This book is a sequel to Timothy Zahn's previous book, "Allegiance." Also taking place between A Hew Hope and Empire. The Rebels need a new base and Governor Ferrouz of Candoras Sector proposes an alliance, offering the Rebels sanctuary in return for protection against the alien warlord Nuso Esva. Han, Leia, Luke and Chewie are sent in to evaluate the deal.
At the same time, Mara Jade along with the stormtroopers known as The Hand of Judgment from the previous book are also on their way to punish Ferrouz for his treason and take down the Rebels. Mara is of course featured prominently in this book, as she has been known to be Tim Zahn's pet character - as she kind of maybe should be, since he created her - but not nauseatingly so. I feel as though ever since they killed her off in the books I don't mind her as much in anything else anymore. Except when she and Luke get a great marriage... but that is another rant for another time.
This book continues with Han and Leia's blossoming relationship, though it never starts to cross the line to the romantic, which at this point seems totally appropriate. They spend a lot of time in this book together, just the two of them, working as a seamless team under cover. They communicate effectively and efficiently in a way that only two people who are in tune with each other could. They get good banter, and Han certainly pushes her buttons but never crosses into sexual harassment territory. It's subtle sexual tension and it works perfectly.
Poor Luke is sort of left behind and not doing anything interesting. It does sort of remind you that he is pretty much still a kid at this point. He's unsure of his abilities, he hasn't really been trained in the Force or even used his lightsaber. So he spends some time wrestling with his inadequacies and how he is supposed to become a Jedi when there is nobody to train him.
This book also strongly addresses the long-time conflict of whether or not Han is going to officially join up with the Alliance. In typical Han fashion, he resists. But of course, someone is keeping him there. Leia maintains a very business-like manner with her dealings with him, although right from the beginning, Han thinks to himself, "But Han could read beneath the tone. Whatever she said, whatever she did, she was crazy about him. He was pretty sure, anyway."
Han wants to maintain his independence, but doesn't enjoy the fact that he is left out of important meetings due to his unofficial rank. He and Rieekan share some conversations that, had this book been written years ago, would be a very good source for why we all write Rieekan as taking a liking to Han. He wants him to join, but he doesn't talk down to him or try and force him, he simply tells him the facts of how things operate and allows him to come to his own conclusions.
I love Zahn's portrayal of Han. I would venture to call it flawless. He just acts so... Han. He's slowly softening, but it doesn't show very often and mostly he just acts like his typical, scoundrel self. He's working for the good guys but still doing things without really thinking them through, and yet he always seems to turn out okay. I also like that while Leia is certainly not all soft and emotional, she is also not entirely cold and distant. At one point she calls Han on the comm to ask if he's all right. In regards to whether or not he'd be delighted about something that will make the governor happy, Leia: "I'm sure he'd be delighted. Doesn't sound like you are, though."
"Not really, no," Han said. "But since when does that matter to anyone?"
There was a short pause. "It matters," Leia said, her voice carefully neutral. "Watch yourself, okay?"
"I always do, sweetheart."
See, I enjoyed how she does still treat him as though she cares to some degree. The only thing she's careful of is not to make him think that there is anything more to it. I prefer this to the Leia we sometimes get who seems as though she'd willingly push Han in front of a moving speeder if he said something irritating and walk away laughing while he bled to death. She doesn't have to despise him in order to hide her developing feelings for him. Not to mention the fact that she also seems to respect him already. It is noted by others that she has a personal influence on him that nobody else seems to have - that she is the one he's most likely to listen to. But she refuses to manipulate him into joining. And it's not because she doesn't want him to join, or that she doesn't want to make him think there is more to their relationship, it is simply because she doesn't want to use her influence to take advantage of good people.
A whole lot of other stuff happens in this book, but frankly, I'm not going to recap it. It has to do with Mara and her troopers and the governor's family being held hostage. It all comes together to a pretty cool climax, but since this is a Han and Leia blog, that's what I'm going to focus on here. Luke also has a near-run-in with his future wife.
Basically, as far as the Han and Leia factor goes, I think Zahn writes them pretty much exactly how I'd see them acting in this time frame. They're stuck alone for a pretty extensive period of time and have a lot of interaction, but they are mostly focused on the mission, though working in close to perfect synchronization. Han annoys Leia at times, but he usually knows what he's doing - which is why it irritates her so much. He makes some risky moves which also annoys her but also adds some to her respect for him, which is bothersome because she really doesn't want to like him too much. Han still maintains in his own head that she is crazy about him, but again, he isn't actively trying to push her buttons as much as he is when we see them in ESB. That makes sense to me because if he was already acting like that, well, I don't see how the sexual tension could remain unresolved for another two years.
In the end, Han goes to see Rieekan and very matter of factly states that if they want him, they've got him and he officially joins the Alliance. So, this confused both Push and I a bit and we don't have answers for you. Does this mean he was already an official member in Empire and we just always assumed he wasn't? Does something happen in between where he ditches his rank? No way really to tell right now. He doesn't outright say it, but at the very end of the book, after he talks with Rieekan, he sees Leia across the hangar and it gives you the distinct impression - in case it wasn't already obvious - that she is the reason he finally committed.
This is one of the best characterizations of Han in the entirety of the EU and I thoroughly enjoyed his interactions with Leia, not to mention the fact that that covered a fairly significant portion of the book. So I'm going to give this one 3.5 stars.