I'll start out with some The Courtship of Princess Leia trivia, courtesy of the Star Wars wiki: Dave Wolverton was originally contracted to write a trilogy, which was canceled. Because of the numerous plot threads running through this novel, it's been suggested that CoPL is the conglomeration of that trilogy. The paperback cover was also changed--from the original one, featuring wedding dress Leia, Blade Runner Han, and Fabio-esque Isolder, to a more action-orientated cover with rancors and the trio in Endor garb. The reason? Sales for the hardback book were lower than expected, possibly because the first cover made it look like a romance novel.
Now, the term "romance novel" has come to acquire many negative connotations, probably because readers new to the genre are more familiar with infamously horrible examples than anything else. But essentially, any novel that focuses on "the relationship and romantic love between two people" could be categorized as a romance novel. (The "happily ever after" is usually required, but sometimes optional.)
I'll break it down:
--Does CoPL focus on the relationship between Leia & Han?
--Is there a HEA?
Yes, I guess.
--Is it a romance novel, then?
Yes, to some extent. There are many plot threads, but Leia and Han are often the main focus.
--Is it a good romance novel?
Han Solo comes back from (apparently) destroying Warlord Zsinj's Super Star Destroyer to find that the Hapes Consortium has sent a buttload of ships and gifts to the New Republic. They're willing to ally with the New Republic, on a few conditions: Princess Leia has to accept all their crap, and oh yeah, marry Crown Prince Isolder as well.
In a totally OOC move, Han wins the planet Dathomir in a sabacc game. He fails to impress Leia with his new-found wealth and prosperity, so he kidnaps her and runs off to his planet. (Chewbacca comes along.)
Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker is acting like an all-powerful Jedi loser, and joins forces with Isolder to track down the kidnapper, kidnapped, and kidnapper's BFF. (He may have been trying to track down some Jedi history before this, but I wasn't buying much attention.) Using his amazing Force powers, he finds a faster hyperspace path to Dathomir, pretends to be dead, floats down to a graceful landing, floats R2-D2 & Isolder & his ship down too, and discovers the remains of the Chu'unthor, a floating
Of course, bad stuff happens. Han, Leia, and Chewie are captured by Imperials, then rescued by the Witches of Dathomir (good guys) and have a slumber party. Luke and Isolder are captured by Teneniel Djo, and become her oh-so-willing man-slaves. The Nightsisters (bad guys) try to capture the Millenium Falcon, and generally act crazy and Dark Side-y. Luke almost dies, but miraculously heals himself within a few hours! He also pilots the Falcon all by himself, saves Han, takes out the Nightsisters, disables the orbital nightcloak (more on that later), and acts like KJA-era Luke on Force crack.
Meanwhile, C-3PO wants to be BFFs with Han, so he spends the whole novel sucking up, claiming Han is the descendant of the King of Corellia, and being a general nuisance. Isolder's mother may have tried to kill Luke or Leia (or both) earlier in the novel, but I forgot.
In the end, Han destroys Zsinj's Super Star Destroyer again, and marries Leia. Isolder marries Teneniel, because he seems to be into that kind of thing.
TEN THINGS HORRIBLY WRONG WITH THIS NOVEL
1. Sexual Objectification
For a Bantam era novel, CoPL is surprisingly sleazy. Isolder is super hot (he's called Space Fabio for a reason); his mother, Ta'a Chume, is gorgeous and vicious; all the Hapans are beautiful; Teneniel is barely legal, but super hot as well. So much time is spent describing the sexual attractiveness of various characters that the reader starts to feel...well, tainted after a while.
Not to mention that this might be the first SW book to contain the word "breast." As in, "with totally no clothes covering it up." Teneniel takes Luke and Isolder as her slaves, and has high hopes for Luke, because any of their children would have Force superpowers. The Dathomiri culture, on a whole, is all about the sexual dominance of women. But instead of being empowering for women, it's female dominance viewed through the male gaze: a weird erotic fantasy, with women seen through the eyes of the heterosexual male. Frankly, I find it insulting.
