A Long Time Ago: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Captain’s Log, good ship Spectra:

DUN DUN dadadaDUN dadadaDUN
DUN DUN dadadaDUN dadadaDUN
DUN DUN dadadaDUN dadadaDUN
DUN DUN dadadaDUN dadadaDUN
Da Da Da Da dada Da dada

It doesn’t matter how I describe things from here on.

No matter what I say I’m doing, you will picture me with a clack of boots and a whish of a cape behind me, a squad of armored companions accompanying me down the corridor.

That’s exactly how I like it. Especially when it’s true.

Da Da Da Da dada Da dada DUN DUN DUN, DUN DUN DUN

Heir to the Empire is different from a book. It’s a little bit more like a Phoenix Down, or that quarter that you find under the arcade machine during that perilous count down. Heir to the Empire is something that existed to breathe new life into a dying mechanism, a sorely needed oil change on a star freighter that was perilously close to a breakdown.

Forgive me, but this is the part where the tone goes quiet. I must be suitably dramatic.

Dadadah da da, dadadah da da

With fuel like the Thrawn trilogy, any franchise could take off as though it were in the Millennium Falcon.

This one was.

Dadada da da da da da.

Reviewer Rangers.

Polish your ceremonial armor. Beam me down.

Heir to the Empire was the first Star Wars novel to be written in eight years, since 1983. This was the first novel to be set following Return of the Jedi, and in many ways Heir to the Empire and its fellow novels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command were and still are seen as Star Wars: Episode VII. At the time of release, Heir to the Empire was the first indication of Han and Leia’s marriage and children, not to mention the state of the Rebel Alliance (now the New Republic) the Galactic Empire/Imperial Remnant, and the Criminal Underground, demonstrating a linear extrapolation from the Galaxy-changing events in Return of the Jedi to where they are now.

The Thrawn Trilogy also introduced many characters to the Expanded Universe, almost all of whom you’ve seen in this column before. Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo, former Emperor’s Hand Mara Jade, crime lord Talon Karrde and Councilor Borsk Fey’lya, just to name a few. In addition to these new staples to the universe, author Timothy Zahn was instructed to work closely with information in the West End Sourcebooks, at that point the closest thing to an Encyclopedia and Holocron that the Star Wars Expanded Universe had to offer.

The novel starts with Luke Skywalker reminiscing and speaking with Obi-Wan Kenobi, who remarks that this will be the last time he’s able to contact Luke, bringing his training and mentorship to completion. The entire crew is gathered in the Imperial capitol, Leia pregnant with twins and See-Threepio fretting about. For those of us who’ve been following along since Truce at Bakura (meaning those of you who’ve been following along with me and A Long Time Ago), we’re grateful to see everybody together, safe, but not too surprised. For those of us who jumped on at this point after Return of the Jedi, we have no clue about how the team has fared in the past few years- nor do we have any clue about the mysterious new commander that led the Empire against the Solos on Tatooine.

Speaking of the mysterious commander, while Luke and Ben made up the spiritual and continuity start of the novel, Heir to the Empire, like the three films it follows, opens up on a Star Destroyer. This is where we meet Gilad Pellaeon of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimera and Grand Admiral Thrawn, an alien (Chiss, in fact, like myself) determined to restore the Empire to its former glory.

And thus, with both sides declared, our war begins anew.

Da Da Da Da dada Da dada
Da Da Da Da dada Da dada DUN DUN DUN, DUN DUN DUN

But wait, in Star Wars, there’s always a third side. The side of the Jedi and the Rebellion has always been represented by the idealistic farmboy, Luke Skywalker, and here the side of the Empire is represented by Gilad Pellaeon (the eyes through which we see Grand Admiral Thrawn), and the third side, from Day One, has been represented by Han Solo. So it’s with little surprise that we see Han, in a cantina, trying to recruit smugglers and independents to, not the Rebel cause, but the Rebel payroll. In a lesson about economics about as subtle as, but much better received by fans than The Phantom Menace, we learn exactly what the relative situations of the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant are, how much resources either has and how they relate to one another. Han is expositing, yet this scene has a feeling of “Show, Don’t Tell” nonetheless- otherwise, why would General Solo be out here?

