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Review: Star Wars: Scoundrels, Timothy Zahn

ScoundrelsTitle: Star Wars: Scoundrels (Goodreads)
Author: Timothy Zahn (Facebook)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Han Solo should be basking in his moment of glory. After all, the cocky smuggler and captain of the Millennium Falcon just played a key role in the daring raid that destroyed the Death Star and landed the first serious blow to the Empire in its war against the Rebel Alliance. But after losing the reward his heroics earned him, Han’s got nothing to celebrate. Especially since he’s deep in debt to the ruthless crime lord Jabba the Hutt. There’s a bounty on Han’s head—and if he can’t cough up the credits, he’ll surely pay with his hide. The only thing that can save him is a king’s ransom. Or maybe a gangster’s fortune? That’s what a mysterious stranger is offering in exchange for Han’s less-than-legal help with a riskier-than-usual caper. The payoff will be more than enough for Han to settle up with Jabba—and ensure he never has to haggle with the Hutts again.

All he has to do is infiltrate the ultra-fortified stronghold of a Black Sun crime syndicate underboss and crack the galaxy’s most notoriously impregnable safe. It sounds like a job for miracle workers . . . or madmen. So Han assembles a gallery of rogues who are a little of both—including his indispensable sidekick Chewbacca and the cunning Lando Calrissian. If anyone can dodge, deceive, and defeat heavily armed thugs, killer droids, and Imperial agents alike—and pull off the heist of the century—it’s Solo’s scoundrels. But will their crime really pay, or will it cost them the ultimate price?

Details

Series: Stand-alone, but part of the greater Star Wars saga
Genre: Science fiction heist
Published: Del Rey (Random House), January 2013
Pages: 432

Paper copies: Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies:
 Barnes & Noble

Review

Scoundrels is a very enjoyable grand heist story, set in the Star Wars universe. If you’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven, you’ve got the basic storyline here – Han Solo and Chewbacca are offered an amazing reward for busting some stolen credits out of a maximum-security safe. Han gathers a team of professional thieves and slicers to take on the job, including Lando Calrissian.

The story takes place after the events of A New Hope (Episode IV) but before the Rebels relocate to Hoth at the start of Empire Strikes Back (Episode V). Han has received credits as a reward for his part in the rescue of Princess Leia and the destruction of the Death Star, but he was held up by pirates and the money was stolen before he could pay off Jabba the Hutt. Now he’s looking for a new job to raise the money again, and get those bounty hunters off his back, but with the Black Sun organisation making their presence known and Imperial agents sniffing about, a carefully crafted plan may not be enough to pull the caper off.

Timothy Zahn is a master of Star Wars lore, having already written at least 10 other books set both before and after the time of the films. I have actually read his Heir to the Empire series as well, a long time ago. His stories are easy to read and very suspenseful – you’re never quite sure who can be trusted or what the plan actually is until it happens. To a certain extent the ending is predictable – we know how some of it ends, because Lando isn’t happy with Han when they meet at Bespin during Empire Strikes Back (“You’ve got a lot of guts coming here…”), and we know the bounty hunters are still after Han. Despite that, the actual order of events is never obvious and there are plenty of twists throughout.

Being set within the timeline of the original three films is a major bonus here – unlike some of the other Star Wars books, there are only a few references to obscure places and people elsewhere in the universe, or events that happened in the past outside of the film storyline. This makes Scoundrels a more accessible book to those who are just film fans and not necessarily lore gurus like some people I know (*eyes SWTOR-playing friends*).

Scoundrels gives a bit of extra insight into some of my favourite characters from the Star Wars films. Han shows true leadership and more of his intelligent side than the “scruffy looking nerf herder” of the films. While Chewie doesn’t exactly get a lot of dialogue, he is still a major player in the heist. I didn’t feel that Han, Chewie and Lando showed that much of their film personas, but I get the feeling that the audiobook version would bring out the characters we know and love a lot better.

I’d recommend Scoundrels to Star Wars fans. Prior Star Wars knowledge isn’t essential, so those who enjoy an action-packed heist story should enjoy this one too!

Warnings: Star Wars levels of violence (blasters, no blood)

What did others think of Scoundrels?

  • “All in all this is a big step away from the traditional SW novels focused on action with plenty more tension and planning, but there are still plenty of things that go boom.” – The Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf
  • “Zahn takes a number of risks here, writing something of this kind for the franchise, and as I read the book it was clear he looked simply to have fun with it and hoped readers would do the same. I think he was right because I had a good time!” – SFRevu
  • “Zahn tells a good story and Scoundrels is no exception. He has the advantage of building upon the foundation of a well-known universe and Zahn uses that to his advantage, skillfully unveiling parts of Lucas’ universe for new readers without rehashing what the passionate fans may already know.” – Stainless Steel Droppings

Five For Friday: Escapism

Why do we read, write and watch Fantasy and Sci-fi fiction?

