haven’t even captured Coruscant, the galactic capital. I can imagine that such a maneuver is both liberating and restricting for the authors. On one hand, it’s virgin territory–no one had set any stories in that period. On the other hand, there’s a tight set of expectations that have to be met, because one cannot contradict anything that came later. It’s not without its stresses; in an interview with Jim Fisher, when asked how much research was required, Aaron Allston said:
“A lot. I wish I’d had time to do more. I read every Star Wars technical manual I could get my hands on, plus Stackpole’s novels, Zahn’s novels, other novels in which Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron make appearances, comic books, and several of West End’s Star Wars game supplements. I watched the movie trilogy repeatedly. I played the X-Wing computer game. I bought eight of the Action Fleet toys and used them for measurements and estimations of their performance in atmosphere. I read books on aircraft carrier life and pilot survival.“
Michael A. Stackpole was the initial choice to write the series, and released the first four novels (Rogue Squadron, Wedge’s Gamble, The Krytos Trap, all in 1996, and The Bacta War in early 1997). Those novels, which we’ve already covered, continue the exploits of the rebuilt Rogue Squadron in the taking of Coruscant and the battle against Ysaane Isard. The novels are heavily told from the point of view of Corran Horn, former CorSec investigator and future Jedi Knight. When Stackpole was approached for a four-book continuation of the series, however, he declined, citing other commitments; but he recommended Aaron Allston for three of the four books (and planned to write the fourth himself when his schedule cleared). Allston was obligated to hit the ground running…and that’s where we are today.
Allston’s diligence and research paid off. We open with book five, Wraith Squadron. Wedge Antilles looks back at the amount of infiltration and guerilla work his pilots had to do on Thyferra in The Bacta War, and comes up with the idea of a new type of X-Wing squadron, one that is built around the idea of doing its own ground work as well as flying. With the help of veteran Wes Janson, he pulls together a team of screwups and wash-outs, each of which has some valuable secondary skills–and some destructive tendencies. There’s Kell Tainer, a hand-to-hand combat and demolitions expert who freezes up in battle, and lives with a terrible secret: That his father was killed by none other than Wes Janson in a friendly-fire incident. There’s Garik “Face” Loran, a former child actor living under the weight of guilt for his unwitting work in Imperial propaganda, whose disguise and espionage skills are nearly inhuman. There’s Tyria Sarkin, a mediocre pilot with a lot to prove, and a grudge to settle. There’s Ton Phanan, a cyborg doctor with an allergy to bacta and an unmatched wit. There’s Hohass “Runt” Ekwesh, an undersized, horselike Thakwash with multiple personalities and a wide array of unexpected skills. And there’s Voort “Piggy” saBinring, a genetically-modified Gamorrean with a frightening level of mathematical and analytical acumen. Others come and go, ensuring a constant rogues’ (wraiths?) gallery.
Where the Rogue Squadron novels have concerned themselves with Ysanne Isard, the director of Imperial Intelligence who seized control of Coruscant, the Wraith Squadron trilogy deals with the other major threat among the Imperial warlords: Warlord Zsinj. That’s a name I’d been hearing for years–he gets mentioned time and again through other stories–and here’s our chance to witness his downfall. He’s more entertaining than most Imperials, in my opinion; he’s not the caricature that most are, but rather he’s very human. He’s moody but not usually angry (or at least not comically so), he swings from emotion to emotion, and he makes mistakes. He’s very skilled at constructing his own little empire, and yet he remains approachable to his underlings–the very opposite of the terrifying Isard. Like Isard, he commands power from a Super Star Destroyer; Isard had the Lusankya, while Zsinj has the Iron Fist. The first novel chronicles the Wraiths’ efforts to pick away at his empire; the second, aptly titled Iron Fist, covers the first attempt to strike directly at Zsinj and his vessel.
But, as interesting as Zsinj is, it’s the Wraiths that steal the show. When one takes different types of dynamite and throws them into the fire together, there’s bound to be explosions. The Wraiths are no exception; one by one, their problems and flaws boil to the surface; and like the other kind of boil, they must be lanced. From Kell Tainer’s fear of freezing up and his hatred of Wes Janson, to Tyria’s imposter syndrome, to Runt’s failure to coordinate his various minds, to Phanan’s bitterness and Face’s guilt and Piggy’s loneliness and Myn Donos’s depression over the loss of some former comrades, one challenge after another threatens to destroy the Wraiths…and one by one, they learn to survive and overcome. They do this in the midst of an increasingly insane series of military and paramilitary feats that leave their supervisors shaking their heads, more often than not.
Of particular interest to me is a character introduced in a minor way in Wraith Squadron, but raised to protagonist status in Iron Fist: Lara Notsil, also known as Gara Petothel. In Wraith Squadron, Gara Petothel is an Imperial intelligence officer–a spy, essentially–working as an analyst for one of Zsinj’s underlings. She’s a troublesome pest to the Wraiths, although they are unaware of her presence. She survives the catastrophe that destroys her employer, and escapes to forge a new cover identity on Coruscant; she takes the name and identity of a long-dead farmer from Aldivy named Lara Notsil. In the midst of planning to escape back to Zsinj, she is unexpectedly caught up in a plan by the Wraiths to take down a corrupt officer; and much to her own surprise, she ends up in the squadron. However, she soon begins to suffer identity problems, as she finds that she would much rather be the hopeful and upright Lara Notsil, than the Imperial-aligned and deceitful Gara Petothel–but, in doing so, she’s perpetuating another lie to cover the lies she wants to escape. As of the end of the book, her mental state seems fragile, and I’m interested to see where it goes from here.
In the end, I have to hand it to Allston. I expected competence–most Star Wars authors have demonstrated as much, and even bad Star Wars is better than no Star Wars (except The Rise of Skywalker; there’s no excuse for that one). I didn’t expect him to outdo Stackpole, but that’s exactly what happened. His characters are more vital and endearing; his battle sequences and strategies are top notch; and his stories are endlessly creative. Someone at Lucas must have agreed; Allston would go on to write a total of thirteen Star Wars novels, right up to the and including a third of the Fate of the Jedi series that (nearly) closes out the post-RotJ era of the EU. (No, Crucible, we haven’t forgotten you!) Unfortunately and sadly, Aaron Allston passed away seven years ago today, on February 27, 2014, of heart failure; and we remember him fondly.
Next time: We’ll round out the Wraith Squadron trilogy with Solo Command! See you there.
X-Wing: Wraith Squadron and X-Wing: Iron Fist are available from Amazon and other booksellers.