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TFN Review: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

Posted by Adam on March 5, 2014 at 08:35 AM CST

Adam Nettina's Take

Honor Among Thieves establishes a paradigm in its opening pages; Han Solo is a simple man living in a complicated universe. Caught in the midst of the Galactic Civil War between an authoritarian Empire and what he believes is a rebellion which will eventually corrupt into an authoritarian government of its own, the Han Solo written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck is cast firmly in the smuggler role we all first witnessed in A New Hope. All he wants to do is get away, be left alone, and remove the price on his head—preferably without having to get involve with any Hutt or Rebel complications. At least, that’s the way the story begins.

In actuality, Abraham and Franck’s Solo shows remarkable depth during the novel. I stop short of describing this depth as an outright character change or development, because at the end of the novel, the inner workings and thoughts of Han Solo don’t show a dramatic shift away from selfish smuggler and towards selfless rebel hero. However, in Solo’s thoughts, words, and even his perception of the world around him, the reader is previewed to a complex and frankly insecure human being beneath the simple and cocky outward appearance. And in the closing lines of the book there is no mistaking the choices that Han makes. There’s honor among thieves, and even though the transition to Rebel Alliance hero may not take place by work’s end, Abraham and Franck set Solo on a course for the Han to come in later movies and novels.

That’s jumping too far ahead, though, and neglecting to mention that there’s a lot to enjoy in the cocky Han Solo we occasionally see in Honor Among Thieves.The scene in chapter six where he negotiates something of a treasure hunt to find out how to contact the missing rebel agent Scarlet Hark shows Han in all his intelligent, smug glory. And it works, from masquerading as an Imperial officer named “Han Sololo” to beating up a Trandoshan criminal. But there are also times in the novel—more and more as it progresses—where Han reveals an insecurity about his place in the universe. Not just in his verbal jabs to Chewbacca or Scarlet about how certain things looktoo clean or orderly, but in his innermost thoughts. Those thoughts, which the reader is always previewed to, were the most telling about Solo throughout the work. I felt like the authors did an excellent job of conveying Han’s concern for Leia in this way, and thought it equally ingenious to tie the stakes of the weapon both the Empire and Rebellion were after to Han’s need to roam the galaxy. In essence, building a plot in which the very nature of freedom, space, and travel are at stake in the universe, not only make for interesting moral questions, but also provide the central catalyst for peering into the more contemplative Han Solo.

For as enjoyable and complex as Abraham and Franck’s Han Solo is, the novel benefits equally from a strong and intriguing supporting cast, as well as the aforementioned and highly enjoyable Rebellion-era storyline. The latter point is of exceptional note, and worth mentioning before a survey of the other characters. Few novelists today have the gift of pacing—that is to say, many writers, especially while working in a new and unfamiliar universe, bog themselves down in unnecessary backstories and details that sabotage the plot’s movement forward. This is not the case in Honor Among Thieves. Throughout the work the authors use up-tempo and surprisingly humorous scenes to advance the action. A prime example of this comes in chapter 13, as Han explores various cantinas to try to find a lead on Hunter Maas. At first it’s a seemingly pointless exercise, but it moves quickly and culminates in Han having a philosophical conversation with an older version of Han that gets to the heart of Solo’s dilemma to stay or leave the rebellion. Other examples abound, and whether done with quick wit dialogue or remarkably descriptive run and gun scenes that could have been pulled right from Mission Impossible, the authors create a unique combination of the action, drama, and comedy genres that few Star Wars authors have managed to effortlessly write into the Galaxy Far, Far Away.

As for the supporting cast, I can’t say enough about the “thieves” who lend their name to the novel’s title. Baasen Ray is the kind of character who begs for subsequent short stories exploring his backstory with Han, but even in his role within Honor Among Thieves, he presents a fascinating case study of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “scum and villainy.” Truth be told, even in spite of his redemptive act to save Han and Leia in the novel’s closing scene, Bassam never really chooses a “side.” His allegiances are to the highest bidder, and his short and to-the-point dialogue, spoken with a kind of drunk uncle wisdom, testifies to the amoral ambiguity that exists between empire and rebellion. The scene in chapter 23, in which Baasen pours Han a glass of wine while telling him he’ll just as soon take Han back to Jabba and collect the bounty should the K’Kybak weapon prove to be fake, is particularly indicative of the amorality in which the thieves Han has long associated with operate.

