Book Review: Choices of One

I like that I started 2015 off with a Star Wars novel.  I find that somehow fitting, seeing as this year is going to be a huge Star Wars year, what with the amping up of The Force Awakens.

Mei-Mei suggested Choices of One (by Timothy Zahn) to me almost 1 years ago in a random post, and Null definitely mentioned it as well…so thanks to you both – it somehow ended up on my reading list!  What makes it choices of oneso spectacular that it’s my first book of 2015 is that I have a reading list that ranges anywhere from 30-40 books on it at a time and I use random.org to pick the book I read next.  I had 34 books on my list, therefore giving me a 3% chance of actually getting this novel.  Anyway, I found that interesting because I’m looking for reasons that 2015 is going to be awesome and Star Wars filled.

I liked this novel SO much better than my last Legends book (still trying not to write EU), Dawn of the Jedi.  Which is funny, because if I think about what I’m looking for in a Star Wars novel it’s generally something that happens either way before the movies or way after the movies and therefore has no connection to the main characters.  Instead, Choices of One takes place between ANH and ESB and involves the three main heroes as well.

The first third of the book was boring for me.  I struggled with getting into it and found the character interactions between Han, Leia, and Luke to be halting and didn’t flow naturally.  On the flip side, I enjoyed the scenes with the commanders on the Star Destroyer and the scenes with Mara Jade…they kept me reading when I wanted to give up.  I forgot how much I missed reading about Mara.  Though loyal to the Empire and the Emperor at this point, there are still glimpses of the woman we will see her become through her relationship with Luke.

As the novel went on, I thought our three heroes began to find their groove and Zahn did a better job of reflecting what we saw from their characters in the movie onto his paper.  Particularly, I thought he did an amazing job with Luke.  At this point, Luke is not as serious or knowledgeable of the Force as he is by the end of the OT.  He brought to life a struggle Luke had with everyone thinking he is a competent Jedi just because he has a lightsaber and blew up the Death Star, contrasted with how he feels that he knows absolutely nothing except the small training from Ben Kenobi.  I loved reading it and found it weirdly relatable as it can happen to many of us, especially if we start a new job.

When the novel started to all come together toward the end and we find out that Mara, the Hand of Judgment (a group of stormtrooper deserters), and the Rebels are all going to be at the same planet at the same time, I got a little nervous.  I was afraid of Luke and Mara having an interaction pre-Heir to the Empire and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle that.  Thankfully, Zahn threw them in a situation together where they actually do not have a conversation and only briefly glimpse each other.  It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the novel for anyone that wants to read it, but suffice it to say that my fears were unwarranted.

Pros:

  • Overall, Zahn did a good job with keeping the three heroes true to form with personality quirks and attitudes.
  • I liked that there were a lot of larger issues and questions that were brought to life and made you think. For instance, Han’s moral struggles at the end of the novel when he is incognito as an Imperial Officer.  He faced a decisions where he did not have to help the Imperials in their emergency situation and they would all die, which is a benefit to the Rebel cause, or he could help them because in a sense they were a ship full of innocent people facing a common enemy.
  • Null would be happy about this: I actually really, really enjoyed all chapters that had to do with the back cover choices of oneHand of Judgment, a band of deserter stormtroopers who are this murky shade of grey. Are they good or bad?  I loved reading personalities!  In stormtroopers!  Mind blown.  But seriously, that was something I didn’t expect to like so much and I’m actually considering adding Allegiance to my book list because of how much I enjoyed them.
  • It was great revisiting Thrawn and Mara Jade again (though separately). I was afraid of overkill on Thrawn, but he was written in there just enough that there was no overload.
  • My favorite chapters/sections to read was actually Commander Pellaeon’s storyline on the Star Destroyer Chimaera. I loved how he wanted to take everything one step further on his job and showed that there was competency within the Empire.
  • I liked the setup it played between ANH and ESB. For instance, the relationship and conversations Han has with General Rieekan explains more of ESB.  Little moments like that were a nice touch.

Cons:

  • The first third of the book dragged. I couldn’t get into it and was frustrated whenever I had to read chapters with the three heroes.  I felt like it took a while for Zahn to get into the groove of depicting them well, but it could also have been my resistance to actually reading them.
  • It was easily guessable. Don’t go into this novel actually hoping for a surprise at the end.  This is mara jade choices of oneno Game of Thrones and I had figured everything out by the halfway point.  Still, there’s something to be said that I kept reading even if I pretty much knew what was going to happen.
  • Is it just me or was Mara a little less harsh in this book? This could very well just be me since I haven’t read the original Thrawn Trilogy in 10+ years, but I have a distinct memory of her being a little less reasonable.
  • The Luke/Mara scene where they almost-meet-but-not-quite seems a liiiiiitle far-fetched. I was obviously happy they didn’t meet but it still seemed slightly unbelievable.  I also thought it out of character for Mara to just brush aside the name “Skywalker” that she references Vader was obsessively hunting.  I feel like Mara would have done a more thorough investigation on who he is if the name linked to someone Vader was searching for.

Overall, I was much happier with this novel than with Dawn of the Jedi.  It showed that I can read Legends books with the main characters and not give up entirely.  I would rate this 3.5/5 stars.  I liked it more than average, but I couldn’t love it enough to give it 4 stars.

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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.)