X-wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first Star Wars X-wing novel featuring the infamous Rogue Squadron by the talented Michael Stackpole.
“An incredibly gripping novel, Rogue Squadron is pure, hard science-fiction that is as much about the characters as zipping around doing figure-eights around TIEs.” ~The Founding Fields
I am a total Star Wars geek from the early years since the original trilogy was re-released in the 90s. I never got to see the movies then or even the first two prequel movies when they came out but I’ve always been in love with Star Wars from the day I got a nice little booklet in 1997 that talked about all the characters and introduced the movies’ plot and what not. At one point I also owned this amazing fold-out artwork poster on which you could place some stickers you could get from bags of Lays chips. Total childish geekiness ensued in those days. My first Star Wars movie (in cinemas) was Ep III: Revenge of the Sith and I was totally blown away.
My love of the setting had been maintained over the years by reading some of the novels on and off and when I moved to college, I devoured as many of the novels as I could, and a few comics too for that matter. It also helped that this totally random cinema course I was taking granted me access to the Cinema School library and I could watch all the Star Wars movies there! Lots of fun was had in that quiet, unassuming library in the labyrinth-like basements of the Doheny Memorial Library (University of Southern California). The astute ones among my readers might notice that I went to the same university as George Lucas himself. Yeah, I get some kind of geek points for that I’m sure.
Anyways, among all the novels of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU), it is the X-wing novels that I love the most. This is especially so since Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston was my first ever Star Wars novel. The X-wing series is brilliant because it is about X-wings, the most popular starfighter ever; it is about Rogue Squadron (and Wraith Squadron too) which is the best squadron in the galaxy far, far away; it is so down-to-earth, at least to me. Michael Stackopole and Aaron Allston really rekindled my love for Star Wars and kept it going, plus they introduced me to the world of hard military sci-fi where the setting is kept realistic by as much technical description as anything else in the novel.
What makes Rogue Squadron really work for me is that it doesn’t focus on the stars of the original films but instead it goes beyond and focuses on some of the low-key characters and introduces a whole new brand of major and minor characters alike. The most obvious ones are Admiral Ackbar and Wedge Antilles. And then there are also the new major characters like Corran Horn, Tycho Celchu and Gavin Darklighter, along with all the others, giving the reader a good feel for life in the New Republic’s military forces and their less-than-reputable allies. While the characterisation gets a little repetitive at times and not all the pilots of the reassembled Rogue Squadron are given ample scene-time, what Michael has nevertheless excelled at is making the reader care for them.
Corran Horn, a promising young pilot and fellow Corellian to Wedge and Han Solo made for an excellent protagonist. The novel is very much about him coming to terms with a life among the former Rebels after a long stint as a Corellian Security agent. From start to finish, it is Corran who is driving the narrative with Michael Stackpole using him to show how things have changed in the Rebel Alliance since the massive victory at Endor (Ep VI: Return of the Jedi) and the fallout of the Emperor’s death. Its almost like a really smart commentary on a changing era. Corran Horn is definitely one of my favourite characters from all of SWEU and his first outing is definitely a treat to read.
With Wedge, it was really nice to start seeing some really deep understones and nuances to his character. Watching the films, none of it is ever apparent but Michael uses monologues to great effect with him in Rogue Squadron. As a war-hero and a starfighter pilot who is second only to Luke Skywalker, Wedge is portrayed as a decisive and sometimes brutal commander in his dealings with the members of his squadron. He is also a soldier who is getting fed up with losing friends to the Empire and that goes back to why the squadron has been reassembled, among other reasons. In the original movies, he is a very low-key but important character nevertheless since as far as I know, he is the only military character to have featured in all three films. After all, he did the original trench run with Luke in A New Hope, fought against the Imperials on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back and destroyed the second Death Star alongside Lando Calrissian in The Return of the Jedi. He really comes in to his own in the novel as Michael starts to flesh out his back-story and gives us his ruminations on the deaths of his friends over the years.
Tycho Celchu and Gavin Darklighter are quite minor characters in Rogue Squadron, the latter more so than the former, but they both have a big part to play in the Expanded Universe, especially in the novels and they form part of the undying legend of Rogue Squadron. Seeing their origin stories was quite rewarding, especially since they are such opposites at the start of the novel: Tycho being a war-hero, a pilot ace and an Alderaanian with Gavin being a young, inexperienced pilot from Tatooine. I’m sure people recognise all these names since Alderaan was the planet that was unceremoniously and callously destroyed in A New Hope, while Tatooine is the homeworld of Luke Skywalker. The connections, I assure you, are not frivolous. Many of the later novels take such connections to the ridiculous extreme and you have to wonder just how and why a small number of planets show up again and again in the background. But, Michael keeps all this very low-key and he weaves in his story with the characters’ actions being much more defining than which planet they come from, although their homeworlds do serve to ground them in the larger Star Wars saga.