In contrast to Baasen, but no less important to the story, stands Hunter Maas. I couldn’t have been the only one who literally laughed at his physical description (what, being shirtless, portly, and still bold enough to wear a cape!), finding his narcissistic and egomaniac persona to be equal parts disturbing and hilarious. It’s perhaps ironic (or fitting) that he meets his end with a blaster bolt from Baasen.

If the thieves of the novel’s title weren’t intriguing enough, the “honorable” characters push the collection of dramtis personae over the top. Scarlet Hark, the no-nonsense rebel spy, is intelligent and crafty, and reminded me of Winter, except with an almost adrenaline junky side. Nevertheless, she keeps a cool head when she needs to, and counterbalances the rashness and often anxiety ridden nature of Han, who becomes her unwilling partner in crime. To that end, I thought Leia was written intelligently and respectfully. We’ll see her with her own anxieties in Razor’s Edge, but within the context of Han’s limited perspective in , she’s the cool and collective diplomat who’s still more abrasive than flirtatious when it comes to interacting with Han. Thankfully, Abraham and Franck spare the reader from the kind of awkward Han and Leia moments that Martha Wells included in Razor’s Edge.

From the plot to the characters, it’s hard to pick many bones with the work. There will be some hardline EU fans who grumble that the author duo doesn’t tie in established references to the younger versions of Solo developed by A. C. Crispin and Brian Daley (or even Timothy Zahn, for that matter), but given the uncertainty of continuity in the EU, such omissions don’t detract from the work. Likewise, select moments bordering on the implausible (destroying a Star Destroyer with eight X-Wings) to the only in fiction (successfully jumping from an X-Wing’s wings to the Millennium Falcon while an entire planet is exploding) can be forgiven when juxtaposed with the likes of today’s action films. Finally, the introduction of the K’kybak species and their technology, while at first sounding an awful like previously established prehistoric galactic civilizations like the Rakata and Kwa, doesn’t necessarily cause continuity errors. For all we know, the hyperspace-obsessed advanced civilization might just be related to one of the previous EU prehistoric species.

If there is one gripe I have with the work, it’s that Abraham and Franck missed an opportunity to develop a true villain. I felt like this reluctance to devote more than a few paragraphs to the main antagonist in Razor’s Edge really held Martha Wells’ story back, and while the effect is not so detrimental to the story of Honor Among Thieves, it does constitute a weak point in the novel. Astrocartographer Essio Galassian is only obliquely referenced as a ruthless and violent intellectual for the vast majority of the novel, finally entering the stage in person during the closing chapters. Even then, his role is limited. The reader senses unimaginable frustration on his end in failing to unlock the secrets of the K’Kybak, but we’re never afforded his side of the story. Given the novel’s limited point of view it’s almost an expected dynamic, which makes it in some ways all the more frustrating for the reader.

The novel’s limitations in perspective aside, it’s worth a purchase if only for the sheer enjoyment factor of reading. With masterful pacing and witty, descriptive dialogue, Abraham and Franck write a book that’s fun to read from start to finish. Adding a complexity of thought and action to a classic character like Han will satisfy those looking to indulge a deeper side, while presenting strong supporting characters like Baasen and Scarlet Hark makes Honor Among Thieves a worthy addition to Rebellion era storytelling. My only fear? That with an EU reboot possibly in the works, it will be all for naught.

Say Again? Ok, so the K’kybak do seem to fit a pattern of previously established EU civilizations that came before the Galactic Republic, and perhaps could even be linked to the Kwa or Gree. That is, if we take a Chapter 28 quote from Scarlet with a grain of salt. “Galassian’s best guess was a few mission years.” Scarlet tells Leia when asked about the age of the K’kybak temple. While a possible EU reboot would render the dating a mute point, such a figure, if “true” in EU continuity terms, puts the K’kybak as existing long before any previously established Star Wars races, save perhaps the Celestials. It’s a minor slip-up, but one which I have to think Pablo Hidalgo didn’t get any input on.

A Certain Point of View: One of the interesting themes ofHonor Among Thieves is the role of perspective, and the question over what is actual and what is subjective. Call it the subjective nature of reality, reference Plato’s vision in the cave, or claim I’m going all Matrix on you, but there were times in reading the novel in which I wasn’t sure what Abraham and Frank were describing was really the Galaxy they were conveying, or merely the way Han was seeing it. It starts with Han’s description of the Jetson’s like metropolis on Cioran (in Han’s words, the “small bowel” of the Empire), complete with automating gardens, way-too-polite droids, and bars that stink of Imperial order. Intended or not, these descriptions point to a universe that’s slightly distorted via Han’s jaded eyes. Not that I’m complaining.

