This is the first book report I’ve written since high school, which was about 21 years ago (talk about your ‘a long time ago’ moments) … but who’s counting.
So, let’s get down to business. Star Wars: Heir to the Empire. The Timothy Zahn novel that, for many fans, is thought of as Star Wars: Episode VII: This should have been a freakin’ movie.
As listeners to this site’s podcast may recall, I only got into reading Star Wars novels the past year or so, largely because I rediscovered the Wars through the Clone Wars animated series. My passion for the series led to me picking up Clone Wars and prequel era novels. And those were what I was solely reading … until now.
I had heard about the Zahn books, the so-called Thrawn Trilogy, over the years, but frankly, I didn’t really have much interest in it. Nor did I really care for anything that happened beyond Return of the Jedi. Because to me, that was the end of the story. Probably due to my cinematic snobbishness. And I’ve also figured that since George Lucas said the six-film arc is the story of Anakin Skywalker, once he bought the big acreage in the Force sky (hopefully a place that is soft and without all that coarse sand that gets everywhere), there wasn’t much reason to continue on past that point.
Well, I was wrong. More on that later.
I found the prequel era and the Clone Wars to be far more interesting because of the politics, the intrigue and the more fleshed out characters that inhabited the films/tv episodes. The original trilogy, by comparison, always felt light by comparison. It was, to my way of thinking, the difference between a steak and a hamburger. The original trilogy, while tasty and satisfying, was relatively thin when it came to fully developed characters and there really was no intrigue whatsoever.
When I watch the original trilogy films these days, I’m actually shocked at how quickly paced the movies are and how flimsy some of the characters are when it comes to being fully realized people. Granted, Mr. Lucas was a younger man when he conceived of those movies, they were meant to be very much like the serials of his youth and they were light fantasies. When he turned his attention to the prequels and now the Clone Wars, he is a more experienced person with a great appreciation for the nuances of politics, character and all that good stuff.
And so, it was with those prejudices that I dove into Heir to the Empire. And it only took about six pages for me to be hooked.
Right off the bat, we’re treated to the introduction of a truly compelling character: Grand Admiral Thrawn. The idea that this brilliant tactician is now in charge of what remains of the once might Empire really intrigued me. Because here is a guy who isn’t Vader. He isn’t the Emperor. No mystical powers to command. No choking people with an invisible hand. Just a calculating man who knows the importance of studying one’s opponent in order to anticipate what their response will be to any given situation. And to do that through something like art, well, that was another sign that the blue-skinned Grand Admiral was going to be a fascinating guy to learn more about.
And then, bang, it’s off to Coruscant, where we see Luke having a vision of Obi-Wan. And as quickly as he appears, boom, Ben says ciao, you won’t be seeing me again. Now, Luke is alone and left to rebuild the Jedi order, while Leia and Han try to help rebuild the galactic republic.
That Leia is pregnant with twins came as a bit of a shock. So, too, did the discovery that she was trying to combine a political career with that of learning Jedi skills. How many times have we heard Obi-Wan and other Jedi complain about politicians and boom, here we have a potential Jedi who is a politician and doesn’t appear ready to give up on either one. Spunky gal, that Leia.
Another thing that struck me is just how well Zahn nailed the characters and the feel of Star Wars. That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot of the past year or so … the feel of Star Wars. The Forcecast guys often talk about that in relation to Clone Wars series. Well, Zahn’s pacing throughout this novel certainly does evoke images of the way scenes unfold in the original trilogy. They are often quick and to the point. Zahn focuses on the purpose of each scene and doesn’t go off on big tangents. Every scene, every word is important to the course of the overall story.
But the main difference between Zahn’s book and the cinematic original trilogy is that Zahn gives us more fully realized characters. These are people with an inner life and emotional struggles that don’t get touched upon in the movies. Granted, that’s to be expected. Films are inherently different than novels. Films are visual. Novels are more intimate. They let you experience characters on a deeper level. Because let’s face it, you’re not going to want to watch Luke suddenly get into a long, drawn out conversation with Leia or Han about how isolated and lonely he feels, or how he’s overwhelmed at the thought of trying to rebuild the Jedi order.
But put that into a novel, where the character can explore those emotions and motivations in an internal bit of dialogue and, boom, you’ve got yourself a more richly developed person.
Getting inside the heads of Han, Leia and Luke was ultimately the most impressive aspect of Heir to the Empire. I was surprised at how much these characters suddenly held a new fascination for me. I really wanted to get to know them better and I had more appreciation for the struggles they were going to face. After all, it’s easy to criticize when you’re not running the show. But when it’s your turn to call the shots, well, not everyone can do that.
