I'll be the first to admit there are certain Star Wars novels I'm predisposed to enjoy. Anything Timothy Zahn writes qualifies, and throwing in a couple of baddass looking Imperials and plenty of Star Destroyers really sweetens the deal.
Scourge features none of those things, and knowing that in advance didn't exactly leave me giddy in anticipation for reading it. Truth is, I picked up Scourge only because I was experiencing some down time in my own reading of Star Wars novels, and found myself with a few empty weekends between new releases. Set some 19 years after the Battle of Yavin and a few years preceding the Yuuzhan Vong invasion, the book features a host of new, never-before-seen characters operating almost exclusively within Hutt Space and the Corporate Sector.
Specifically, Scourge follows Jedi Knight Mander Zuma in his attempts to unravel the mysterious death of his apprentice, Toro Irana. Teaming up with Toro's sister Reen and her Bothan companion Eddey, the three protagonists soon link Toro's death to the trade of an addicting and destructive form of spice called Tempest, which is running rampant throughout the Hutt Space. Laced with mystery and more twists and turns than a Six Flags roller coaster, Grubb crafts a story which surprises the reader at every turn, and keeps him/her emotionally invested in the characters' fate right up to the thrilling conclusion on the stricken Hutt homeworld of Varl.
For someone who has never written a Star Wars novel, Grubb has done an outstanding job with his characters, who are dynamic, likeable, and identifiable for readers (yes, even the Alien ones!) Zuma leads the way on this account. Throughout the work we are previewed to the Jedi archivist's own self-consciousness in his force abilities. We see a character that experiences doubt in his ability to use the force as a weapon, yet at the same time, we see an empowering response in which Zuma affirms his Knighthood through how the force guides his thoughts, emotions, and ultimately his actions. I love how this dynamic played out in the dialogue between Zuma and Reen throughout the novel. The scene where Reen essentially forces him to admit he's a librarian is almost laughable (in a good way), while the coming-of-age moment when Zuma shoots Reen in order to save her from the Hutt Zonnos is thoughtful and poignant. The reader can't help but sympathize with Zuma for feeling responsible for Toro's death, and the loyalty he shows to Reen to help track down the Spice Lord and prevent more death's is beyond simple revenge.
To that end, Reen is an amazing character in her own right. Grubb makes it clear from very early on that she and her brother weren't on good terms when he died, and that even after his death she still resents him and the Jedi at large for breaking up her family. Yet she can't escape the sadness his death brings, and as the novel progresses, she comes to not only respect Zuma, but also reexamine her thoughts about the Jedi Order. Likeable in the way she grows and evolves as a character, it doesn't hurt that she's also pretty good with a blaster at her side. It also doesn't hurt that her partner, Eddey, bucks every preconceived notion of Bothans in the Star Wars universe. I loved that Grubb was able to craft a character beyond the simple stereotype. Instead, he gives voice (or rather, give ears!) to a contemplative and intelligent Bothan who isn't putting his own interests before everything else.
If the characters make the story realistic and likable, than the plot makes it fun. True, some very weighty issues are at stake here, and I commend Grubb for weaving real-world themes of addiction, organized crime, and government intervention in crisis, into his work. Yet from the first scene in which we see the Godfather-like 'Spice Lord,' to the final reveal of the mutated Tempest drug on Varl, there's mystery that kept me guessing and unable to put the novel down. That Grubb is right at home in a vivid and descriptive prose is apparent from the first scene of Toro's bizarre death, and continues through the awkward but ingenious 'battle' scene on Nar Shaadda. Grubb deserves special praise for his handling of the villain, Mika, who is originally presented as an ally to Zuma. As much as I suspected there was more to Mika the Hutt's story, I have to say I never expected him to turn out as a frustrated force-user who felt alienated by his inability to identify with either the Jedi or the Hutts. It's because he is presented as perhaps the only likable Hutt in the whole universe that the reader has a tendency to suspect Vago the Hutt as the Spice Lord, while missing the subtle signs that Mika had evil intentions. His final reveal of being force sensitive was a great way to address all the subtle loose ends and questions that built throughout the story.
Few stand-alone works are really 'must-reads' considering how they fit into the greater Expanded Universe, but I wouldn't make the mistake of assuming one can, or perhaps should, pass over Scourge. Years removed from Brian Daley making the CSA cool with his Han Solo trilogy, Angela Krin represents the Corporate Sector well, and brings it back to relevance following the collapse of the Empire. Likewise, the Hutts are presented with a sophistication and code of honor beyond that of just gluttonous slugs, a refreshing take other Star Wars authors would be apt to employ. Finally, with Zuma as a prime example for what really is a 'new' and more character-driven Jedi order, the novel builds on established Expanded Universe content and blazes new trails in its own right. Do yourself a favor and head back to read this one if you've passed it by!
Beyond the Pages: Despite having very limited work within the Star Wars universe, Grubb deserves credit for his references and use of Expanded Universe material. Setting the Toro siblings as Pantoran's is the first (to my knowledge) use of the species in the post Clone War era, while his characterization of Krin as a no-nonsense CSA officer is in step with everything we know about CSA personnel. I especially liked how Grubb takes the reader to Varl, and brings to life the mysteriously devastated world in a prose setting.
Obligatory "WTF" Mention: Exploding Hutts. And I thought cleaning dog poop off the carpet was bad?
Wish List: It's been a little more than a year since this novel came out, but I would love to see these characters incorporated into future Star Wars fiction works. Zuma is too intriguing to go unaccounted for in the New Jedi order and beyond, and given Del Rey's involvement in building a force 'prehistory' storyline in the Fate of the Jedi series, his skills as an archivist beg to be brought to new pages.
Rating: 9 out of 10 Exploding Hutts