Star Wars: Scoundrels (Timothy Zahn)
Scoundrels, famous Star Wars author Timothy Zahn's latest novel, represents another step in expanding the limits of what Star Wars can do in terms of genre by billing itself as a heist novel. Comparisons to Ocean's Eleven have been frequent, and it prominently features three of the shadier Star Wars protagonists on the cover. There is obviously a substantial disconnect between calling yourself something and actually managing to capture those essential qualities, so does Scoundrels manage to pass the test? And perhaps more importantly, is it any good?
Han is desperate for a way to pay off his debts to Jabba the Hutt, and is prepared to do just about anything to free himself of the Hutt's clutches. He is understandably tempted when a partially disabled man named Eanjer approaches him with an offer too good to be true: break in to local crime lord Villachor's mansion, get in to his safe, and escape alive. In exchange is more money than Han would ever need. Of course, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and Han is beset with all manner of complications regarding the security of the mansion, Villachor's mysterious allies, and even the tenuous sense of camaraderie among his own team of misfits and con artists recruited specifically for this mission.
Scoundrels does an excellent job of getting the rather large supporting cast involved, making them the focal point for many of the missions and giving them plenty of input otherwise. Giving us a bit of variety in terms of the focal character for any given chapter is a great way to mix up the book and give us some insight into these new characters, and it prevents the Han-Lando-Chewie dynamic from getting stale or overpowering the book. They are also able to do things that our main group wouldn't be able to do, actions that are staples of heist stories like sneaking in to an apartment or flirting with the chief of security on Villachor's estate. The story is further bolstered by above average complexity and plenty of twists that don't get revealed until the perfect moment. There are lots of things that don't seem right with various characters and plot points, but Zahn never takes the predictable route when it comes time to reveal them, and therefore gives this book another enjoyable layer.
There is a sub plot which threatens to take one of the book's most enjoyable aspects away. Much like in last year's Shadow Games, this book works extremely well as a fringe type conflict with all manner of unsavory characters. It doesn't work quite so well when it starts to push towards being an Empire vs. Rebellion story with more charming characters than usual. We get a taste of this through a pair of Imperial spies who are on the same case as Han and company. There are quite a few point of view sequences featuring these characters, particularly early on, The groups cross paths with one another on several occasions, and with Winter's (and Han's, for that matter) Alliance ties this threatens to turn this book's best asset against it. Thankfully this doesn't really materialize, but while that fear was unfounded, the result is that their entire purpose in this book was somewhat suspect. It's an easy argument to make that this book would've been just as well off without the Imperials,
One of the few flaws with this book is the manner in which it advances through the otherwise exciting events. The basic structure involves our characters planning out a new mission, executing said mission despite a setback or two, then returning to their hub. In this it kind of reminded me of a video game, like Obsidian's Alpha Protocol for example, because while the individual parts are solid, there is something missing to put it all together. Our heroes are under some kind of time crunch which helps give the otherwise static overarching plot some sense of urgency, but watching the same format done over and over again, especially when paired with the equally repetitive methods of characterizing our supporting cast, causes an otherwise fun ride to be spoiled a bit.
The main trio responsible for carrying this novel, Han and Chewie plus Lando, are perfectly characterized. Han is the ringleader, and in his desperation to pay off Jabba he finds himself acting more and more like a responsible leader. This is one of those occassions where we actually get a glimpse at why Han became a general of the New Republic, as his ability to keep his team together forms one of the core elements of the character in this book. Of course, Han just wouldn't be Han if there weren't plenty of moments where he slips into his more sarcastic and arrogant side, and this book delivers on that count as well. This works particularly well when dealing with Eanjer, but his early interaction with Lando is quite amusing as well. Chewie is a seemingly easy character to get right, and this book certain adds to that perception: Chewie is used sparingly in interacting with other characters, and is mostly just extra muscle who gets to do cool things occasionally while showing tremendous loyalty to Han. We don't often get to see Lando as a smooth talker in the Expanded Universe : his entrepreneurial side comes out quite a bit, as does his penchant for risk taking and adventure, but rarely does he actually have to use the charisma and charm that defined the character in the movies. That isn't the case with Scoundrels. In this book, talking is most of what he brings to the group, and he demonstrates this ability time and again by ducking unsavory situations through clever verbal distractions and well orchestrated bluffing.
Scoundrels also does quite a nice job of characterizing the large supporting cast, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that they are mostly original characters. The only fault here would be the way most of the side characters are developed: in lieu of point of view scenes or more natural character building, large swathes of character history and personality details are dumped on to us as they prepare for an upcoming mission. Two characters will be chatting when one is prompted to then tell their entire life story and give us every bit of detail you'd want to know about them. This is a clumsy way to approach characterization, but luckily most of the characters are likable enough that it isn't a huge problem and instead just a weird quirk. Long standing support character Winter is characterized in a meaningful way for one of the first times here. Her story is one that parallels Princess Leia's in terms of her motivations to fight the Empire and background, but she has a harder time grappling with the atrocities committed by that regime than Leia. The reason for this is that she has a perfect memory, and the implications of this are examined quite a bit as part of her character. Everyone else is more forgettable outside of the context of the story, but the twin thieves were an interesting addition, as was the magician that ended up showing more personality than he seemed slated for at the start of the novel. While they probably won't stick with you for long after reading, they do their job supporting our key heroes and get in the occasional rewarding scene for themselves.
In Scoundrels, Timothy Zahn takes another step away from the grandiose and large scale epics that defined his earliest (and arguably most important) contributions to the Star Wars universe in favor of a more intimate novel that focuses more on character dynamics. The result is that while Scoundrels is still a reasonably fast paced book, it just doesn't have the momentum that something like the Thrawn trilogy captured so well. Zahn gets bogged down in a very predictable plot structure early on, and being limited to only the one planet seals him in where world building is concerned. Thankfully this is still a well written novel that actually marks an improvement for him. Gone are the excessive and embarrassing references to Thrawn as the king genius without which the Empire would perish. In fact, Thrawn doesn't even get a single reference in this book, nor does fellow pet character Mara Jade, and even something as simple as this makes for a much smoother read than many of his more recent books. Perhaps more importantly, Zahn does a great job with the heist-related stuff. The group gets practical but not game breaking equipment to go about their tasks, and the book is written with a very defined sense of style. It doesn't exactly feel like your typical Star Wars novel, and there are several plot related reasons that shape this, but the overall tone is set masterfully through a penchant for good dialogue and well written action scenes that manage to feel quite different from the usual Jedi vs. Sith, Empire vs. Rebellion stuff.
Scoundrels represents Timothy Zahn, and Star Wars, stepping outside the comfort zone (relatively speaking) once again to display the range that the franchise can have. The three film characters involved are fantastic choices for this type of story, and the supporting cast comes together surprisingly well. The heist itself has some extremely tense moments as well, even though the ultimate outcome is pre-ordained by continuity, and despite some dull passages this book should be able to satisfy any Star Wars fan with a love for the fringe types and a desire to see what infiltration looks like in this universe.