Hard Merchandise by K. W. Jeter (1999, Bantam)
The final book of K. W. Jeter’s Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy spends less time in the “past” between A New Hope and Empire than the previous two books in the series did. That story, of Boba Fett’s sabotage of the Bounty Hunters’ Guild, Prince Xizor’s decision not to kill Boba Fett after all, and the death of the arachnoid go-between Kud’ar Mub’at, is wrapped up in this novel’s first third.
The rest of the book takes place in the “present” of the events of Return of the Jedi, and centers mostly on Neelah, the former slave dancer in Jabba’s palace who helped Dengar nurse Boba Fett back to health—and has no idea who she was before her time under Jabba. Boba Fett, revealing that he’d found Neelah aboard the same bounty hunter’s ship on which he’d discovered fabricated evidence implicating Prince Xizor in the stormtrooper raid that killed Luke Skywalker’s parents, explains that the answers Neelah seeks might be profitable for him. For this reason, he takes Neelah and Dengar with him to unravel both mysteries.
This quest leads them to the old web of Kud’ar Mub’at to have a discussion with the dead, back to Tatooine to reclaim the fake evidence Bossk stole from Boba Fett, and finally to Kuat Drive Yards, above the planet Kuat, where the corporation’s chief executive, Kuat of Kuat, is desperately trying to preserve his company’s independence as the Galactic Civil War builds to its climax out near Endor and a Rebel squadron occupies the Drive Yards to make sure the ships there aren’t added to the Imperial fleet.
While Kuat of Kuat was behind the attempt to sabotage Prince Xizor and subsequently kill Boba Fett to eliminate the evidence, he turns out not to have been the mastermind behind Neelah’s memory wipe. The real culprit is revealed near the book’s end, and came as a surprise to me. Jeter plays with the reader’s assumptions about human behavior, skillfully misdirecting attention and deflecting suspicions to keep readers in the dark until he decides to turn on the lights. Last week, I mentioned feeling as though the second book, Slave Ship, was a bit padded. This last novel, Hard Merchandise, disproves those assumptions, as Jeter makes use of every element previously introduced into the narrative.
The novel’s climax, while revolving around one event (Kuat of Kuat’s decision to destroy Kuat Drive Yards rather than relinquish control of the company), follows a three-pronged structure. Each of the novel’s protagonists—Boba Fett, Dengar, and Neelah—is after something completely different, and they are separated from one another as Hard Merchandise draws to a close, left to pursue those goals alone.
In The Bounty Hunter Wars, Jeter makes references to and uses plot elements from the stories in Tales of the Bounty Hunters, but his some of his characterizations (especially of Zuckuss and, to a lesser extent, Fett himself) deviate from those found in that collection. Naturally, this nags a bit at the continuity dork in me, but the merits of these books far outweigh those concerns. The Bounty Hunter Wars is a fascinating exploration of the Star Wars universe’s seedy criminal underbelly and, above all, a good mystery.
P.S.: I have no idea what’s going on with that cover. Neither Emperor Palpatine nor any Imperial Guards appear in this book. Neither do any sandtroopers, but you can at least claim a tangential relation to the plot there. Oh, well.
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