8 out of 10 Lightsabers

Adam Throne’s take:

Film series tie-ins are a difficult beast. Some graft recognizable characters onto a generic tale; others take the opposite tact and overload a story with excessive references to continuity and minutia. Most tie–ins often place familiar characters into unfamiliar situations to see how they cope, then “pack” everything up by the end so that as the adventure comes to a close, the “game” is reset until the next book in series. Honor Among Thieves by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (who go by the pen name James S.A. Corey) does something different from all of these, and does it well. That’s not to say that it’s perfect – but it’s the least convoluted yet most pleasurable “Classic Trilogy” Star Wars reading in a long time.

The book’s success is not just a matter of simplicity. Many series with classic characters (such as the Fate of the Jedi) use great skill and time to develop twisting but satisfying plotlines, multiple storylines, and character arcs that chart growth and change. Honor Among Thieves uses the device of a focal character – in this case Han – burdened by the ramifications of his choices in A New Hope as he embarks on a mission for the Rebellion at the behest of Princess Leia. Along the way, Han has each step of the journey open up into even more intriguing events that directly impact – and are affected by – Han’s unique reactions to the people and circumstances around him. He drives the action as much as he is propelled by it.

The book borrows some cues from Michael Stackpole, where "solving" one problem leads to the next to keep the pages turning, and does so with ease and humor. It also mixes in a rebel agent (in the form of the lovely and enigmatic Scarlet Hark), bounty hunter Bassen Ray and his cohorts (whose banter make for an amusing double act), and “treasure hunt” elements, ala Indiana Jones – namely a mysterious McGuffin involving hyperspace technology, which, in the wrong hands (a point that becomes a lot more “gray” than that phrase implies), could be deadly. Make no mistake, though -- this is very much a Han Solo book at its core with the Rebellion tugging at one side, and Han’s moral development starting to gel in ways that will propel him onto the path we see him take up in The Empire Strikes Back.

One of the advantages of the novel is that it is nearly all told from Han’s perspective. The few moments without him make one realize just how vital his voice is to the Star Wars mix – how in the original film, his sardonic irony is mixed with the humor of the moment as well as the seriousness of the situations to form something unique – something that made the first film the success that it was. The galaxy was dangerous, and the stakes were high—but the humor and fun factor never escaped. Han lived by the moment, even dangerously, but seemed to enjoy the challanges—and so did we. Empire had humor, but the fun factor was dampened (to good effect) by the darkness; Jedi was perhaps too light; too forced (pardon the pun). A New Hope's “voice” has rarely been captured in the same way again, but the authors do it here. That alone is high praise.

For purists, there are nods to things to come that don’t feel artificial, and which make sense in the context of the tale without “spoiling” future events. Lando and the Sarlaac both get mentioned by Han, but when characters who don’t know about them aren't present. These are just two of the many reminders that Han lived in a different past, a different world than his new friends in the Rebellion.

We also get mentions of the rag-tag Rebel fleet, a list potential new rebel bases, General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, and at least two other aliens that are not in A New Hope but important to the overall Star Wars universe (including Timothy Zahn’s works). These nods don’t weigh the book down or feel incongruous (one of my big issues with the current Star Wars comic by Brian Woods is the apparent overdoing on Return of the Jedi references in the immediate post-ANH era). These mentions make the universe feel familiar, but the authors managesto tell a tale mostly removed from what we know, yet still alluding to what we do (for example, while Han's time as an Imperial pilot isn't directly referred to, his knowledge of the Empire's lack of compassion for its pilots, while serving a plot point, also serves to emphasize his past experiences and how it shapes his different perspective). The book is extremely new-reader friendly, but won’t alienate long-time fans. Long-time fans should note that the book “feels” a bit like some of the early Brian Daley novels and Ann Crispin Solo series, but unlike Han Solo at Stars’ End, it never gets too far from the Galactic Core, and unlike the Han Solo trilogy, it doesn’t try to fill in the gaps of Han’s past. Instead it connects the dots from the Han we saw at the end of A New Hope and the one we know in Empire. The interesting thing is that rather than events mainly causing Han to stay and change his mind about the rebellion, the book charts his own self-reflection about the process.

To this end, the book does something few Star Wars novels have done: It uses characters and events as foils/mirrors to Han, and it uses symbolism to hone its themes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in scenes where Han reflects on his dislike of the cleanliness of an Imperial city (and what the hidden penalty for littering might be), as well as a deliberately metaphorical conversation between Han and Hark about the nature of the Rebellion, the Empire, and the law. Later musings by Han about the difference between the Empire and the Rebellion when devastating power is wielded by either, and his point about the blurred lines between him and Leia when push comes to shove, also make the themes clear.

