A Star Wars Novel With ’90s Sensibilities? Sign Me Up
For part three of this series, we’ve jumped headfirst into the ’90s; written in 1994, Dave Wolverton’s Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia is a surprisingly delightful gem of a book. Of course, there are some iffy things about it, as there always are. But, for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed this book quite a bit. So, let me rip it apart in my literary jaws like a rabid dog, why don’t I.
“Though Darth Vader and the Emperor are dead, the Empire lives on and a weakened Alliance must find powerful new help if it is to survive. The answer could lie in the Hapes Consortium, a cluster of sixty-three high-tech worlds. There’s only one catch: Princess Leia must marry the Queen Mother’s son, the dashing and wealthy Prince Isolder.
“Han Solo reacts badly to the news. Tricking Leia, he flees with her to the beautiful but untamed planet of Dathomir, where he hopes to change her mind—and win her heart. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker and Artoo form an unlikely partnership with the jilted prince to track down the runaways. But their mission is only the beginning of an adventure that will lead to the discovery of an awesome treasure, a group of Force-trained ‘witches,’ and a showdown with an invincible foe.”
Luke is written well in that he’s still a goody-two-shoes as usual. He wants to do the right thing and help his friends. What I didn’t like about his character is that he’s constantly trying to get everyone to follow the light side of the Force. He’s like a persistent preacher coming over to your house every week and trying to get you to come to church. When Prince Isolder tells Luke about the pirate who killed his brother, Luke replies, “[y]ou must forgive him. Your anger burns in you, a black spot on your heart. You must forgive him and serve the light side of the Force”. This line of conversation goes on for a few more pages; so he’s a little preachy, and he’s got a little bit of a white savior complex (we’ll discuss that later). For the most part, though, Luke’s characterization is done well.
Leia’s character is diplomatic yet strong-minded; she knows what her duty is and she’s not afraid to face it head-on. She’s not afraid to argue to get her point across, or for the greater good, or to save Han or Luke. She’s every bit the General Organa we know today; interesting, given this book was written, like, twenty-three years ago. Keeping this in mind, I did have a few issues with her characterization. In the first few chapters, Wolverton makes it clear that she and Han are in a relationship. And yet, as soon as a handsome stranger shows up and asks for Leia’s hand in marriage, it’s like she forgets all about Han. She’s so quick to fall in love with Isolder that it doesn’t seem believable.
She does have a moment of regret early in the book, where she thinks to herself, “I’m betraying Han. I don’t want to hurt Han,” as Isolder is pressed up against her after saving her from an assassination attempt. But then he asks her to come away with him and “whatever attachment she had ever felt for Han suddenly seemed to become as insubstantial as fog…” The fact that all her attachment to Han disappears with just one statement from Isolder is unlikely and, frankly, strange. As a plot device, it works perfectly. But as a facet of Leia’s character, it felt wrong.
Okay, so, Han is done pretty well. He’s sarcastic, he’s kind of an asshole, but he’s got a soft spot for Luke and Leia and Chewbacca and he does everything he can not to show it. He’s the Han Solo we know and love. Except, just like with Luke and Leia, there are just a few little things that didn’t quite work. What struck me the most was how strong Han comes on; he literally kidnaps Leia to Dathomir at gunpoint (granted, it’s a mind-control gun and not a shooty-blasty gun, but still).
He starts out well; once he wins the planet Dathomir in a card game, he gives the deed to Leia so she can basically create Alderaan II. A sweet gesture, right? A good and normal gesture from a man who is feeling threatened by a new man trying to steal his girlfriend. But then, when it turns out the planet is in a warlord’s territory, Han kidnaps Leia to take her to Dathomir anyway in order to make her fall in love with him again. It seems wild and crazy and unlike Han; but on the other hand, he’s known for being wild and crazy so just maybe it’s something he’d do. I can’t decide if he’s out of character or the most in character of the entire novel.
Luke’s Side Quest
When we first meet Luke in chapter two, he’s on the icy planet Toola searching the remains of a cave for information on the Jedi Academy. Instead, he finds a holo from a young Yoda that gives us our first clue, though we don’t know it yet. The recording says, “[w]e tried to free the Chu’unthor from Dathomir, but were repulsed by the witches…skirmish, with masters Gra’aton and Vulatan…Fourteen acolytes killed…go back to retrieve…” and then the transmission ends. So, here, by chance, we get our first information about Dathomir.
