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Scoundrels fun, but Zahn’s Star Wars caper just has too many of them

Posted by on January 1, 2013 – 6:00 am

Disney may be giving Star Wars a new lease on life, but the sci-fi franchise owes its continued existence to Timothy Zahn. The author brought it roaring back long before the prequels were announced with his “Thrawn trilogy” that began with 1991’s Heir to the Empire.

Now Zahn is back with Scoundrels, an Oceans Eleven-style heist adventure featuring Han Solo, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, along with a collection of new underworld characters. The novel, set between the original 1977 Star Wars movie and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, centers on Solo’s quest to pay off his debt to crime lord Jabba the Hutt, and gets complicated when that plot crosses paths with an Imperial intelligence operation to undermine Black Sun, a crime syndicate first introduced in the pre-Return of the Jedi multimedia adventure Shadows of the Empire.

Scoundrels, released today (Jan. 1), is full of the same intricate plotting and details that make all his books so much fun, and for which I consider him something of the Tom Clancy of science fiction. But it fails to live up to the grand style of his earlier Star Wars books.

The action is set on a backwater world that’s just a little too far, far away from the action we’ve come to expect from a good Star Wars adventure. The planet Wukkar is too claustrophobic and provincial a setting for the colorful cast of thousands that Zahn portrays so well. It almost feels like a safe choice for a setting that would let him focus on characterization — but … that’s part of the problem. There are too many characters running around, and most of them feel like throwaways that we’ll never see again, so why should we care about them? There is no new Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade or Talon Karrde — just insignificant, faceless intelligence operatives and, well, scoundrels. We do get a more robust picture of Zahn’s longtime Alderaanian character Winter, a handmaiden of sorts for Princess Leia who became one of the Rebel Alliance’s go-to undercover operatives. And, through her, we get some emotional impact of Alderaan’s destruction — something Lucas could never be bothered to do.

Scoundrels isn’t perfect, but for all its little faults, as Han Solo would say, “she’s got it where it counts.” The dynamics between Han, Chewie and Lando are always right — as only a writer of Zahn’s caliber can capture. The scoundrels’ scheme is interesting and worthy of the author’s talents. There’s also a fun reveal at the end. Some readers will see it coming, others won’t. (I won’t say which camp I fell into.) But it’s worth the price of admission.

A copy of the book was provided for review.