Star Wars: Choices Of One (Timothy Zahn)
I will try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, considering it is a newly released book. Also, this is a book that you really don't want spoiled, even though many of the character's fates are already known, new mysteries and intrigue are very much essential to the enjoyment of this particular novel.
Choices of One revolves around the planet Poln, where an Imperial Governor is attempting to strike a deal with the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels begin setting up a base on Poln's moon, but, typically, all is not as it seems. There are an awful lot of twists in this novel, some, such as alien warlord Nuso Esva's reveal, are genuinely surprising, while others, like Alliance diplomat Axlon's loyalties, aren't. There are several characters with important parts to play in this novel, nearly all of them featured in one of Zahn's previous works. Thrawn gets a particularly enjoyable role in the final third of the novel, when he matches minds with Nuso Esva in an extremely enjoyable game of maneuvering and counter plotting. Mara Jade is excellent as the Emperor's Hand, her role in this novel is one of her all time best, she is an independent agent (unlike so many other novels where she is just one of Luke's companions) and she has some of the best action sequences in the book.
The novel starts slow, as the background and context for the negotiations on Poln are revealed, characters are introduced, and everyone finds an excuse to go to Poln for one reason or another. It is far from boring however, as mysteries like Lord Oso's true identity, Governor Ferrouz's motivations, and the abandoned equipment in catacombs on Poln's moon are established, and a handful of minor action sequences maintain the overall fast pace of the novel. The middle segment features a Bond-esque infiltration of the Imperial Governor's residence by Mara Jade and rogue stormtroopers known as the Hand Of Judgement, along with a few surprising reveals. The entire conclusion is handled masterfully, with no fewer than five points of view being woven together to create a thrilling finale. The plotlines resolve with no real logic gaps and plenty of closure. The Rebellion and Empire never exactly come together and repel this alien threat (though the exact details of HOW the aliens are defeated aren't really mentioned, the book jumps to the epilogue right as the space battle between Empire and Nuso Esva commences). One of the final mysteries ties into the Empire Strikes Back in absolutely brilliant fashion.
Flaws are relatively minor and sparse. There is a somewhat questionable scene where Mara and Luke help each other out towards the end of the novel. They are never directly introduced to each other, but it makes the idea that they have never before met (as featured in The Thrawn Trilogy) harder, though not impossible, to believe. One final space battle between Empire and Esva would've capped the book off in an even better manner, and it was disappointing that the author cut straight to an epilogue. Axlon was also a needless character, his role was fairly obvious early on and it wasn't a truly necessary one. Han and Leia's sequence in the catacombs while spying on the conspirators was somewhat pointless, it didn't advance the story much compared to the other plotlines, and I found the idea of them preparing weapons for some shady mercenaries without sabotaging them in any way to be a bit odd.
Considering many of these characters were created by Zahn, and have been developing for nearly twenty years, it should come as no surprise that Mara, Pellaeon, Thrawn, and even Car'das are absolutely perfect in terms of characterization. The Hand Of Judgement is also characterized nicely, although when examined individually they aren't all that interesting. One thing I really liked from the Imperial characters was that they weren't evil personified as seen in many Star Wars novels. Characters like Mara, Thrawn, and Ferrouz see the Empire's flaws, but also understand its many advantages as well, and are well meaning and loyal without being cruel and sadistic like Vader, Palpatine, or the various moffs, governors, admirals, etc. seen in some of the other EU works. Mara's willingness to look into Ferrouz's story instead of executing him out of hand and being finished with it best exemplifies this. Thrawn's willingness to accept the Hand Of Judgement's help despite their defection from the Empire due to ideological differences is also a sterling example. These are Imperials that think first, and punish later, certainly a refreshing change from the usual fare.
Choices Of One also serves to connect A New Hope with Empire Strikes Back through character development. Luke is still dealing with the events of A New Hope, and his Jedi powers are still very much a work in progress. His development bridges the gap between episodes in a much more adept way than did Splinter Of The Mind's Eye. A scene where Luke is forced to kill somebody with his lightsaber forces him to accept the unease that up close and personal killing brings him, and was one of my favorite scenes in the entire novel. Han, on the other hand, shows problems with authority, and the entire military command structure, from the onset of the book. Over the course of the novel he becomes more sympathetic to these necessities, and even becomes promoted following his actions during the book's conclusion. While Han came across as a bit whiny, it does convey some misgivings that you would expect a freelancer used to being completely in control to have. Han also has more interaction with Rieekan in this novel that puts their dialogue in Episode V in a somewhat different perspective. Though Leia isn't explored all that much here, her personality is consistent with canon and scenes between her and Han definitely develop the romance that will blossom in Empire Strikes Back.
Axlon was, as stated before, needless. He doesn't have much of a personality, and it was fairly obvious from the onset that he was up to something. Could've done without this character. Nuso Esva is a rather effective villain, even though he technically doesn't show up until about the last fifty pages. His plan and personality are nearly a match for Thrawn's, though with a more ruthless side than Thrawn has ever displayed. The Troukree were acceptable in their somewhat minor role, certainly not grating in the way some alien sidekicks can be written as (see Tooqui from The Approaching Storm).
In accordance with the great characterizations, dialogue between the characters was great too, for the most part. The only bit that seemed somewhat silly to me was Nuso Esva's back and forth with Thrawn, during these instances Esva felt too much like a sniveling caricature instead of the near mastermind that he demonstrated himself to be elsewhere in the novel. Action sequences are fantastic, capturing all the excitement you would expect from Star Wars. Even without a single lightsaber duel or space battle being described, there are still plenty of intense sequences throughout the novel. The previously mentioned infiltration of Ferrouz's residence was my favorite, but the stormtroopers desperately fighting back a swarm of mercenaries, and a cameo appearance by the T47 airspeeder (as featured in Empire Strikes Back) were also highlights. Descriptions are mostly fantastic, but the basement where the stormtroopers take Ferrouz was a bit difficult to imagine as its dimensions weren't revealed. Other than that, settings like the caverns beneath the surface of Poln Minor, the governor's mansion, and even the streets of Poln were very vividly described. The "choices of one impact the fates of many" phrase being used both by Rieekan and Lord Oso in the beginning of the novel was kind of lame and unneeded though.
Quite possibly my favorite Star Wars novel, Choices Of One is full of action, plot twists and character development. Perfectly bridging the gap between New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, and Zahn's earlier and later works, Choices Of One earns my highest recommendation.