4/5 Rancors - The story of Han Solo's life prior to Episode IV: A New Hope continues in Volume Two of the Han Solo Trilogy, The Hutt Gambit. Author A.C. Crispin's second book in the trilogy is a seamless stylistic successor to The Paradise Snare. This book picks up several years after the first one, omitting any real-time recounting of Han's time in the service of the Empire at the Imperial Academy. We garner some glimpses of this time through flashbacks, enough to understand where the experience left Han and probably sparing the reader a fairly cut-and-dried military academy story.
This book takes a major leap toward A New Hope with the introduction of Chewbacca in the second paragraph. Chewbacca's vocalizations are always a challenge for a Star Wars author to recreate, and Crispin uses the approach of having Han paraphrase aloud most of what Chewbacca says to him (essentially how Chewie was handled in the films). Han's initial interactions with Chewie are quite entertaining, and Crispin deftly handles how he quickly grows to accept Chewie as an-almost constant companion while still illustrating Han's growing wariness of relationships with the opposite sex.
Han is still struggling with losing Bria Tharen prior to his entry to the Imperial Academy. He finds solace in the arms of Xaverri, a beautiful traveling illusionist with a deep-seated hatred of the Empire. Sadly, this relationship is doomed to follow the trajectory of his affair with Bria, its failure acting as reinforcement of Han's "every man for himself" attitude he strives to project to the world. Bria herself periodically pops in and out of the book, rapidly rising through the ranks of the Rebellion; her role in The Hutt Gambit feels primarily like a setup for a payoff in the third volume, Rebel Dawn.
In an interesting turn of events, Han is introduced to Boba Fett and Lando Calrissian virtually simultaneously. There's a terrific start to the relationships between the three that were alluded to in The Empire Strikes Back and have later been fleshed out by various novels and comics. Kudos to Crispin for interweaving elements of The Lando Calrissian Adventures into this trilogy, including everyone's favorite starship-shaped droid Vuffi Raa. Fett and Jabba the Hutt also have their first meeting here. There are a couple of minor continuity problems with the Fett descriptions, which use the pre-prequel Jaster Mereel story that was overwritten by Attack of the Clones, but this is inevitable in novels written before Episodes I-III and is easily forgiven.
Much of The Hutt Gambit is set on the Smuggler's Moon, Nar Shaddaa, which orbits the pestilent Hutt homeworld Nal Hutta. Several characters from the excellent Dark Empire comic series, including Mako Spince, Salla Zend, and Shug Ninx, make substantial appearances, and the reader learns far more about them than the comics had room to provide. Nar Shaddaa is presented as a sort of criminal version of Coruscant. It's easy to visualize and provides a compelling setting for the story, including the major climatic battle sequence.The Hutt Gambit is a compelling continuation of the multiple storylines kicked off in The Paradise Snare. While it's not entirely clear dramatically where volume three, Rebel Dawn, will go, Crispin has done a fine job of laying essential groundwork for the character of Han Solo thus far in the trilogy. The writing is remarkably engaging for a series of books that act entirely as backstory to a character 99% of readers will already feel they know quite well.