Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo & Chewbacca Adventure Review

In the last year there has been an understandable increase in the amount of reviews and articles about the Star Wars franchise. The excitement for the new film is resulting in a huge amount of speculation as to what the future of the franchise will look like as well as guessing and plenty of fan theories to make even the most imaginative fans giddy. There has also been plenty of attention given to the rapidly developing New Canon which is in the process of replacing the beloved Expanded Universe of Star Wars tie-in fiction. Personally, I haven’t taken part in the speculation because I find it brings little value to the overall appreciation of the franchise. More importantly, it doesn’t give me any satisfaction. Instead, I’ve been investing my time in enjoying the comics and novels of the EU and dipping my toes in the New Canon. So far I’ve read three volumes of Star Wars comic, which are once again being published by Marvel following Dark Horse’s loss of the licence. I’ve just read my first New Canon novel. Appropriately, it’s written by Greg Rucka with illustrations by Phil Noto, both of which have had a noteworthy career in the comics field. That’s the main reason I chose to start with this book and it also happens to be short which was quite convenient.

Set right after A New Hope, Smuggler’s Run centers on Han Solo and Chewbacca. Now that they’ve received payment for helping the Rebellion during their attack on the Death Star, Han plans on going back to Tatooine to pay off Jabba the Hutt. He’s tired of living in fear of the price on his head and who could blame him? Leia, on the other hand, has different plans for Han. He’s proved his usefulness to the Alliance and she’s not ready to let this new ally go.

After a heated argument, Han agrees to go on a rescue mission for the Rebel Alliance and, mostly, for Leia. He’s tasked with rescuing one of the members of the Shrikes, an elite team of individuals who scout locations for future rebel bases and contingency bases. The members of Shrikes hold onto some of the most important secrets of the rebel’s operations. Caluan Ematt is on the run after the rest of his team has been killed. Once again Han and Chewbacca are asked to put their personal safety on the line for the good of the Alliance and another pay check. Maybe.

This short novel was released as part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series which comprises over 20 books. Multiple publishefs are involved as the books published under this banner include novels, short stories, comics, reference books, collector magazines and more. All of the books are published in collaboration with Lucasfilm Story Group. Smuggler’s Run is part of a loose trilogy focusing on the main characters of the original film trilogy. All of them are set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. They’re included as part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens because hidden in these novels are elements will prove to be related to the upcoming movie. Based on the evidence found within this book, any link between these novels and the movie will be minor at best and unless you like playing spot-the-reference, you’re likely more interested in a good story than hunting for clues.

Commander Alecia Beck. Art by Phil Noto.

I’m interested in all three novels but I started with this one because it’s written by Greg Rucka, a writer whose comic book work I really enjoy. This isn’t his first prose work as he’s written a couple successful series in the past as well as spin-off books for his comic book series Queen and Country which he did in collaboration with several artists. Speaking of artists, Phil Noto was hired to provide these books with their covers as well as interior art which depict scenes from the stories. They’re all in grey ink washes with bright red used as accent colour. I like the consistency that the art brings to this loose trilogy. Noto’s art is striking and he does a good job depicting their actors’ likeness. I particularly enjoy the use of the ink washes and the red because it does help to make these particular Star Wars books standout when placed next to other books on the shelf.

Some people have criticized Smuggler’s Run for being short on substance but I don’t agree with that. It’s filled with excellent character work and that’s what this book is mostly about. Han is the star here, there is no questioning that, and Rucka takes plenty of time to develop his character and he adds realistic depth to his relationships. You see this most with his relationship with Leia, Chewbacca, and the Rebellion in general. You also get to spend a good amount of time inside Han’s head during a particularly fluid and important time in his life. Being set right after A New Hope, Han isn’t sure of what his relationship with Leia and the Rebellion are going to be. Yet, he sticks around. He has sufficient amounts of money to get back onto Jabba’s good side and resume his life as a smuggler, but he doesn’t go for it. Instead, he’s creating a new place for him with the Rebels and steering his life, perhaps unknowingly at first, in an entirely new direction.

There is a key scene where Han, Chewbacca, and Ematt are on the run. A new development occurs and their situation worries because of it. Han’s immediate thoughts are that they’ve been betrayed. Chewbacca howls his disagreement with him and Ematt mentions his surprise that betrayal and the idea that Han and Chewie have been sold out are the first things that come to mind. The Rebel Alliance, for all its challenges and limitations is filled with members who trust each other to the very end. It’s not a unanimous circle of friendship and trust, no, but there are enough people who are part of the Rebellion that work really well together in part because of mutual trust and respect. Ematt and his former Shrikes members trusted each other with their lives and the rebel leaders trusted that elite team with the safety and the future of the entire Alliance.

One of strong points of this short novel is seeing Han’s relationship play out with some of the other characters. It’s interesting to see how his dynamic with Chewbacca is changing between movies. Chewie appears quite happy working with the rebels. He even takes side with other people when they’re in an argument with Han. Han and Leia’s relationship is still very new here and you can see it in the dialogue that Rucka gives them. There’s something there but it’s far from being fully formed. Han’s relationship with the Rebel Alliance is also interesting. He’s clearly not sure what he thinks about it. It’s as if he’s struggling with how to handle this kind of situation. He’s hasn’t really had a good life up to this point and working with the Rebellion is providing him with little doses of genuine happiness. He’s not sticking around for the money, but he doesn’t realize it yet. Chewie has, but not Han.

Art by Phil Noto.

Rucka doesn’t stop with providing good characterization for fan favourite characters. He takes it one step further and created realistic and interesting side characters. The most impressive and worthy addition to the Star Wars series has to be Commander Alecia Beck. I won’t say much about her other than she works for the Imperial Security Bureau and she has the right amount of menace for an imperial. The threat she presents for Han and Chewbacca is palpable and believable. Her failures and her successes aren’t cheap, they’re deserved or earned (as the case may be). She might be my favourite character in the book. Rucka has done a stellar job with her introduction and I’m really looking forward to reading more stories about her.

Smuggler’s Run is being targeted to young adult readers. It’s labelled as a “Junior” book. The Expanded Universe (now published under the Legends banner) is no stranger to young adult books. I even reviewed one two weeks ago. It’s nice to see this continued in the New Canon. The fact is that Smuggler’s Run doesn’t read like the kind of book targeted at that specific audience. The only thing that fits with that branding is the length of the story and not the book’s content or tone. It’s not a criticism of Rucka or the story, more of a comment on the strange branding of this book and its companion volumes focusing on Leia and Luke. I’m really pleased to see a skilled writer like Rucka join the Star Wars New Canon writers. It gives me hope that there will continue to be quality stories in the New Canon. He’s a skilled writer who proves to be equally good with characters as he is with tightly plotted stories. He’s not stranger to action either but it never really feels overblown because he keeps it grounded in a semblance of reality (it’s still Star Wars though). I think the next New Canon book I read will be the comic book miniseries Star Wars: Shattered Empire.

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