The original Star Wars Expanded Universe novels are a mixed bunch, to say the least. There’s some good, some bad, and some mediocre. And while Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn saga usually gets the most attention, I am here to say that the best books are actually the X-Wing novels. Come at me.
As usual for these kinds of things, old spoilers apply.
The X-Wing books are pretty easy to divide based on which author is writing them. Michael A. Stackpole mostly focuses on Rogue Squadron, an elite X-Wing squadron originally founded by Luke Skywalker, but commanded by Wedge Antilles in the books. Aaron Allston mostly focuses on Wraith Squadron, a combination spy/X-Wing unit staffed by screw-ups. It’s also commanded by Wedge Antilles.
There are ten books in the series, divided into two sub-series and three standalones. The first four books are Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron, Wedge’s Gamble, The Krytos Trap, and The Bacta War. In those books, Wedge and Rogue Squadron liberate Coruscant, survive one member’s trial for treason and murder, and actually go rogue to defeat Ysanne Isard—the latest person in charge of the Empire.
The second three books are Allston’s Wraith Squadron, Iron Fist, and Solo Command. In it, Wedge founds Wraith Squadron and leads them in a bunch of undercover missions to stop the evil Warlord Zsinj—remember him from here?—from taking over the galaxy.
Then Isard comes back in Stackpole’s Isard’s Revenge. Next, Allston has Wedge and three of his friends play ambassador to a bloodthirsty but strategically important planet in Starfighters of Adumar. Finally, in Allston’s Mercy Kill, we catch up with Wraith Squadron in the aftermath of the Yuuzhan Vong War. Incidentally, the Yuuzhan Vong War marks the point at which I stopped being a completist reader of the EU, and started only picking up books by authors I already liked and trusted. I hate the Yuuzhan Vong.
The X-Wing books have the lowest ratio of silly to good things of any of the classic EU books. I mean, unintentionally silly. There’s a lot of purposeful humor in the books, which is another reason they’re the best.
For example, while Grand Admiral Thrawn has—both in our world and in a galaxy far, far away—become basically the patron saint of magnificent bastards, his books are also where we got Luuke, the psycho clone of Luke Skywalker grown from the hand he lost in The Empire Strikes Back. Also where an entire race refers to Leia as “Lady Vader.” Lots of things that don’t look so great in retrospect, is all I’m saying.
The most ridiculous thing about the X-Wing books is Corran Horn, who is an elite pilot, former cop, and secret Jedi. It’s less ridiculous in the books than it is when I write it down like that. Slightly. Damn is he one Mary-Sue-looking motherfucker.
But, generally, the X-Wing books are noteworthy for pointing out and then trying to remedy the worst gaffes of the EU. Although not technically an X-Wing book, Corran’s first-person, door-stop of a book I, Jedi has Corran pointing out that just forgiving the recently-returned-from-the-Dark-Side-yet-still-definitely-a-mass-murderer Kyp Durron is completely ridiculous.
Allston may be the king of the Star Wars retcon. The Wraith Squadron series manages to turn Warlord Zsinj, who was a caricature back in The Courtship of Princess Leia, into a legitimate villain. He also fixed another problem with that book, which was that the Super Star Destroyer Iron Fist is destroyed twice—once at the start of the book, and again at the end. He even manages to tie them both together by making the first explosion a fake gambit on the part of Zsinj to buy himself time by looking defeated. Yes, I am still shocked that this mistake made it past everyone involved in The Courtship of Princess Leia, and it took a different author to fix.
And in Starfighters of Adumar, Allston also explained how Wedge could be with Qwi Xux in the Jedi Academy trilogy (Stackpole also pointed out how gross that was in I, Jedi) and then end up married, with no explanation, to someone else in a later book. Allston even manages to explain Stackpole’s mistake in having Corran Horn serve with Han Solo, but not ever meet him until much later.
Speaking of Wedge, here’s the other thing the X-Wing books do better than any other EU book: develop characters. While Han, Leia, and Luke appear every so often, the focus on these books is on characters that either never appear in the movies or have no appreciable personalities in them. The one thing I will not forgive Disney for is that Wes Janson, my beloved, childish prankster/ace pilot, is no longer canon. I love Wes Janson with my entire soul. This bit from Starfighters of Adumar is representative:
“Oh, stop worrying, Wedge,” Janson’s grin was infectious. “It’s obvious they adore you. You could throw up all over yourself and they’d love it. By nightfall they’d all be doing it. They’d call it the ‘Wedge Purge.’ They’d be eating different-colored foods just to add variety.”
Wedge felt his stomach lurch. He half turned to glare accusingly at Tycho. “I thought you’d be able to do what I never could. Get Wes up to an emotional age of fourteen, maybe fifteen.”
Tycho gave him a tight little shake of the head. “No power in the universe could do that. Not Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force, not the nuclear devastation of an exploding sun.”
Janson waved at the audience. “They’d be competing for distance and volume.”
And now? The new canon means he’s relegated to being “Good shot, Janson!” in The Empire Strikes Back. Bite me, Disney. Janson is the best.
The pilots of these books are funny and damaged and hypercompetent. You want competence porn? They’ve got it in spades. These are the books which point out that Wedge is the only pilot to survive to Death Star runs. The Rogues, on their own, destroy Ysane Isard. Wraith Squadron escapes an entire facility that was built especially for killing them. (Yes, I also love the Wraiths more than the Rogues. Wedge decides their motto should be “Pretty. What do we blow up first?” They always win.)
What is also great about these books is that, despite supposedly being about fighter squadrons, there’s a lot of spying going on. SPIES ARE AWESOME. Spy plots are always great. Undercover operations are amazing. The Rogues stumble around a lot more than the Wraiths, which makes sense. The Rogues are pilots who just happen to get assigned to intelligence operations. The Wraiths are specifically put together to be both. I dare you to find another book that has a serious fighter battle with the leader of the squadron puppeteering at the same time. (Wedge is undercover as an Ewok. It’s a long story, but worth the price of admission.)
There are other EU stories that I love—but the X-Wing books have the highest quantity of memorable moments. I may actually be able to quote them better than the movies at this point. I use “Now my life can take on the aspect of a personal hell,” from Starfighters of Adumar pretty much every day. The fact that X-Wing pilots don’t have their own show is a crime. But they do have these books. The best books. Fight me.