Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars Scoundrels Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 January 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

If you like the sound of a widely entertaining read that combines a clever heist-themed storyline with iconic Star Wars elements, then you need to check out Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn.

Scoundrels is set shortly after the events of A New Hope and follows Han and Chewie after they have temporarily left their friends in the Rebel Alliance to return to their old jobs as smugglers. The two are desperate to make some money in order to repay Han’s debt to Jabba the Hutt and have travelled to the planet of Wukkar to meet a contact. Instead of their contact, Han and Chewie are approached by a local businessman who wishes to recruit the pair to help him break into a local crime lord’s supposedly impenetrable vault to recover a vast fortune in stolen credits.

Lured in by the promise of a rich reward, Han sets about recruiting a team of highly skilled thieves, con artists and specialists, including their old friend Lando Calrissian, to help them pull off the heist. However, as they start to put together a master plan to enter the vault, they make a startling discovery: their target is a high-ranking member of the notorious Black Sun crime syndicate, who is currently hosting one of the organisation’s most powerful leaders. More importantly, in addition to the stolen credits, the vault now contains a collection of Black Sun’s blackmail files, which are a vital and closely guarded part of their operation.

Still determined to pull off the job, Han and his team need to work out a way to break into the unbreakable vault without painting a massive target on their backs. However, they are not the only group interested in the blackmail files, as an ambitious Imperial Intelligence agent is determined to capture them. Caught between two of the most powerful organisations in the entire galaxy, these scoundrels will need every trick up their sleeve to survive and raid the vaults. But when the stakes are this high, can any of them really be trusted?

Scoundrels is a fast-paced and well-written novel that does an outstanding job setting a compelling and entertaining heist story inside the Star Wars universe. This book was written by legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn, who I have mentioned several times before on my blog, especially for his recent Thrawn trilogy (Thrawn, Alliances and Treason). Scoundrels is a standalone novel that was released in 2013 and was the last Star Wars novel Zahn wrote before the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. As a result, Scoundrels technically never happened in the current canon of the franchise and is instead part of the Star Wars Legends range.

At the heart of this novel is a complex and amazing heist storyline that sees the protagonists attempt to steal a vast fortune from a high-security vault. Scoundrels, or Solo’s Eleven, as I started to think of it, features a pretty classic heist set-up, with an impossible job offered and accepted, Solo building up a team of skilled criminals to help him pull off the job, recon, various complications, and then the attempt to break into the vault. I did find in some ways this part of the story was a bit typical and derivative of other examples of the heist genre, although I think a lot of the reason why I was having these thoughts is because I saw Rick and Morty’s excellent take-down of heist movies, One Crew over the Crewcoo’s Morty, immediately before I started reading this book (literally all I could think whenever a new crew member was recruited was “You son of a bitch, I’m in”).

However, this was still an incredibly entertaining novel and Zahn did create a storyline that was unique in a number of ways. In particular, Zahn makes excellent use of the technology (a combination of pre-introduced technology and stuff that Zahn made up himself) and the political turmoil in the Star Wars Legends universe to create a truly captivating piece of crime fiction. The story is loaded with all manner of twists, turns and doublecrosses, and I really enjoyed a number of the big reveals that were featured throughout the book (the character reveal at the very end of the book was pretty cool, for example). The entire plan for breaking into the vault and stealing its contents was also extremely clever and memorable, containing an excellent combination of subtly, manipulation, improvisation and number of massive explosive distractions. Also, the way they actually got out of the heavily armed compound was very cool, and definitely one of the best heist moves I’ve ever seen. All of this results in a first-rate heist thriller storyline which I deeply enjoyed and which has actually put me in the mood for more heist-centric books.

Another great part of Scoundrels is the fantastic group of characters that the story focuses on. Not only does the book showcase the classic partnership of Han and Chewie but we also get to see more of the suavest man in the galaxy, Lando Calrissian. Han is a great leader for the team, able to come up with a cool plan and improvise when they are faced with chaos, while Lando shines as the charismatic front man of the operation, able to charm or swindle everyone he comes in contact with. Quite a bit of time is spent exploring the turbulent relationship between Han and Lando at this point of their friendship, as several prior operations (some of which were featured in other novels and comics in the Star Wars Legends range) have fallen through, resulting in some bad blood between them. While both claim that they have forgiven the other for the sake of this operation, they both have a lot of doubts and are worried that the other is going to screw them over. This adds a whole bunch of extra drama to the story and ends in a rather entertaining and typical manner.

