Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Guest Post: A Look Back at Dark Tide

Author and Star Wars Insider contributor Tricia Barr joined me on my New Jedi Order retrospective to talk about Dark Tide, NJO fandom, and the importance of Jaina Solo.

http://fangirlblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Shea-Jaina-XW.jpeg
Shea Standefer as Jaina Solo
When Megan asked me to take a look back at the Dark Tide duology, I did what I often do when preparing a blog post: I pondered my memories, returned to the source itself, checked back on what I had written previously and what others had, too. With the sweeping scope of the nineteen-book story, and some of the monumental events that occur in the subsequent novels in the series, it can be easy to forget just how much of the groundwork for those memorable later moments was established in Dark Tide.

With his novels placed immediately following the high-stake opener Vector Prime – a moon dropping on the family dog, I mean, Chewbacca – Michael Stackpole was handed a tough assignment. Over the preceding years, Stackpole and his friends Aaron Allston and Timothy Zahn had talked often while writing for Star Wars. In a way, they had served as a kind of unofficial story group who weaved in lore across their respective books featuring some of their favorite characters – who were also fan-favorites – including Wedge Antilles, Mara Jade, and Soontir Fel. Stackpole continued this trend in Dark Tide, giving key roles to Jedi Masters Corran Horn and Mara Jade Skywalker, the X-wing unit Rogue Squadron and its leader Gavin Darklighter, and returning at least some presence from the Fels and the Empire of the Hand back to the Known Regions to join the defense against the Yuuzhan Vong invasion. Unfortunately Stackpole’s contributions as a Star Wars author ended after the New Jedi Order – he’s specifically stated he would return to Star Wars if asked – which makes the loss of Aaron Allston all the more painful to me personally as a fan. Stackpole and Allston really kept the opera in “space opera,” and they did it by attacking stories from a personal level, by creating relatable characters, putting them in fantastical situations, and never forgetting what makes Star Wars special.


Originally planned as a trilogy, Dark Tide was trimmed to a duology; as a fan who also writes, the story still has the impact of three books, taking quite a few key characters and sending them on important trajectories. The seeds of what later happens to Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin Solo are sown in their early experiences in the war. Corran takes a personal stand and pays an immense price that reverberates in later novels. The Jedi Order is only beginning to understand the moral and philosophical dilemmas of confronting an unrelenting, vicious horde. One aspect of Dark Tide that has always impressed me is the way Stackpole used the arcs for Jaina, Corran, and a new character, Ganner Rhysode, to humanize the Jedi. At the start, all three characters are oozing with heroic hubris. By the end of Dark Tide, each has learned lessons in humility.

Ganner is a particularly good example of what the whole New Jedi Order series did well: using intermittent appearances to develop an overarching character arc for a recurring minor character. When we meet Ganner in Dark Tide, he’s handsome, brash, and overconfident. Over the course of later books, including the pivotal Star by Star and Allston’s Enemy Lines duology, he’s taken down a few more pegs. By the time of his ultimate sacrifice in Traitor, he has become a true Jedi Knight. Although it’s never been made official, I like to think Ganner Rhysode became the kind of hero so memorable that an Imperial Knight, Ganner Krieg, was his direct namesake a century later. Ganner made enough of an impression on me that I named my horse after the character.

In addition to developing a strong foundation for the NJO’s character arcs, Dark Tide is full of diversity. The Chiss, Ithorians, Bothans, Yuuzhan Vong, and Noghri are just some of the alien species represented in the books. Each of these species brings a unique perspective to the story and reminds the reader that the Galaxy Far Far Away is a vast setting. My favorites of the alien characters are Elegos A'Kla and Shedao Shai.

Over much of the New Jedi Order series, Jaina undertakes her heroine’s journey, which ends with an epic battle in Destiny’s Way. In Dark Tide, she’s still in the initial stages of her progression. As a fanfic writer I latched onto many of the elements that centered around Jaina in these books – her membership in an elite X-wing squadron, her non-Jedi mentors in the military, and her struggle to find an identity as a Jedi and member of the SkySolo family – and ran with them rather successfully. One of the most iconic images of Jaina is her posed in the orange flightsuit made famous in A New Hope. The combination of the introduction of Jagged Fel and Jaina’s assignment to Rogue Squadron created a huge snowball effect in the story that wasn’t quite planned for. In the duology itself Jag wasn’t a direct romantic interest for Jaina (yet), but Stackpole had designed him to create the potential on the level of Han and Leia. Walter Jon Williams later noted that their burgeoning romance resulted in frantic rewrites to later novels in the series.

At it happens, I found that last tidbit of information on Jaina’s Wookieepedia page, a resource that has proven useful many times. During my reflection on the novels I read the entries in Wookieepedia and even Wikipedia for Dark Tide. What I found interesting was how bare they are in describing Jaina’s role in the story within the books. I’ve written quite a bit on the skewed sense of fandom that has often tended to prevail in the conventional wisdom about the Expanded Universe, particularly how the storylines and characters that interested female fans were often overlooked by the Powers That Be. These wiki pages present to me a similarly biased – and inaccurate – version of New Jedi Order. While Jacen’s and Anakin’s heroic journeys were deemed noteworthy by those who compiled the encyclopedic “facts” of the books, Jaina’s plotlines were essentially left out.

For me, this wiki revisionist history is a persisting contemporary reflection of the tenor of the fandom discussions at the time the books were newly published, as well. Back then, Jaina was hugely popular in the fanfiction community and among female fans, not just within the fanfic stories but also in the accompanying characterization and storytelling discussions among their writers and readers. Yet in Literature forums and other message boards dominated by male fans and discussions of continuity, retcons, and the like, Jaina was all but ignored in favor of Jacen and Anakin. In fact, for many years a Literature talking point that emerged from Dark Tide was the theory called “Marakin” – based on a twisted, perverse interpretation of certain scenes with Mara and Anakin on their mission to Dantooine to imply a sexual affair that placed in doubt whether Luke was actually Ben’s father. Aside from its undeniable squick factor and obvious lack of any plausible intention in the text, this deliberately subversive misreading also had the effect of undermining not only the integrity of an important female character but also the thematic importance of a female Master training a male apprentice. It was little wonder, then, that many female fans felt unwelcomed in places where this kind of talk was considered legitimate discussions of the EU – and disappointed when one of the most vocal proponents of Marakin was later credited as a co-author on an official EU book. The female fans retreated to the safer spaces in fanfiction forums, where the arcs of Jaina, Mara, Tahiri and other notable female characters from the New Jedi Order were discussed at length.

Looking back on the New Jedi Order fifteen years later, though, allows everyone to approach the series with fresh eyes. New fans can read the books without the fandom baggage of its initial run. Longtime fans can revisit their first impressions, viewing the NJO with the distance of time and through the lens of stories that came next. Female fans now have a voice in blogs and podcasts to make their voices heard; we are invisible no longer. And with Episode VII and even more Star Wars stories on the horizon, we can all pause to reflect on what the New Jedi Order did well, and where it could have done better. If future Star Wars stories draw inspiration and insight from the existing lore, I hope they give a serious look to the many successes in Michael Stackpole’s Dark Tide.

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Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She has completed her first novel, Wynde - a military science fiction with a fantastical twist that features heroines Vespa and Gemini. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.

For updates on all things FANgirl follow @FANgirlcantina on Twitter or like FANgirl Zone on Facebook. At times she tries the Tumblr.

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