The slaughter of innocents sparks discontent among a handful of Imperial stormtroopers; when an unfortunate encounter with Imperial Security leads to a death, they flee for their lives in a ship filled with Imperial hardware. Daric LaRone, leader of the group, decides that they will fulfill their oath to the Empire and mete out justice in their own fashion.
Mara Jade, following a corrupt governor's stolen artworks to their source, uncovers a link between the governor and a band of pirates. At the same time, Luke and Han set out on a new mission that Han fears will turn political, while Leia seeks to figure out a way to keep an important ally on the Rebel's side. What none of them realize is that their problems are intertwined, a problem that will scramble alliances and enmities before all's said and done.
As the stormtroopers break up a criminal gang's stranglehold on a small colony world, establishing themselves as "the Hand of Judgment," Mara commandeers their Star Destroyer to follow the trail of corruption -- little realizing that the fearful captain and stormtrooper commander will do whatever it takes to cover up the defection of the five troopers. Even if it means killing an Imperial agent -- like Mara Jade.
Luke, coached by the voice of Obi-Wan, learns more about how to use the Force, especially in terms of trusting his feelings about people and situations. Though far from being a Jedi Knight, he's more than just another farmboy from Tatooine. He's becoming more clear about his purpose, even if his skills aren't all there yet. On the other hand, Han -- who wants only to get back to being a smuggler, not an errand boy for the Rebellion -- finds he is confused and uncertain. It doesn't help any that he's got feelings for Leia, which may or may not be reciprocated.
Leia, meanwhile, finds that her mission has left her trapped and hunted by Imperials. Aided by Chivkyrie, an alien with a flawless sense of honor and propriety, she hides out as a waitress in a crummy restaurant. It seems there's no way out, unless Luke and Han can reach her before the Imperials do. But that might prove a bit difficult when the two are partnered unwillingly with the Hand of Judgment!
The pirates are indeed part of a complex plot, assembled by an unlikely villain who has an ambitious goal in mind. However, as anyone who's made complex plans could relate, more details mean more things that could go wrong -- and tossing two Force-using young people, a smuggler, his Wookiee co-pilot, a gun-toting princess and five ticked-off stormtroopers into the mix is not part of the plan!
Timothy Zahn is one of the finest writers in the Star Wars stable. His own work shows a gift for combat-minded SF, while his ability to handle characters as well-established as Luke, Han, and Leia (not to mention creating SW mainstays such as Mara Jade and now the Hand of Judgment) is masterful. Zahn is able to tease out new wrinkles from each character, be it in small moments (a look between Han and Leia, for instance) or significant revelations (such as exploring how Luke continued to learn about the Force from Obi-Wan, in a sort of ongoing Socratic dialogue that Han thinks is Luke daydreaming). The stormtroopers, nominally the focus of the story, get a lion's share of the screen time in this story; they show that even "faceless" characters like the Emperor's white-armored soldiers deserve respect.
Fans of Star Wars or just good old space opera will enjoy this new adventure of Luke and his friends.
Strongly recommended. (****)
This review first published in SFRevu.com April 2007 issue