Later, Luke teams up with Isolder to go to Dathomir and save Leia. By chance, again, Luke stumbles upon the Chu’unthor, the ship that housed the Jedi Academy. Luke’s original side quest is woven into his new, other side quest with Isolder; the Jedi Academy is always at the back of his mind. He’s searching for a student, and one finds him. Isolder brings Luke’s two quests together into one; Luke senses the Force in Isolder, so small and new that Isolder himself can’t sense it, doesn’t believe he possesses Force powers. But Luke surmises, “[p]erhaps the Force directed acolytes to their Masters when they were needed. Perhaps the only true training of any worth that a Jedi could receive came only as he or she battled against darkness.”
When Isolder, Luke, and Teneniel (a Dathomir witch) meet up with Han and Leia in the Singing Mountains Clan’s village, things seem to slot together nicely. The two narratives come together in a way that’s satisfying for a reader; the characters met each other again and blended seamlessly back into their dynamic, even with two original characters.
Politics and History
Both the Hapes system and the Witches of Dathomir are led by women, with men holding inferior and even slave-like roles. Men, in general, are barely featured or mentioned; Teneniel explains to Luke how they hunt for mates, but other than that there are hardly any references to men on Dathomir.
The significance of the Witches of Dathomir comes from their ancestor Allya, a rogue Jedi banished to the prison planet Dathomir. She taught the prisoners there how to channel the Force; how to tame the Rancors; how to hunt for a mate. This led to the creation of their spells, which were taught to the daughters of Allya all the way down the line, so they know nothing of the Force except their incantations. The Nightsisters are those witches who used the Dark Side of the Force, though it is believed that certain incantations led to them becoming Nightsisters, and the dark magic is avoided and feared.
Hapes is led by a Queen Mother, which is self-explanatory. Her son, Isolder, is a prince but he has no power; the woman he marries will eventually rule Hapes as Queen. Isolder, bless him, believes he has the ultimate power in his society because he gets to choose the next Queen Mother, i.e. the woman he will marry.
Tension and Action
Throughout the book, there are little hints about Dathomir before we actually get there. In chapter two, Yoda mentions it in an old holo-message; then, in a science-fiction Skype call with Leia, Luke asks her about it. Still, we know nothing about it, not even that it’s a planet yet. Next, the warlord Gomogg, a Drackmarian, bets the deed to a planet in a card game with Han and guess what its name is? Spreading minimal information about something so important across multiple chapters creates such great tension in the novel, I was actually impressed. For a Star Wars book, this was an excellent literary tactic.
As for action, there was just enough to keep things interesting and prevent lulls in the narrative. Going back to Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, you’ll recall that there was so much action that things got bogged down. The narrative both moved too fast and too slow with the amount of action in that novel. The characters never settled down to sleep, which in turn made me feel exhausted reading it.
In The Courtship of Princess Leia, we get breaks in the action for exposition and character development that further the narrative instead of hindering it. Luke, Isolder, Artoo, and Teneniel camp out in a cave after a Nightsister attack; during that time we learn a short history of Dathomir and the witches. Instead of throwing us into Exposition Theater™, this serves as a moment to slow down and recuperate; not only for the characters but for us as readers as well. It’s a realistic moment after a battle that worked very well to pace the novel in believable ways.
This guy is handsome and everyone has to mention it at least once. Even Han describes him as “the most incredibly handsome man that [he] had ever seen.” Isolder is the son of the Queen Mother of Hapes, Ta’a Chume, and whoever marries him will rule as queen. So, of course, he proposes to Leia as part of the trade agreement. Later, we find out that what seemed to be a political proposal was in fact deeply personal; Isolder saw Leia on Hapes during her visit and fell in love with her without even speaking with her. If you like love-at-first-sight tropes, this is great. If you’re not a fan of that, then you won’t be a fan of Isolder.
