If you listen to podcast here at Tosche Station, (and if you do, great, if you don’t, why not?) you’ve heard that in honor of the coming latest addition to the fantastic X-Wing series, Mercy Kill, we’re presenting you a retrospective of the series. It will provide a great opportunity for those of us who haven’t read the books in a very long time to refamiliarize ourselves with it. That is actually my own situation—I love these books but somehow I haven’t read them for what must have been a solid decade.
I imagine that there are plenty of you out there that are regulars here at the site that have read my prior material and you’re worrying. Why is the snarky, jaded guy reviewing the first part of this? Is he going to rip it apart? Will he ruin these books for me?
Yes. I mean no. Very no. I love these books and I have an even better perspective on them now. And by now, I mean, after I’ve been looking at some of the most poorly written books in the entire saga. I know what bad Star Wars looks like. This isn’t that. Praise the Force!
So, without further adieu, X-Wing: Rogue Squadron.
I’m going to set the scene for you here: it’s two years after the Battle of Endor and the Rebellion is still the Rebellion, at least in function. There’s a provisionary council that represents the political leadership of the group that will exist until the actual foundation of the New Republic. In the face of that, the council is reestablishing the trump card of the fleet, Rogue Squadron.
It’s a political move and one that makes sense. The Rebellion is an entity that has succeeded on the merits of its fighter corps and the Rogues are the best of the best flying the symbolic craft of the Rebel fleet. On the other hand, it’s a political move that has forced the newly resurrected Rogue Squadron to include not just ace pilots, but to include a fairly proportionate number of different species and planets of origin relative to the makeup of the rebellion itself.
It’s all brilliant. The reader is thrown into a situation that lets us know who the characters are and why they’re all doing what they are. This book also serves as a chance to get to know all of our characters that are going to be in the following three books as well. That is, not to mention the right minded political thinking going on here. It’s the kind of thing a group trying to rally support would do.
Right up front, the first fifty or so pages of this book are like a master class in writing fiction. The author establishes, literally in the first line, what kind of character we’re looking at in our primary protagonist. “You’re good, but you’re no Luke Skywalker.” The line is from Wedge, directed at Corran. We immediately know that Corran is a pilot, and he’s good. The downside is that he knows it. The other side is that he’s not as good as he thinks and Wedge knows it.
We’re also introduced to Wedge very quickly. Wedge existed in the films, but he wasn’t really what I’d call a ‘character.’ Sure, he had a few lines in each film, but he wasn’t more than a guy we’d seen and heard talk once in a while. We didn’t know anything else about him, who he is, what he’s doing in the Rebellion, where he’s from. We know his name, what he looks like and what he sounds like. And he’s a pilot.
Stackpole takes that foundation and builds a beautiful structure on top of it with characterization. In the first scene that really introduces him, we discover that he’s THE hotshot pilot of the Alliance and he’s been used as a goodwill ambassador throughout member worlds. We also know that he’s seen a lot of other good pilots come and go and he’s done everything he could in order to stay in the cockpit, including pass up promotion at a number of points. He’s concerned about the well-being of his pilots and wants to give them every advantage he can but he’s also clearly insulating himself from them because he’s lost so many friends to this conflict.
In addition, we’re given a primary antagonist pretty quickly. Kirtan Loor has an established background with our primary protagonist and he’s somewhat obsessed with him. He’s an intelligence officer who isn’t above interrogating his own suspects and he has a frighteningly sharp mind. But instead of going the standard big-bad route of making him nigh-omniscient, he’s fallible. And not a little bit, his greatest strength is also a weakness because he depends on it too much. He has an eidetic memory, but he leans so heavily on it, it’s like fighting a boxer with a monstrous right hook. You know he’s going to use it, so look for ways to dodge it and counter-strike.
The story is pretty brilliant, too. The author knew he was in for the long-haul here so he didn’t have to try to wow his readers with a giant super-weapon or a galaxy spanning scheme that would have felt cramped in a single book, I’m looking at you, Darksaber. So Stackpole used the first book as an opportunity to develop his characters through a single mission. Well, to be fair, it ends up being a small campaign, but it’s all leading up to one big mission and they do it twice, but it doesn’t feel rushed.
Rogue Squadron is being reformed as a kind of banner for the Rebellion. It will represent the best and brightest fighters that the Alliance has and be the people they turn to when they need to get something difficult done. The first half of the book is all about putting the team together and getting them to work together. And writing that I just realized that last sentence could have just as easily referred to the plot of the Avengers.
They’re quickly thrown into a situation where they’re trying to build an entry into the core worlds so that they can strike at Coruscant. This leads to the establishment of a new base. Loor is able to deduce from known information and limits of resources like fuel where they’re likely to be based and sends a squad of troopers to the location. This is where we lose a few characters, something that rather brilliantly displays that Stackpole isn’t afraid to shock his readers with something unexpected. The characters are mortal, even the ones he’s spent some time on.
The squadron is then assigned to an assault fleet targeting the planet codenamed Blackmoon. A Bothan looking for glory manages to put together a plot with so many holes in it you can see through it and they proceed to get crushed when they meet with opposition they can’t beat
Corran is able to use data from the mission to put back together the location of the planet and this leads to a second attack. Wedge creates a plan to use a small attack group to weaken the defenses of the base and allow a commando team to gain entry and seize the planet.
During the assault, Corran gets low enough on fuel that the squadron has to leave him behind, but he gets picked up by the daughter of his father’s archrival, Mirax Terrik. Excitement abounds and the book ends on a very high note.
It’s kind of like the difference between the movie Avatar: The Last Airbender and the television show. In the series, you get an orderly, well paced series that eases you into things and allows the audience to become attached to characters and learn what they’re like. In the movie, you get the entire first season crammed into an under two hour feature. How well do you think that would work?
That really is the brilliance of this first book. It takes its time because Stackpole knew he could. By doing that, he was able to fill in all the little blanks that we would have had about a cast of essentially entirely new characters and foreshadow a whole list of other things. Corran has an ongoing rivalry with Jace. Thyferra is the sole producer of bacta and it’s very important. The Empire is led by the head of its intelligence organization. The squadron develops a single character that could be labeled the ‘heart and soul’ of it in Lujayne Forge and the reader ends up feeling shocked when she’s yanked out from under us. Corran meets Mirax and they evolve from being adversarial to clearly potential love interests. Emtrey happens!
Nothing in this book feels wasted or superfluous. I know I haven’t talked a lot about the plot, but let’s be honest, you’ve probably read it, and if you haven’t, you really need to stop reading this and go find a copy ASAP.