Avid followers of this blog (a man can dream) will recall my first review post a few weeks ago, where I looked at the first five books in the Star Wars: X-Wing novels series.
As I explained then, I had decided to revisit my old X-Wing books as a result of starting to collect and play Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing Miniatures game. Naturally, the advent of birthdays and wages has meant that my physical fleets have grown and, despite some minor distractions (like teaching law and reading all the other books I have been reviewing) I wanted to get back into X-Wing and, like Kylo Ren, finish what had been started, especially as I found Allston’s first book – Wraith Squadron – a breath of fresh air after some frustrations with Michael A. Stackpole’s tenure on the series.
So this review, as promised, is a double-whammy look at the other two books of Allston’s run – Iron Fist and Solo Command. Before the series briefly went back to Stackpole for Isard’s Revenge (a book I do own) and then back to Allston for Starfighters of Adumar and Mercy Kill (books I don’t… yet).
First, Iron Fist [IF]. IF is a great continuation of Wraith Squadron’s story arc which has the same wicked humour, fleshed-out characters, believe-able setting, and action as its predecessor. Once again, Allston is not afraid to kill off a couple of squad members, and through this you do get a sense of the cost of mopping up the remnants of the galactic Empire. Warlord Zsinj is a better primary antagonist that Ysanne Isard – he seems to have all of her genius and cunning but actually feel like a threat at the same time (admittedly circumstances rarely went in Isard’s favour). Allston does a good job of helping build up the characters within the squad by making the primary focus come from different perspectives than the last novel – so we lose Kell Tainer’s perspective in favour of that of “Face” Loran and newcomer Lara Notsil.
The novel also works very well to show the emotional strain on the pilots of doing high pressure undercover work – there is alcoholism, self-loathing and even suicide attempts which all combine to add to the realism of the work. This is not to say that I equate realism with grittiness. In my review of Stackpole’s run I complained that not enough people died, and here I laud emotional trauma – but I think that all this combines to make me as a reader care about these characters a lot more. Rogue Squadron just seems so wooden by comparison to the Wraiths. This disparity is shown up during a space battle featuring both squadrons in which Corran Horn says something to the effect that Rogues never run, whereas a Wraith gleefully chips in by saying they are happy to run even when they don’t have to. It isn’t that the Wraith’s aren’t also brave, and skilled, and (as you would expect in a sci-fi novel about starfighter pilots) incredibly lucky when compared to their hapless enemies, it is just that you enjoy their escapades so much more.
Also, once again, the novel arguably leaves the Wraiths with an unsatisfying conclusion, meaning that the stakes have really been raised for the final confrontation that presumably comes in Solo Command. Two novels in, you feel like you have been through it with the Wraiths, chipping away at the edifice of Warlord Zsinj’s power. I am also interested to see where the frustrated but alive Warlord goes next. Four Lambdas to Iron Fist λλλλ
Solo Command is a great book, but is let down by being too closely tied in to other books in the Star Wars literary (non)canon which makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to Allston’s first run on the series. In terms of the style of the book, it’s a bit like The Bacta War in that we see the pilots of Wraith Squadron engaging in full-scale warfare as members of Han Solo’s anti-Zsinj taskforce alongside the Rogues, and a couple of other squadrons. This leaves a lot less time for the typical Wraith commando missions and the book does suffer a bit as a consequence.
Once again, Allston is brave enough to kill off some characters but is less ruthless than his debut, and while the Wraiths themselves are quite well rounded after three books, the supporting cast here feels somewhat wooden. After Harrison Ford’s classic performance it was always going to be difficult to write Han Solo without sounding hackneyed and a bit cliched and it doesn’t quite work here. Likewise, Rogue Squadron are little more than cardboard cut-outs. One wonders if Allston was being respectful to Stackpole by not messing with his characters too much, but if so he missed an opportunity to reinvent the slightly staid Rogues.
The main plot to find and hunt down Zsinj is supplemented by a couple of b-plots centred on a(nother) conspiracy to break apart the rebel alliance *gasp* by turning non-humans against humans. This was essentially exactly what Isard tried to do four books ago with the Krytos virus and while it is an interesting idea the execution is largely unsatisfying in the context of the larger work and repeated premise. Also, there is the personal journey of Lara Notsil, in her second outing as a major POV character, using an R2 droid with frankly absurd results (never mind the Death Star, R2 droids are the deadliest weapons in the galaxy).
Meanwhile the Rebels find Zsinj, and fight him, and he runs off. Basically what he has been doing for three books at this point. There is, sadly a cliffhanger ending which promises to be resolved in Dave Wolverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia. A book which apparently came out five years before Solo Command and which I have not read because I’m reviewing the X-Wing Series here and, contrary to what the amount of books I read might suggest, I don’t have an infinite amount of time on my hands.
In summary, Solo Command was an enjoyable enough novel which was undermined by bad supporting characters, crazy subplots, and reliance upon a different book from a different series to tie up its plot points. While there is a conclusion of sorts for the pilots of Wraith Squadron one feels unsatisfied by the lack wider resolution. I will give it three lambdas for its trouble λλλ.
The remaining three X-Wing books are all standalone adventures and, since I only own one of them, I probably won’t be reviewing them for a while. Any other Star Wars book recommendations (canon or non-canon) would be most welcome. I really want to read the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn but beyond that don’t really know much about them, which is pretty lamentable for someone who claims to like Star Wars as much as I do…