Archive for Michael A. Stackpole

Day 13: Favorite Male Book Character

Posted in Opinion, Questions, Spotlight with tags , , , , , on 24 February 2015 by Megan

I know things have seemed dead around here, but I promise that Star Wars is still on my mind and I’m still working on and planning all kinds of fun stuff for around here. In the meantime, though, Star Wars has cropped up again in my reading challenge on my other blog. Surprise ending, Corran Horn is my favorite male book character!

The greatest

The greatest

Rhutopia

Somehow, I’ve always avoided using Star Wars books when it comes to answering book questions. Perhaps because I’ve always kind of taken them as “not quite books,” because Star Wars is, to me, this overarching thing that transcends its medium. But with Zaphod Beeblebrox already covered, I turn without shame to a book character I have underrated up until last year. A character who, the more I read of him, is a character I would no longer hesitate to say is the one I’d have brought out of a book and into real life if that were an option.

But first, because you know me very well and I wouldn’t want to disappoint your prediction, a little prologuery.

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Review: Isard’s Revenge

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , on 26 October 2014 by Megan
Book 8

Book 8

By Michael A. Stackpole.

I can’t even begin to figure out a way to write this review spoiler free. I myself don’t believe in spoilers, especially for books that were published in the 90s, but for the sake of preserving the surprises I got when I read this — knowing zero about it — I’ll tell you up front, this is one spoilery review.

The last shot in the last battle is fired — somewhat inexplicably. Grand Admiral Thrawn’s fleet has gone into sudden retreat long before they should have, and Corran Horn is perplexed. They say GA Thrawn is dead, but the former CorSec officer, now crack pilot with Rogue Squadron has a hard time believing it. Pretty easy and convenient, if you ask him.

Still, there’s other things Corran ought to be more focused on — like other people whose deaths were perhaps a smidge too convenient and easy. As it turns out, “Isard’s revenge” isn’t a metaphorical term for some contingency plan she set up . . . oh, no, Iceheart is back and she’s grooming likely Imperial powers for a new assault on the young Republic.

For said young Republic, though, things look good: Warlord Zsinj is out of the picture; Thrawn’s dead; the Emperor reborn and the retaking of Coruscant has yet to come on the horizon. Corran thinks he’s finally found the perfect time to find his former fellow prisoners on board the Lusankya, whom he promised to rescue but who instead were scattered by Isard out of his reach. Instead he finds it’s a perfect time to get blindsided and brought to the edge of another major conflict that could be the coup de grace for the struggling Alliance government.

I love Corran Horn. There can be no secret about this. Stackpole need do no more than begin typing, and I’m on the edge of my seat ready to laugh, cry, or do both at once. More delicious foreshadowing about the events of I, Jedi, with two references made to a possibility of Mirax disappearing. Corran dispenses profound life advice with a casualness that makes it easy to overlook the fact that he’s wiser than Yoda — and Whistler proves himself way more awesome than Artoo in a chapter dedicated to his own daring escape from enemy hands.

A deft twist that keeps the rebels vs. empire from turning stale, Stackpole masterfully makes the Rogues go rogue again, this time to fly TIEs wing-in-wing with the Imps they were previously fighting. Enemies become allies, and allies become enemies as once again, Borsk Fey’lya proves just how much he NEEDS TO JUST DIE OH MY GOSH.

Again, I could complain about Stackpole’s habit of faking out at least one death once per book, but it’s so beautifully done in Isard’s Revenge that I’m not going to complain: some deaths are faked, some are not faked, and the reader is never quite sure until the bittersweet and heartbreaking end.

Timothy Zahn gave us the EU, there’s no doubt about that; no other writer has the right combination of skill, voice, and imagination to provide the strong foundation of what was to come. And he doesn’t have to go the comic series death fakeout route, it’s true. But when it comes to making these more than just a string of spin-off novelizations, it takes Michael A. Stackpole’s insights and irony to flip the tropes Alec Guinness despised George Lucas for into something quite close to philosophy, and turn them into something I apologetically add to my collection of life advice.

Review: The Bacta War

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , on 28 September 2014 by Megan

by Michael A. Stackpole.

Book 4

Book 4

This worked out really cozy, didn’t it, one X-Wing book for every September Sunday?

