My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Last Shot is damn good, swashbuckling fun. Daniel Jose Older delivers all one could ask for in a Han and Lando novel. And, like many of the new canon Star Wars book authors, Older actually tries to tell a slightly more literary story than Star Wars is used to. Okay, okay, there’s plenty of pulpy space battles and laser blasts and fist fights and weird monsters and bloodless gore and crazy robots and spiritualism-lite goop. It’s Star Wars! And I won’t try to claim that introducing a character with a non-binary gender (whose role is not defined by that identity), or writing the book so that timelines are crossed between chapters to build toward certain themes (and reveals) consistently across the timelines, or somewhat seriously addressing droid identity and the threat of droid revolution are original. They’re not. They still feel fresh and different for this franchise, though! And the writing’s great, I promise!
It’s a whirlwind book, and I loved almost every moment of it. It’s also cool to see Han and Lando both facing new responsibilities that they aren’t prepared for–Han with wife and child, Lando with someone he actually loves and wants to stay with. They’re afraid of what these responsibilities mean, they’re afraid of screwing up, and they spend a lot of the novel running from them (though running with purpose, toward a threat). And we actually see these men grow as people, not just simple archetypes. (By the way, I read most of Han’s dialogue, past or present, as some version of Harrison Ford, while I read young Lando as Donald Glover and older Lando as Billy Dee Williams.)
One of my favorite recurring aspects of the book was how it tried to push back on the generalizations and stereotypes that Star Wars has always relied on. There’s a gruff hacker Ewok who’s a big Chewbacca fan and also totally tired of being talked down to. There’s a Gungan prison guard who is a nervous rambler–but articulate and competent, and completely over people’s stereotypes of meesa, meesa Gungans. There’s a Toydarian fortune teller who is wizened and mystic rather than a greedy troglodyte (though I admit that this characterization falls into other uncomfortable stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Jewish peoples, and the reliance on those stereotypes and accents is what made Watto such a problematic character in the first place). There are tiny little gangsters operating mech suits. A Droid Gotra is an organization that includes organics, suggesting more variety in alien organizations than the history of Hutts in the Hutt cartels, Pykes in the Pyke Syndicate, and Falleen in the Black Sun. Droids have their own motivations and no singular goal. One Rodian’s habit to refer to himself as the Rodian annoys other people, who are used to dealing with many of his species. Inter-species relationships are not a big deal, but there are certain cultural and biological differences that have to be addressed. And there’s the kickass pilot and crafty agent who helps out Han and Lando, is an Alderaanian survivor, and just so happens to be non-binary.
Additionally, given the story’s latest point in time that serves as the anchor narrative, there are plenty of references to the events and characters of the Aftermath series, and all of those were quite fitting. Last Shot felt like an extension of the galaxy that was developed by the Aftermath trilogy.
Unfortunately, the use of weaving timelines makes the central mystery of the droid-controlling mad scientist’s plot more confusing than genuinely mysterious. There are some apparent contradictions in what that plan might actually have been and why it was delayed. A second reading, particularly one that focused on reading chronologically, might actually resolve my lingering confusion. As much as droid identity and the oppression of droids is central to the book’s narrative, this theme is not fully developed. In fact, much like in Solo, the theme is often played down by the events and non-droid characters. L3-37 has some interesting ideas that don’t get much space. The main villain is a mad man who believes that droids are better than people, so to liberate them he will send out a virus that will force them all to kill people (our heroes point out how ironic this plan is). The book has a lot of heart, but imperfections like these remain.
Here’s the thing. I love Lando. I like Han. This book made me love them both. It also incorporated characters from the films (including Solo) and the comics. Reading it after the release of Solo felt like a special treat because the events of the film provided deeper significance to certain moments. A lot of allusions become crystal-clear with the context of the film, and I suspect that Older had access to a script and perhaps early footage from the film, using its events to help develop his characters (and in turn using his novel to improve upon the characters in the film) without leaking out certain spoilers from Solo.
If you love either Han or Lando, you should check this book out. It’s a fun adventure that deepens the characters. I don’t think I’d pick this specific book as my top recommendation for an entry into the new canon, but I think anyone who reads it is bound to have a good time.