It is a time of depression. The Star Wars films ended with Return of the Jedi, and there would be no others. Rumors abounded of prequels or sequels, but George Lucas seemed uninterested, and all hope for further adventures seemed lost. But then, a series of books arrived, written by Timothy Zhan…
There a good reason this is a timely review (or was at the time of writing). With Disney’s recent announcement of more-or-less abolishing the Expanded Universe from Star Wars canon, most people have mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s a sigh of relief, because a lot of it was rubbish and the EU got pretty convoluted. On the other: The Thrawn Trilogy (aka Heir to the Empire Trilogy).
Continuing the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca was a risky endeavor. It would be so easy to slip into essentially fan-fiction, taking few risks and feeling like more of the same—or worse, taking too many and changing the universe into something that is no longer Star Wars. Fortunately when it came to hiring a writer for the task, they found the right man for the job.
While some people would take the route of needing to out-do previous established tropes (topping the Death Star that destroys planets with, say, a Sun Crusher that can wipe out whole solar systems… oy…) Timothy Zhan took a more practical approach. He tapped into the then undeveloped history that existed before Episode IV, touching on elements of the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, and the fall of the Jedi as key plot points for this new series.
Taking place five years after the fall of the Empire, the series deals with the fledgling New Republic still trying to pick up the pieces. The Empire exists, but is down to a quarter of its former size, and still falling back. But not everything is going smoothly, and when the last of the 12 Grand Admirals returns to take control of what’s left of the Imperial Fleet, the entire New Republic is at risk. Not because he has a weapon, but because he has a plan.
Of particular interest to gamers, Zhan based his understanding of how Star Wars technology works on the excellent West End Games RPGs to help give it a sense of consistency and continuity. Being able to read a book, and actually recognize references to RPG material was a thrill, but it was never done gratuitously. It was simply his Wikipedia at the time. But because of it, his universe truly feels like Star Wars (as do those games).
All the classic characters are back, five years older and wiser. Obi-Wan gives a final farewell to Luke in his dreams, leaving him to not be the last of the old Jedi, but the first of the new. Leia has kids, and is learning to be a Jedi while also dealing with the treachery of politics on Coruscant. Han and Chewie are trying to make a deal with a number of smugglers to try and fix cargo ship shortages, and Lando has a new mining operation going on. Life goes on… that is, before the Grand Admiral returns to the Empire…
Zhan also created new and interesting characters. Grand Admiral Thrawn, might very well surpass Vader as best Star Wars bad guy. This is a man (well, alien) who is cunning, ruthless, and anything but stupid. There is no cop-out omniscience going on here, like the Emperor, it is always because he understands his enemies. Likewise, while he can be brutal like Vader to his underlings, it is never pointless. Vader’s Force chokings did nothing but inspire fear, but Thrawn’s disciplinary actions are far more purposeful. You can’t help but admire him, just a little.
Mara Jade is another great character, the Emperor’s Hand. While the Jedi are extinct, that did not mean that Palpatine did not have uses for those who were Force-sensitive—he simply didn’t allow them to become strong enough to be a threat to him, but used them as assassins and extensions of his will. When the Emperor died, however, that connection was lost, and Mara was left to make her own way. But she’s still haunted by dreams from the Emperor and a compulsion—to kill Luke Skywalker.
Also of note are Talon Karrde, a True Neutral smuggler, and Joruus C’Both, a Jedi left over from the Clone Wars, left guarding a safehouse that Thrawn wants.
The important thing to note here is that rather than try to go bigger, Zhan chooses to take a different approach. There is no Death Star, or comparable superweapon. In fact everything used in the Empire’s comeback could be said to be outdated. But it’s how Thrawn wields these tools that make him a force to be reckoned with.
These books came out so long ago, it’s entirely possible that younger Star Wars fans might not even know about them. If that’s the case, I highly recommend picking them up. If Disney has an ounce of sense in them, this will be the one series that does not get chopped from canon.
(Note, this article was edited since its publication to reflect current events and leave out non-relevant information)
Originally Published in KODT #209