In many ways, the initial X-Wing Series books parallel the original trilogy, with everyone being captive or dead by the end of the second installment and everyone having a big happy party at the end of the third, but there were so many hints throughout the closing chapters of The Krytos Trap that there was more to do and much more to come without a hint of the plot weakening. As usual, I’m reviewing a series and this means certain spoilers are intrinsic to the review! Don’t read a review for book 4 if you are worried about spoiling the end of book 2, for goodness’ sake.

The Rogues have gone rogue! With the squadron’s mass resignation from the fledgeling Republic in order to hunt down Ysanne Isard, Corran Horn and the others may have bitten off more than they can chew. On the other hand, the fifteen million credits given to Tycho Celchu to frame him as an Imperial agent are coming in very handy as they load up a new base and command structure.

Not that Isard has any intention of going quietly into that good night, and with her Super Star Destroyer and the galaxy’s entire bacta supply under her control, she can and will give them the fight of their lives — though she is beginning to reach the understanding that men like Wedge and Corran can’t be beaten by sheer numbers.

I ought to be annoyed by the trend of one-fakeout-death-per-book but somehow it doesn’t bother me at all. What is absolutely mesmerizing in these books is the societal aspects, the cultural references that make these these characters truly members of a population galaxies away, and not merely transplanted earthlings in space. The chapter dedicated to Tycho Celchu’s visit to the Alderaanian Graveyard makes clear the repercussions of the planet-killing so often taken for granted in the first movie. I also love Corran and Wedge’s highly analytical inner monologue; most authors would avoid giving us so much of their thought train, especially in the middle of an explosive Top Gun meets Green Berets kind of action book. But the characterization is what elevates this series above simple sequels to a popular space opera.

And just to add some icing to an already sweet cake — I absolutely love how Michael A. Stackpole weaves the entire timeline into his work. With the other books, it’s honestly anyone’s guess whether the author even looked at the preexisting books. Kevin J. Anderson throws in the required minor EU characters, but the way he writes Mara Jade makes one wonder if he even read the Thrawn Trilogy before getting to work. Not so with Stackpole: he has clearly done his homework, and with references to Zsinj and the appearance of Talon Karrde, he flawlessly connects the dots to make the EU that much more of a cohesive whole.

The X-Wing series is a masterpiece, Stackpole is a genius, and I have not grinned through a book like this since, well, the last one I just read from him! Indistputably awesome. Indisputably awesome.

Review: The Krytos Trap

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , on 21 September 2014 by Megan

by Michael A. Stackpole.

Book 3

Book 3

Something about the X-Wing series has always reminded me of a TV show, a very ambitious TV show with compelling characters and plots that if it ever actually became a live-action show, I’d be hard-pressed to maintain my dogged opposition to any new Star Wars films or shows.

Michael A. Stackpole is a master. The first book was about fighter pilot jocks; the second was about a covert operation behind enemy lines. The Krytos Trap is a courtroom drama, prison escape, dogfight extravaganza. (By necessity, the review of a third book in a series contains spoilers relating to the first two books, which I do not consider worth specifying as “spoilers.” Our society is too spoiler-oriented as it is.)

Winning Coruscant was a bittersweet victory for Rogue Squadron and the young Republic. With the loss of Corran Horn biting deeper than previous deaths, they try to pull together a funeral ceremony that will get them some peace and closure, but political tensions require it to become a media frenzy. Furthermore, they have inherited a diseased world: Ysanne Isard’s Krytos virus is devouring the nonhuman population along with the rebel bankroll and bacta supply. And then, as the rotten cherry atop the whole bloody mess, Corran’s death has been ruled a murder — and Tycho Celchu is the man facing the gallows.

Unbeknownst to them, but knownst to us (via the epilogue in the previous book), Corran is not dead — he might wish he was, if he could get his torture-pocked brain to process anything from more than 90 seconds ago, because he is captive to Isard in her secret and unescapable prison, Lusankya, and she wants to break him and turn him into a secret agent to do her dark will.

