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A novel by Aaron Allston (1998, Bantam Spectra)
Book 6 of the X-Wing Novels
6.5 years after Star Wars: A New Hope

The Wraiths pose as pirates to lure Warlord Zsinj out of hiding.



3 stars

Read April 3rd to 7th, 2001  
    While the beginning started off much the same as the last book, this one gained a lot of momentum, so that by the end, the final battle was extremely well done. Averaging out over the entire book, this was very good.

Either the somebody spoke to him, or the author discovered on his own that he was making some fatal flaws in his writing in Wraith Squadron. Because he managed to avoid almost every pitfall that annoyed me in the last book. There was genuine conflict between characters, instead of the manufactured ones between Kell and Janson. There were fewer seemingly random and useless missions, simply to gain the team's reputation. Instead, they were striking against specific targets with specified goals. And there were fewer commando-style missions. The final battle took up an impressive number of pages at the end of the book, and was totally engaging throughout.

I became really worried when the author decided to put a spy among Wraith Squadron. That was really the only thing that was not copied from the Rogue Squadron books so far. Face and Phanan met "Lara" in the hospital ship after the final battle from the last book. She made a distinct impression on both of them. However, she was a bridge officer in Admiral Trigit's Star Destroyer before the Wraiths destroyed it, and was trying to find a way back to Zsinj. And the Wraiths gave it to her. Face and Phanan hatched a plan for her to flush out a Colonel in the New Republic training corps who was stealing starfighters. The idea of a remedial training corps seems out of place to me, especially since the New Republic is so young. But be that as it may, Lara succeeded, and found her way into Wraith Squadron. There, she was to contact Zsinj, so he could destroy them. There were really only two ways this spy subplot could end. One was with her betraying the Squadron, but that was done in the Rogue Squadron books. The other was that she would realize the errors of her ways, and turn her back on Zsinj.

I was surprised to find it handled so well, though. Lara found herself enjoying the company of the Wraiths, and wondered why they were so different from Imperial propaganda. Though she was in Imperial Intelligence, she seemed not to know the difference. So she finds herself despising Zsinj because of his lack of honor. She makes the distinction very clear between Zsinj and the Imperials, who are very different entities. And she finds that she fits in best among the Wraiths. So when Zsinj contacts her through her fake persona's brother, she and Myn Donos (another Wraith) are forced to kill the contacts, and make it look like something went wrong. So she seals herself into the life as a New Republic officer. 

Several times during the book, it is mentioned that the Wraiths have been together for only a few weeks. But in that time, they had all their adventures in the last book, and Lara managed to fail her starfighter training, move into the remedial group, gain the confidence of the fighter thief, expose him, and join the Wraiths. Something seems to be out of order. Or perhaps New Republic trains ace pilots in only a few days.

Wedge decides that his group impersonated the crew of Night Caller so well that they should try to impersonate a pirate group to infiltrate Zsinj's operations, since it is known that Zsinj hires pirates for many jobs. They gain permission, find an old asteroid to launch from, and steal some TIE fighters and interceptors to use as their main vessels of terror. They prey on one planet in particular, which is an ally of Zsinj. There, they gain more TIEs (reusing an exchange in a bar that they were at the other end of at the very beginning of the book) while pretending to be Imperial Military Police. Later, they launch a daring plan to destroy two TIE bases, which goes really badly. Baron Fell shows up with his elite TIE division, and so does Zsinj, with his Super Star Destroyer, Iron Fist. The Wraiths, posing as the Hawk Bats, barely escape, but Phanan is killed. It is a very nice tribute to one of the original Wraiths, as he is not simply wiped off the board like the Wraiths in the last book. Face goes to rescue him, and ends up watching his friend die. 

When the next Wraith dies, I was wishing he could have lived long enough to face a court martial. Castin was a character that we were essentially "told" to hate. He never respected Wedge, he had an innate dislike for non-humans, and he had a very large ego. When Zsinj contacts the Hawk Bats for a meeting, he goes against Wedge's explicit orders and tries to upload a virus program into the Iron Fist, so they can track it when it comes out of hyperspace. He is discovered in the process, and shot. He is brought in front of Face, Kell and Dia, having a banquet with Zsinj as part of their ruse, and Dia is forced to shoot him in the head. She is convinced that he was already dead, but part of her cannot accept that. The terror they felt at that moment, and the horror at that deed, brings Dia (a Twi'lek) into Face's arms by the end of the book, and was realistically done. I really cared about these characters. 