This witch is so cool. I love her. She’s scrappy, she’s interesting, she’s a little bit naive; but she’s also flawed and incredibly human. She could skirt the lines of a Strong Female Character, except she gets scared, and jealous, and hurt. Teneniel teases Isolder and tells him he’s dumb because he thinks he has any power in his matriarchal society. She’s funny, at times vulnerable, and probably my favorite original character in all the Star Wars novels I’ve read so far.
Nightsisters and the Singing Mountain Clan
These are interesting characters as they relate to the Force, because they represent the Dark and Light sides; essentially, they are the Sith and Jedi, except on a primitive backwater prison planet. I found this intriguing because no matter how they channel the Force, they’re still dealing with the same problems that the Jedi deal with: mainly, the fear of turning to the Dark Side. The Nightsisters are witches who have already turned to the Dark Side/used dark incantations and turned evil. The Singing Mountain Clan witches are constantly worried about how they use their power and their incantations; as Teneniel says to Luke, “the words of the spells are the same whether we cast them for darkness or light. How will we know whether we are using them rightly?” To which Luke replies, “It’s not the words that give you power, it is your intent.”
Extended Canon Bisexual Han Solo
Fight me about this. You can go on about how Han feels threatened or jealous of Isolder because Leia prefers him to Han; you can claim that this is just a description of Isolder for the readers’ benefit; (“His deep-set eyes were a dark blue-gray, like the color of the sea on the horizon, and promised wit, humor, and wisdom; his powerful shoulders and firm jawline were strong”). But why even write this from Han’s point of view in the first place? You can go on about how I’m reading too much into things, but I say to you: Dave Wolverton wanted Han Solo to also like men in his Star Wars novel and you can’t change my mind about this.
My Favorite Line
Leia tells Han she “likes the way his pants fit.” Honestly, that’s the only reason for this section. I need everyone to know that she said she likes Han’s butt.
Leia’s Heroics Erased So a Man Can Save Her
The inclusion of blatant matriarchal societies is interesting, seeing as men are still subtly the most important in this book, specifically when it comes to Leia. The narrative erases Leia’s heroics in the films and even in this book so a man can save her. It mentions multiple times that both Han and Luke have saved Leia’s life in the past; then Isolder throws his lot in, first saving her from an assassination attempt, and then vowing to steal her back from Han when they get to Dathomir.
Straight up, this book is called The Courtship of Princess Leia, what do we expect Leia to do besides get courted? Just once, I’d like a book where Leia is more than just a spunky side character just hanging around to make a sarcastic comment about Han and get into trouble so a man has to save her life. Personality-wise, Wolverton writes Leia well; narrative-wise, I wish she could do more.
Witches and Luke’s Savior Complex
The idea of witches in the Star Wars universe brought me up short a little bit. There are two issues that I have with this. First, as we know, the witches of Dathomir turn out to be Force users, but they learned to channel their power through incantations. When Luke figures this out when he first meets Teneniel, he tries to teach her how to channel the Force in the traditional Jedi fashion. This smacks a little bit of a savior complex; the incantations don’t control the Force, but they provide a certain amount of security for the witches. That’s their heritage, and Luke Skywalker, Foreigner, waltzes in and tries to teach them the Better Way. Sure, it’s coming from a good place, and we all know how much Luke loves the Force. But you don’t just barge into a community with set traditions and try to make them do it your way.
The second issue I have is with the etymology of the word “witch” itself in a science fiction setting and in the Star Wars universe. Where did this word come from? Why and how would they know it? Dave Wolverton, answer my emails!
This particular Star Wars novel was a pleasant surprise. I recommend The Courtship of Princess Leia if you like action balanced well with politics and history and shot through with a good helping of romance. If you enjoy tales that feature our three Star Wars heroes—Luke, Leia, and Han—along with a few original characters who blend seamlessly with the existing characters, I recommend The Courtship of Princess Leia. I wasn’t sure what I was getting with a book called The Courtship of Princess Leia; safe to say, I went in with pretty low expectations. Maybe that’s why Dave Wolverton managed to exceed most, if not all, of them. But, still, I recommend this book for any Star Wars fan looking to learn how Han and Leia’s relationship progressed into marriage—at least in the Extended Universe, anyway.