Monday, June 10, 2013

Whatever you may think of the story, the cover rocks!

This is the first Star Wars novel I've read, apart from the novelizations based on the screenplays of the first three movies (Star Wars: A New Hope [personally I refuse to refer to it as 'A New Hope' because I'm a stubborn old fart], Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). I picked Scoundrels because it fell between the action in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, figuring it would be better to pick a tie-in novel involving a time-frame and characters with whom I'm both familiar and comfortable. After all, what with the sheer number of Star Wars novels out there, the idea of just picking a title at random and jumping in is rather intimidating, so having a book that lets you ease in through the shallow end is much more pleasant. Or so I thought. Once I began reading, I reconsidered my notion that this book would be an easy introduction to the Star Wars novels: Even though the story centered around Han Solo and Chewbacca, with an appearance by Lando Calrissian, Jabba the Hutt, and even Boba Fett, it also involved other characters and settings completely unfamiliar to anyone who'd only ever watched the movies and had no knowledge of the Expanded Universe. Maybe it's just me, but I like to have at least a passing knowledge of what's going on, and to have so many new and unfamiliar planets and characters and species and organizations thrown at me is discomfiting.

Most of the reviews for Scoundrels throw out the Ocean's 11 comparison and as much as I hate to follow the herd, I'm going to in this instance for the main fact that the comparison is completely spot on. As others have pointed out, there are even 11 players in the Solo crew, so who am I to buck the trend? The problem with this comparison is that Ocean's 11 (the original or remake, dealer's choice) is an entertaining, fast-paced movie, whereas “Solo's 11” (my apologies to anyone I plagiarize by using this) involves a whole lotta nothing with a little bit of action in between. And I think this is due to the inherent nature of the heist plot. In a movie, if it's done well, even in those scenes involving the planning, which is basically just a bunch of people hanging out and doing a lot of talking, the story stays tight and moves along at a nice clip: the reason for the heist is explained, a plan is hatched, the steps required to enact said plan are laid out, usually with funny and/or exciting scenes demonstrating a few of those steps interspersed with the talking scenes, and then the talking ends and the action begins. This kind of plot should also work in book format, but again, only if it's done well, and with Scoundrels, I really can't say that happened.

The story takes place right after the Death Star has been destroyed (the first time around). Han has lost the reward money he garnered for lending a helping hand with that endeavor and since he's walking around with a bounty on his head thanks to the massive debt he owes to the gelatinous and vicious crime lord, Jabba the Hutt, Han needs to come up with a transport-load of credits and right now. His salvation seems to come in the form of a mysterious man who offers Han those credits in exchange for Han pulling a job stealing data disks from a gangster's stronghold. It's a job that's not only incredibly risky and potentially lethal, it's also completely out of Han's wheelhouse. But the roguish smuggler is desperate and the payoff is too tempting, so he accepts and sets about recruiting the perfect crew to help him carry out the caper. However, as the crew begins to work out exactly how they'll get into the fortified mansion of a Black Sun syndicate lieutenant and break into the man's virtually impregnable safe to get the goods, the situation starts looking a lot more complicated and a lot less profitable than first imagined. In the end, this job may cost Han and the gang more than they ever bargained for.

With a nod to the “who shot first” kerfuffle in Star Wars, the novel gets off to a promising start. There's some smuggling, some action, some comedy, and some intrigue as we meet the various characters in their native habitats and the heist starts coming together. But that's where things start losing steam as the story get bogged down in explaining the politics of the Empire and the exploits of Black Sun and why the mysterious man is stealing from them, not to mention the endless planning and plotting and replotting of the actual heist. There's so much setup and reconnaissance for each step along with seemingly endless discussions about how it's to be done, interspersed with background exploration as each character is given a chance to converse with another character as to how they got to this point, why they're fighting for whatever side they're fighting for, along with their motivations for joinging the heist. Honestly, for a supposed 'action' novel, there's a hell of a lot of navel gazing in it. And not a lot of either Han or Chewbacca, which is rather disappointing. Yeah, they're basically the center around which the crew revolves, but other than at the beginning of the novel, you don't really see the Dynamic Duo working on their own.

In the third act, things finally get going and there's a nice, action-packed showdown at the end, along with a surprise reveal which was fun, but it seemed to take a hell of a long time to get to that point, not to mention you have to work through a lot of confusing explanations and secondary motivations, involving so many people that eventually you lose track of who's doing what for whom and why. Which brings me back to the point I made earlier about working a heist plot in a novel. I'm sure there are a lot of exciting and tightly-paced heist novels out there, but, if Scoundrels is anything to go by, I don't think Timothy Zahn has the chops to pull it off in his novels. Most of the story is so bloated and bulky--like Jabba the Hutt in novel form--it loses any sense of excitement or urgency or momentum.

Which is why the comparison to Ocean's 11 works only in spirit, but not in form. The fun of the book never reaches the level of fun in the movie thanks to too much exposition and introspection and not enough action. Though I was mildly entertained by the book, as an introduction to the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, Scoundrels is rather disappointing.

Read December 24, 2012-January 5, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program February 24, 2013

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