Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Star Wars: Heir to the Empire review (Unread 007)

Here it is; the big one. The grand-daddy of all Star Wars Expanded Universe novels: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. It took me two years of exploring the EU to finally come around to reading Star Wars: Heir to the Empire. To be honest, this is probably where I should have started exploring the EU but for reasons that can be summarized by the simple fact that I had other EU books in my hands before I ever bought a copy of Heir to the Empire, I only got around to reading it two months ago. I’m glad I did because the book holds up as an entertaining follow-up to the original trilogy, despite the praise it’s usually given by fans of the franchise. I was honestly worried this book would be overhyped.

For those who have not heard of this book and its sequels, The Thrawn Trilogy is arguably the most important Star Wars novels as they’re regularly credited with first developing and popularizing the foundations of what became known as the Expanded Universe. All of the Star Wars novels of the 1990s owe a debt to Zahn and his trilogy. To try and put this accomplishment in perspective, Zahn gives the franchise an identity post Episode VI, creates some of the most popular and best developed characters of the EU, successfully writes about Luke, Leia, Han, and other characters from the film by being true to their onscreen counterparts but also providing them with a new identity. He does all of this while also telling an interesting story that mixes old and new tricks resulting in a thrilling first volume of a trilogy. What gives this book such a lasting impression is that it was used as the foundation on which all of the other Bantam Spectra era novels are built upon. It forms the backbone of this publication period of Star Wars novels. Some even credit this trilogy with renewing George Lucas’ interesting in creating the prequel trilogy. It’s uncontested truth that The Thrawn Trilogy has had a lasting impact on the franchise and is at the very least partially responsible for the continued success and popularity of Star Wars today.

That’s a lot of expectations for a single novel. Let’s face it, if the first novel of a trilogy doesn’t deliver, many readers won’t pick up the second volume. That’s a normal reaction to a first novel. If my reading pile is any indication there just isn’t enough time to spend on finishing a series of books when you didn’t enjoy the first instalment. When I started to read Heir to the Empire I was a little worried it wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype. I was especially concerned since I wasn’t particularly impressed with Star Wars: Choices of One, the first book by Zahn that I’ve ever read.

Cover of the Dutch edition.
One of the things that make this book enjoyable is that nearly everything feels familiar. That’s saying something considering Zahn introduces quite a few important new characters and a couple new settings. One of the most recognizable today is the planet city of Coruscant. Even with all the new stuff that Zahn includes in the book, the whole thing feels very accessible. It works well in comparison to the depiction of Star Wars on film. I find that Star Wars novels written after this original trilogy because less accessible because the franchise had quite literally continued to progress in one large story after the conclusion of the original trilogy. While a lot of the Bantam ear books are trilogies with a few standalone novels and a series or two, they reference once another with some frequency. It’s more similar to a series of novels encompassing trilogies as actual separate stories being told without connections to one another. This has only gotten worse with the years and it can make it very difficult to choose which Star Wars book you should read, let alone fully understand the one you’re reading.

What certainly helps new readers with Heir to the Empire is that the main protagonists are the same as those in the film. Zahn focuses on Leia, Han, and Luke throughout the book and their characterizations are pretty close to the ones we’re familiar with but he also chooses to change them a bit. It works because this book is set after Return of the Jedi and it makes sense that the changes in galactic politics also impacted our heroes who, after all, are the cause of that change in regime.

I quite liked Leia in this book. She’s kind of the Liz Lemon of the Star Wars universe. She’s the woman that manages to do it all. She’s arguably the New Republic’s top diplomat and as such she’s given many important political assignments to carry out for the good of the Republic. She’s also an expecting mother (of twins, no less). On top of all that she’s studying the Force with Luke to one day because of Jedi. Happily married to Han Solo, she routinely finds herself in the middle of dangerous situations. I have no idea how or when she ever sleeps or how she hasn’t been rendered insane by her incredibly busy lifestyle. Even though her attention is divided in a dozen different directions, she manages to stay on top of it. She also manages to have a crazy adventure on Kashyyyk with Chewbacca.

Han has also changed since we last saw him. He’s developed into a more interesting character. He's still the outsider of the group, the one character who is looking in and brings the everyman perspective to the story. In addition to that he's also adapted nicely to his new life and even though he's more or less gained the knowledge required to navigate the political stronghold of the New Republic he's retained his characteristic abrasiveness. In other words, he still doesn't like any bullshit situations yet manages to constantly find himself in the middle of them. What I find interesting about Han and Leia's relationship is that he left his old life for hers. We get a few moments where Zahn points it out but Han never really reflects on it. It’s not really a better life considering how much trouble he gets into but there is something a little more wholesome compared to his previous life. I’m really looking forward to reading about him as a father. Hopefully the twins are born before the end of the trilogy.

Cover of the Hungarian edition.
I’ve had a hard time finding a book that did Luke Skywalker any justice. find that's he's often characterized as someone who is crippled by doubt or by his legacy as the Last Jedi (whether he truly is the last Jedi or not doesn't really matter, that he thinks he is does). It is important to mention that most of the Star Wars books I had read a set during the original trilogy or shortly after: The Courtship of Leia, Choices of One, The Truce at Bakura and the original trilogy novelizations. Zahn manages to write Luke as a very capable person with and without the use of the Force. He's certainly not a young man anymore. He's an adult who’s confident in his abilities but always self-aware enough to know of his limitations. He's also a little lost. He knows that he has to train more Force-sensitive individuals to one day become Jedi and reform the order of the Jedi Knights but he doesn't know where to start. He doesn't balk at this task nor does he run away from it. Instead he tackles his problems and his future as I feel any Jedi would. Calmly, without fear and with utmost devotion to the Light side of the force.

He's not perfect, I would argue no Jedi Master ever was, but being conscious of his shortcomings Luke regularly displays the courage and the tenacity to overcome his internal and external problems. The stories I've read write Luke as he is portrayed in the first and second movies, not the Luke we see in Return of the Jedi. I like that version of Luke and I find that an adult Luke looking to re-establish the Order of the Jedi while simultaneous trying to give his life purpose by doing so is a more interesting character than his young farm boy self from Episodes IV and a little in V. I had my doubts that this version of Luke existed in the EU but thankfully I've found him in Heir to the Empire. It's one of the nice surprises to be found in this book and it's one more reason why the Thrawn Trilogy is the granddaddy of the EU. A must read not only because it was the first breakout EU story but because it's also really good.

For the most part, Heir to the Empire is a fun read. It’s not overly serious and even though the series’ heroes are entering yet another difficult period in their lives due to their involvement in intergalactic conflict, the book isn’t filled with dread. It’s interesting to point out that all the new characters of note are working against Han, Leia, and Luke. Mara Jade, former hand of the Emperor, Thrawn a skilled Grant Admiral of the former Empire, Jorus C’baoth rumoured to be a Jedi Master, and Talon Kaarde a notorious gangster are all pursuing the heroes for one reason or another. Times are tense and Zahn skilfully built that tension while setting the scene for the second and thirds parts of the trilogy. That he manages to make it an interesting and relatively fast paced read while also making sure to include character development and action is impressive. I hope that the second volume cranks things up a bit because all the pieces are in place and conflict is unavoidable at this point. Let the TIE fighters fly and lightsabers ignite. It’s likely going to be a bumpy ride.  

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