Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

Perhaps this makes me a bad fan or more likely a bad reviewer, but every time a new Star Wars book is announced and released my expectations for that novel usually far outstrip what it is reasonable to expect.  As such I generally try to read the novel twice before reviewing it.  Reading Scoundrels the first time it took me a surprising long amount of time to get through, and upon a second reading while my opinion of the novel improved, it was not a significant improvement.

As much as I admire and appreciate Timothy Zahn's contributions and hopefully future contributions to the Star Wars universe, Scoundrels is a book that is mildly enjoyable but decidedly average.

The premise is fairly simple, we have Han and Chewie recruited to steal some stolen credit tabs (identity coded payment devices) and in order to do so they must recruit a crew from amongst the galactic fringe who have skills and abilities that our dynamic duo lacks.  In accomplishing their mission they are forced to trust and rely on individuals they either do not know well or have reasons to question their loyalty. The plot is complicated by the fact that the heist involves stealing from Avrak Villachor, a Black Sun sector chief. Conveniently Villachor is hosting an elaborate festival on his lavish estate that allows for Solo to scheme and plot.  Things get even crazier when you add in the presence of Qazadi a Faleen Black Sun Vigo and Dayja and D'Ashewl a pair of Imperial Intelligence agents.

The book had some interesting treats for Lucasfilm fans as well as Expanded Universe fans. The "Han Shot First" scene as well as the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene were fun if a bit cheesy. The inclusion of some minor characters like Winter and Kell Tainer is also a nice treat for long time EU readers.

There are two strengths that generally flow through all of Timothy Zahn's Star Wars works.  He is able to weave multiple plot lines which stand up well on their own together at the climax of his stories.  Everyone ending up at the same spot in the final battle provides satisfying resolution to the story, but does require some suspension of disbelief.

The other strength that Zahn usually exhibits is creating strong, memorable and fun characters.

Scoundrels feels like a disappointment to me because in these two key areas it feels like one of Zahn's weaker novels.

On the plot, we have the main plot of the story which involves Han's planning and running the heist, we have the "B" plot involving Villachor's attempts at self-preservation and machinations within Black Sun, and the "C" plot focusing on Dayja and the Imperial's interest in taking down Black Sun.

Not all Star Wars novels fit into the traditional formula and involve lots of action, warfare, dueling, etc. In this novel while their was action in parts it was more of a suspense feel than the space opera we usually get.

I can't help but feeling that if their was a more aggressive and action packed subplot it would have helped support the main plots better.  Of course different readers have different preferences, so my opinion may not be reflective of the fan community at large.

Plot can be overcome however if there are great characters. In Scoundrels it feels like Han's characterization was slightly off, Chewie was underused and the majority of the new characters were underdeveloped and bland.

Han didn't feel right in this novel and at times comes off as borderline omniscient.  While we know Han is a wily and clever operator, it seems like he was just slightly too clever in this novel.  There was also one particular scene where post-Episode IV but pre-Episode V Han should have flirted but instead reacted negatively to Bink's teasing flirtation.

One of the fun things about a novel set in this era is the ability to play Chewie and Han off of each other and use a character that is not available in the later EU.  The problem in this book is that because of the inclusion of so many characters, Chewie is largely marginalized.

Realistically of the new characters the only ones that I felt a strong interest in were Bink, Villachor, and to a lesser extent Security Chief Lapis Sheqoa.

Qazadi, Dayja and the Solo's crew were introduced but largely underdeveloped characters. They were there, but there wasn't a lot to make me care for or hate them.  In particular both Qazadi and Dayja feel like simple plot devices to apply pressure to Villachor from different directions.  Dayja in particular got a fair bit of page time for a character that feels like a random generic Imperial Intelligence agent.

Bink is an interesting and fun character and I hope we see her in other stories down the road. Villachor who's life is hanging in the balance for the majority of the novel is a compelling character, and Sheqoa who's relationship with Bink and Villachor makes him a pivotal minor player in the story provides an interesting "good guy who is working for a villain" character.

Just like at the Sabacc table, you win some and you lose some. Unfortunately this novel doesn't feel like a winning hand.

Scoundrels is on sale now in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats.

Author's Note: An advanced review copy was provided by Random House for this review.

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