Every part of the Expanded Universe (EU, also begrudgingly known as Legends) has its fans and devotees; but there will always be differences of opinion. Few entries in the series reach universal heights of adoration and devotion, however. You have the Thrawn Trilogy, and…well, that’s very nearly it. If you hang out in fan forums and comment threads, you’ll find criticism at some point for nearly everything else. That’s the nature of fandom, and it’s not a bad thing—we’re all entitled to like what we like and dislike what we dislike.
There is one other corner of the EU, though, for which I can’t recall ever seeing complaints. Today, we arrive at that corner, and it is great. I’m talking about the X-Wing series of novels by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston. Today, we’re looking at the first book in the series, 1996’s X-Wing: Rogue Squadron (which, coincidentally, is the first Star Wars novel not to include Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, or Leia Organa).
I’ll say up front that the X-Wing series has been a blind spot in my Star Wars experience. Back in my days of heavier EU reading—before I mostly switched from print to ebooks—I read whatever I could get my hands on, and I never managed to acquire the X-Wing series. The beauty of the EU, however, is in its interconnections and shared canon (more on that another time), and so I was familiar with the aftereffects of the X-Wing novels, even without having read them. It was no big secret that this is the series where the New Republic takes Coruscant from the Empire, for example. The Rogue Squadron pilots themselves appear again and again in the series. Series protagonist Corran Horn goes on to become my personal favorite Jedi (so, spoiler that he doesn’t die…?).
That last point—the matter of Corran Horn—made me excited to finally read this series. There’s not a bad or ill-conceived character here, so far at any rate; but Corran, as I said, is a favorite of mine. I’m excited to finally learn some of the background that led to the events of I, Jedi and his duel against Shedao Shai for the fate of Ithor in Dark Tide II: Ruin. Of course, the other Rogues are no slouches themselves, with such luminaries as Wedge Antilles and Tycho Celchu among their numbers.
So, let’s dig in! But, a few things first: Here is the timeline we’re using for this readthrough, starting with The Truce at Bakura, but omitting some of the children’s books such as the Jedi Prince series. We’re taking the series in order, which means that the next seven posts (including this one) will be X-Wing novels, so be prepared! Then we’ll get a lengthy break that includes some very well-known and popular novels, and then we’ll be back to this series briefly. Also note that I use the conventional fan- and behind-the-scenes system of dates that centers on the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV; this story takes place in 6.5 ABY (After the Battle of Yavin). Also, as always, Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this book! It would be nearly impossible to avoid all spoilers and still discuss the novel, so read at your own risk!
X-Wing: Rogue Squadron is the story of Wedge Antilles’s reinstallation of the famous Rogue Squadron. This team of starfighter pilots was originally formed after the Battle of Yavin from survivors of other squadrons, notably Red Squadron, the squadron in which Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles flew during the attack on the first Death Star. The fledgling New Republic makes the decision to re-form the squadron for a dual purpose: To take the fight back to the Empire and strike fear into their hearts, and to inspire worlds to join the Republic. To that end, Wedge selects a diverse group of pilots: Lujayne Forge, a human from Kessel with a chip on her shoulder; Erisi Dlarit and Bror Jace, Thyferrans from powerful Bacta-producing families; Riv Shiel, a wolflike Shistavanen; Aril Nunb, the Sullustan sister of Nien Nunb; Gavin Darklighter, cousin to former X-Wing pilot Biggs Darklighter; Rhysati Ynr, from Bespin; Nawara Ven, a Twi’lek and former attorney; Peshk Vri’syck, a male Bothan; Andoorni Hui, a Rodian; Ooryl Qrygg, an insectlike Gand with a rigid code of honor; and Ooryl’s wingmate, Corran Horn, a former member of Corellian Security with a difficult past, but phenomenal flying skills. He also recruits former Rogue Tycho Celchu as his executive officer, but this comes with a price; Tycho was previously held in the notorious Imperial prison Lusankya, and the Republic refuses to trust that he has not been compromised.
The book takes our recruits through the growing pains of becoming a squadron—and not just any squadron, but Rogue Squadron, a unit famed for daring—and receiving—death. The Rogues are thrust into action early when the Republic sets its sights on Coruscant, the Imperial capital world, now held by former Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard. Isard is no easy enemy, though; and she has many tools at her disposal. One such tool is a partially-disgraced Intelligence operative named Kirtan Loor, who has much to prove—and a special hatred for one Corran Horn. The novel carries us through the first and second battles of Borleias, an Imperial world with a direct line to Coruscant—and secrets of its own. In the end, the Rogues win the battle—but not without cost, as they suffer their first losses in what promises to be a protracted war.