2. Barbaric Matriarchal Societies
Both Hapes and Dathomir are matriarchal societies. At first, that seems a reason for celebration. As a female reader, I have no problem with a world ruled by women--in fact, it's nice to see a novel with more female characters than just Leia.
But Hapes and Dathomir are not just ruled by women: their cultures are violently barbaric. Ta'a Chume maintains power by killing off her rivals, even her own children. The Dathomiri clans enslave others, and are stuck in the Stone Age thanks to the lack of modern technology. The combination of gender inequalities and savage violence suggests that female dominated societies are not only fodder for kinky male fantasies, but inherently wrong as well.
3. The Curious Anomaly of the Independent Hapes Cluster
If the Hapes Cluster is so large and powerful, and could be such an asset to the New Republic, why did Palpatine ignore them? Why didn't he swallow them up in his Empire? (And judging by their actions before and during the Battle of Dathomir, they probably wouldn't have won. For the descendants of space pirates, they're not that great at warfare.)
4. Palpatine Was Scared of Gethzerion
To which I have to respond....SERIOUSLY? The most powerful Sith of the age knew about a bunch of Force "witches," and just let them be? I don't think Palpatine would have left a planet full of Force sensitives alone. He wiped out almost the entire Jedi Order--he would have had no problem disposing of some women who had primitive weapons, and only a basic understanding of the Force.
Along the same lines, I very much doubt that the Dathomiri could have prevented Yoda and other Jedi from retrieving the wreckage of the Chu'unthor. Yoda was badass; has Wolverton never watched The Empire Strikes Back?
5. The Orbital Nightcloak, and How Zsinj Fails as a Villain
The Orbital Nightcloak is composed of a network of satellites that prevent sunlight from reaching the planet they orbit. Awesome way to freeze out a planet, right? Well...except for the small fact that, like old school Christmas lights, knocking out a few satellites would deactivate the entire network.
That idiocy defines Zsinj's character in CoPL. Everyone says he's a genius, but all the examples Wolverton gives the reader of Zsinj's evil plans are downright moronic. Using an interdependent control system on his secret weapon? Making deals with evil Nightsisters and expecting them to honor them? Not getting the hell out of Dodge once the Hapan fleet showed up? Major fail!
Fortunately, Aaron Allston retcons Zsinj into a mastermind who merely pretends to be stupid in the Wraith Squadron trilogy, but Zsinj's first appearance in the SW canon is utterly disappointing.
6. The Gun of Command
Wolverton tries to shoehorn various new technologies into the book, but none are as groan-inducing as the Hapan Gun of Command. According to the SW wiki, "[the] guns worked by releasing an electromagnetic wave field which disabled the victim's thought processes. Once affected, the victim would follow any simple command given, even blatantly suicidal ones."
You have to be very careful with technology in SW novels; there's an uneasy balance between the complexities of their ships and weapons, and the frontier-like quality of the original trilogy. The Gun of Command bypasses that completely, and pushes the story into sci-fi farce. A gun that takes away the victim's free will? The Empire would have loved that! Ugh, Wolverton, you make my brain hurt.
7. Han's General Characterization, and His Approach to Wooing
I can accept Han getting jealous and pissy about another suitor showing up for Leia's hand. But getting drunk and trying to win fame and fortune in a game of chance, so that he'd be worthy of her? Kidnapping her and stuffing her in the Millenium Falcon's hidden cargo sections? This is not the man who coolly answered "I know" to Leia's proclamation of love in ESB.
In CoPL, Han is overbearing, insecure, and unbelievably dense--a particularly heinous passage involves Han pulling a drunk whuffa worm out of a puddle, and believing this to be an impressive feat. His characterization is so far left-field that I'm actually surprised Leia marries him in the end.
8. Leia's Ambivalence and Fickleness
Of course, that's not perplexing when you look at all the uncharacteristic things that Leia does. Wolverton takes a strong, stable relationship between two equal partners, smashes it into the ground, and attempts to show them "falling back in love"...problem is, there's not much visible proof of their undying love to placate the reader.