And to see the rebel alliance now trying to set up and run a full-fledged government, well, that to me is a really interesting backdrop. There’s political intrigue – the kind that attracted me so much to the prequel trilogy and Clone Wars.
No longer did Luke seem to be the simple farm boy, who just happened to get lucky because he was Force sensitive. Cuz, let’s face it … Luke relied on a lot of good grace from the Force in the movies. The one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star. Not getting sliced and diced by Vader and then surviving that fall on Bespin. And having Vader ultimately take care of the Emperor for him … Luke was often the beneficiary of some good fortune.
In Heir to the Empire, Luke showcases some skill. There’s a scene in the book when the big three head to a planet to try to get their co-operation. Luke goes off on his own, while Han and Leia are shown to some kind of big outdoor flea market. That’s when a race of creatures called the Noghri attempt to kidnap them all. Luke uses the Force to mess with the group that came after him and then he cuts them down with ease. Leia and Han improvise to avoid immediate capture, before Luke comes sweeping in from above to help them escape. For once, Luke is actually doing something heroic, rather than just being present for some of the heroics.
Han was probably always the most well-rounded character from the original trilogy films. That’s often the way with rogue-type characters. We get to see that there are multiple sides to their personality. Zahn takes us even further into Han’s head, as we see him trying to deal not only with helping to get the government up and running, but also dealing with impending fatherhood and trying to still tap into his smuggling connections in order to help the alliance with their shipping problems. It’s interesting to see Solo mellow somewhat, while still having a bit of an edge to him.
My one character-driven bit of criticism of the novel is that Leia doesn’t feel as fleshed out as she could have been. She’s not given a whole lot to do through the majority of the book, other than be pregnant and have Noghri chase after her. Later on, however, there’s a scene in which she is confronted by a Noghri assassin, who discovers something unique about her that I believe is going to shape what’s to come in the second book of the Thrawn trilogy. You’ll have to read that to discover it for yourself, but that one scene alone gives me hope that we’ll see Leia doing something more than just carrying twin Jedi and being the damsel in distress.
Lando is back, too. Truth be told, not a big Lando fan. Never was. And the book did little to change my mind about him. I did like some of the scenes in the book where we discover more about the relationship between Lando and Han. There’s definitely more to be gained from exploring that in the future, I believe. Otherwise, Lando still came off as just a guy trying to hustle for some cash and play any angle that benefits him.
We’re also introduced to a new Jedi, who Thrawn discovers living on a remote planet. Thrawn is determined to use Master C’Baoth’s battle meditation skills to help what remains of the Imperial Fleet. In return, he promises to deliver Luke, Leia and her unborn twins to C’Baoth, so that he can train them. Thing is, C’Baoth isn’t really a true Jedi, nor a Sith. He’s basically a Force-sensitive guy who seems determined to create a new order to serve him. Not exactly the kind of Jedi Obi-Wan and Yoda would take kindly to.
Three other characters are introduced who seem likely to play big roles in the trilogy. Talon Karrde, Mara Jade and Borsk Fey’lya. Karrde and Jade are smugglers and rogues, but she has the added dimension of being Force sensitive and having a huge hate-on for Luke Skywalker because of her past, which was linked to the Emperor. She’s a pilot for Karrde and the two function well together, kind of like Han and Chewie.
Fey’lya is another beast altogether. A politician covered in fur. A Bothan, whose people risked their lives to get the schematics of the Death Star to the Rebellion. And while he may be covered in fur, there’s no mistaking this guy is a bit of a scheming snake.
He’s got his eyes set on Admiral (It’s a trap!) Ackbar, who runs the military wing of the New Republic. But he genuinely thinks that he is more qualified to help lead the new government. Calculating snakes often make for great foils, so I will watch his career with great interest.
Finally, Zahn introduces a unique element into the novel, a creature called a Ysalamiri, which can disrupt the Force. They emit a bubble around them that the Force can’t penetrate. I’m a little on the fence about this because I think it’s a great new plot device. But I also think it becomes pretty darn convenient as a way for Thrawn to protect himself from C’Baoth and Luke.
So all in all, Zahn treats us to a really unique new world with Heir to the Empire, filled with interesting new characters and the old fan favourites we love from the films. The book features good climactic scenes and believable dialogue between the various characters. And because you get a glimpse into their thoughts, they are even more compelling people than they were in the movies.
Lead on Mr. Zahn. You’ve got a new follower.
Until next time…Wayne