The courtroom battle with its parry-and-riposte dialogue is only part of the battlefield Rogue Squadron is not prepared for, because the Alliance is still desperately trying to come up with a way to cure the Krytos virus. With precious bacta shipments falling under attack and Kirtan Loor overseeing a counterinsurgency program on Coruscant, these pilots must become diplomats and detectives as well as aces.

Did I already say the part about Stackpole being an absolute master? This book is a gem. Unlike Reaves, who, much as I like him, always falls over by the third book because he has nothing left to say, Stackpole keeps the plot moving fast and there’s enough to keep him and the reader busy.

The other thing I love about Stackpole is his humor. He understands perfectly how to spice the narrative with a few grains of comedy without jarring the reader, losing track of his plot, or being totally unrealistic. There are things in the book that are funny just because they are funny, of course, the usual quips and one-liners — but by far the best are the bits that are funny just because you know and care about these people. A friend can say something that isn’t necessarily funny, but you find it so because you know them; that’s how it is with these guys. Reading the book, you’re part of Rogue Squadron, invested in the characters and their relationships, and you can smile just because you know they’re smiling.

Protip, watch Corran’s scenes very closely for the moment when his grandfather stops being referred to in the past tense and hints start dropping about the main subplot of I, Jedi. Or, just read this book for the rollicking good time. I’ve read it before and was on the edge of my seat and grinning through the last chapters.

Review: Wedge’s Gamble

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , on 14 September 2014 by Megan

by Michael A. Stackpole.

Exciting series, indeed

Exciting series, indeed

It’s rare for the tagline to live up to the item it’s tagging, but for once Bantam didn’t exaggerate. The X-Wing series is one of the real treasures of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and I had forgotten so much of why I love it. Perhaps the most concise evidence for its greatness is the fact that I read it first at age 14 and loved it — and now over 14 years later, reading it again, I love it again. In other words, it holds up.

Michael A. Stackpole is a great author. In reading this, I’ve been reminded of all the reasons I used to follow his writing blog and advice columns and all. He breathes real life into his characters, and none more than Corran Horn, the hotshot pilot from Corellia who serves as the main character in this ensemble-based series that first took us away from the “main trio” of Luke, Han, and Leia.

Corran Horn is remarkably mature and introspective, highly analytical, intelligent, and resourceful. His background as an officer of CorSec and skill as a pilot make him a valuable asset to Rogue Squadron, but he has also been tested by grief and trial. Ego, its proper place and its downfalls, is a common theme throughout Corran’s books, and I’m half in love with a man who can coolly analyze his thoughts while hotly kissing some chick in order to come to the conclusion that he needs to walk away fast.

In this book, Ysanne Isard — one of the great underrated villains of the expanded universe — more aggressively develops her plan to crush the rebel alliance once and for all. The empire is still fairly stable, secure on Coruscant under the city-planet’s protective shields, and Isard is its tacit leader, empress in all but name, and in name, she is the Director of Imperial Intelligence. Her plan to end the rebellion? Infect Coruscant with a fast-incubating disease and then surrender the planet, leaving the rebels to bankrupt themselves in the efforts to stop the virus.

Without realizing that Coruscant is bait, the Alliance has sent Rogue Squadron undercover to infiltrate the Imperial Capital and find out all the information they can about its defenses, especially information on how to bring those planetary shields down. With a mole hidden somewhere among the Rogues and a parcel of thug convicts from Kessel to help (or not help), our band of heroes don’t even know the level of danger they’re playing with.

Smartly written, fast-paced, and compelling, Wedge’s Gamble lives up to the high standard set in the first book and promises even better to come after a stunning cliffhanger ending. I’ve laughed out loud, gasped out loud, and even done a little self-evaluating on my own inspired by Corran’s internal monologue, which tempts me to say that this series exists somewhere on a plane above the rest of the EU. As much as I love those adventure stories, there’s something of philosophy that creeps into Stackpole, and I love him for it.

My only complaint is twin with my highest praise for him, and so it’s just something I need to get over: no Star Wars author more aggressively asserts a galaxy-wide, governmentally-supported, anti-nonhuman bigotry more than Michael A. Stackpole. He paints Coruscant with “aliens-only ghettos” and “alien Jim Crow laws” like no other. Obviously this grates on me with my steadfast belief that such prejudice is impossible in an ancient galaxy on this scale; however, he turns such a sharp story on it that it’s hard to complain. I’ve always said that nonhuman prejudice easily exists in individuals throughout the Empire, and so perhaps I can explain this by saying that on Ysanne Isard’s Coruscant, this kind of bigotry becomes more widespread and enforced.