I don't have too much of an issue with Leia considering the Hapan proposal: politically, it might be a good move to ally themselves with the Hapan Cluster. But she doesn't even discuss this with Han, and their relationship is just wrong. She's nasty and snappish with him, her interests constantly switching from one man to the other and back again. If the men in this novel--exemplified by Han--are idiots, the women are shrews, and Leia the queen of them all.
9. Han's Lack of Response to the Continued Existence of the Iron Fist
When the novel opens, Han is returning to Coruscant after destroying Zsinj's flagship, the SSD Iron Fist. However, when he encounters it again in the Dathomir system, there's not a hint of shock or outrage or anything. Han spent MONTHS hunting this man down, believed he was dead, and when he encounters him again, he just shrugs it off and blows him up again. "Ho hum, another Imperial Warlord to destroy, just in a day's work," he seems to say. WHAT THE HELL, Wolverton, I can't even dlkfgjlgkfghddkhfl....
10. LUKE FREAKING SKYWALKER
Chronologically, CoPL comes before Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy, where Luke behaves much as he did in the original trilogy--by which I mean that his Force powers are nothing too extravagant. He participates in lightsaber duels, glimpses the future, faces a Dark Jedi, and hones his instincts. You'd expect Luke to act much the same in this novel.
Nope. Instead, he seems to have sprung fully formed from the pages of the Jedi Academy trilogy; Luke performs daring feats years before he faced the reborn Emperor and proclaimed himself a Master. It doesn't fit into the Expanded Universe timeline.
Additionally, Luke acts like the most obnoxious kind of Jedi: the constantly proselytizing teacher. He even instructs Isolder (as non-Force sensitive as they come) in the ways of the Light Side. When captured by Teneniel, Luke calmly goes along with it and tries to explain that gosh, she really shouldn't rape him, it's not nice. He makes no moves to escape, and I don't buy it. To reference Zahn again: in Heir to the Empire, Luke didn't escape from Mara in the forests of Myrkr because the ysalamiri blocked the Force, and they both were in the same bad situation. Here, Luke can access the Force perfectly fine, so he has no reason to stick with Teneniel. (She wants you to be her sexy slave, Luke. Get out while you still can!)
And the climax of the story, where Luke faces down Gethzerion, ruptures all the blood vessels in his face, and yet still manages to heal himself and save the day....I can't even discuss it, I'll get too angry and degenerate into senseless typing again.
ETA: Plus it's always really, really, reeeeally annoyed me that Wolverton thought it would be okay for Luke to almost miss their wedding. Like he wouldn't be there BEFORE IT EVEN STARTED TO BEGIN WITH.
Ugh, why I did not mention that in my review? Horrible! Wolverton, he's Leia's twin brother--her only family still alive. He should be there at least three hours before the ceremony, probably being an usher and finding Mon Mothma a seat and everything. It is unacceptable for Luke to walk in at the last minute, like "Hey guys, sorry I'm late, you can continue."
CONCLUSION AND CLOSING THOUGHTS
The Courtship of Princess Leia introduced characters and cultures that played a large role in later SW books, especially the New Jedi Order series, the Dark Nest trilogy, and the Legacy of the Force series. Isolder and Teneniel Djo had a daughter (Tenel Ka), who eventually produced Han and Leia's only grandchild (Allana). Dathomiri witches joined Luke's Jedi Order, while Nightsisters became the Sith Ladies of Tomorrow. The Hapans are always willing to pop up and provide some naval help in times of trouble, and Ta'a Chume still tries to assassinate family members.
CoPL fills a crucial gap in the post-Return of the Jedi timeline. Unfortunately, it's just not very good.
SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING
Wiki articles referenced:
The Courtship of Princess Leia
A brief definition of the old school romantic hero
Other CoPL reviews:
TV Tropes entry for CoPL
this review on GoodReads
Good romance recommendations:
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books