Barbara Hambly’s Planet of Twilight features a rocking cover by film poster extraordinaire Drew Struzan that is primarily awesome due to Leia’s wielding a lightsaber on it.
Is it weird that I’m starting out by talking about the cover? Yes. It’s mostly because thinking of how to explain this novel is basically me standing at the foot of a monstrous, craggy mountain with no climbing gear at my disposal—there is no way to do it in a safe, expedient manner. There are bugs. And sentient crystals. The end of Callista by and large. And a former Hutt Jedi? Don’t ask.
But you’re here. So you are effectively asking.
Okay. Brace yourselves.
Leia decides that being a very important woman in galactic politics means that it’s definitely a good idea for her to go on an unofficial mission to meet some guy who was exiled by the Emperor years ago, on a former prison planet full of bugs. This guy’s name is Seti Ashgad, and the former prison planet is a place known as Nam Chorios (I keep wanting to pronounce it “Nom Cheerios,” so that’s a great planet name). So on Nom Cheerios, there are two factions of colonists, one group called “Oldtimers”—I am being completely serious—who are descended from prisoners sent to die there. The other group are, shockingly, called “Newcomers.”
Nam Chorios isn’t supposed to have visitors, though. They have a population of drochs on the planet, which are big old bugs that use living beings as hosts and feed on their energy. When enough of them feed on enough people’s energies, drochs create this thing called the Death Seed. It makes the Black Death look like that one time you got the flu really bad. How on earth a bunch of bugs feeding on life energy suddenly morphs into a plague is never explained in a way that makes much sense. Oh well. The good thing is that Nam Chorios gets weak but constant sunlight from their nearby star. It is, you might say, a planet of twilight.
The reason why that’s a good thing is because the droch need darkness to do their feasting. (Hambly was writing a lot of vampire fiction at the time, so basically think of these guys as bug vampires? There are plenty of similarities.) As long as they’re contained on that world, they can’t do any damage. If they get off via a visiting spaceship… then we’ve got problems. So the planet is cut off, but Leia is still visiting it. She gets kidnapped by Ashgad because whoop-dee-doo, what was she expecting to happen once she went off the books? Luke decides to head down to the planet because his sister had already gotten word that Ashgad was a bad dude from... Callista! She’s somewhere on Nam Chorios and she knows bad things are going down. Luke figures he should just try to bump into her nonchalantly and look surprised, I guess. “What? You’re vacationing here too? Get outta town!”
Leia finds out that Ashgad’s plan is whack-a-mole crazy. He’s buddies with this Hutt named Beldorion, who used to be a Jedi Knight. (Which is an awesome idea! Hutt Jedi! So cool!) Beldorion fell to the dark side when he got to Nam Chorios on a mission and made himself ruler of the planet. (Uh, less awesome.) One of the drochs evolved into a sentient, genetically altered humanoid-looking dude named Dzym, and he’s helping Beldorion and Ashgad too.
With what? you ask vehemently, but it really does take that much background to secure your brain for the rest of the rodeo. See, there is another magical species on Nam Chorios called Tsil, which are sentient crystals. They are super needed because apparently they can be used to power unmanned star fighters that Beldorion, Ashgad, and this old Moff (REMNANTS OF THE EMPIRE, OH HAI THERE, SURPRISE) are hoping to put into play in a coup against the New Republic. In order to do that, they have to get the crystals off-world, so they also need people to land on the planet—thanks Leia!
But there’s more. Apparently drochs can give you life energy if you eat them? Because you absorb the energy they pull in from hosts? So that’s why Beldorion the Hutt is so old but still capable and tough. That, and the Tsil actually amplify Force abilities. Yes, all of these things do exist on the same planet, you know better than to ask that by now. Beldorion doesn’t know that he’s mostly being played by Dzym and Ashgad, who have no interest in pulling him in on their plan when they get to final stages. In fact, Dzym is draining life-force from the Hutt since he can’t infest other people as a humanoid droch. So Beldorion is sorta strong, but sorta not. Dyzm hopes that once his and Ashgad’s plan comes to fruition, he can get off Nam Chorios and into a galaxy of meaty beings that walk around at night, so he’ll never be hungry again. Like Scarlet O’Hara, if she fed on people’s energies. So... exactly like Scarlet O’Hara.
