Star Wars: Scoundrels Review

“It was, Han thought, a good day to make 163 million credits.

It would not be such a good day to walk away empty-handed.

It would be a really bad day to get shot.”

Han Solo’s a smuggler, not a conman. But with a growing bounty on his head and a huge score in front of him, he’ll adapt and lead a team of the very best thieves and grifters… that he could find on short notice.

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Timothy Zahn is my favorite writer, and he shines most brightly when expanding and exploring the Star Wars mythos.  In one of the last novels of the Expanded Universe before Lucsarts was bought by Disney, he presents a tale featuring the seedier element of Star Wars’ rogues gallery as Han, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian try to rescue someones ill-gotten gains from a neigh-impenetrable safe.

The concept Scoundrels was sold on is “Star Wars meets Ocean’s 11,” and it’s not only apt but I honestly felt Zahn was a little too tied to it in parts. I rolled my eyes when I found out Han’s team would actually have 11 members. They are all used well though and beyond the occasional heavy handed references this is a nice blending of heist tropes and sci-fi elements.

There are a lot of moving parts, agendas, and counter agendas that keep the plot compelling and mysterious until the end. Although I felt it didn’t quite come together as smoothly as some of Zahn’s other novels. The time period it’s set in provides advanced context that’s hard to shake, there are a couple of (thankfully minor) “idiot ball” moments, and at a particular part of the story there are some extremely uncomfortable implications that are totally unneeded. By and large though I enjoyed the journey, and while a couple of the multitude of twists had the edge of “trying too hard” most of them were logical, well done, and entertaining. Zahn also expertly weaves in allusions to his other books and characters without making knowledge of such necessary to follow the plot. It’s a nice treat for those who read everything he’s done but is executed in such a way not to turn off or overwhelm new readers.

I’ve read the prequel novella “Winner Lose All” (included at the end of the paperback) before. It’s a fun little story featuring a handful of characters from Scoundrels. The characterizations didn’t quite mesh between the novel and the novella, but they were still recognizable. Even though it takes place before Scoundrels and was released first to drum up interest, I’d say reading it second (as it’s presented here) is the better choice.

Scoundrels is another solid Star Wars adventure from Zahn, despite not reaching the heights of his other forays. Enjoy the ride.

 

 

 

Triplet Review

Grad student Danae Panya’s has something beyond just her research project in mind when she applies to have Triplet’s most experienced Courier guide her through the highly restricted inner worlds and their respective environments of technology and magic. But any plans either of them have will have to adapt to conflicts from both the inhabitants and environments of their destinations.

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Timothy Zahn is my favorite author, and it’s nice to have a chance to check out works from early in his career that I have not yet read.

I’ve repeatedly praised Zahn’s touch regarding how much detail to provide to make his setting’s come alive without overwhelming the reader or slowing the pace too much, and the world-building here is phenomenal. The worlds of Triplet and the unique natures of each are quite imaginative and intriguing. I actually wanted even more information about the workings and “rules” of each place, but there were reasons for some of the ambiguities.  Experiencing Shamsheer and Karyx along with Danae was thoroughly engaging and fascinating.

Unfortunately while Danae and Ravagin start out equally intriguing to Zahn’s worlds, neither they nor the story quite reach their full potential. About midway through the book the slow building suspense and atmosphere give way to a rather by the numbers action/adventure tale. It’s good, but more events driven than character driven which makes things feel just a little shallow by the end. Zahn would become masterful at balancing plot and twists with character development in later novels.

There are also characterization issues, as I feel Danae in particular never got her due in terms of growth or having her motivations given proper weight. She wasn’t quite as selfish or naive as the narrative needed her to be for certain exchanges to feel right, so the resolutions between her and other characters struck me as a bit forced.

To be clear, I enjoyed Triplet overall and do recommend Zahn fans check it out. It’s just that the sense of wonder and engrossing edge to the tale dips a bit in the second half (where it really should have been ramping up), causing this not to reach the heights it seems like it could have.

 

 

Perfectly Invisible Review

“Better some tears get shred because she was mean, than blood splashed because she wasn’t.”

