Friday, 2 September 2016

Book of the Month: Scoundrels

Timothy Zahn was one of the flagship authors of Star Wars fiction in the early 1990s. His Thrawn trilogy of books, which began with Heir to to the Empire, kick started an entire genre of fiction and video games that explored the universe after Return of the Jedi. Much of this expanded universe has been dumped, however, with the screening of The Force Awakens last year.

Scoundrels is really a rather unimpressive book. It takes place not long after the events in A New Hope. Fresh from the battle of the Death Star, Han Solo is desperately trying to repay Jabba the Hutt. However, having lost the money gifted to him by the Rebel Alliance for rescuing Princess Leia, he becomes involved in a scheme to rob 160 million credits from Villachur, a sector chief of the Black Sun crime syndicate.

Imagine, if you will, that someone watched Ocean's Eleven, and then decided that it would be great to take that story and somehow ram it into the Star Wars universe. Solo ends up as the architect of a heist caper against the fearsome Black Sun: he puts together a team of specialists, which includes Lando Calrissian (prior to their subsequent meeting at Cloud City) and Chewbacca, among others (although no other characters from the films appear in this disaster).

The book is highly complex: apart from the planning by Solo's team, Villachur has to cope with the visit of a senior member of the crime organisation, visiting the planet to blackmail local officials. On top of this, while the Empire largely takes a back seat, it does have a couple of agents looking for an opportunity to take Villachur down as well. Apparently Darth Vader does not get on with the Black Sun.

Almost all of the action revolves around Villachur's estate, which is a high security enclave in the middle of a big city. The crime leader is hosting a massive public festival on the grounds of his estate, something he refuses to cancel, even when it becomes obvious that there is something odd going on. Despite being excessively paranoid, he allows the thieves ample opportunity to come and go under cover of the crowds partying on his property, even after it becomes increasingly obvious they are trying to steal something from his vault.

Why? Villachur's crime syndicate, it is made clear, already enjoys massive influence on the planet. It is also emphasised that the chief of police is in Black Sun's pocket. Thirdly it is mentioned on numerous occasions that the festival Villachur hosts is quite expensive. He is not running for office, nor does he seem to be particularly focused on currying public favour. Why does he host this festival, and why does he not cancel it in the interests of his own security? This is never adequately addressed.
Would you trust these men?

Zahn paints a picture of a highly competent and vicious criminal organization, but then, when it comes to the crunch, Black Sun either pulls its punches, or makes idiotic mistakes, effectively trying to be too clever for its own good. How did they become this massive galactic mafia in the first place?

Lord Khazadi, Villachur's boss, is an alien called a Falleen, who has the ability to influence human emotions by way of pheromones, yet this is only used selectively, to limited effect. On other occasions, this highly useful power is just ignored, although there are dozens of ways it could have proved to be highly entertaining.

A great deal of the time, the team of thieves spend in some kind of luxury hotel suite, spying on the grounds of the estate, and eating sandwiches. Pages and pages of text are taken up with in-depth discussions on plans that are never really implemented, as characters go through their various options. It almost feels like Zahn is writing up the notes from a role playing session he hosted. But it does not make a gripping tale, to be honest.

If there is a mitigating factor in this travesty, it is the character of Deja, an ambitious and competent imperial agent working undercover in a sting operation against Khazadi. He pretends to be the serving man for his partner, who seems to be enjoying his own cover of a noble far too much. At one stage the duo discuss whether Deja should be whipped to lend credibility to their cover story. Deja himself ends up taking most of the risks, while his colleague seems to spend most of his time attending soirees. But sadly Deja on his own is not enough to save this book.

I usually write about books I've been impressed with in this column; I know Zahn has achieved considerable commercial success with his Star Wars line, but I don't think I'm going to be reading any more of his work. Scoundrels is simply a lame effort, and I'm very surprised it even found its way into print. With some many talented writers out there trying to make a living, I am flabbergasted that dross of this nature still finds its way onto the shelves.

My thoughts exactly...


4 comments:

  1. Why call this book of the month? Is that an ironic title? ;)

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    1. Yup. But just because it is Book of the Month does not mean it has to be good!

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