by Greg Rucka with illustrations by Phil Noto
The phrase "meat and potatoes" came to mind more than once while reading Smuggler's Run. (The full title according to Amazon is Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Smuggler's Run: A Han Solo Adventure, in case you were wondering.) That's really not a bad thing. I'm an American, meat and potatoes make up a predictably large part of my diet. And in terms of Star Wars ancillary media, really, there are many worse things.
While this is technically being pitched as a YA book, and it's even got (very nice two-color) section illustrations by Phil Noto, it's obviously targeted for a wider audience simply by virtue of the Star Wars logo on the cover. And I can say, happily, that despite being quite a few years past anything that could charitably be described as "young adult," I didn't feel bored. There's nothing that felt toned-down or simplified here, such that even if I breezed through the book in only a couple hours I hardly felt like I was slumming. Proper Star Wars, really.
As part of the newly streamlined Star Wars canon - we're not using the phrase Expanded Universe anymore, because all this new stuff counts (or at least it does for the next few years until it gets too wild and needs to be put down) - Smuggler's Run makes a virtue out of its predictability. If you've read a lot of Star Wars stuff, you're already familiar with the contortions successive generations of writers have gone through to justify some of the more puzzling aspects of the three year gap between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. This book picks up on one of the hoariest of these old chestnuts, the question of just what Han Solo did to occupy the three years between movies that didn't involve a detour to Tatooine to pay off Jabba - even after we saw him loading the money onto the Falcon in A New Hope. Most answers to the question (that don't involve this guy) usually boil down to Han being pressured by Leia to stick around and help out, and Han letting himself be talked into it despite knowing he had other business, because, well, that's the character arc we see implied between the two films. That's pretty much what we see here, too, with the story picking up literally moments after the medal ceremony at the end of the first film, and Leia desperately organizing the evacuation of the rebel base on Yavin IV in advance of a certain Imperial counterstrike. The only problem is that the agents who have the information regarding possible new base locations have been located by the Empire. The Rebellion needs someone to rescue the surviving operative, and fast, or the Rebellion's victory celebrations will be short lived indeed.
(What isn't often addressed is the fact that since Leia was responsible for keeping Han occupied between films, she's actually responsible for him being tracked and taken by Boba Fett in Empire - she should have felt at least a twinge of guilt over having pressuring him to stay, especially since the bounty on his head proved to be a major liability while on the run from the Empire.)
Like I say, familiar territory for anyone with a passing knowledge of Star Wars. Han reluctantly allows himself to get drawn into the mission - or rather, Chewbacca's growing sympathy for the Rebels pushes Han in the direction of doing the right thing. It's a race between Han and Chewie and new Imperial counter-intelligence agent Commander Alecia Beck to locate the lost Rebel agent on Cyrkon, an industrial planet whose cities are hidden from a toxic atmosphere by giant domes. A group of bounty hunters get involved too, as you might expect, and if you were thinking that Han would find some way to play the bounty hunters against the Imperials, well, you weren't born yesterday.
That's it, more or less. Nothing fancy - no metaphysical treatises on the nature of the Force or the ancient history of the Galaxy. But familiarity isn't necessarily a problem since this is Star Wars we're talking about - they just made $2 billion with a film that could uncharitably been described as a faded mimeograph of the original, so familiarity isn't an issue for the franchise. Since all the old EU stuff from the earliest Marvel comics up through 2013 was jettisoned, the well-trod paths are new again. Most importantly, Greg Rucka does an excellent job with the remit here. I read the book through in one sitting. I wasn't trying to, either: I sat down to read a few chapters before bed and found myself quite swept along, such that before long I realized I had read 2/3 of the book in one gulp, and might as well finish it. Rucka gets all the little things right. The characters sound like themselves, the conflicts are properly set-up, and the action reads well (even if some of the details of the space dogfight at the end of the book come out a bit muddied - but those are really difficult to describe in prose effectively, so I can't really hold that against him). It feels like Star Wars. It isn't a generic sci-fi novel with Star Wars names bolted on. The universe feels properly lived in, complete with an interesting new planet whose ruined environment accentuates the intentionally down-rent milieu in which Han and Chewie circulate when left to their own devices. Certainly, Cyrkon is a more interesting environment than any of the new planets in The Force Awakens, such as Not-Tatooine, Not-Hoth-Bigger-Death-Star, and other memorable landmarks.
The best part of the book, however, is the new antagonist, Alecia Beck. She's a shrewd and capable officer, and the book doesn't gloss over the problems faced by a woman in a chauvinistic military hierarchy like the Empire. It's really easy to write villains like the Empire as completely one-dimensional, but Rucka does a good job - better than some of the movies, frankly - of painting the Empire as a real organization filled both with career officers and dangerous ideologues. Without spoiling anything, Han eventually outwits Beck by putting her in a situation where she has to balance her zealous instincts against the cost-benefit analysis of a precipitously expensive victor. This is a pretty clever turn that makes the Empire feel like a real organization with real institutional priorities that don't just involve Darth Vader's family tree. She's such a good character, in fact, that the book more or less ends with a promise of more Beck stories to come - she certainly has enough reason to want to see Han dead from here on out.
Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
If you read Smuggler's Run before seeing The Force Awakens you might not have walked away with much insight, but I'm sure that was completely intentional. There's a framing sequence set in the period immediately before the film, with older Han and Chewbacca telling the story that occupies the bulk of Smuggler's Run. After seeing the film, it's obvious that these scenes get their mileage out of what isn't said - it's not just that Han and Chewie are hanging out in a random space cantina on the run from bounty hunters, but that (as we learn) they're basically playing hooky from life, running from the awful circumstances that destroyed Han & Leia's marriage in the years before the film. Something the scenes do manage to communicate, even without the later context of the film, is just how badly the years have treated Han - even after marrying the princess and living "happily ever after," he's back on the run as a crooked smuggler with a bounty on his head for having double-crossed too many people, retelling the same sad stories just like the guy in the song. Familiar, and sad.
There's also, incidentally, connecting tissue between this book and the recent Chewbacca mini-series by Gerry Duggan and Noto. It's a small thing, but there's a thread in the first (non-prologue) chapter that leads directly to the last scene of the Chewbacca book. If you're following such things.