A pair of national tragedies in the 1990’s has turned the US into a largely totalitarian nation. Homeland Security Services is the omnipresent but largely mysterious elite law enforcement organization that takes over when cases are too dangerous or too important to entrust to anyone else. Miracle Dunn’s first case as Krait Squad’s new investigator involves a simple looking murder which uncovers a less simple makeshift crypt in the apartment next door.

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I’m quite torn on this first novel in Michael Stackpole’s Homeland Security services series.  It takes place in an intriguing, unnerving alternate reality that displays Stackpole’s usual thorough development and vivd descriptions. Everything is internally consistent and provides a stark environment with tons of potential to frame Miracle’s story against. Heavy topics, ranging from government approved exile to institutionalized, legalized discrimination and covering a wide range in between saturate the society HSS polices and the variety of directions Stackpole could explore within this dystopian framework are extremely intriguing. 

Miracle and her coworkers are nicely individualized characters in both areas of expertise and personalities. I adore the way Stackpole fleshed them out via their approaches to their job and interactions with Miracle such that it all feels natural and the pace never slows.

However the breakneck pace is where I have my reservations. There is so much happening and so many story threads introduced in this short novel that by the end I felt like too much was left dangling. It sets up a few too many outstanding mysteries and as a result came across more like the first half of a longer novel than a standalone start to a series.

To be clear: a central mystery IS solved and by and large a complete, good story is told. But there are a couple of other important things that certainly seemed like they were going to be addressed during this book, and it was hard not to be disappointed when I realized they were going to be left obscure. Mystery series walk a fine line of giving the reader enough to satisfy during each book and keeping enough back to build to future installments, and overall Perfectly Invisible did too little of the former and too much of the latter. 

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in Stackpole’s alternate vision of the US, and I am interested in continuing with the series. Though to be honest,  will probably wait until there are at least a couple more to read at a time to be sure I get enough plot advancement to avoid the unfinished feeling I was left with here. 

Neverwhere Review

Richard Mayhew is an everyday nobody with a quiet life, a boring job, and an impending marriage to someone above his station. But an unusual encounter with a young girl who he finds bleeding on the street is about to expose him to the world beyond the cracks in society too many in London have been unfortunate enough to fall through.

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Neil Gaiman has become the prototypical “rock star” novelist, expanding upon his initial fame from his award winning run on Vertigo Comics’ The Sandman. His tales generally blend elements of horror and fantasy in vastly captivating ways. I’ve read a fair number of Gaiman’s books and stories, but while I’ve liked a lot of it nothing has come close to unseating Neverwhere’s firm grasp as my favorite. Gaiman expanded upon a screenplay he wrote for a BBC tv series of the same name to include everything he couldn’t in the show and give true life to the story that grew in his head far bigger than what could be realized in its original form.

Richard is an excellent protagonist. In over his head and a bit hapless, but generally good of heart. He’s the audience proxy into the strange world of London Below, but has just enough definition and individuality that he’s not a cypher. The realms he explores are home to those who fell through the cracks of society, and are wonderfully imaginative and well realized. Gaiman uses literal interpretations of London geography as a springboard for populating London Below with captivatingly bizarre places and people to frame Richard’s journey. Watching as events unfold around him is highly engaging.

But beyond even the twists and turns of the plot and Richard’s strengths as a main character, Neverwhere shines brightest for me in its supporting cast. From the tragedy touched yet determined Door to the unsettling, relentless Croup and Vandermar to the delightfully enigmatic and coldly practical Marquis de Carabas and beyond, the intertwining of diverse and well defined characters and their conflicting agendas is what truly propels this novel along and keeps me coming back for reread after reread.

Gaiman’s vision of a fantastically strange and often dangerous world in between the normalcy of everyday London is an adventure quite unlike anything else I’ve read and something I wholly recommend experiencing. It isn’t grand literature per se, but it is a grand adventure.

 

Kat and Mouse: Payback Review

“Follow her lead? What the hell kind of ronin are you?”

“The ‘still alive’ kind.”

Kat (self labeled Amazon) and Mouse (specialist of all things pointy) are a pair of street mercenaries/ronin who do jobs that take them to areas wiser, or at least less dangerous, people avoid and star in a webseries of fast paced hard boiled stories in a cyberpunk setting.

Payback is a collection of the “second season” of their web serial. The season stands well enough alone and important lingers plot points and characters are fairly well explained, but a lot of overarching plot continues from season one and Kat and Mouse: Guns for Hire is the better place to start.

