All I remember about Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the only Star Wars EU book to precede the Han Solo trilogy by Brian Daley, is that it taught me the word ‘querulous’ and there was a very misty forest with some crystals and Darth Vader in it. But I think I enjoyed it well enough, even if it was clear that the characters were still somewhat underdone. I didn’t get that feeling from Brian Daley’s Han and Chewie though: for the most part, the odd dated aside um, aside, these felt like the characters I recognised from the movies and the so-called Legends books. I say that as someone who has always enjoyed Han’s adventures, but who has avowedly been one of those Luke Skywalker nerds since my very first viewing of A New Hope. Sorry Han, you were just never my favourite, though I like you well enough.
No need to have read the first in Daley’s trilogy before plunging into this (which He Judges unearthed in a second-hand bookshop in Haworth … Brontë quality it ain’t, no matter how much better it is than Chuck Wendig’s work). It’s a slight tale, in which very little takes place, set pieces feel rather forced, and description takes priority over plot. In a year in which I wrote my first long-form fanfic I find all this to be incredibly reassuring, at least. The level of description, whilst not making for stellar writing, is fun and a lot more imaginative than the more recent EU novels seem to have been able to be. There’s a lot more variety in the alien species and a lot more inventiveness when it comes to the technology; sure it may not work well within a larger, coherent franchise, but on the other hand I didn’t feel like there was a box somewhere that needed to be ticked, reading ‘must include at least one Togruta’.
The story begins when Han proves himself to be somewhat lacking as both linguist and anthropologist, having accidentally started a cult on a backwater planet. He’s broke, the Falcon is running on outdated fluidic controls, and he has to take a mystery job in the Corporate Sector in order to make ends meet. This turns out to involve a shipment of slaves, and naturally our hero is appalled and soon manages to contrive a way to turn on the slavers and free the captives; only to remain out of pocket by ten thousand credits. The rest of the book is Han’s ongoing search for the credits, which sees him fall in with Fiolla, an ambitious Authority employee looking to expose her own peoples’ involvement in the slave-trade. The Empire doesn’t feature at all in this setting.
Fiolla’s an interesting one. She’s black, and in Brian Daley’s EU, her people lived under slavery on her home planet for years, learning incredible skills of mimicry and people-reading as they survived however they could. It’s all a bit essentialist, and is meant to show why Fiolla cares so much about catching the slavers, although for the most part that reason fades into the background and it’s her ambition that’s emphasised. Similarly her competence wavers in that familiar way you get from a certain tropey take on ‘Strong [minority] Character’: at times Fiolla seems to have a handle on things, but at several crucial moments she goes all naïve and indecisive, allowing Han to grab her hand, leap in and save the day. It is his story, after all…
Daley just doesn’t seem comfortable writing Fiolla’s voice, and though Han and Chewie are the main POV characters, he manages well enough with their droid friends. This is one aspect that I miss about Wendig’s writing: when it’s going well, and when he’s writing his original characters, he has no problem writing man, woman, alien or unaffiliated. Other supporting characters in Han Solo’s Revenge are handled with confidence and are given voices of varying distinctiveness — the alien bureaucrat Spray is excellent fun, even if Zollux and Blue Max are essentially 3PO are Artoo without the camp. The technology is never overly handwavy or all-powerful either: in fact, dog-fights are almost too tense, the shields almost too weak after one or two shots. This is not a world where Han Solo would ever contemplate coming out of hyperspace within a planet’s atmosphere… But it’s still a world where Han’s real skill is in piloting, where his love for his ship and his affection for his co-pilot are strong, and his ability to make money is somewhat wanting. Many before me have pointed out that OT-Han lacks a lot of chill: he’s not some suave lady killer, but a dork who’s just winging it. That Han already existed when Brian Daley released this in 1980, he’s no figment of fangirls’ imaginations.
Thinking again about the book’s title it becomes clear how thin the plot is. Han’s revenge? I’m not sure what he wants revenge for. He did agree to transport an unidentified cargo, and though the unfortunately named ‘Zlarb’ (but can you imagine that said in Harrison Ford’s drawl, with dripping disdain for the material he’s forced to read? Excuse me a moment) intends to turn on him, the book doesn’t really get the message across that Han wants the credits as ‘revenge’ for an attempt on his life. Perhaps it’s one of the pitfalls of writing a character we know survives perfectly well: it’s hard to get worked up about any apparent danger to his life. There are also a lot of reveals right at the end, which don’t have all that much impact, as they’d not really been telegraphed much in advance. It’s all tied up relatively neatly, but key moments happen off-scene and are narrated by characters to one another, which rarely makes for the most satisfying dénouement. Also, whilst some scene-setting felt distinctive and original, the honour-based society of Ammuud seemed a bit of a cop-out to this medievalist. Nevertheless, there was some fun stuff in this and it wasn’t as cringe-inducing as it might have been; obviously I’d rather have Fiolla with her somewhat thin characterisation than not have her, and it’s another reminder that Star Wars has indeed featured POC since way before TFA.