With this setup out of the way, the book quickly proceeds to the plot. In the process of picking up something that they need in order to make Admiral Thrawn’s plot make sense (the ability for mortal individuals to stand up against someone with the powers of the Emperor), Thrawn is nice enough to introduce something that makes the rest of the plot make sense- in this case, one Talon Karrde and his organization. Talon in turn is nice enough to introduce us to Mara Jade, who is necessary for the rest of the trilogy (not to mention the EU) to make sense.

Thrawn very quickly assembles his full set of cards, introducing us to Joruus C’baoth, who will act as Thrawn’s counterpart in a different way, yet with similar elements to the Empire and Vader. C’baoth is an insane Force user, one whose insanity makes a whole lot more sense when you take into account novels like Outbound Flight. It’s the power of this Dark Jedi that gives the Thrawn trilogy the menace it does- after all, it takes more than military strategy to make Star Wars what it is.

The next stage of the novel involves repeat attempts on Luke and Leia- not on their lives, but to kidnap them. This involves setting up other plot points, like involving Lando Calrissian in the novel, completing the collection of film characters to get everybody involved.

Now that we’ve acknowledged the military strategies of Timothy Zahn, let’s look at Grand Admiral Thrawn’s. He used what he collected from Talon Karrde in the beginning of the novel to protect himself from C’baoth- but that’s not all. In order to recruit the Dark Jedi Master, he made a promise: Four pupils, in the forms of Luke, Leia, and Han and Leia’s twins, who would be born in The Last Command.

While Thrawn’s commando forces, including the Sith analogs the Noghri, Vader-worshipping shock troops sent to enforce the kidnappings, occupy themselves with kidnapping Luke and Leia, Thrawn has other goals in mind. We don’t know how yet, but Thrawn plans very soon to have enough personnel to man all of the warships he can get his hands on, and the climax of this novel is his first gambit to get ships to fill with these individuals.

Thrawn, in his determination to rule the Empire with a strong hand, rather than risk C’baoth usurping it and becoming a new Emperor, becomes a little too zealous, and in the process accidentally delivers Luke Skywalker into the hands of Talon Karrde and Mara Jade, forcing Karrde to choose the only side that his honor will allow him to (his promise of temporary amnesty to guests was forced to become permanent alliance when he realized that the Empire would recognize even temporary amnesty as treason). This leaves Luke, after a failed escape attempt, to join forces with Mara.

I’m sure I’ve spoken of Mara to some extent in earlier reviews, but these were all before Return of the Jedi, and it’s this backstory that really influences the trilogy to come. Mara is driven by the Last Command given by Emperor Palpatine in his death throes: Kill Luke Skywalker. This has driven her to a rage after years of dreaming this command, and we learn that one of her last missions during the Emperor’s life was to converge the plots of the First and Third Acts of Return of the Jedi, by attempting to kill Luke Skywalker in Jabba’s palace.

As you might imagine, Mara does not live up to her mission in this novel. Instead, she and Luke join forces for the sake of Karrde and Luke, respectively. This is the first time the two worked together, but it won’t be the last- like I said, it forms the backbone of the spiritual and emotional story of this trilogy. Because that’s what makes Star Wars so different from other military Science Fiction.

Come on, let’s go. There’s more to uncover, and explaining everybody’s motivations, reasons and the outcomes would do the rest of the trilogy an injustice.

Dadada da da da da da.

Following my clacking boots and my swishing cape if you like. I’m heading forward to the next leg of this journey. After all, the book follows a complete arc, but to get the true scale of epic storytelling, you need to take it as a trilogy.

To be Continued…

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