My first review is a bargain; five books in one!
The following books are covered in this review:
- Rogue Squadron – Michael A. Stackpole
- Wedge’s Gamble – Michael A. Stackpole
- The Krytos Trap – Michael A. Stackpole
- The Bacta War – Michael A. Stackpole
- Wraith Squadron – Aaron Allston
I will be rating them by arbitrary symbol ‘lambda’ – λ – from the Greek alphabet in honour of everyone’s favourite Star Wars personnel transport: the Lambda-Class Shuttle.
When I was younger I loved visiting my local library. I remember the joy I experienced at being able to go into this wonderful old building picking out books on dinosaurs, fighter planes, and Star Wars extended universe novels. Being young, I tended to just look at the pictures in these books, and despite having loaned out what must have been the entire set of Star Wars novels at some point or other, I only really remember reading one set – the X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston.
Recently, I was sorting through my room/book storage facility and I dug out a couple of old, battered copies of the X-Wing novels that I had stored up at the top of my cupboard with all my older, tattier paperbacks. Much to my chagrin, the collection was incomplete, back in my day there were eight X-Wing books and I only had five.
I must confess that this seemingly random find was actually nothing of the sort. I had started another game, another collection, but one I actually played this time. For Christmas, a friend asked me to get him the starter set for the X-Wing Miniatures Game. I had vaguely heard of it but wasn’t too familiar.
Four months down the line I have avidly been collecting (and thankfully also playing) that as well. The X-Wing novels seemed like the perfect literary accompaniment to my new hobby and a way to assuage my ever-present nostalgia with a trip back to some of the novels of my youth.
The first four X-Wing books seem to have been written either very close together or all in one go. Consequently they all suffer from similar strengths and weaknesses. I will try to talk about them without dropping any spoilers but read on with some caution.
Stackpole’s run on X-Wing starts with a classic origin story, ‘Rogue Squadron’ (λλλλ). Wedge Antilles – everyone’s favourite minor-character-who-wasn’t-Boba-Fett from Star Wars – is tasked with re-establishing the infamous ‘Rogue Squadron’, of Battle of Hoth fame. In doing this he pulls together a squadron of ace pilots to help finish what was started in the original trilogy. This is a rip-roaring, space-fighting adventure, exactly the sort of book you would expect in a series named ‘X-Wing’, it also has a healthy dose of Y-Wings (a personal favourite of mine) and an interesting cast of characters old and new.
The second book ‘Wedge’s Gamble’ (λλ), is something of a gamble itself, as Stackpole takes the Rogues out of their cockpits and into what is essentially an espionage thriller which doesn’t really work. The Rogues’ mission seems contrived, something which could be easily carried out by Alliance Intelligence, and is pulled off thanks to an enormous amount of convenience and good luck. Both things you might expect from a pulpy space opera sci-fi, but layed on a little too thickly here.
The third book in the series, ‘The Krytos Trap’ (λλλ), is again surprisingly quite heavily ground-based. However, Stackpole masterfully keeps things interesting with the dual plots of a courtroom drama and a prison escape. Unlike the second book, the Rogues’ places in these plots seem more natural, which makes them immediately more interesting.
Stackpole’s fourth and final book in his initial run, ‘The Bacta War’ (λλλλ), is a reversion to a more wholesome military novel, as the Rogues go ‘rogue’ to engage in a full-scale war with a rogue imperial faction. Of the four, this was probably my favourite, and it brought a logical and largely satisfying conclusion to Stackpole’s run on the series.
Now, having given those four books the briefest of plot treatments, onto to the good and the bad. The good first. Stackpole is excellent at world-building. He brings a welcome dollop of moral grey to a cinematic universe notable for its overly simplistic black-and-white portrayal of the Rebellion and the Empire. Stackpole does a great job of showing us the bigger picture, a galaxy in turmoil, a Rebellion struggling to shift from a resistance movement to a galactic government with all the difficulties that such a shift entails, the divided and embittered remnants of the Empire spoiling for the galaxy.
On the other hand, while the world they inhabit is very well-realised, this seems to have happened at the expense of serious characterisation on the part of most of Rogue Squadron. There are twelve pilots in the squadron, and by the end of the fourth book you only feel like you know three or four of them – Wedge, Corran Horn, Gavin Darklighter, Tycho Celchu. This is regrettable, because a lot of the first book is given over to Wedge’s internal and external monologues about the terrible attrition rate of Rogue Squadron. In the films, we saw this take place – the attrition rate of the fighter pilots who attacked the first Death Star was terrible. In that fight thirty fighter pilots went in and only Wedge, Luke, and a Y-Wing pilot made it out. In contrast, in the first four X-Wing books, only a handful of the original Rogues die – one of whom is a traitor who has by that point left the squad, and another who comes back from the dead in book four. This means that there is never really a sense of threat to the pilots throughout the books. You know Corran Horn, Wedge, and the others are not going to die, likewise the non-Rogue characters who are well developed like Mirax Terrik. It would have been nice to have had a reason to care about the minor characters who did, rather than just going “oh” when the guy who had about five lines bought it.
