I admit it. I have never been this nervous about an Expanded Universe novel. By know I suspect you’re all aware that the X-Wing books hold a special place in my heart. I’ve long appreciated the kinds of stories that series told and the types of characters used within them. I hoped that this book would be a return to those kinds of novels. Thankfully, after reading it I firmly believe Aaron Allston succeeded on that front and succeeded in ways I couldn’t have imagined before picking the book up.
Mercy Kill is a unique book in its construction and tone, one that legitimately can be called a spy thriller. Imagine taking the feel of Mission Impossible and the lore of the Star Wars universe and combining the two. The result is a book that’s easily the most fun I’ve had with an Expanded Universe novel in thirteen years. The plot revolves around finding evidence of treachery by one of the Galactic Alliance’s most powerful military figures. To find that proof, Face Loran has to rebuild Wraith Squadron and send them off on an adventure.
I could go on at length about how much I enjoyed the twists and turns, but to do so would be to completely spoil a large chunk of what makes this book work. Instead, I feel it’s more important to dive into the characters of this tale. Aaron Allston has long been known for his work at crafting characters and allowing them to dictate the story rather than shoehorning characters into plot. Mercy Kill is no different. They are the backbone of this novel and the primary reason it’s so effective as an Expanded Universe story.
The characters (and potential spoilers) loom below the cut!
On the surface, setting a book around a talking Gamorrean seems like a terrible idea but Allston seems to take it upon himself to not only show that the concept can work, but work brilliantly. Voort “Piggy” saBinring was an unlikely but extremely effective lead. If the previous Wraith novels had a common thread, it was that the characters thrust into the spotlight were the characters who needed to go through growth, who perhaps haven’t had the chance to have their stories told yet. Each Wraith novel elevated a different character, and Mercy Kill is no different in that regard.
When the book kicks off, we see Piggy years earlier, neck-deep in the usual Wraith Squadron shenanigans. Fast forward to just after Fate of the Jedi in the timeline and we see him broken, a shell of his former self. He’s leading an unsatisfying life with an unsatisfying university teaching job and an even more unsatisfying social life. I thought at first that perhaps this was merely a carryover from the original Wraith novels. Piggy had always been a character that was alone in the universe, a lab experiment that made him unique but incredibly isolated.
It’s quickly apparent that there’s more going on that’s led him to where he is now. He’s dropped the “Piggy” moniker, insisting that part of him is something he’s chosen to leave behind. Emily talked about his arc at length, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but I will echo what she said. The use of Piggy in this book was both surprising and extremely well executed. There was one scene in particular, a flashback to the Vong war, where I had to set my book down and cry. It was the kind of well-written gutpunch Allston is known for, and it’s every bit effective through Voort’s eyes. The scene was a bit of punctuation that highlighted just how perfect a choice he was to be the leading character in this book.
As great as Piggy was, there was so much more to this book than just him. Allston seems to revel in doing the impossible when it comes to characters*, it seems. No, it wasn’t enough to merely center a nearly 400-page book on a talking Gamorrean. He makes a Yuuzhan Vong named Scut a key member of Wraith Squadron. Let’s get one thing clear, I’ve never been a fan of the Vong as a whole, but I absolutely loved Scut as a character. He becomes a window of sorts, both into wars of years gone past and into Piggy.
*It’s worth pointing out that Allston got me to shed a few tears over Callista’s death in Fate of the Jedi: Conviction, and I’ve -never- liked Callista.
The brilliance of Scut’s character is that there are similarities in his background and Piggy’s, making him sort of a counterpoint to the long-time Wraith. Both are outsiders that are extremely isolated in the Galaxy, but Scut’s perspective on his situation sets him apart and forces Piggy to re-examine himself. There’s one quiet scene with the two of them near the end of the book that will go down as one of my favorite moments in the book. Piggy learns something about himself in that moment, and it couldn’t have happened without Scut.
It will surprise absolutely no one that knows me, but three characters in this book wasted no time in vaulting right to the top of my list of beloved characters. They are (of course) Myri Antilles, Jesmin Tainer, and Trey Courser. There’s been a lack of new blood for stories and authors to draw from in recent memory, but Allston has done the work in infusing three fully realized, competent, useful additions to the Expanded Universe. I admit I’ve got a fondness for Trey because he’s a bit of comedic relief, and I’ve been on record saying that the EU has been missing levity in the novels for a long time. He’s a welcome addition to the Wraith cast and a character I’d love to see used in other books.
Then there’s Myri and Jesmin. Both are characters I could (and will) write a whole column on. They provide a familiar touchstone to earlier eras, a generational tie that helps to link years worth of plots and characters together. While I loved that they both are incredibly capable field agents, I adored how fiercely independent both are. Jesmin wasn’t content to become yet another Jedi. She became an Antarian Ranger, and in the process illustrated that you don’t have to be a member of the Jedi Order to make a difference in the Galaxy. Myri could have lived the content life of a professional gambler, but she wanted more from herself. She wanted to excel and, as she put it, be proud of herself and her accomplishments. Suffice to say, she succeeded.
The rest of the cast is just as entertaining. Bria noted on Twitter that Face Loran has become the Nick Fury of this universe, which was an observation that had us both grinning. The complementary Wraith characters were all given the chance to shine at various points in the book, often allowing Allston’s trademark humor to show on page. Long-time X-Wing fans were treated to several brief but welcome cameos. When Wedge Antilles showed up, there was a loud cheer from me.
Nanci and I were talking about the book yesterday, and we were both struck by the same thing. Mercy Kill feels like the rightful follow-up tale to New Jedi Order. It’s perhaps the first book that acknowledges that the Galaxy went through something awful and, years later, people are still hurting. You have Piggy who was scarred by failure and the loss of a close friend at the hands of the Vong. You have Scut, an orphan member of that invading race that grew up in a society and time that loathed his very existence. There’s Myri and Jesmin, children who were molded and shaped by two horrific wars.
I said earlier that Allston seems to enjoy doing the impossible with characters, but that’s maybe underselling just what he accomplished with Mercy Kill. Perhaps I’m the only person that felt this way about the book, but I think Mercy Kill did something that I didn’t believe any author would ever be able to do. In this book, you have a story that links together and pays homage to three distinct eras in the Expanded Universe. All the while, Allston handles the realities and impacts of these eras with tremendous grace for both that material and the fans of those tales. It’s proof that even with as messy as things have gotten in the EU, a talented author can craft a novel that acknowledges and respects the characters and stories others have worked on and a wide array of fans with different loves and favorite elements.
It’s proof that a supremely skilled author can take twenty years worth of Expanded Universe material and backstory and create a wonderfully compelling novel.
Mercy Kill is everything I have been asking (pleading) for in an Expanded Universe novel. It’s self-contained and steps away from the Apocalypse of the Week in favor of a more intimate and fun plot. It diversifies the cast. It’s a book that illustrates you don’t have to be a male Jedi to be a hero and to get the job done. There’s levity, there’s drama, there’s action, there’s heartbreak. It’s a perfect tonal match for what drew me into Star Wars all those years ago.
In my mind, this was the precise book this fandom needed. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Del Rey and Lucasfilm licensing, they’ve reopened Pandora’s Box. This is the book the fandom needed, but it’s only a start. We need more like this. More gripping and fun adventures. More levity. More diverse characters. More novels that scream Star Wars.
The thirteen year wait between X-Wing books was worth it, but here’s to hoping we won’t be waiting that long for the next installment.
X-Wing: Mercy Kill earns a 5/5 from me.