By Wendy Browne
I used to be an avid reader of the expanded Star Wars universe, but aside from a leap into the distant future with Star Wars: Legacy comics and a jump into the past with Star Wars: The Old Republic tie-ins, I’ve long since fallen out of touch. Perhaps I grew tired of the doom and gloom that started to permeate the storytelling with the introduction of the New Jedi Order. I’m usually okay with unhappy endings and Pyrrhic victories, and am a huge fan of The New Jedi Order: Traitor’s exploration of what it means to be Sith or Jedi, but one of the things things the original movies did so well, was balance the emotionally dark and intense moments with the more light-hearted ones.
Scoundrels brings readers back to the days just after the destruction of the first Death Star, which seems to be a trend with recent Star Wars stories, including the Empire and Rebellion series. Han is still a cocky smuggler, trying his best to ignore his feelings for that stuck up princess. He’s also still got that pesky Hutt bounty hanging over his head because he and Chewie somehow lost the reward money he earned from Leia’s rescue. When Han is offered a chance at millions of credits, he can’t pass it up.
The problem? Han’s just a smuggler – not a con artist – which means he needs to put together a team of the best to pull this off. The other problem? The credits are behind the notoriously impenetrable vault of a Black Sun crime syndicate underboss.
In other words, this is Ocean’s Eleven. With a wookiee.
The return to the good old days is perfect for the hopeless nostalgic in me, and I also enjoyed reading Timothy Zahn again. I haven’t read anything by him since the Thrawn Trilogy, but he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the Star Wars universe. He captures the nuances of the characters we know and love, while bringing in some interesting new ones to round out Han’s team. And we get to learn about all of them, including the bad guys, as Zahn smoothly transitions from one point of view to the next, carefully revealing just enough of their thoughts to make you wonder who will double cross whom — especially when Lando shows up, still holding onto his grudge against Han. Each character has their own reasons for agreeing to work with a team of complete strangers, and those reasons aren’t just about the score. Through the unique perspectives, Zahn teases out their motivations, from the twin sisters — one of whom isn’t overly keen on the underworld life — to the wet behind-the-ears con artist, to Winter, whom some might recognize as the childhood companion of Princess Leia.
Interestingly, Leia does not actually appear in this book, save through asides from Winter and Han, who have never met before. Some of the tension I felt throughout the story lies between these two characters, as I impatiently awaited their discovery that they have an acquaintance in common. The interactions between Han and Winter are particularly significant because, as far as Winter knows, her best friend did not survive the destruction of Alderaan — an event that plays a major part in the story, based on the players involved. Through Winter and some of the other characters, we get a bit of insight into the Alderaanian mindset following the destruction of their entire planet – something the movies and novelizations didn’t get into very much. Not that I needed to read an entire book about post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt, but it was very humanizing to read the perspectives from characters like Winter, or even Han’s assessment of Leia after such a devastating event.
And there’s Han himself. I was surprised that the other characters got so much attention, but the focus does remain fixed on him. We get to see beneath the self-assured swagger and discover that most of his achievements in badassery come from having a good blaster and great companion at his side, but with a healthy helping of luck piled on top (though not all of it is good). It’s a wonder Han stays positive with the weight of Jabba’s bounty hanging over him, but he’s still always ready with a sarcastic quip, or a snarky comeback to Chewie’s warbled admonitions. Zahn even injects a little “he shot first” jab in there. We know that, by Return of the Jedi, Han has earned himself the rank of general, and Zahn let’s us see some of that leadership shine through, as well as the truth behind the “I’m nice men” line that he later seduces Leia with in one of my favourite scenes in The Empire Strikes Back.
The plot itself is fairly straight forward, even with the inevitable twists and betrayals expected from a caper like this. The Ocean’s Eleven comparison extends straight into the number of players on Han’s team, and there are a myriad of gadgets and operations that invariably don’t go according to plan. There are a few moments that are just too convenient — even when things do fall apart — or are just glaringly predictable or unnecessarily convoluted. Still, it was a entertaining read, and this sense of fun, danger, and adventure was amplified tenfold thanks to the audiobook.
When I first ventured into the world of audiobooks with Star Wars: Annihilation, I let Marc Thompson set the bar too high. Not only is he an excellent narrator whom I now rank high on my favourites list, along with Claudia Black, Simon Vance, and Kate Reading, his Star Wars narrations come complete with sound effects and that classic score. From Chewbacca’s warbles and roars to speeders to blaster fire, listening to a Star Wars audiobook is almost as good as watching it on screen – except, of course, you’ll have to rely on your imagination for the visuals. Fortunately, my imagination is quite vivid, and as an added bonus in Scoundrels, Thompson’s Han Solo actually made me check my earphones a few times to be sure Harrison Ford hadn’t invaded them, and his Lando Calrissian had me squealing like Chris Turk when he met Billy Dee Williams on Scrubs.
Although the original expanded universe is no longer considered canon after Disney’s buyout, if you are a fan of the original films, stories like Scoundrels are still worth the read. Unlike the books that delve into the future, with Skywalker and Solo offspring and more Sith lords than you can shake a lightsaber at, these books only require you to enjoy A New Hope to understand all of the references. And if you’ve never tried an audiobook before, then this is definitely the place to start.
Guestwriter Wendy Browne is a mother, geek, gamer, writer, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order. You can find her work at Women Write About Comics and BiblioSanctum. Follow her on Twitter @nightxade.