—–WARNING, MILD SPOILERS AHEAD—–
One doesn’t go into Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Honor Among Thieves expecting earth-shattering events. The novel is part of a series set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, so there’s a limited scope of action. Luke can’t display any dazzling Force feats, because he still struggles with telekinesis in ESB. Han can’t fully commit to the Rebellion or romance Leia, because that hasn’t happened yet either. Leia still has room to be a Rebel leader and diplomat, but the scale of the Rebellion’s successes still has to be pretty small since they’ve just won their first truly major victory. So all in all, it can’t be very interesting, can it? The first book in this series, Razor’s Edge, was at least Leia-centric in a way that novels haven’t been for a long time, but a Han-centric book between the first two films surely has got to feel like a retread.
If you supposed that, you would be wrong. To be sure, the overall plot isn’t going to involve a galaxy-changing turn of events. There are little surprises in the situation of the Rebellion and the Empire at the end of the story, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be – excuse our pun – the whole story. James S.A. Corey – actually the pen name of two co-authors, but whom we’ll treat in the singular – does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the novel. Character development and world development are two issues that are extremely important to us as a reader, and these are strengths that this book has as a whole. It feels authentic, and it feels like a living, breathing galaxy. That’s important, because in the near future, we won’t be seeing any galaxy-shaking events in the EU since those will be reserved for the still-mysterious Episode VII. Instead, we’ll see more books like Honor Among Thieves and the Rebels television series, which will flesh out and develop periods of the timeline which we’ve generally already explored. If this novel is a prototype for future EU of that sort, we’re in good shape.
Given that the series is specifically centered on the Big Three, we’ll start with them. Han Solo is the main character of this particular novel, and every scene is from his point of view. Han Solo feels like Han Solo, and in particular, a Han Solo that is straddling the world between the Solo we see in Daley and Crispin and the Solo we see in the later EU. We cannot provide a quality comparison between the work of those two late Solo authors, because it’s been years since we’ve read the Crispin trilogy and we’ve yet to make our way through Daley (omission of omissions for an EU reader!) Nevertheless, Han’s in an interesting position here – he behaves similarly to the way we might expect him to in this time period: no commitments to the Rebellion, emphasis on how he’s in it for rewards, etc. That’s certainly how he behaved in Razor’s Edge. The difference is that we’re inside his head for a longer period of time in this novel, and it’s clear that he wants to fight on the side of good… sort of. His primary goal is to avoid tyranny: the tyranny of the taxman, or the tyranny of a person who says that people cannot live their lives the way that they want to. He’s cautious about joining the Rebellion because he doesn’t think much of their motives to restore the Old Republic, since he just thinks that the Rebels will be the new government that he has to struggle against. But he shows his heroic side when it comes to saving innocent lives – whether humans or animals, as it turns out – reflecting the sort of inner nobility that first got him drummed out of the Empire when he freed Chewbacca from slavery. It’s actually a very interesting point of view he has about good and evil, and he very much embodies a sort of “chaotic good” point of view: he’s much more comfortable in a ramshackle setting where a man can do as he likes (to a limit) than the polished and manicured Imperial Core.
Leia has a fairly substantial role in the story, though we never get her point of view in a scene. It’s still interesting to see her in Han’s mind at this point in time, though. The Han and Leia romance has yet to develop, but Han is still very protective of her – and more importantly, worries about his relationship with female Rebel spy Scarlet Hark being mistaken for a romantic one. Despite all his banter, Han cares what Leia thinks of him. As for what he thinks of her, he notes that Leia is equally at home in the seedy underbelly of the Rim as much as she is in the halls of political leadership. He admires her ability to be both a soldier and a leader, and thinks that she pretty much has to carry the entire Rebellion on her shoulders. He thinks of how each loss in the war weighs on her, but how she has to keep on going on and maintain her inspirational demeanor because if she doesn’t, who will? It’s remarkably perceptive of him, and it’s good characterization of Leia besides. Importantly, it’s one of the things Han admires about her.
Luke barely appears in this novel, so there’s really not too much to say about him. Chewie has a fairly substantial role, and it’s important that Corey took the time to have Chewie do more than bark and repair the ship. Chewie seems to care about his new Rebel friends, and seems to want Han to get involved. At times, he acts like Han’s conscience. Scarlet Hark is a major secondary character who is introduced in the novel, and there’s not a terrible lot to say about her. She’s a strong female character who doesn’t take crap from people, but is still generally a nice person. She’s a good foil for Leia: sassier and more aggressive, but also less inclined to listen to the advice of others, including Han. Leia and Scarlet show us two different styles of freedom fighter, but both are committed to their cause. There’s not much more to say about her since she is a one-off character, but she was interesting enough if a little generic (at times she felt like Mara Jade lite, without the bitterness).
The worlds featured in Honor Among Thieves are original, which can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, it’s nice to see new worlds invented from time to time to give the galaxy a sense of scale, but sometimes that’s not really necessary. The Imperial world, Cioran, didn’t really need to be invented, while the other worlds where the action takes place work quite well as planets nobody’s ever heard of.
In the wider sense, Corey accomplishes world-building by making the setting seem authentic. The world Cioran is a well-regulated Imperial Core World, and the novel does a good job portraying it as both highly luxurious and highly controlled. Han is understandably uncomfortable here. Not to give too much away, the other locations where the adventure continues are decently described as well. But it’s the little things that really accomplish authenticity.
When Chewbacca cooks up a meal for Han, it’s not just a generic dish: Corey makes up a name for it. When Han visits a deli for information, we learn about how the deli operates and what it looks like. These are little things, and hardly unprecedented in an EU novel. But they’re important nonetheless: especially in an EU so heavily weighed down by cross-references and allusions that a new reader is terribly burdened trying to figure out what’s going on. Readers of Empire and Rebellion won’t have that issue, but suffice it to say that long-time EU readers won’t be disappointed either. There aren’t obscure references of the type likely to please trivia fans, but the writing is creative enough that it doesn’t quite feel like generic sci-fi.
But while the world-building is generally good, it’s not perfect. There are some continuity flubs here and there, the most egregious being when Han is accosted by a Noghri for money. Not only should Han not be able to recognize a Noghri, but they simply shouldn’t be around as random civilians. It leaves the impression that the authors looked up a random alien on Wookieepedia, and it somehow slipped through the editorial process. It’s not a huge deal, and Corey – like what little we’ve read of Daley – is good at developing a setting creatively, but it’s troublesome that the flub is fairly basic EU. There were other minor ones as well, but they don’t terribly detract from the experience.
All in all, it’s a pretty decent EU book. We wouldn’t go so far as to call it a must-read, and perhaps it’s a novel worth waiting for a price decrease, but it’s a good read. We strongly suspect that EU of this sort will be what we’ll see going forward: familiar settings, non-risky storytelling, and low entry barriers for those who are unfamiliar with the EU. With Episode VII on the way, it’s what we can expect. But that’s fine, so long as the grade of the stories remains high, and Honor Among Thieves is a good sign on that mark.