This is where there is such a stark contrast with Aaron Allston’s first book in the series: Wraith Squadron (λλλλ). I’ll review this last book in greater detail largely because I already did three of the other four on goodreads here, here, and here (be advised, those reviews are in more detail so will probably be a bit spoiler-y).
Allston is given a difficult task with Wraith Squadron. He essentially had to write another origin story and make it seem fresh and original only four books down the line from the first one. Reading through the first four books again and knowing there was a writer change coming up was intriguing, what’s more the books I owned were skewed in favour of Stackpole – at some point in my childhood I had purchased all five of Stackpole’s X-Wing books but only one of Allston’s , I was interested to see how the shift would pan out.
I feel like I already prefer Allston’s technique more, though it would be less effective without the groundwork done by Stackpole on the previous four books. Thanks to Stackpole, I understood the sort of context that the formation of Wraith Squadron took place in, which was helpful because Allston’s first book is almost the reverse of Stackpole’s.
Unlike the Rogues, most of whom are interchangeable and largely irrelevant characters – I couldn’t even name them all after reading four books about them – every single member of Wraith Squadron felt like a more well-rounded individual. The Wraiths are meant to be washouts, and are as good on the ground as they are in the air. This instantly makes anything they do on the ground more understandable and believable. For example, it’s clear why one member is great with explosives, because he used to be in the Republic Commandos. So whereas in Rogue Squadron’s adventure in ‘Wedge’s Gamble’ I was continually wondering why the pilots were doing the jobs that should have been given over to skilled ground operatives, in Wraith Squadron I already understood and could believe why certain squad members were good at hacking, medicine, explosives, disguises etc because that is why they were chosen for the squad. Also, the more rough and ready nature of the pilots means that the tone is more lighthearted than the sometimes po-faced internal monologues that Wedge and Corran are given over to in Books 1-4. Here you have squad members playing practical jokes and goofing about in a way that instantly warms you to them. Even though Allston invariably focuses on a few characters more than others, he balanced out the action pretty well given that he had such a large cast of characters to juggle and I felt that I would actually care if any of Wraith Squadron died.
Then three squad members do die in only the first novel. Kill your darlings indeed. All of these deaths mattered to me more than any of those in Rogue Squadron. I understood the personal cost to the squadron and I missed the characters I had got to know in the course of the book. There is clearly a threat to Wraith Squadron, and I am interested to see how this develops in the next two books – will Allston be as ruthless?
The plot itself is a good balance of ground and sky based romps around the Outer Rim of the galaxy, much of it in disguise. The missions undertaken by the nascent Wraiths are interesting, believable, and exciting. Allston has eschewed Stackpole’s stellar world-building in favour of a small-scale squad-based sci-fi (try saying that after a few beers) and it really does work. When Rogue Squadron briefly show up in the book (thankfully they aren’t shoehorned in for the sake of it) I felt myself thinking “oh it’s those guys”.
Although these are X-Wing books after all, it’s always nice to see other fighters get involved, and Wraith Squadron is no exception in featuring plenty of A-Wings to satisfy true Star Wars nerds (the little ship in blue and white on the left of the picture above is an A-Wing). In this sense it is a bit similar to the Y-Wings of General Horton Salm that feature in ‘Rogue Squadron’. I hope they will return in later books.
A final, welcome, point links to a few comments I saw about the new Star Wars film coming out this Christmas, for which the trailer was released this week (set phasers to hype). I really liked the fact that Allston’s book didn’t really make use of the Force. To most of the pilots of Wraith Squadron, the Force was simply a way to wish each other good luck. This brought a dose of welcome realism to the book. This was somewhat jolted when it turned out that one of the pilots was Force-sensitive, but thankfully they weren’t very good at it, and it didn’t creep into too much of the plot, which remained very much focused on space combat.
So, all in all, an interesting return to some of the older books of my childhood which has totally distracted me not only from reading any of my new Pelicans, but also from reading any of the books I actually acquired this year. I should be honest and say that last year, after a couple of years of truly outrageous book-buying, I started a (very basic) spreadsheet of books I had bought/received versus books I had read. This initially only included books that I owned, not library loans or personal loans of books, though I have tried to be more meticulous in recent years. Without going into detail the numbers don’t look good, and in the last five years only in 2014 (when I started the spreadsheet) did I read a majority of the books I bought. It is perhaps a bit silly to expect that reading can go in such an ordered fashion, but it was more of a (clearly doomed) attempt to make me stop buying books I wasn’t reading (I am running out of space in my room after all).
The next book in the series, Iron Fist, is – I think – the first X-Wing book I ever actually bought for myself rather than loaned from the library, back when our local WH Smith’s was more of a bookshop than a newsagent.I might take a brief break from Star Wars so that I can review the next two books en bloc, either way, you will find out at some point next week!
As this is my first blog post here, comments and suggestions are particular welcome and can hopefully be taken on board before the difficult second post.