Review: Heir to the Empire
Timothy Zahn, Thrawn Trilogy #1.
Do you know what today is, children? It’s Star Wars Day. Forget that May 4 crap. This is the real one. (I’m ironically concerned with “real” in a blog dedicated to one of the greatest fantasies ever.) On May 25, 1977, Star Wars came to theaters with its groundbreaking crawl and tantalizing Episode IV. And it’s only appropriate on this, the 37th anniversary of the day ANH came to theaters, to review the book that started it all.
I know there were books before. Books by some big names, too: Brian Daley, Alan Dean Foster . . . But the Thrawn Trilogy was something different from the get-go. Maybe you know the genesis, maybe you don’t — the story as I’ve heard it is that Zahn was basically a ghost writer cranking out formula fiction for Bantam when Lucas approached them about starting a timeline of Star Wars novels. Maybe his pockets were itchy, maybe his ego wanted to see what fans would produce when beckoned, maybe Lucas actually cared about his followers and wanted to give them more of what they craved. Who knows? Anyway, Zahn was recommended to him, he liked what he saw, and he gave the writer access to something unusual — his notes. Unlike the other books, which were practically disqualified from being canon by the time they were published (Splinter of the Mind’s Eye has Luke dueling Vader and chopping off his right arm within months of the Battle of Yavin!), the trilogy Zahn had in mind was going to be a real sequel, opening up the timeline for a whole new series of adventures.
With meticulous care, Zahn used his extensive background in the Trilogy to construct a book that paid homage to the films in every chapter while still creating an effective story populated by memorable characters. First published in 1991, Heir to the Empire took the fandom by storm. I first read this book in 1998; it wasn’t my first one, as I’ve emphasized before. In fact, it may have been as much as the sixth or seventh book I read because the library had it in hardback and, as it was under “Z,” it was hidden in the furthest back corner of the adult fiction stacks.
One of the things I recall about the first time I read it was how I could actually hear the characters’ voices in my head. The third time I read it, I was annoyed by this because I realized it was due to the fact that Zahn quotes and references the original trilogy a lot. This time through, I saw the technique at play, and I applaud. Again, another four-star turnout for a Star Wars book that deserves more than it gets . . . and, well, it gets a lot. This is the one people were, I think, the most upset about losing when Darth Disney had the audacity to say “we’re starting over.”
I’m making a big deal out of the context of this book because it’s really vital to understanding it. Zahn’s references to the trilogy, quotations and running gags, are all in there to link his work with the films, knitting this new saga with the old as seamlessly as possible. So many of the other Star Wars writers decided they were writing science fiction; they started with whatever story they wanted to tell and then dressed it up with a few Star Wars stickers to make it legit (I’m looking at you, Barbara Hambly!). Zahn started with what he’d been given and built his own characters based on the work done in the films, and not just the work done by Lucas but also the actors, prop guys, sound guys, directors, musicians — it’s all in this trilogy. His thoughtfulness is evident as he tries to come up with the logical next step in the storyline — what does happen when an upstart rebellion takes out a Force-demon of an emperor? And every one of the 400 pages this novel is comprised of show his care — 400 pages of zero fluff, zero filler, zero cheap TV style sketches.
The plot in brief: five years after the Battle of Endor, the New Republic is steadily driving the Empire back into smaller and smaller territories. Zahn makes the important assertion that the victory at Endor wasn’t merely a victory because the filmmaker said “no emperor = no empire,” but because the entire fleet was decimated due to Palpatine’s sudden lack of Force interference. He also emphasizes the presence of female officers on equal footing with the men, so so much for the Empire’s supposed sexism. (Though his attempt at making Admiral Thrawn even more distinctive resulted in a generation of authors perpetuating this “anti-alien” view in a galaxy where the word “alien” meaning “nonhuman” could never exist.) Zahn starts with the Empire and sorts the characters as the films do — Han, Leia, and Luke; Han and Leia; Luke and Artoo. They break up and reconvene according to the patterns suggested in the films.
An Imperial warlord bent on reclaiming the lost Empire, Thrawn seeks the Emperor’s forgotten legacy on a planet called Wayland, where an insane clone of a dark Jedi demands Luke and Leia as hostages in exchange for his help. Someone else is on Luke’s trail, too, a mysterious woman called Mara Jade who is in among smugglers though she hardly suits them. Her hatred for Skywalker is powerful but inexplicable . . . as is the vision Luke has of her in the cave on Dagobah.
Understanding how Zahn is building up a successor to the films is key in enjoying the structure of the book. Also, this first appearance of Mara Jade remains my favorite. This book was without precedent, outshining by far the few pulp Star Wars novels that had been produced by the time they decided to start a “real” timeline of Star Wars novels. It’s easy to see how this book launched its career, as it is really unlike most of the others that followed it, and stands true to the films it seeks to honor. A worthy sequel to the Star Wars trilogy that will, over the test of time, long outshine anything Moff Abrams manages to cough up.