Ocean's 11 in space? With Han freaking Solo filling the Clooney role? Set in the past where Chewie is still alive? Written by Timothy Zahn? IT HAS TO BE FIVE STARS. But sadly, it's not.
What does work for Zahn in this volume is a brilliantly unexploited idea within the EU. Seems like everybody is applying the layered heist plot to great success across genre lately and really, with characters like Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, I'm surprised it wasn't thought of sooner. Zahn places it in that murky region between A New Hope
and The Empire Strikes Back
that has never really been subject to story-telling. What did Han do with the buckets of credits he received as reward after the Battle of Yavin and rescuing Leia? What happened with the bounty hunter on Ord Mantell that has him thinking of leaving the alliance to go pay off Jabba as they're abandoning Hoth? What is Lando referring to when he greets Han on Bespin with, "You got a lot of nerve showing up here. After the stunt you pulled..."? Zahn's answers, with a completely original, intricate and finely woven tale that is pure page-turner. There are certain tropes establishing themselves within this budding genre that warrant obligatory inclusion, but even with some of the more obvious plot twists, the cast is so nostalgically lovable you can't help but enjoy the experience.
Han and Chewie have left the rebels in the wake of Yavin to look for work to get Jabba off their back. Drawn to the annual elemental festival on the planet of Wukkar, they're approached by a victim of Black Sun (YES, Zahn even weaves them into the tale!) who asks them for help stealing back 163 million credits fro the criminal organization. The problem: the cash is in the mansion of the local Black Sun sector chief in an appropriately impenetrable vault with ingenious sci-fi security measures. Han assembles the ultimate team of scoundrels - con men, ship boosters, thieves, explosive experts and droid security experts - for the ultimate payday. Along the way, we meet characters old and new as Zahn cleverly fills in the blanks between episodes IV and V the way Steve Perry did with episodes V and VI in [b:Shadows of the Empire|9549|Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars)|Steve Perry|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320513836s/9549.jpg|858558].
The large cast of new characters with niche skills are well thought-out and have tremendous potential for deep exploitation, but their very number, by default, sort of prevents that. Most upsetting of all for long-time readers of the EU who've suffered a spate of pretty miserable stories since the death of Chewbacca, there's distressingly little page time devoted to the big guy. About the only really good thing that EU authors have done since his death is add real emotional depth to Han, who struggled with alcoholism and distanced himself from his family after the death of his longtime friend. To finally have Chewie back, after we've suffered through so much and literally felt Han's pain putting the character into greater perspective, nothing is done with him at all. When I first heard the pitch for this book I expected it to give more time to their friendship as a sort of nostalgic throwback to the good old days, but it was anything but. Focused primarily with clever plotting, Zahn lets perhaps the most profound friendship in all of science fiction slip through his fingers and who knows how much longer we'll have to wait for a good story that involves the pair again.
I'm sorely tempted to think this book is actually four stars for its really superior plotting and twisty-clever plot especially when placed on the shelf next to the truly horrible writers and stories of the EU, but the disappointment at not seeing more Chewie is still too fresh to get over.