One of my regrets from Rogue Squadron is that not a lot of time was given to General Salm, who leads a Rebel Alliance bomber wing and is one of Wedge’s superiors, and to Admiral Ackbar himself, who so famously declared “its a trap!” in The Return of the Jedi. They are both excellent characters in their own right and while the good Admiral becomes a more focal character later on in the Expanded Universe, Salm doesn’t get to shine much. A shame considering he is such a great, typical character. I would have loved to see more of both, Salm in particular. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the later novels, as I am on a re-reading spree of the X-wing series.
Lastly, but not the least, there are other characters who get to occasionally shine in the limelight as well. All the other members of Rogue Squadron, the smuggler Mirax Terrik who is being set up as a potential romantic interest for Corran, M3P0 who is the squadron’s droid assistant and then the two astrodroids, Wedge’s Mynock and Corran’s Whistler who are so reminiscent of R2D2 but are still unique in their own right. All in all, it is a very ensemble cast that Michael Stackpole has built together for his good guys and it is quite vibrant and diverse as well, which just heightens the enjoyment of the novel.
In spit of that though, Michael’s female characters lack a certain well-defined strength. Erisi acts like the jealous, miffed lover wile Mirax is a little too hasty in her judgement at times. The latter also acts too ready-to-makeup for my liking. She is a stronger character in the future novels though. Erisi unfortunately doesn’t have that much potential because of her fixation with Corran. I would have definitely preferred to see more unconventional characters who are stronger.
Of the bad guys however, Corran’s old nemesis and Imperial Intelligence agent, Kirtan Loor, is quite forgetful. His scenes just don’t inspire anything in me and he is more like a filler character than anything else. He is also a blunt, uninventive individual prone to making rather fatal misjudgements as part of his work. He is definitely nowhere near the best of Michael’s other characters from Rogue Squadron and is most assuredly very much the worst so far. Evir Derricote, the swindling General in-charge of the Imperial base at Borleias is a far more likable character and shows more potential than Loor does.
The other Imperial character, the villain as it were, is Ysanne Isard, the director of Imperial Intelligence who has taken over the reins of the Empire and has been giving the Rebel Alliance a run for its money. Her nickname Iceheart is quite appropriate with regards to her characterisation and she definitely oozes that evil aspect of her role without succumbing to the B-movie villain effect. Which is the territory that Loor comes across as strutting close to too many times for my tastes. She is also a potentially riveting character and is being set up as a nemesis to all of Rogue Squadron so I look forward to seeing more of her.
One of the other aspects of it that make Rogue Squadron stand out so much is that there are so many battles and dogfights in it, both simulated and real. As a novel about an elite starfighter squadron, that is quite appropriate of course, but Michael takes it to the next level by weaving in so much technical commentary and description. It really makes the entire setting come alive because these are the sort of things you miss out on in a movie, or movies rather. And this goes for the action scenes too since you are put straight into the cockpit of a T-65 X-wing, one of the best starfighters in the galaxy far, far away. You can totally lose yourself during the battle scenes. It is all very vivid and realistic to me. Michael Stackpole definitely seems to get that starfighter combat is three dimensional and his battles largely reflect that, especially with their diversity. Seeing the dreaded Interdictor-class cruisers make an appearance is quite thrilling or the Lancer-class anti-starfighter frigates which are one of my favourite ship designs in all of SWEU. Plus, there is all the pilot jargon that is thrown about which really helps to draw the reader into the whole “this is a starfighter novel” feel of Rogue Squadron. It is there in just the right amounts I feel, although at times Michael goes somewhat overboard with it.
My only main complaint with the fight scenes would be that the first major battle between the Imperials and the Rebels is too skewed in Rogue Squadron’s favour in terms of how it plays out, making it a total whitewash of Imperial forces with no cost to the Rebels. That was the one and only jarring moment in the entire novel thankfully and Michael redeemed the Rogues extremely well in the two missions to take the world codenamed Blackmoon.
The novel’s pacing itself is quite excellent because the narrative never gets bogged down with meaningless details or random trivia which has no connection to the plot itself. Some people would argue that there are too many things going on in the novel but that is quite expected since Rogue Squadron is meant to be the first novel of a series, and it is. I am quite comfortable with all the minor plot threads that crop up here and there because they all serve to enhance the main storyline of the novel and give it a very suitably sort-of-epic feel since this is a Star Wars novel. Its a little hard to describe this exactly but I think that Rogue Squadron fits into a very nice niche category of Star Wars fiction and that it fits in very well.
Overall, Rogue Squadron is very enjoyable from start to finish and it is a gripping, military sci-fi novel as well, one which I strongly recommend to all readers of Star Wars fiction in particular and science-fiction readers in general. While there are better novels out there, this is one of the early ones, one which helped to solidify many of the characters that become so prominent later on and one that trailblazed one of the best Star Wars novel series: X-wing.
All in all, I give Rogue Squadron a delightful 8/10 and look forward to the next novel in the series, Wedge’s Gamble, also by Michael Stackpole.