Aussie author Rowena Cory Daniells wrote a brilliant guest post over on Fantasy & SciFi Lovin’ this week that discussed this very question.

The article not only delves into why we might need some escapism from our daily lives, but also introduced me to Tolkien’s idea of “Eucatastrophe“, which struck a chord with me. Eucatastrophe is described by Tolkien as:

…the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).

He kind of hit the nail on the head there, didn’t he? That wonderful feeling you get, just as the quest is complete, as the young lovers kiss, as the beautiful view of a city or landscape is revealed – that is why we love fantasy. It’s magic.

After we have grown up enough that we dismiss magic or true romance as not existing, there is still a little child (or teenager) inside us that wishes that wasn’t the case.

I believe that those of us who read, write and watch fantasy stories do so because we know magic probably isn’t real, but what if it is?

Here are five ways to keep that magical feeling alive:

Five Methods of Fantasy Escapism

1. Books

C’mon, did you really think I could write a list like this without mentioning books? Speculative fiction gives us the ability to visit other worlds, experience fantastic possibilities in our own world, or to dream about what the technology of the future may allow us to achieve (or a combination of those!).

From A Wrinkle in Time to the very latest releases such as Throne of Glass or Stormdancer, books have been helping us to escape for a very long time now and there’s no stopping the imaginations of authors!

2. Film

Rowena Cory Daniells mentions in her article that the top 50 grossing films have all been “fantastical in nature”. It seems we love a film to show us other worlds and magical stories. I’d lay bets that most of those films are adaptations of books, but it’s great to see a fantasy world brought to life, isn’t it?

Some (but not all) of my favourite films to escape into over the years include Star Wars, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, The Princess Bride, pretty much all Disney cartoon fairy-tales, Stargate, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, X-Men and other comic-adaptations… the list goes on.

Honourable mentions must go to two films I saw in 3D around the same time, and completely loved – Avatar and How To Train Your Dragon. I think it was the flying scenes that really got me, plus the gorgeous Nagrand floating mountains scenery in Avatar.

3. TV Series

There have been fantastical TV series for almost as long as there have been televisions! I will admit to being a huge Red Dwarf fan during my high school years. I devoured Firefly for the first time last year and have re-watched it since, and I’m currently working my way through the many series of Stargate. We loooove to watch Game of Thrones, and have also been enjoying Once Upon a Time. It seems to be a bit more Sci-fi than Fantasy with TV for me though.

4. Computer Games

I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for almost much 6 years now (gosh…), and it’s not all just hacking baddies to bits. The scenery, the music, the Lore involved with the game is so detailed that it really does draw you into the story at times.

It’s not just WoW, of course – most fantasy-style games these days have a detailed story and artwork behind them. Games such as the Elder Scrolls (Skyrim, especially) are so beautiful to explore that I just keep wandering off and losing track of the quest I’m on. Mr Ang was playing one of the Assassin’s Creed games recently on Playstation and I had to sit there and watch because I wanted to know what was going to happen next in the story.

5. Music

Music might not usually be connected with fantasy but I do think it’s one of the most important ways creators of fantasy (authors, film-makers, game designers) can share emotion or a sense of another place with others.

Last weekend I was extremely excited (possibly even nerd-gasmic) to see the Queensland Symphony Orchestra playing the soundtrack of The Fellowship of the Ring while the movie played behind them. It was brilliant! I found most of the time I focused on the movie and occasionally remembered that the orchestra was playing below it, but I spent some time marvelling at how much drama the music adds to the story or giggling at how many people laughed at the “One does not simply…” part!

I’ve got a decent collection of movie and game soundtracks that help me to disappear to far-away places in my mind. My favourites include Empire Strikes Back, How to Train Your Dragon, Lord of the Rings, Wrath of the Lich King, Skyrim and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (I know, I know, but the music is really good :P)

 

So! If you made it this far, I salute you! Tell me all about your fantasy escape methods, I’d love to hear about them!

Review: Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

Title: Water For Elephants (Goodreads)

Author:  Sara Gruen

Rating: ★★★★☆

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, swindlers and misfits in a second-rate circus struggling to survive.

A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that Jacob meets Marlena, the beautiful equestrienne who is married to August, a charismatic but violently unpredictable animal trainer. Jacob also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems unmanageable until he discovers an unusual way to reach her.