Luke basically wanders around the planet (he crashes on his way down… now that I think of it, this happens to Luke an awful lot) trying to commune with the Tsil and other people. Mostly he wants to find Callista. He misses her. He’s never had a girlfriend who actually liked him! But fandom had spoken at this point, and Callista was for the chopping block; it turns out that after giving Hambly her orders to write “the great love of Luke’s life,” a new editor came in and told her it was no-go. Fans were riled—and they were crying a foul because Luke had already met that women. Her name was Mara Jade.
Timothy Zahn has actually fluctuated on this front; in earlier interviews he claimed that he never intended for Luke and Mara to be a couple, just really cool equals. Later on, he claimed that he had always intended her to be the right woman for Luke, it was just a question of getting Lucasfilm to agree. Honestly, we may never know which was true from the beginning, and either is likely. But more importantly, it was what the fans wanted, so Callista had to be scrapped. Hambly brought her to life and was forced to shove her off in short order… you figure that has to hurt. Interestingly, Callista and Luke have no verbal resolution to their relationship—she simply sees him from afar, and they both know with a look that it’s over and better off that way. It’s oddly poignant for that, for the fact that this is rarely how love is handled on paper and especially not in Star Wars-type narratives. Luke’s maturity in his acceptance of Callista’s decision actually tells us more about how he’s changed in the years since the films than anything else. Still, I wanted better for Callista. Fine, she’s not shacking up with Luke anymore, but she could have made her mark in other stories.
In the meantime, Leia is hanging out with Beldorion as his captive and they eventually end up having a lightsaber duel because someone has to let this guy know that he’s outlived his welcome. Which is awesome because Leia defeats him—she just really likes killing Hutts, okay? But if we want to get picky here, the Hutt of the “Ruby Eyes” serves practically no function in this narrative other than getting his tail handed to him by Leia. This is because, in an effort to make Leia a more well-rounded figure and deal with her heritage, the Expanded Universe books go through many points where they decide Leia is getting Jedi training that she will suddenly ignore completely for no reason. I understand the impulse; if Luke is such a powerful Jedi, naturally Leia would be as well, and if anyone can balance the Force, a political career, and raising three kids, it’s her. But because it’s never consistent within the narrative, it ends up coming off as Leia only manifesting her Force skills when the plot needs her to. It’s… testing.
For the more comical side of life there are a lot of bits between Leia and her Noghri bodyguards, who insist on still calling her “Lady Vader” despite her protests.
On Beldorion: I feel like there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Hutts are always villains in the Star Wars universe. And of course, it’s easy to go with it because they’re billed as giant, gross slug beings. It’s just that after a while, you start to wonder where the nice Hutts live; it’s not like they can all be this megalomaniacal. Some Hutts must spend their time making casseroles and going to college and getting by in their 9-to-5 jobs behind fast food counters. So initially the idea of a Hutt Jedi is such a great move… until we find out that he’s going to be just as bad as all the other Hutts we know, with extra lightsaber badness attached.
As for how this tale resolves—well, it’s mostly Luke convincing the crystal dudes to rise up against Imperial-ish enslavement. Which they only agree to do if Luke makes sure that their brethren and sistren crystals are returned from those icky star fighters after the battle is won. Luke becomes a great big hammer of raw Force from tapping into the Tsil’s amplifying vibrations, so that’s cool. Also, Admiral Daala shows up at the end there and decides to fight on the New Republic’s side because she cannot believe Moff What’s-his-surname would dare associate with filth like Ashgad and Dzym. That part is hilarious.
So most of the bad guys are dead and plague is averted. Luke has no girlfriend, but Leia is awesome in a lightsaber duel. We all hope we never hear from the drochs again. We wave goodbye to a very odd chapter in Star Wars history. And to be fair, while I cannot attest to their overall lucidity or quality, I have never regretted reading these books. They were a weird, woeful ride.