Then: Star Wars was my fandom when I was a teenager. Not the films so much, but the expanded universe. Over several years I amassed a massive collection of books, so many that when I go into a second-hand bookshop now I can still pick out a Star Wars logo on the spine of a paperback in seconds. Lucasfilm put a great deal of effort into keeping the Expanded Universe ordered and cohesive (or at least, it talked that game, and at the time it seemed to succeed. Looking back, it was actually unwieldy and frequently contradictory, especially after the prequel trilogy came out, but more than any other series it offered an enormous, explorable world that all made sense.)
I like fantasy worlds that are endlessly detailed. When I read Harry Potter, I wanted to build an encylopedia. Star Wars already had encyclopedias: encylopedias of characters, planets, weapons, etc, and I voraciously collected those (they were hard to come by in second hand bookshops, and thus golddust.) With Star Wars, the fun for me was in the planets. A basic planet map existed, which I copied up onto a2 paper, and every time I encountered the name of a planet in a book (even if mentioned just in passing), I would add it to the map. I redrew it four or five time over several years.
I was the era into which the New Jedi Order series was released, with a hardback that I got every Christmas without fail — my boxing day was always spent speed-reading the enormous volumes — and four paperbacks spaced out over the year. The New Jedi Order was designed to shake up the expanded universe, in which despite decades of character and universe development, any sense that the hero set of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca, et al, were ever in danger of losing. New Jedi Order opened with Vector Prime in which Chewbacca controversially died, and began to disassemble everything that had gone before in the Expanded Universe. It was ridiculously exciting.
In the latter years of college, I began to both collect and read the books less, unable to keep up with the speed of new releases and slowly losing interest. At university, I read none (of Star Wars, or much of anything at all, really) and decided to sell my complete collection of books, which I still bitterly regret because even if I thought I’d grown out of them, they were still the fictional accumulation of seven years of adolescence.
Now: Understandably given the number of authors who wrote for the expanded universe, the quality is varied. There were a few that stuck in my memory as great series (the Thrawn trilogy, the front half of the X-Wing series…) but I always remember A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy being the best, and the second in the series, The Hutt Gambit, being bloody brilliant.
So: it kinda still is. It’s still good, and it still has all the things I remember — the woman-swapping antics, the sketchy dives, the inventive smuggler hideouts, etc. It also has a barnstormer of a space battle at the end (which are hard to pull off on the page without being thuddingly dull.) It also nails the characters of Han and Chewbacca pretty spot on.
It also has some grating weaknesses, such as the slightly twee idea that a whole bunch of space pirates will talk and act like something out of Bugsy Malone. There’s also a ham-fisted ‘here’s what went before’ first chapter that does double duty for how Han meets Chewbacca (which I’ll let go because reseaech reveals that Lucasfilm, despite commissioning Crispin to write the Han Solo origin story, wouldn’t allow her to write how Han and Chewbacca actually met.) The women are barely two-dimensional (although Crispin gets in one nice little dig at the expense of Han’s ladykiller ego when two of his exes meet). Plus characters appear with a paragraph of back-story shortly before either dramatically dying or dramatically surviving, which doesn’t particularly lend itself to the reader caring, especially when it would have been easy to thread their characters throughout the book to actually build pathos. (Han has an adoptive son too, who barely figures, which seems a bit… pointless.)
But that all said, it works. It’s an adventure story, and it’s fun as hell, which is what you expect from a Han Solo story after all. It has the old-school serial vibe of the original films, and it also has plenty of rich detail and inventive world-building. The prose style occasionally clunks as badly as the Millennium Falcon, but it doesn’t particularly matter, because it makes up for it with energy and entertainment.
And somehow, like a sleeper agent, its kickstarted my programming: in a bookshop I’ve started looking for Star Wars logos on the spines again, and feeling the antsy desire to build a collection again. (I won’t, because my partner will murder me. But I might find the time to re-read a couple more favourites from the expanded universe – sorry, Legends – in the next year.)