Why did I say twin with my highest praise? My highest praise of Stackpole is that he writes in a kind of casual way that takes for granted all the technology and “weird stuff,” stripping off the sense of science fiction and making us think we’re just reading daily life. When Star Wars first hit theaters, it stunned people because Lucas showed them a dusty, well-used universe — this is the equivalent of what Stackpole’s writing does. He’s casual and offhand; his universe is dusty and lived-in. And I found out why by reading the dedication page of this book (“To the memory of Roger Zelazny”) — Roger Zelazny is one of my favorites, and this is his style of writing that I love so much.

Review: Rogue Squadron

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , , on 7 September 2014 by Megan

by Michael A. Stackpole.

Exciting new series

Exciting new series

Oh, wow. That’s a very good way to start a review off, isn’t it? I had forgotten just how excellent these books are. In spite of the fact that I love I, Jedi and have read it repeatedly, I just haven’t gotten around to re-reading Corran’s original series since the first time.

The X-Wing series is one of the best ideas for a series anyone has ever had. It came out in 1996, with well over a dozen predecessors — which meant that its early place in the timeline (the next step in the timeline after Truce at Bakura) was well-bolstered by Stackpole’s knowledge of surrounding events. Various warlords and villains receive their “first mentions” here, making for comfortable after-the-fact foreshadowing. The only disadvantage was Stackpole’s getting influenced toward a racist empire, but that’s somewhat immaterial.

Two and a half years after Return of the Jedi, to be precise (year 01144), Wedge Antilles, hero of the rebellion, decides to re-form the famous squadron that brought down the second Death Star. The best pilots the Alliance has to offer (or the best and most politically expedient pilots) are brought together under Wedge’s direction to take Rogue Squadron from legendary status to imp-vaping terrors.

Corran Horn is one such pilot, a former officer with CorSec with a complex past and unusual clear-headedness. But if you read I, Jedi first, be aware that this is a young and brash Corran just starting off with the Alliance without friends or allies yet.

Other pilots include Gavin Darklighter, a cousin of the famous Biggs; Jace and Erisi, a couple of Thyferran pilots from opposing factions in the bacta trade; and Orryl Qyrgg, a Gand and one of my favorite people ever. They’re being trained to be the best of the best of the best by Wedge, who is facing plenty of politically-charged obstacles — like the ongoing persecution of his XO Tycho Celchu, another hero of Endor who is under suspicion due to his harrowing time as an Imperial POW.

All of these elements — lone-wolf pilots being forged into a single deadly unit without all the homoerotic volleyball of Top Gun plus political interference from top brass, potential traitors and spies in the unit, and one quirky protocol droid — are stirred together in a cauldron of the early New Republic environment: aka, the alliance wants to claim Imperial Center (Coruscant) away from the Empire.

It’s a thrilling premise with strong, dynamic characters written in Stackpole’s typical forthright style. I don’t have a lot of interest in combat, but his dogfights and descriptions of air force life are compelling and exciting. There can be a blurred line between exposition and padding, but with this particular series — nine books in all, and possibly originally planned for more — the exposition is a vital part of the structure’s development. Stackpole sketches out his characters until you know them and care about them, and intersperses hints and pieces from other books until the web between realcanon is a solid, binding thing. It’s just good novels.

There’s no doubt whatever about the X-Wing series’ place in realcanon, and this book is a firecracker to start the series off with. I’m actually glad I only read the first four back in ’99, because I haven’t had a fresh realcanon book to look forward to in a long time, and now I have half a series!

Review: I, Jedi

Posted in Reviews, Spotlight with tags , , , on 15 June 2014 by Megan

Michael A. Stackpole.

The greatest

The greatest

I can’t play around with this one. I believe right here, this book is the greatest Star Wars novel ever written, and Michael A. Stackpole carried it off. One of the last realcanon novels set in the New Republic before the prequels came out, it is absolutely unique as the only first person Star Wars book. And while I normally detest first person as a form of lazy writing, this is one novel where it elevates and enhances the plot.