Character wise, we see Han’s reflections about his need to watch after Luke, his understated concern for Luke’s impending loss of simplicity (read: innocence), the development of his love-hate flirtation/bickering with Leia, and his friendship with Chewbacca (in fact, the way the auithors vividly convey Chewie’s emotion through actions and “words” is probably the best rendition of the Wookiee set to paper). In other words, we get the character issues we’d expect to get in a Star Wars novel of this era—with layers and angles previously unexplored. His ultimate faith in Leia's leadership is eventually pronounced, even if he does things to counter it and their own developing relationship, a point made clear at the end when his actions lead to an uncomfroable moment where, surprisingly (and perhaps metaphorically), Leia breaks the ice --and shows a step in Han's ability to change, even if he's not yet there.

The book’s fight scenes are crisp and clean, whether done as character brawls or space scenes. One of the hardest things for an author to do is to describe aerial combat in a way that is real, accessible, and memorable to a reader, and the authors carry this out here. There’s also hilarity with the Falcon in some nice foreshadowing of its problems in Empire (if you recall what Luke said in A New Hope about the pace of the navicomputer, you’ll get the gist). We even start to see Han sardonically pondering the role of a certain mystical energy field when the Falcon survives a scrape.

The mirroring of characters is good but some characters seem underutilized. Hark as less to do than anticipated; and while her rapport with Han is a strong one and her initial presence and conceit of adopting many roles and guises is a good one, there’s less here than her dust jacket press boasts, although she’s clearly a character begging for a return. Readers of the April Star Wars Insider will be pleased to find a Scarlet Hark solo story in its pages. My dissappointment in her role may come from reading that story before reading the novel.

As a villain, Galassian is woefully undeveloped as an antagonist and as a character. His scientific background might be a different angle, but ultimately he’s a wannabe lackey to the Emperor that’s not really a lackey; he seeks what the Rebels seek for his own ends, does and says menacing things (including the funny but out-of-this galaxy phrasing of “pretty please with sugar on top” as he interrogates a victim), and claims that he does not harbor great ambitions by doing what he does; he just wants his piece of the Emperor's galactic pie. While this is interesting in the sense that self-interest of men such as him pose the greatest danger to law and order on either side, his presence is so fleeting and he is so easily disposed of that one can’t help feel cheated on a dramatic level. Just because antagonists mirror the protagonists doesn’t mean characterization can go by the wayside. Indiana Jones had Belloq, a shadowy reflection with a well-established rivalry, string presence, and great come-uppances. Galassian is a shadow but no reflection. Even with five lines in his first film, there was more to Boba Fett than this.

What Galassian lacks in characterization and presence, Bassen Ray and Hunter Maas make up for, and the authors deserve praise for this. Maas is a minor but important character who can lead the Rebels to the prize they seek; his underwhelming physical presence and insufferably egotistic nature (he refers to himself in the third person) is a delight. Baasen Ray’s “business over pleasure” attitude both bites and helps Han at various points. A shame that he’s bumped off in the end, but here the death is useful to hone the book’s point: Hark thinks that despite what Bassen did to Han, he has good in him; Han isn’t so sure, but Bassen (like Maas) pays a price for his ambiguity. And therein lies the rub: in a galaxy where a weapon can be used by either side for total destruction, Bassen makes a call that might be called unselfish but from some perspectives isn’t, while Han himself makes choices that fall into a middle ground. Yet, he has (and, I maintain, has always had, despite his best protests) what Bassem lacks – a moral code that is becoming more solid here. In acting for himself, but thinking about the atrocities that could affect him, we see him starting to recognize how things can affect the people he is starting to care about -- and could start to change him as well.

Say Again? There’s more than one apparent spoken allusion to films featuring Harrison Ford’s other big screen alter ego that may make you either smile or cringe. However, the references fit the story's context, so they’re almost like the moment in Temple of Doom where “Club Obi-Wan” gets name checked (although they're nowhere near as overt).

A Certain Point of View: Han’s dialogue is witty, and so is the narration that mimics his tone. The first chapter starts off in a perfunctory manner to get the plot moving, but the second chapter’s description of one particular part of the galaxy as less of a “heart” and more of the “bowels” gets the spirit of Han perfectly, and at this point we know that we’re in for an engaging ride that transcends the average novel. Also, this is also the only Star Wars work I know where someone refers to himself as a “Wampa’s ass," so credit should be given that as well (and I'm sure you can figure out who the speaker is).

8 out of 10 Lightsabers

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