As can be expected, much of this first volume consists of laying groundwork for what is to come. There’s characterization to be built, settings and scenarios to be established, and emotional weight to be installed. We’re dealing with an entire squadron of twelve pilots here, plus supporting characters and villains, and many of them appear for the first time here; in short, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Don’t let that fool you into thinking nothing happens, though; one of Michael Stackpole’s strengths seems to be the ability to strike a balance, or so it seems thus far. He gives us plenty of character moments; but he also gives us the twin Battles of Borleias, great set pieces of starfighter combat. There are other, smaller battles scattered throughout the book as well. Stackpole also seems to be adept at using a minimum number of scenes to establish drama; for example, pilot Lujayne Forge only gets one in-depth scene, but it’s enough to make her death, the first in the squadron, carry a great deal of weight for her fellow pilots, and for us as readers. (I very much wanted her to live, and I’m not quite ready to forgive Stackpole for letting her die first.)
Stackpole doesn’t shy away from deaths, either. By the end of the book, three pilots—a quarter of the squadron—are dead, with no replacements yet in sight. That’s quite a number for an introductory novel. The shadow of death always looms large over the Rogues; it’s reiterated many times that all starfighter squadrons have high death rates, and Rogue Squadron more than most. The best course of action for the reader, it seems, is to assume that if the character is newly created for this series, one should not get too attached to him or her.
As I mentioned, we focus on Corran Horn. Horn is a hotshot pilot from Corellia, a former member of Corellian Security (aka CorSec), forced to go on the run to escape the evil intentions of Kirtan Loor, who was the Imperial Intelligence Liaison at Corran’s branch of CorSec. Corran will one day be a Jedi, like his grandfather before him; but he knows nothing of that yet. Fortunately for us, it appears Corran’s future was planned to some degree in advance, because there are definite hints of his Force abilities here, although he doesn’t recognize them as such. Much time is spent discussing his past with CorSec, especially as it relates to Kirtan Loor, Corran’s father Hal Horn, and former supervisor Gil Bastra. Most of this discussion comes through interactions with Lujayne Forge, who hails from the prison world of Kessel—to which Corran routinely consigned prisoners while with CorSec—and smuggler Mirax Terrik, whose father Booster Terrik was apprehended and sent to Kessel by Corran’s father. Early hints also appear of the future relationship between Corran and Mirax, which will precipitate the events of I, Jedi.
The novel leaves us poised for the campaign to retake Coruscant—but other plot threads are left dangling as well. New pilots are needed for the Rogues, with little time to prepare and train. The squadron’s military protocol droid, M3PO (“Emtrey” for short) has secrets which are yet to be revealed. The disposition of Borleias has not yet been shown. Corran’s relationship with Mirax has yet to find its feet. Tycho Celchu’s mysterious past has not been revealed…and Rogue Squadron has a spy in their midst.
Overall: There’s a lot to take in here! I suspect that later novels won’t have to feel quite so busy, and will be able to take their time with the storytelling. That is in no way an insult to Stackpole’s work here; he’s done an amazing job of including everything that needed to be included, while still keeping the reader hooked. There’s always housekeeping to be done in the first novel of a series; but Stackpole does it with efficiency and style. I find myself looking forward to what lies ahead, not just for Corran’s story, but for all the Rogues, and even our villains. As usual, the villains start out as what I like to call “stock plus one”—that is, stock villains plus one defining characteristic. In the case of Kirtan Loor, his “plus one” is an eidetic memory on which he perhaps relies too much; for Borleias’ Imperial General Evir Derricote, it’s his provincial secret-keeping; for Ysanne Isard, it’s her sheer fearsomeness. Already the characters are beginning to develop, however—especially Loor, who is undermined and redeemed several times in the novel. Overall it’s a good mix, and sets us up well for the series. I expected that, while the series would be good, there would be nothing new; and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that that is not the case. I’m enjoying it, and you will as well.
Next time: We’ll attack Coruscant in book two, Wedge’s Gamble! See you there.
X-Wing: Rogue Squadron is available from Amazon and other booksellers.
You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of the novel here.