In fact, Face has become my favorite character in this book. I never found Kell to be interesting, mostly because he seemed so much like Corran Horn. He gets to be the ultimate actor here, posing as the leader of the Hawk Bats. He also feels so much guilt that both Phanan and Castin dies while under his care, even though he didn't know about the latter until it was too late. 

As the time approaches for the final assault, Wedge and the Wraiths rendezvous with Han Solo and his task force, including Rogue Squadron, to trap Zsinj. Zsinj plans to capture a second Super Star Destroyer from the Imperial-controlled Kuat Drive Yards. Shala, another of the new Wraiths, acts as front guard for Zsinj's commando raid on the Destroyer, and is charged with getting the team to the bridge without anybody from the outside knowing about it. She succeeds admirably. And once she uploads a version of Castin's tracking program into the computers of this Destroyer, she manages to escape in a TIE Interceptor, seating herself between the two shield generators above the bridge.

Face's Hawk Bats put on an impressive show, obtaining the highest kill ratio among any of the pirates. Baron Fell takes an interest when he discovers that the Hawk Bats have an Ewok pilot, which happened as a joke on Wedge. As part of a comm-encrypting technique, one of the Wraiths garbled Wedge's speech to sound like an Ewok who had miraculously learned to fly a snubfighter. Wedge gets to ask the round-about question he has been desperately wanting to ask: has his sister been found (see In the Empire's Service, for details)? But I'm not sure how to interpret the answer. I expect this rivalry to come to a head in the next book, including the reason for Fell's defection. 

After their first hyperspace jump, the two Super Star Destroyers wait in order to make sure the new destroyer is in operational condition. During that time, the tracking program alerts Solo to its location, and they send in the ambush. Solo's Mon Calamari Cruiser blocks off the hyperspace route, while a Frigate cuts off another plausible escape route. Shalla destroys the new Destroyer's shield generators, and the Rogues, Wraiths, and several squadrons of Y-Wings, B-Wings, A-Wings take it out. Meanwhile Piggy, the genetically engineered Gammorean Wraith, manages to take out one of the Iron Fists's shield generators the same way Shalla did, but his ship is crippled before it can finish the job. Disabling the Calamari Cruiser's engines, the Iron Fist circumvents that ship and flees into hyperspace. It was an exhausting mission, for all the squadrons and for the reader!

There are several loose ends that I expect to be tied up in the next book. While we know Zsinj survives into The Courtship of Princess Leia, there should be some conclusion to the events depicted here, plus his region of power has been dramatically reduced. We know that Han Solo made some rude remarks to Zsinj before that book begins, and I expect to see some of that in Solo Command. Piggy's past has now been linked with Zsinj, as one level on the Iron Fist was full of test subjects like him. I think Zsinj's experiments will come back to haunt him. Lara and Myn Donos should enter some conflict when her past is ultimately revealed, and he discovers that she was the mastermind behind his old squadron's destruction. The author could, though, take the unexpected route and have her take her secret to her death. But then he would be missing a dramatic punch, and I don't expect him to pass on this one. Finally, the fate of the Wraiths should be made clear. They have been dying at an exceptional rate, which suggests that they might disappear. And as we've never heard of them again, and Wedge becomes a General, I think this will probably happen in the next book. 

So although this book started out much like the last one, and I did get to read "Yub yub Commander" again (which I nearly blotted off the page whenever I saw it!) it managed to redeem itself nicely by the end, and avoided the contradictions, overstated joking and sarcasm, and copycat nature of the last book. It also helped that I knew the characters going in, so there wasn't so much to learn about them, and that Kell was underplayed in favor of the much more interesting Face. This book was a real success, and I definitely recommend it. It whets the appetite for the Trilogy's conclusion.

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