 

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While Guns for Hire had overarching elements and plots that developed over the season interwoven with the largely stand alone individual segments (chapters), Payback presents an even tighter connected arc underlying its stories. It still has a focus for each part and a job or task to motivate the action, but almost everything connects to the larger unfolding story involving the pasts of both Kat and Mouse.

It’s nice to see the history of characters addressed, and Payback addresses all the questions raised in the first season, while setting up a few new mysteries to provide potential for more adventures going forward. As with season one a fun  and diverse supporting cast flushed out Kat and Mouse’s world nicely and provided needed levity here and there.

The reveals were suitably logical and dramatic, and for the most part felt like they grew organically from what came before. The conversational style of Kat’s narration from Guns for Hire was continued and fit the tone well while allowing Kat’s emotional state to guide the reader;s own.  The prose did get a bit cumbersome in parts (particularly some of the long explanations), but it wasn’t too often or too disruptive to the flow.

I enjoyed Payback and there were definite signs of writer growth and additional depth. If there ever is a season three I’ll be happy to revisit the world of these slightly off-beat but likable mercenaries.

 

Kat and Mouse: Guns for Hire Review

Kat and Mouse, Guns for Hire is a collection of fast paced hard boiled stories in a cyberpunk setting. It focuses on a pair of street mercenaries (also referred to as ronin) who take delivery and escort jobs through areas wiser, or at least less dangerous, people avoid. Kat’s a self labeled Amazon and firearms expert; her partner Mouse a small woman who specializes in “all things pointy.” The stories are related via Kat in first person narrative.

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Guns for Hire a collection of the “first season” of a web serial. As such, the individual segments (chapters) are structured like episodes of a tv series – largely stand alone, but with overarching elements and plots that slowly develop over the season. It works very well for the material and keeps the action moving at a nice, quick speed. Reading this as a collection has the drawback that establishing prose, such as Kat introducing herself each episode, becomes repetitive and slightly tiresome, but it’s not excessive so can be easily overlooked.

There’s a conversational tone to these tales which helps give a sense of Kat’s personality and world view. She’s not just relating events to us, she’s telling stories about things that effected her and relates them appropriately.

Despite the somewhat cutesy name this series is on the edgier side. The world Kat and Mouse operate in is dangerous, the clients have secrets and there’s no such thing as a “cake run.” One of the great things about this book was the well developed supporting cast, who rose above the roles they fill and added a significant amount of depth to the larger story threaded throughout the season. Another highlight is the way the author integrates his worldbuilding elements. Terms, geography and social structure are all absorbed seamlessly while reading. Some things could have been better explained, but I imagine some of that will come in the sequels.

Though the stories were somewhat uneven at times I was pretty much fully invested by the end and am looking forward to further adventures.

Icarus Hunt Review

Jordan McKell is a down on his luck independent shipper who isn’t “all that independent, actually, not anymore.” A small fry smuggler for an organization that bailed him out of his debts, McKell gets in further over his head when he accepts a side job to pilot a ship carrying a secret cargo dug up from an archeological site back to Earth. Related in first person, Jordan’s story carries the reader along a struggle keep a thrown together crew a step ahead of parties interested in his cargo and that epitomize “any means necessary.”

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I am a big fan of Timothy Zahn. He is (deservedly) best known for his Star Wars novels, which are excellent and probably his greatest works.

However he has also written several phenomenal original works, of which Icarus Hunt is my favorite.

A key element of Zahn’s craft is his amazing intuition for how much detail to explain. This story is not about the specifics of the alien races encountered, or the mechanics of their method of space travel, etc. It’s a suspense story of a group of characters we desperately want to know the fates of. But these things are necessary knowledge for understanding how events proceed. Zahn weaves just enough of the particulars that you feel like you’re right there with them and know what they know. The fact that he does so seamlessly and without drawing attention to it or slowing the story down is a highlight of his writing, and this book in particular.

Equal parts mystery and science fiction, Icarus Hunt grabs you at word one and keeps you going until the last puzzle piece clicks into place. It also holds up beautifully to repeat readings, where all the little things overlooked the first time through lock into place and enhance your ride through Jordan’s journey.