Book Review: Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
When I was a kid, I read entirely too many Star Wars novels. This was back when Star Wars wasn’t quite the omnipresent cultural juggernaut it is today– I mean, sure, there were still video games and comics and stuff, but you didn’t have Disney cranking out a steady deluge of merchandise. This is back when there were only three Star Wars movies to worry about, so if you wanted more of Luke and the gang, the novels were pretty much the only way to go.
Since 1991, a crapload of authors have hammered out a crapload of Star Wars books. And as one would expect, a lot of the time these books were of … dubious quality (looking at you, Kevin J. Anderson). At worst, the books were weird and nonsensical and centered around Han & Leia’s kids getting kidnapped over and over again by whatever new Sith Lord popped up for that book. This said, there were still some diamonds in the rough that served perfectly well as laser-blasting Mil-SF adventures.
The whole franchise, for better or worse, was founded on Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire series. Really, you can point to the success of these novels (which in turn drew a lot from the old Star Wars tabletop RPG) as the thing that kick-started Star Wars into becoming the ridiculously profitable cash cow it is today.
Scoundrels is Zahn’s chance to play around in the Star Wars sandbox once again, though this time on a far, far smaller scale than his earlier books. Instead of focusing on big fleet battles set however many years after Return of the Jedi, Scoundrels is set between episodes IV and V, focusing on Han and Chewie getting involved in a rollicking crime caper.
One would think I’d be a little leery of a tie in novel about a heist, considering how the last one I read went. But, thankfully, Zahn’s one of the Star Wars writers who’s actually, y’know, good. Plus, all those books I chewed up in middle school have left me with no small degree of nostalgia, so I figured I’d finally give Scoundrels a go.
The smaller scale of Scoundrels works a lot in its favor. It’s pretty straightforward– Han and Chewie get recruited to go do a crime, at which point they recruit a ragtag bunch of specialists including a hacker (sorry, ‘slicer’ in Star Wars lingo), a cat burglar (or ‘ghost thief’) an explosives expert (no Star Warsy name for that, sorry) and so on. A couple of other Star Wars characters pop up, including Lando (he’s on the cover, after all) and Winter, a character that Zahn cooked up in his original Star Wars books to act as an aide and confidant to Princess Leia. She’s the one with the white hair on the cover there.
They recruit a couple of other thieves and grifters into their gang to round out a literal Solo’s Eleven, in order to break into the vault of a Black Sun (the space-mafia from another Star Wars book, basically) crime boss. I figure there are at least a few of you readers who know exactly what I’m talking about there, while the rest of you are just puzzled. Plus, I bet there are even more little throwaway gags that I missed, given how my Star Wars scholarship has slipped. Thankfully, the interconnectedness of Scoundrels never delves into confusing obtuseness– each reference is just thrown in there for fun.
Really, ‘fun’ is a key word here. While I’ve read better heists, and even better Star Wars books, I can definitely tell Zahn enjoyed himself while writing the book. There’s a “he shot first” gag in the first chapter, and the big finale features a scene in which Han Solo is running from a giant ball of rock while waving a whip around. It’s somewhat of a contrived gag, sure, but I can’t fault Zahn for tossing it in.
The book is a little slow at first, laying out the setup, but the crazy finale at the end is pretty entertaining. It doesn’t quite get to the level of twisty heist caper craziness as, say, The Palace Job did, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable adventure (if one lacking in Jedi). Plus, Zahn thinks up a bunch of neat sci-fi security measures based on Star Wars tech– as well as various gadgets to get around them.
Really though, the most interesting part about Scoundrels is the fact that it’s one of the last books of the ‘old’ (or ‘Legends’ as they’re calling it now) Star Wars Expanded Universe. See, when Disney bought out Lucasfilm and started gearing up to
print money make new Star Wars movies, they didn’t want to be constrained by over twenty years of convoluted books of questionable readability … so they just swept them all under the rug.
Not that I can blame them. There’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the proverbial wheat, and I’m sure Disney would prefer to go off in their own direction. Still, it’s kind of a bummer to see a big chunk of my childhood thrown into the non-canon bin (see also: the Star Trek reboot, but that’s another post entirely). Even if Scoundrels is theoretically compatible with the new continuity, as it’s set between the movies, instead of after them. Kind of like Rogue One, only not nearly as grim and gritty. The thing is, while the current Star Wars continuity is using iconic Zahn characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn, that’s because the Thrawn novels have been out for a couple of decades now– with Scoundrels written so recently, most of the new characters Zahn brings in to flesh it out are likely to just earn “who?” reactions from all of the most die-hard of fans. Which is a shame, really, as I would love to see more sci-fi crime hijinks centering around some of these side characters.
Ah well. I guess that’s what fanfic is for, right? Especially considering that books like these are basically ‘official’ fanfic anyway …