By the Doctor
Okay, before we get into this it’s important to me that I start by letting you know this book and I have a history; I have loved it before. Courtship of Princess Leia, by Dave Wolverton, was my first Star Wars book back when I was a kid, before the prequels when the only movies that existed were the original trilogy. It was my introduction to a world beyond the movies, to the continuing adventures of Han, Leia, and Luke, to the captivating, entertaining, complex world of the Expanded Universe (EU). This is the book that introduced me to the EU and it’s the book that got me hooked on the EU, and I loved it a lot. I re-read it many times between discovering it around age 10 in 1996, and when my Star Wars reading fell off when I entered grad school in 2013. But it’s 2022 now, and it’s been at least almost a decade since I’d last read it. If you listened to the episode of the podcast where Berg interviewed me (here), you heard us disagree on the relative merits of the book - me speaking from my memories of loving it proclaiming it a great entertaining book with a fun story, him having never been captivated by it claiming that it’s not actually a good book. If you’ve been following along with the writing I’ve been posting here and/or with me on Twitter (@Lemoncakesong), you’ll be shocked I’m sure to learn that this conversation provoked a desire in me to re-read the book and write what I’m calling a retro-review.
Unlike the last time I reviewed a book for HAR (for Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil which you can read here), I’m using Berg’s usual HAR format for this one because, let me just state it up front: he was right. There’s some solid bad and some solid ugly. But there’s also some good! I’m not wrong that there are redeeming qualities in this book, and we’ll talk more about it in the conclusion to this review, after I’ve presented you with my findings.
Here’s where I was right - it genuinely is an entertaining story. It’s a fun adventure romp that feels very much like the sort of romantic action-adventure thing we might have gotten in a movie in the early 90s. It’s also got a lot of great attempts at building out our knowledge of the Force, and how the use of the Dark Side affects users of it both mentally and physically. It also takes a crack at establishing some Jedi lore and while this doesn’t match up with stuff that later gets fleshed out more in the EU, especially post the Prequel Era, it’s not a bad effort at all. It also introduces characters who later become important parts of the EU; for instance, it’s from Isolder and Teneniel Djo that we get their daughter Tenel Ka. And this is also the book that introduces Warlord Zsinj, who, if you have never read the Wraith Squadron books in the Star Wars: X-Wing book series, is possibly one of the most amusing and entertaining Imperial villains. He is literally a mustache-twirling villain, and the humor pacing of his lines is so delightfully written…stop me before I start a writing project on the X-Wing books. But he, and his history with Han Solo (“I, uh, don’t remember the exact words, but I personally took credit for blowing up his ship and said something like ‘Kiss my Wookie!’”) start here, and as a huge fan of the Wraith Squadron books (no really, I just re-read them, I don’t need to re-read them again for a paper…) I’m grateful for his introduction here.
On a personal note, I just realized/remembered while reading it that I think this is the book that first introduced tiny me to the concept that you could look at a star and see it as it was not as it is, because if you had a powerful enough telescope “you would be seeing light that reflected off their world hundreds of years ago. Since the light is just reaching us, you would be looking into their past”. That concept stuck with me, and I think that’s beautiful.
Berg and I talked about what I’m about to say while I was in the middle of reading the book, and was having mixed feelings because I didn’t want to totally disparage a book I had loved, but had found that he was right, there was a lot wrong with it. He pointed out that we have to take the context of the time in which it was written into consideration. Courtship of Princess Leia was published in 1994, which is pretty early even for the EU. It’s not the earliest book by any stretch (for instance the Heir to the Empire trilogy had already been published), but it still pre-dates a large percentage of the EU, and thus predates a lot of the established canon within that universe. With that said, there’s some things that ring false. Han and Leia aren’t particularly characterized in ways that fit with their characters as we saw them before and since in other EU literature. I get it, they had to be forced into this confrontational state in order to drive the plot of the book as it was contrived, but Leia suddenly not loving him feels forced and rings wrong (frankly, given everything we know about these characters, and about her, it’s ludicrous). So does some of Han’s less evolved confrontational language (he’s grown at least a little since A New Hope, and it really doesn’t seem like it here). As the book progresses, and we get Luke, he’s characterized fairly well (although there’s one scene that feels to me like a bit of a rip-off of the Superman revival scene in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns but we’re not going to get into that here because I’m not writing a full analysis article, come talk to me about it on Twitter or in the comments if you want more on that), so it’s not Wolverton being incapable of nailing the characters. Frankly I think it might be a little bit of a failing in his ability to write women, because Leia is more egregiously mischaracterized by Han, and as we’re about to get to I have some problems with the way women at large are represented in the book.
Buckle up, this is where it really gets rough: Han shoots Leia with a mind-control gun (the Hapan “Gun of Command”) in order to force her to go with him to Dathomir. Just, no. There’s also Han telling Chewie “I suppose mating rituals are much simpler where you come from. When you love a woman, you probably just bite her on the neck and drag her to your tree” – A) Han knows the Wookiee culture (and Chewie!) better than that and B) again, no, just no. There’s also both the Hapans and the Force witches of Dathomir, and while I think what Wolverton is going for here is a mirroring of the two cultures so you can get moments like when Teneniel Djo points out that her culture isn’t any more barbaric than Isolder’s is in the treatment of their men by their women, even though her world has less “civilization” from a technological/wealth standpoint. Still, from a modern perspective both cultures read a little bit as if they are the ultimate nightmare version of what certain toxic sections of the population think feminism is. But again, I do think we can cut the book a little slack here as being a product of its time, or, rather, that it didn’t have the cultural context then for such topics as we do as readers now. That’s not to suggest we don’t recognize the problematic nature of a lot of this, but just that it can be read as not malicious on the part of Wolverton, but as a failing of the time.
On that note, you know what - again, Berg was right, it’s not, from a technical standpoint a great book; however, I’m going to stand by it’s a fun entertaining romp that deserves to be read. I maintain my earlier claim that if you still enjoy fun, actiony, slightly nonsensical 80s/90s movies with a dash of romance (albeit strongly presented through the male gaze) you’ll find, like me, enough redeeming qualities in this to enjoy it.