The Courtship of Princess Leia (Dave Wolverton)
The Courtship of Princess Leia is an early expanded universe novel detailing the long awaited marriage between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Unfortunately, the author uses this perfectly acceptable premise to throw in a ton of forced conflict between the two in a plot line that makes little sense. Apparently realizing this, much of the rest of the book instead focuses on an intriguing planet and nearly insurmountable odds for our heroes. CoPL's excellent world building, strong portrayal of Luke, and action packed second half manages to make up for a disastrous first half filled with manufactured drama and idiotic plotlines.
The story starts with the introduction of a key new player, Prince Isolder of the Hapes Cluster. The Hapans are a quite powerful matriarchal society, and the leaders of the New Republic are eager to get the persistently neutral faction on their side. They get an opportunity when Isolder shows an interest in Leia, who has not yet committed herself to Han. Cue a plot that throws out everything you know about the two beloved characters for the next hundred pages or so, because from here Leia forgets all about her love for Han as seen in the movies, and Han decides to be incredibly jealous, petty, and untrustworthy in an effort to
create random tension win Leia back. This is a painful and inexplicable turn in the relationship of the two, a turn of events that threatens to sink the entire book in its utterly contrived progression. Additionally, there are some painful political scenes where various figureheads debate the merits of forcing (or strongly persuading) Leia to marry Isolder. These seem to ignore the fact that Leia is a fiercely independent woman directly responsible for more than some of the Republic's success, and instead treat her as a bargaining chip. The sole bright spot in this part of the book is Luke's rarely mentioned sub plot to find out more about the Jedi of the Old Republic. Learning about the Hapans is fun too, but not nearly enough to carry the book. Fortunately, everything takes a turn for the better when Han displays the aforementioned pettiness by basically mind tricking Leia and whisking her away to a planet known as Dathomir that Han recently won in a card game.
Predictably, Han's prize turns about to be less than ideal, and here begins the redemption of the story. The two, plus C-3PO and Chewbacca, run into an Imperial interdiction that causes them to crash land on the planet. Luke and Isolder soon follow in order to find out the truth behind Han's kidnapping of Leia, and they find themselves stranded too. The rest of the book introduces us to Dathomir and the reasonably friendly Singing Mountain Clan, a matriarchal society of force sensitive witches who are engaged in a desperate struggle with their evil counterparts, the Nightsisters. Luke has an enjoyable sub plot that mentions an early Yoda adventure, there is plenty of action, and the ridiculous conflict between Han and Leia slowly disappears. Quite a bit happens in the more enjoyable half of the novel, and the quick pace and near insurmountable odds help the conflict in a way that the mostly boring antagonists don't. The two principle new characters, Isolder and Singing Mountain Clan warrior Teneniel Djo, are given an interesting series of sub plots and plenty of face time to grow as characters. There really isn't much to dislike about the finale, besides the anticlimactic and occasionally overly melodramatic concluding chapters. The action oriented part of CoPL manages to redeem the manufactured interpersonal drama of the opening.
Leia and Han are mostly butchered as characters for the first half of the book, but they manage to look something like their old selves for the finale. The unconvincing bickering and arguments that taint the first half of the novel gradually give way to a relationship that mostly mirrors what we saw in the movies for the conclusion. Luckily the rest of the cast isn't nearly as inconsistent, and there is quite a bit to like in newcomers Isolder and Teneniel Djo. Luke is a level headed voice amongst all the madness, displaying the expected levels of calm and composure for a Jedi Master. Isolder initially seems poised to be the stereotypical "too perfect" character. Possessing extraordinary amounts of wealth, legitimate combat skills, and a disarming personality, Isolder looks to be the type of character that is harboring some deep dark crippling secret motive that our righteous underdog (Han) will eventually use to discredit him. Thankfully the book doesn't stoop that low, and instead we get a legitimately righteous man with a colorful history and heartfelt ambitions to forge a better society for his people, free of the treachery that has colored his mother's reign as leader. In taking the high road with Isolder, the book manages to craft a strong new leader for future authors to utilize. Similarly, Teneniel Djo, our de facto liaison to the Singing Mountain Clan, is a noble character with a curious background that gives Luke a good opportunity for both teaching and learning. A force sensitive with values mostly at odds with Luke's teachings, Teneniel is an earnest and endearing character that develops quite a bit over the course of the novel.
Our antagonists, the Nightsisters and the Imperials blockading the planet, aren't quite as compelling as the rest of the cast. The Nightsisters are led by Gethzerion, an intimidating presence that initially seems to be an excellent opponent for Luke. With the progression of the book, she seems less and less competent, eventually bowing out in a surprisingly muted way. As for the Imperials, they are a relatively abstract presence. Readers familiar with the X-Wing novels will recognize their leader, Zsinj from three of the books from that series, though this book is actually his far less than spectacular debut. Outside of a few references from Han and an anticlimactic finale, the character is totally undeveloped. Perhaps most fearsome is Isolder's mother, Ta'a Chume. Despite seemingly fighting on the side of the Republic, Chume's motivations and ambitions are too closely guarded to be sure of and the character is played up quite nicely by Isolder himself. Manipulative and scheming, Chume is hands down the most formidable opponent our heroes have to face in this story.
World building is used to great effect in this novel. Dathomir's people come to life through vivid imaginings of their caste system and traditions, while the Hapans get a more subdued portrayal that nonetheless serves as an intriguing counterpoint to the Singing Mountain Clan. There is a notable attempt to make the flora and fauna of Dathomir as interesting as the societal aspects, but it falls flat. There isn't anything here that we haven't seen before, and the setting is definitely stronger when exploring the history and people of the world instead of the wildlife.
The action is a strong element of this book. Using a wide array of Force powers and plenty of different set pieces, author Dave Wolverton is able to craft a fast paced and action packed thrill ride that very nearly manages to white wash the insufferably bad premise. There are large scale rancor battles, infiltration scenes, dogfights, assassination attempts, and force duels all throughout the book, most of which are written quite spectacularly. By comparison, the dialogue is fairly flat, with the various romances that spring up feeling unrealistic, and the general flow of the prose is a bit lacking and awkward in places, but there are far worse reads from a technical standpoint than The Courtship of Princess Leia.
With this novel, you are essentially getting two different books. One is part political thriller, part soap opera where most of the characters act ridiculous, everything you knew about Star Wars is at least partially wrong, and nothing exciting happens. The second part is a straightforward but entertaining action adventure novel that is more than happy to just throw a bunch of battles together and deliver a fun and simple read. This book is passable only because of this transition, ultimately earning a middling score instead of an abysmal one.