Review by Kay
Note: This review contains spoilers.
In general my expectations for Star Wars books these days are low. X-Wing: Mercy Kill is not just any Star Wars book, though, it’s an Aaron Allston Star Wars book. I tend to enjoy his books. And while Mercy Kill is part of the X-Wing series, it’s also a stand-alone, taking place in a different time period than the rest of the X-Wing stories. Together, these elements let me be more hopeful than I might have been otherwise as I wondered what citizens of the Star Wars universe were up to after Fate of the Jedi.
Well… hopefulness rewarded.
X-Wing: Mercy Kill is a satisfying book filled with a mix of loss, action, humor, and love.
It’s kind of strange that a book called Mercy Kill would have so much fun in it. It begins with a Wraith mission set 31 years before the events of most of the book. That mission is a nice introduction to this special commando/X-wing squadron, or a nostalgic call-back if you’ve been a long time fan. Next we’re brought to present day with former Wraith Vroot “Piggy” saBinring being recruited back into the group, which in its current form is a commando team secretly running out of GA Intelligence.
If it sounds like a lot to keep track of already, that really is just the beginning. Soon a cast of characters are together that include original Wraiths, Wraiths from the Yuzhaan Vong era, new Wraiths who are characters we’ve met or heard of from other books, and brand new Wraiths we’ve never met before. And that’s just on the good guys’ side. There were times where I had to stop to remember whose specialty is what or what pilot number belongs to which name – especially when the count of Wraiths suddenly doubles about halfway through the story. For the most part, though, Allston does a nice job defining all these characters so confusion tended to be temporary.
For a long portion of the book, the mission is going pretty well for our heroes. They have some conflicts and some things don’t go according to original plan, but they don’t seem like they’re really ever in danger. Instead of getting a sense of foreboding, Allston makes it easy to accept that’s just how it is. And this is odd because you’d think a group with limited resources trying to catch a powerful, resources-coming-out-his-ears criminal not being in danger for so long would be unbelievable.
At first it felt like poor pacing, but upon finishing the book I’m leaning towards Allston purposely providing that false sense of security. When things really start going bad, it hits hard and fast. In a crafty one-two punch while on enemy turf, the Wraiths are thrown for a loop, discovering they aren’t the only ones investigating Thaal and his Pop-Dogs and then immediately being outnumbered and surrounded by an enemy who will kill to protect their secrets. Allston paints a dense image of near-chaos, throwing in elements of suddenly lost command structure, incomplete mission objectives, and the logistical nightmare of having to quickly leave somewhere with twice as many beings as you came in with – all while the enemy is on your tail.
Dialogue flows between characters with ease. Not a single line felt awkward or forced. Just enough information is shared and feelings and ideas are allowed to simmer under the surface until they organically rise into discussion. And let’s not forget the Aaron Allston humor element. From their inception the Wraiths have been rag-tag, so humor fits right in their group and this story. It breathes a little tension out of tough moments. It brings entertainment to exposition. It lends to certain characters’ personalities. He even pokes fun at grammatical errors. Whether this is a poke at some of the atrocious errors of the Fate of the Jedi series, we may never know – but, as a reader, it’s nice to know Voort is bothered by superfluous apostrophes, too.
Myri and Voort looked in that direction. All Voort could see was a business, perhaps more gaudily painted than the others, a two-story dome whose marquee sign announced it as EAT’S.
Voort glowered. “Unless the owner is named Eat, the apostrophe is superfluous. I’m inclined to beat up the owner for bad grammar…”
~ page 60
So with all that going for it, I was surprised to feel like the book was a little too long. I’m not sure what I’d take out if I were to cut it down, though. There are so many good elements, and it is a quick read in that I could fly through the pages. Yet when I’d stop for the evening and put in my bookmark, I’d see I still had so much more to go and felt like I’d barely made any progress. It seemed like there was an obvious end goal of arresting Thaal, but for almost half of the book I wasn’t sure if the Wraiths were really making any progress towards that either.
Allston does a really fantastic job of expanding on the adventures of the past Wraiths and connecting things that happened then to what’s going on now. Those past events are like little bonus stories, and at the same time they really round out Piggy/Voort’s character. Voort is our reluctant tour guide on this mission. Being a Wraith had changed him for the better and then for the worse, and it’s a struggle to get back to that better again. If there was a drinking game for this story, it’d probably have to be take a drink every time Voort conflicts with any other character. It happens a lot. But he’s got his reasons.
With those elements in play there’s an undercurrent of everything being connected running through Mercy Kill. Some of it is clever enough that I didn’t make the connections until days after I finished reading. Wraith Squadron already has a fairly rich history from the early New Republic days. One of the further enrichments in Mercy Kill is the mission that starts the story: the rescue of a scientist named Cheems from the Imperials holding him prisoner for his skills. Meanwhile the present squadron includes a character named Scut whose adopted father’s story of being once rescued by the Wraiths serves as an inspiration to Scut. Later in the book we meet Scut’s father, the very same Cheems. But by the time we get there I’d forgotten the scientist’s name from the beginning of the book and figured Cheems was rescued in another X-Wing book or maybe off-page. So much happened between those two events, so many names flew around, and so many elements of the opening mission were entertaining and memorable, that I did not realize that rescue story happened in the same book until days after I was done reading.
Even if you miss one or two, though, there are plenty of neat connections within this story. There are also some that span outside the book. This includes revealing the identity of the Force-sensitive bounty hunter from Allston’s Fate of the Jedi: Outcast.
None of my usual favorite characters are in this book. But thanks to Mercy Kill, I have a few new favorites.