In addition to Han, Chewie and Lando, the rest of the heist crew is made up of some strong and distinctive characters who are a lot of fun. All of these characters bring a lot of team, and at no point did any of them feel unnecessary to the plot. Zahn also goes out of his way to establish each of these characters separate backstories and motivations, which adds a large amount of substance to their inclusion. As these different motivations mean that there is also a constant potential for betrayal and sabotage, which is another layer to the heist aspect of the book. There is also a great look at the Black Sun underboss and his main security chief as they attempt to understand the threat coming their way, while also trying to stay on the right side of the powerful Black Sun overlord, who is staying at the manor and playing mind games with them. There is a growing sense of desperation and irrationality from the two of them as the various manipulations push them closer to the edge, so much so that a deal with Darth Vader actually seems like a tempting offer. I also loved the inclusion of the Imperial Intelligence agent who attempts to utilise the planned heist for his own ends. His ambitious attempts to undermine Black Sun are interesting, and he brings a whole new edge to the overall story. All of these amazing characters add so many different things to the books plot and it was a lot of fun to see how their various character arcs progressed.

As I mentioned above, Scoundrels falls within the now non-canon Star Wars Legends expanded universe. While I have not read a lot of fiction from the Star Wars Legends range recently (with the exception of Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber), I have always been impressed with the wide range of different stories and plot lines that make it up, many of which are being utilised or referenced to in the current canon (the inclusion of Zahn’s character of Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show is a prime example of this). However, there are some significant differences between the two canons, and some of these can be seen in Scoundrels.

One of the most noticeable differences between these two canons is the dominance of the Black Sun crime syndicate. While they only have a few minor appearances in the current canon (and they potentially would not have been included at all if they did not show up in a couple of episodes of The Clone Wars animated show, which remained canon after the buy-out), there were a major part of the original canon as one of the premier criminal organisations the protagonists would go up against. A lot of this comes out of the 1996 novel, Shadows of the Empire (which I actually read a long, long time ago), which showed the Black Sun leader, Prince Xizor, having nearly as much power and influence as the Emperor, and as a result, was a major rival for Darth Vader. Much of the book’s plot that involves the members of Black Sun or the Imperial Intelligence agent revolves around this rivalry, as the agent is hoping to damage Black Sun to gain favour with Vader. The protagonists, knowing this, also attempt to use this conflict to their advantage, and it becomes a major part of the book. The examination of the various criminal organisations available during this period is also pretty darn fascinating, and it serves as a wonderful, larger setting behind the main story.

In addition to this focus on the criminal underbelly that was featured in the old canon, Zahn made sure to fill his book with all manner of references to other books and comics in the Star Wars Legends canon, especially those that featured Han, Chewie and Lando. No specific knowledge of these events is needed to understand these references, as Zahn makes sure to explain the necessary parts, which mostly revolve around Han having terrible luck when it comes to prior jobs. Other examples of the history and unique storylines that existed in the old Star Wars canon are also pretty fascinating, but you do not need to be an expert on any of this to enjoy Scoundrels. Indeed, anyone who has seen the original trilogy will be fully able to appreciate the cool story contained within, although, as always, those Star Wars fans with a bit more background knowledge of the franchise will get a bit more enjoyment out of this book.

Like a great many of the Star Wars books I enjoy, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Scoundrels. Narrated by Marc Thompson, it runs for just under 14 hours, which makes it slightly longer than most Star Wars audiobooks. Scoundrels contains all the fun features of a typical Star Wars audiobook format, with the narration permeated with all manner of iconic Star Wars music and sound effects. I love hearing the amazing Star Wars music as I have the story read to me, and in many places having the music played really enhances the emotion or the significance of a scene. Scoundrels also contains an impressive abundance of various sound effects which are utilised in nearly every scene. Having blaster fire sizzling past your ears in a fire fight or listening to the gentle susurration of the crowd in a big party sequence is just amazing, and it helps bring the story to life as you listen. I was also very impressed with the way that they showed how helmets and comm links could distort a character’s voice, and the use of sound effects for Chewbacca’s communications was a smart choice.

I also have to say how impressed I was with Marc Thompson’s narration of this book. Thompson is one of the premier narrators of the Star Wars audiobook, having lent his vocal talents to a number of novels in both the Star Wars Legends and Disney canons, including for the recently released Resistance Reborn. I have previously listened to Thompson’s narration for the first book in Zahn’s recent Thrawn trilogy, and I loved the work he did on that, especially when it came to the voice he produced for the trilogy’s titular character. He also does an extraordinary job with this format of Scoundrels, producing a huge number of unique and memorable voices for the various characters featured within it. His portrayals of Han and Lando were very accurate, especially Han’s voice, and that really helped me enjoy this novel so much more. Scoundrels was a first-rate audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wishes to enjoy this book.

Star Wars: Scoundrels was an outstanding read, and I cannot praise the clever combination of a heist storyline with Star Wars elements enough. Zahn really is one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction out there, and I was never in any doubt that I would love this novel. He has a new book coming out in a few months, and I am very much looking forward to it. In the meantime, I will have to check out a few more of his earlier books, and I might also look up some other novels in the Star Wars Legends range.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

The Gutter Prayer Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.