Guest post: Love and Theft – A Review of Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

I am pleased to announce my first Guest Post!  I have no problem with letting people share their thoughts on anything Star Wars and using my blog as a platform.  As I’m especially busy right now, I offered Nathan a chance to review a Star Wars novel that came out recently: Scoundrels.    I don’t read much EU anymore so it’s nice to have a shakeup in my posts.  Personally, I think Nathan is a great writer and seems to have more time to organize this thoughts than I do when I write – so maybe we can convince him to start his own blog?  Enjoy his book review and I hope you guys comment!

Han: "Now, Lando, no hard feelings about Wukkar?"  Lando: "Right...  C'mon, there's somebody I want you meet."
Han: “Now, Lando, no hard feelings about Wukkar?”
Lando: “Right… C’mon, there’s somebody I want you meet.”

I love Star Wars.  No surprises there, we’re all here reading Kiri’s Star Wars blog after all.  I love heist films, such as Ocean’s 11, The Sting, and The Brothers Bloom.  I love Han Solo… in a completely plutonic man-crush sort of way.  And I love Timothy Zahn’s writing.  The Thrawn Trilogy and his non-Star Wars Conquerors Trilogy remain some of my favorite science fiction.  So, when I heard that all of these elements were coming together in the recent release of Star Wars: Scoundrels, I was excited to jump towards that far, far away galaxy.

First off two confessions: This is my first foray into the Expanded Universe in several years.  There was a time that I rabidly consumed stories from Outer Rim to the Core Worlds, but eventually attention waned in favor of other literary pursuits.  It was definitely the concept of a heist story set in the Star Wars Universe that interested me.  A smaller-scale, character driven story seemed like a good counterpoint to the galaxy-threatening space opera I’d already read often.

My second confession is that I “read” this book in audio form.  I’m a chronically slow reader and always on the move, so the audiobook format worked well for me to finish Scoundrels in a timely manner.  But, more on the audio performance later.

Scoundrel’s takes place almost immediately after the events of the Battle of Yavin shown in A New Hope.  Han Solo and Chewbacca have recently left their new Rebel friends and promptly their reward money was stolen.  Now, Han has a Kowakian monkey-lizard to get off his back, namely his debt to Jabba the Hutt.

Enter Eanjer, a heavily bandaged man that offers our favorite smugglers a chance at a fortune, a cut of 163 million credits to be exact.  All they have to do is sneak into the high security vault of Avrak Villachor on Wukkar, a man who turns out to be no less than a Black Sun sector chief.  Han balks that he and Chewie aren’t really thieves and safecrackers, but Eanjer insists “surely you know people…”

And apparently Han does.  He soon begins assembling a team of scoundrels to knock off Villachor during Wukkar’s weeklong Festival of Four Honorings.  The team involves experts in information gathering, ship boosting, explosives, misdirection, and notably the experienced “ghost thief” (i.e. cat burglar) Bink Kitik and her techie twin sister, Tavia.  A few faces familiar to longtime Star Wars fans even fill slots on the teams roster:  Rebel superagent, Winter, signs up as a security expert and future Wraith Squadron pilot, Kell Tainer deals with explosives.  Also Han’s estranged friend, Lando Calrissian, mysteriously gets the call to be the team’s frontman.

Of course, things can never go too smoothly for our heroes and these scoundrels face plenty of challenges along the way.  During the festival, Villachor is playing host to one of Black Sun’s nine vigos, a Falleen named Qazadi.  His presence also draws the attention of Dayja, an Imperial Intelligence agent, and his handler.

The majority of the book deals with Han and Company setting up for the heist while various pieces move around the board.  These stories typically involve a large cast of characters and Scoundrels is no exception with 11 members on Solo’s team.   While that number makes it difficult to flesh out each character, Zahn does a good job of balancing the action across his cast so everyone has important parts to play.  Han and Lando are really the stars here, but Bink Kitik is a welcome addition to the Expanded Universe as the feisty, flirty and competent ghost thief.

Zahn typically does a great job of giving his villains more substance than mere mustache-twirling evil doers and he continues that trend.  Agent Dayja manages to be something other than simply an agent of evil.  He feels more like a cog in the Imperial machine, a law enforcement officer working with lethal efficiency.  Villachor is probably the novel’s most surprising character.  Possessed of a lethally short temper, the man is pushed to the brink of breaking as he tries to walk the tightrope that Qazadi’s presence demands while dealing with pressure from the Imperials and threats to his estate’s security.

Eventually, the picture comes into clearer focus as Han’s plan is executed.  We find that the heist is a satisfying flurry of action and suspense making the previous chapters of build up worthwhile.  The book as a whole is peppered with nods to classic and fan favorite Star Wars highlights, right up until the last few lines.  Even a particular swashbuckling archeologist gets a wink during the climactic heist scene.

The only major qualm I had with the book is that sometimes the characterizations felt forced by the story or continuity rather than natural.  Winter was rightly upset by Alderaan’s recent destruction, but it seemed as though we were being told how it upset her rather than ever experiencing it.  Dozer Creed became the character that projected doubt in a successful operation.  He had reason to doubt himself from the beginning and that doubt growing to encompass the heist as a whole became his character’s one tune.

And then there was Han Solo.  Occasionally, he just felt out of character.  Rarely did the cocky Han who would charge singlehandedly after a squad of Stormtroopers show his face.  In this story, he was far more contemplative.  Han responded flatly to Bink’s flirtatious overtures throughout the story.  Often his thoughts revolved around Leia, alternatively considering her a royal pain in the hiney and pining about how she might feel about him.

That being said it was interesting to consider how this adventure might be an important turning point for Solo.  In A New Hope, it was Han, Chewie, and the Falcon against the Galaxy and he liked it that way.  But in Return of the Jedi, we see that he is a general chosen to lead one of the most important land assaults of the war effort.  Could it have been that on Wukkar Han rediscovered his ability to lead talented individuals into difficult situations…?  I digress.

Finally since I got the story in audiobook format, I promised to touch on the sound production.  Star Wars: Scoundrels gets top marks on this front.  Marc Thompson did a great job with the narration.  His voice work for the classic characters was easily recognizable by their respective cadences.  Each member of the large cast had a distinct and fitting vocalization.  The audiobook also featured sound effects to mimic Wookie yells, blasters, and airspeeders.  While the effects were occasionally cheesy, the overall effect was one of an old fashioned radio drama rather than a simple book narration, and that tone fit the novel very well.

So, there you have it.  All told Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn is another fun adventure in the Star Wars Universe.  Very little Expanded Universe knowledge is needed to enjoy this tale set in the middle of the Galactic Civil War, but longtime readers will enjoy the several homages.  Despite its few flaws, the climactic heist makes it a worthwhile read, especially if you’d like your Star Wars with a slow build and a little more suspense.  But… you don’t have to take my word for it.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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