Overall there’s a nice mix of female and male characters. And there is only one character is this book who has a lightsaber. Can you believe it? After all the Jedi and the million Sith in the Fate of the Jedi series, having only one Force-sensitive character is really grounding for this book. There’s no doubt that the Jedi are important to the galaxy far far away, but this book gets back to the roots of the X-Wing series – that there are a whole slew of heroes out there who aren’t Force-sensitive. It lends an aspect to the character of Jesmin Tainer that makes her unique among the Wraiths but is played in a way that doesn’t hold her above any of them. Her Antarian Ranger skills are pretty cool, too.
It’s also really great to have a previously existing EU character have an opportunity like this to really get fleshed out. So often in books in this part of the Star Wars EU timeline, readers have been entrenched with some of the most famous names in the galaxy. Everyone knows who they are and that opens certain doors for them. So it was refreshing when Allston used a brief interaction between Myri Antilles, daughter of the famous pilot and Rebel hero Wedge Antilles, and Trey Courser, a new Wraith, to remind us that just like not all the good guys are Jedi, not all the good guys are famous.
I also appreciated that despite having fairly well-known parents, Myri’s made a name for herself outside of being related to them. She’s built up a bevy of skills over the years and she knows when to apply them. Despite being entrenched in secret plans and disguises, she’s very matter-of-fact. I just kept having to remind myself that Myri is an adult now – not because of anything she does, but because up until now I only knew of her as a kid. It helped that Piggy was doing the same thing. What also helped was Myri’s moral code. She’s not one to go around trumpeting it but it eventually becomes a source of conflict when she’s put in a situation where it may not be practical to keep it up.
Speaking of Trey, I think I have a new character to add to my favorites. Apparently equipped to work with all things electronic and mechanical, he’s observant, often one step ahead, and probably the most constant source of comic relief. I hope to see more of him, Myri, and Jesmin in future books.
Trey shook his head. “I think I misspoke. With those three jobs done, we’re good to go. Those three jobs are done. Five and I were up all day and night yesterday doing them.”
“What?” For once, Bhindi looked as though she’d been taken completely off guard.
Jesmin cracked up, buried her face in her hands. “It’s true, One. He’s very… energetic.”
Trey shrugged. “We’re good to go. Now can I sleep?”
Bhindi stared at him, stunned. Finally she found her voice. “Four, I apologize for being cross with you earlier. Will you marry me?”
“Uh…” He checked his chrono. “Sure, why not?”
~ page 84
Another interesting new character is Scut, a Yuuzhan Vong Wraith. Yes, you read that correctly. We haven’t heard much about the Yuuzhan Vong in the galaxy since the end of the New Jedi Order series, so it was intriguing for Allston to not only mention a member of the species but to have him feature prominently. One of the Shamed Ones, Scut was adopted by a human family and thus does not behave much like most of the Yuuzhan Vong featured in the New Jedi Order. In fact, he may be the most likeable Yuuzhan Vong ever. There’s a quietness and gentleness to him, but he is undoubtedly dedicated to helping others and doing what he believes is right. Of course, not everyone in the book feels that way. Having fought in the Yuuzhan Vong war, Voort is not comfortable having Scut on the team and it definitely doesn’t help how suddenly – and brilliantly on Allston’s part – Scut is revealed to him. But it’s thanks to that conflict that Scut and Voort have some of the deepest conversations in the book.
The story is not just about Voort and a younger generation, though. Bhindi Drayson, another Wraith who fought in the Yuuzhan Vong war, is on board as the original Wraith group’s leader. I appreciated that her character turned out to be way more complex than the cut-and-dried figure she appears to be early on in this story. Garik “Face” Loran is pulling lots of strings behind the scenes. And then there’s a cameo, flashback, mention, or tribute to most every other Wraith who ever was. Do not be deceived by the seemingly short Dramatis Personae.
As I mentioned earlier, Aaron Allston has fit a mix of loss, action, humor, and love into Mercy Kill. And loss and love are a part of the theme of family that pops up throughout Star Wars. Sometimes it’s genetic family – in Scut wanting to make his father proud or Myri knowing she can count on her dad if she gets in trouble. And sometimes family is the people you choose to be around – exhibited in the older Wraiths’ protectiveness of the children of their former squadmates or in the difficult feelings of those who feel they’ve let down a teammate and dear friend. There’s very little romance in Mercy Kill, but there is a lot of heart.
That remaining factor – action – is in no short supply, either. Missions allow for disguises, near-misses, clever plans, and opportunities for everyone to put their skills to work. There’s action during the day, at night time, on the ground, in the air, on bases, and in public – practically something for everybody. And the “I’ve Got A Bad Feeling About This” award goes to Bhindi for her disconcerting yet entertaining, partly-silent hissy fit on finding out there are more Wraiths than she knew about and they messed up all her plans.
I was relieved that with all that action, the violence in Mercy Kill was pretty much on par with what I consider the typical Star Wars level of violence. Beings get hurt. Beings die. But none of it is written in a hyper-graphic way. It probably helped that no war is taking place. Yet even when Bhindi has a gaping stomach wound, the description of it was just enough to understand the injury was serious without making me want to toss my cookies.
Some Fangirl Perspective
Allston really wrote a nice range of distinct female characters. Some of them don’t make the best decisions. Some of them get emotional. But they’re strong, skilled and dedicated to their cause. And guess what? The same can be said for the featured male characters.
X-Wing: Mercy Kill is refreshing, well-rounded read regardless of whether you’ve read any X-Wing books before.