With your patience, one last stylistic detail before I move on to the plot. I complained about the Jedi Academy trilogy because there just wasn’t enough material for three books; for whatever reason (aka profits), Anderson had to split the story into three books that contained a good hundred and more pages of filler. I, Jedi contains two distinct sections, but without the tired insistence on its being stretched into a trilogy, the book boasts a taut narrative without an ounce of flab.

The year is 01149 — aka, ten years after the rebellion’s victory at Yavin 4. The heroes of Rogue Squadron are hard at work cleaning up the mess created by the Emperor Reborn (Dark Empire I), and Corran Horn is with them hotly in pursuit of an ex-moff pirate warlord — or more accurately, war lady, the very beautiful and deadly Leona Tavira.

Who is Corran Horn, you may want to know? Well, he is one of the most compelling expanded universe characters ever written. Stackpole has fleshed out Corellia, Han Solo’s homeworld, into a real, breathing place, and emerging from its rich culture is Corran Horn: we first met him as a brash Rogue Squadron pilot in the X-Wing series. Before that, he was a veteran officer of the Corellian investigatory police, CorSec (Corellian Security), making him an amalgamation of the best elements of every cop show and fighter jock movie ever made. He narrates the story of his most important adventure with a clear, honest, self-aware voice. You’ve heard of unreliable narrators, but Corran is the most reliable, scouring his emotions and laying them bare to himself and his audience without flinching.

Here’s the story. While shaking up with pirates, Corran is wrestling a stronger foe: his wife wants to have kids. Mrs. Horn — that is, Mirax,  the daughter of renown smuggler Booster Terrik —  is a cunning intel operative who goes missing on a covert op against this lady warlord Rogue Squadron is trying to track down.

In fact, she goes so thoroughly missing that her Force-attuned but untrained husband begins to forget who she is. The first chapters of the book touch slyly on the events we’ve already seen in Jedi Search, culminating with Corran taking on the name of a Jedi ancestor and going undercover as a trainee in Luke Skywalker’s training academy for Jedi. Here, the book parallels Dark Apprentice, but there’s no lazy cut and paste of a plot we’ve already seen. Instead, man-on-the-scene Mr. CorSec investigates the strange and tragic happenings in the school and takes on Exar Kun himself in the background of what we’ve already seen in Anderson’s novels.

In the second half of the book, Horn leaves the Jedi academy to go undercover with the pirates who can hopefully lead him to his wife. Mysteries abound there — like how the Invids can predict the New Republic’s moves, and what Tavira’s hints about Force users portends. And while Corran has the discipline to take his investigation slowly, not running half-cocked at anything that might put his wife more at risk, there is a time limit. She can’t survive indefinitely, even if the Invids initially wanted her alive. And the closer Corran gets,  well, the higher the risk becomes.

I love this book. I can still remember the first time I read the first page: we were at the Springfield mall and it was on a stack of new hardback books. I was young enough that it never occurred to me to enter a store to buy anything, so there wasn’t the slightest inclination to purchase in my head when I picked it up and read the opening paragraphs. Just because patience is a virtue doesn’t make impatience a vice, from the second page, has stuck in my head ever since. Some months later, I took it as a book on tape on our trip to Yellowstone in September 1998. At first I was put off by its first person narration, but everything about this undercover cop, fighter pilot, Jedi just hooked me heart, line, and sinker. I loved that the so-beloved Trilogy characters make only cameo appearances.

And now, over 15 years and some eight readings later, I appreciate even more about Stackpole’s style and grace. I also love the somewhat elevated nature of the book: many Star Wars books are all about the plot, the what-happens-next, but in many respects I, Jedi (a call back to the Richard Graves’ I, Claudius, almost certainly) is a more cerebral novel. It is about identity and decision, growth and heritage, maturity and inheritance. The characters are rich, the situation a thrilling backdrop, and the examination of the far, far away galaxy’s current events and politics logical and believable.

So, thank you, Michael A. Stackpole, for this book, which I enjoy reading more every time I read it — and as for the rest of you, get yourself a copy if you don’t already have one. Enjoy it for the first time or the fifty-first, because it will always deliver.