Details

Series: Stand alone
Genre: Adult historical/contemporary
Published: Allen & Unwin, 2006 (First published Algonquin Books, 2006)
Pages: 335

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

You may have seen the film of this book, released in 2011. I haven’t seen it yet, so my reading of the book wasn’t overshadowed and I tried very hard to keep Robert Pattinson out of mind while reading!

Water For Elephants is actually two stories in one, or at least, two stories separated by time. Part of the story is of the ninety- or ninety-three-year-old Jacob, lonely and isolated in a nursing home in the present day. The other part is about the younger Jacob in the 1930s, and his adventures with the depression-era train circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

There’s something about the circus in general that draws me in, but repels me at the same time – I think it’s the feeling of seeing something magical and spectacular but knowing that behind the scenes is sweat, dirt and pain. Perhaps not these days, but back in the 1930s that was certainly the case. The Benzini Brothers circus succeeds or fails based on the blood, sweat and tears of the workers, performers and animals, and under the often cruel eye of the bosses.

As well as the world of the circus, Water For Elephants takes us into the world of the Great Depression in the United States with its breadlines, unemployment, suicides and desperation. I haven’t read much about this era before, but it sounds like a difficult time for just about everywhere in the world.

I thought the young character of Jacob was really well-written. Jacob is just about to sit his final exams for his Veterinary degree when his parents are killed in an accident, leaving him with nothing. In despair, he flees his home and lands, unexpectedly, on a Circus in need of a vet. Jacob is passionate, impulsive and kind, often putting himself in danger to help others, including the animals of the menagerie. His affair with Marlena seemed a little too love-at-first-sight, although it was very sweet.

Rosie the elephant is an adorable character all of her own. I won’t spoil any of her antics for future readers but she gets up to all kinds of mischief around the circus.

The other part of this story, that of elderly Jacob waiting for his family to take him to the circus, was really quite sad. There are countless lonely grandparents and great-grandparents in homes around the world being forgotten every day. This story is a great reminder that the elderly people in our lives have fascinating stories to tell!

Water For Elephants was a very enjoyable read, although quite dark at times. If you’re going to buy a copy I do recommend a paperback  – my copy had lovely black and white photographs of real circuses of the era at the start of each chapter.

Now just excuse me while I go afk to give my 79-year-old Yia-yia a big hug.

Warnings: Violence towards humans and animals, graphic sexual content.

Five For Friday: The Hunger Games

It’s Friday! That means it’s time for Five Things.

Last night, I went to see The Hunger Games at the movies. I thought it was brilliant – it stayed very true to the book, unlike many book-to-movie conversions. You can see my review for The Hunger Games book over at Once Upon A Time. I’m trying to avoid story spoilers here!

Here are my five things for this week:

Five things about the Hunger Games Film

1. The casting was brilliant.

Each character was pretty much how I imagined they would be, or I was comfortable with how they were portrayed. You know how sometimes characters in book movies rub you up the wrong way and you spend the whole time thinking, “No, this is wrong!”? Well, not with this movie. Haymitch was a little different to how I imagined him though. I thought of him as more of a fat, drunken slob – he seemed quite personable in the film.

2. Changing points of view.

In the book, the point of view stays with Katniss the entire time. The only clues we have about what’s going on outside of the arena is from her thoughts about what might be happening. It’s interesting to see how they dealt with the fact that we don’t have access to her thoughts in a movie format. To explain aspects of the story, we are shown what’s going on in the Games control room and outside in the districts.

3. The movie cut out the parts of the book that I least liked.

My main problem with the book was that I disliked the whole “pretend love story” thing between Katniss and Peeta. In the movie, we can’t tell what Katniss’ actual thoughts are about Peeta. We don’t know that she was playing up for the cameras, so instead of coming across as ruthless and kind of manipulative, her attraction to him seems genuine. I really liked that!

4. It’s hard to squeeze a whole book into two hours.

Two hours seemed too short to do proper justice to the horror that was the arena itself, but no-one would go to see a nightmarish movie that went all day, would they? If you read my review of the book version of The Hunger Games, you know that as I read it I spent the whole time being terrified and anxious for the characters. Even though I knew what was going to happen this time, I was just as anxious watching the movie than I was while reading the book, and I had the same feeling of relief when it was all over. That has got to be the mark of a great film.

5. I’m on Team Gale.

Even though I think Peeta is a sweetheart, I have to feel for Gale. In the books he comes across as being quite aloof and taciturn, but we see more of him in the film and well… that’s a good thing. I might be biased by Liam Hemsworth being an Aussie!

If you get a chance, go and see The Hunger Games on the big screen! Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite.

Hunger Games Trailer

 Have you seen it? What did you think?

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