Here’s some background information: I don’t love Timothy Zahn. His writing does tend to be a little tighter and more mature than the average Star Wars author, and he has a sense for the rollicking, space opera side of the franchise as opposed to the politics side. However, none of the beloved characters from the Thrawn Trilogy worked for me, and not being able to tell the main characters apart by voice soured my experience of Allegiance.
Scoundrels was different, though. A great combination of action and character-driven story, the novel took place on one planet in one location (mostly) but showcased a lot of the things I’ve come to know and love about the Star Wars galaxy: spaceships, ominous aliens, and memorable characters.
The story is a series of heists undertaken by a group of eleven characters, each who have their own motivation. Before he gets to the main plot, though, Zahn deflects the reader’s attention from the main characters with a couple Imperial agents who are looking to take down the same crime lord, which gave the whole thing a nice sense of moral grayness (until the Imps ended up conflicting with the scoundrels, of course.)
The four Festivals of elements during which the heist takes place were well-described and memorably beautiful. Other parts of the Star Wars universe get shown off too: Scoundrels shows a scientifically thorough heist in a fundamentally magical world, and the variety of substances and tactics was interesting. No one member of the team was expected to know what every substance on every planet was, so they got explained to the readers too.
Then there’s those eleven characters. Zahn’s characterizations made the characters memorable and easy to keep track of. The dramatis personae is there but I found myself not needing to refer to it.
Personable ship thief Dozer is hired as the “front man” or face of the operation and begrudges it when Lando takes that position. He also gets hit with Faleen pheromones early on and is gun-shy about them for the rest of the book. Dozer’s rivalry with Lando and the appearance of Winter and Kell, who we know from other media work for the Rebels, were just as important as the plot. If friendships or morale fell apart, the heist could too.
Winter and new character Rachele work largely in the background, using cameras and computers. Both are characterized to some degree by elegance: Rachele is a high-class woman who uses her connections to help out, and Winter is haunted by the memories of Alderaan and her belief that she can’t trust anyone in the group with the knowledge that she’s part of the Rebellion. Kudos to Zahn for noticing and making a point of which characters know what: Winter doesn’t know whether Leia is alive after the destruction of Alderaan, and she doesn’t know that Han knows Leia either. There’s no omnipotence in the novel and no skimming over of issues that should be important to the characters.
Hers aren’t the only trust issues: Han wonders whether Lando would leave him to die, and their relationship remains tense throughout, fitting perfectly with Lando’s reception of Han in Return of the Jedi.
Sisters Bink and Tavia have an interesting relationship and like the rest of the team, their own motivations. Both are accomplished cat burglars but while Tavia hates the job and wants them to settle down somewhere quietly when they have enough credits, Bink loves the adventure. I would have liked to see Tavia come into her own more over the course of the book, and thought that her negative response could cause as much action as Bink’s positive one, but it didn’t plan out that way.
Nevertheless, the cast of characters was the best thing about the book. I liked Kell too, another Rebel agent who fears that he won’t be able to get the job done. These characters aren’t inhuman. They bicker and fear failure and rejoice at success, which makes them feel all the more real.
The final battle has a lot of exciting elements and moves fast. A clever Indiana Jones reference or two makes up the central part of that battle, which I found fun and creative – although I could have done without characters pointing out multiple times how much like a ‘holodrama’ it was. Fight scenes are outright difficult to write and Zahn doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy them, preferring characters and decorative sets, but that also doesn’t give him an excuse for outright skipping one toward the end of the novel.
Then there’s the twist, which I never saw coming and which made me smile as I put the book down. Zahn plants suspicions in his characters’ minds carefully, so they’re figuring things out at roughly the same time as the reader sometimes and long after at other times. The twist makes Scoundrels a completely different kind of novel, and I immediately wanted to read it again to see what hints Zahn had (and had not) placed to help readers figure the twist out. Suffice it to say that I think fans will be happy. Scoundrels tops the list of my favorite Zahn novels and probably earned a place in my top ten for the EU in total.