Obviously, Scoundrels was Timothy Zahn's attempt at combining an Ocean's 11 caper with the Star Wars saga. What I hadn't appreciated before reading the book was just how serious Zahn was about this. There have been several Star Wars books this year that try to break into the espionage/thriller genre, such as Annihilation: Star Wars (The Old Republic) and Mercy Kill: Star Wars (X-Wing), but at the end of the day they feel like rehashed Star Wars. By contrast, Scoundrels is something new. It takes the best of Star Wars with the best of the espionage/thriller genre to create something that really feels fresh.
Here are some of my initial thoughts. Note, I try to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, meaning that I try not to reveal anything critical beyond the first three chapters.
Perhaps the aspect of the book that I appreciated most is the plot. Basically, Han is hired by a Black Sun victim to break into the Black Sun sector chief's house in order to recover his stolen credits. As we all know, Han is a smuggler, not a burglar, so he recruits 9 conspirators and comes up with a plan to get the credits back (9 plus Han plus the person that hires him = 11. That's not a coincidence). Of course, Han, Chewie, and Lando are part of the team, and we also get Winter and Kell Tainer, but the rest of the gang is new to the Star Wars universe.
Zahn obviously put a lot of thought into structuring the plot. It's a multi-layered story in which several characters are scheming simultaneously and each has to respond to the plans of the other groups. I appreciated that the characters are generally intelligent and seem able to think several steps ahead. The real battle in this book is whether Han and company can try to OUTSMART, not OUTFIGHT, their opponents.
Zahn actually respects his readers' intelligence by creating an intricate plot and allowing readers to try to piece everything together for him or herself. He is careful about not revealing too much for the reader. We see several of the characters in Han's group go out on missions, but often don't know the full purpose or goal behind the mission. In fact, Han (and Zahn) is careful not to tell anybody in the group all of the details, which is obviously smart in case one of the characters is captured. This allows the reader to make educated guesses about the outcome, but Zahn keeps quite a few surprises tucked away. Overall, I found this to be much more fun than the utterly predictable "let's-destroy-the-superweapon" Star Wars novels that seem par for the course these days.
There are a few battle scenes in this book, but even here Zahn gives the battle scenes purpose. Each engagement is carefully thought out. Han and company have to think about how they're going to win, not just go in with blasters blazing. Unfortunately, if the only reason you read Star Wars books is because you like mindless lightsaber fights, blaster shootouts, and space dogfighting, this book is NOT for you.
Despite the nature of the plot, I never felt bored. The book never felt "slow-paced". There was always something going on, always tension in the air. Even if the characters were simply observing something, that observation was important. Zahn skillfully weaves key conversations or character moments when characters are on lookout duty. This isn't a book you can - or would want to breeze through - because then you'll miss key details.
I'd say overall that this book is more about plot than character. At times, I felt a bit removed from the characters of Lando, Han, and Chewie. Of course, they feature prominently in the book, but I didn't feel that I'd learned anything profoundly new about them as characters. I can understand Zahn's difficulty though in writing such well-trodden characters during the years between Episodes IV and V. In a way, Zahn can't allow anything too dramatic to occur.
That said, the book has a great ensemble cast. Perhaps Zahn felt he had to make sure Han, Chewie, and Lando didn't overpower the ensemble, which in retrospect I think was a fine decision. Zahn treats the eleven-person group as an ensemble and spends enough time developing each of their characters and bringing each of them to life. Some of the best character development occurs with the secondary characters, including Winter and Kell Tainer. While Winter and Kell aren't new to Star Wars, Scoundrels treats them like new characters, keeping an air of mystery around both their pasts. Even though I first was introduced to Winter back in 1991, I only truly found myself caring about her when I read her emotional struggles in Scoundrels.
One the nicest surprises about Scoundrels is that the villains are both interesting and intelligent. I'm frankly sick of brain-dead, snarling Sith. A good hero needs a good villain to challenge him and a good plot needs a good villain to make the story believable.
We were first introduced to Black Sun back in 1996's Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars), but even then I felt neither Black Sun nor Xizor never came off as particularly interesting or threatening. XIzor seemed more interested in pursuing girls and Black Sun was just another group of thugs. We've only seen Black Sun a few times in Star Wars novels, such as the underrated Star Wars: Shadow Games, but again the organization seemed to lack depth.
By contrast, in Scoundrels, Timothy Zahn makes Black Sun come alive as a truly menacing criminal organization. For the first time when reading a Star Wars novel, the villains actually gave me chills. And not because they used excessive violence or torture. In fact, Zahn's Black Sun is much more subtle and intriguing. Zahn reveals the true secret to Black Sun's power, and it's not brute force, it's intelligence (of multiple types).
The Black Sun sector chief, Avrak Villachor, comes off as a complex character in his own right. He's able to blend into polite society but can be ruthless behind closed doors. He is intelligent and capable of making decisions. He anticipates the moves of his enemies. He's clearly out for himself, but he also leaves the reader guessing about his motives. I doubt he'll rank amongst the greatest villains in Star Wars canon, but for this book he was a strong foil for Han and company. The Falleen Black Sun Vigo Qazadi was less interesting and typically resorts more to the usual threats, but to be fair he plays a much smaller role.
This is the first time since at least Darth Plagueis: Star Wars that I've come away from a Star Wars book feeling like I've read something innovative and fresh. The novel defies genre boundaries in many ways. I hope this is a sign that Star Wars can expand beyond the somewhat stale action/adventure genre.
I might even dare say that even readers who like a good thriller/caper but who aren't necessarily diehard Star Wars fans will enjoy this novel. It's very accessible and does not require you to have a degree in EU lore. The only prerequisites are having seen the Original Trilogy and perhaps having read Shadows of the Empire.
The flip side of this is that Scoundrels might not appeal to all Star Wars fans. As with many innovations, it won't please everybody. It definitely feels different from much of the EU (in a way that I appreciate, but others might now). Those looking primarily for some fast-paced action or fight scenes will be disappointed. However, if you're up for a good caper, Scoundrels won't disappoint.
*** SPOILER ALERT***
There's an awesome plot twist at the very end of the book. Zahn ties up a bunch of loose ends and some people are not who they appear to be. Possibly the most exciting plot twist in a Star Wars book ever. Even though I knew something was off, I NEVER saw this one coming.
*** END SPOILER ALERT***
UPDATE (12/11/12): Zahn's prequel novella, Winner Lose All--A Lando Calrissian Tale: Star Wars (Novella) is out. Head over there to see my review.
UPDATE (1/11/12): I just finished listening to the audiobook version and loved it. Marc Thompson as the narrator does a fantastic job distinguishing the characters with different voices. He does a particularly good job with Eanjer, whom I thought would be particularly tough. The audiobook also incorporates even more sound effects than usual, even going so far to add subtle wind and crowd effects during the festival. Of the two formats, I'd recommend the audiobook for a complete experience.