Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Star Wars: The Last Command Review (Unread 034)

Cover art by Tom Jung.
While the world is filled with excitement and initial positive responses to the latest Star Wars film’s release, I’m alone in my little corner finishing off the excellent trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn. The Thrawn Trilogy has been a pleasant surprised from start to finish. I had quite a few reservations when I started to read the first volume in this series. The first Expanded Universe novel I read was Choices of One, a book focusing on Mara Jade during the time of the original film trilogy and written by Zahn. To be quick about it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t really know who Mara Jade was and worst of all Zahn didn’t make me care. The book had a more militaristic feel than the Star Wars films and I felt that was a bit of an odd fit despite there being a constant presence of the Empire and its military forces in the movies.

Because of this and other smaller details, I didn’t have much in terms of expectations when deciding to read The Thrawn Trilogy. The expectations I did have were mostly of reluctance and hope. You see, the fans are very vocal online about their love of this trilogy which arguably created the Expanded Universe (which sadly met its demise earlier this year). Zahn is often hailed as the best author in the entire EU and people support their statement with this series of books. Could it really be that good? What makes these books better than the rest? What makes these books better than Choices of One?

Having read all three books, I know the answer to those questions. Since I’ve finished the last book I now have a good appreciation of the entire structure of the series and how things from the first and second books not only paid off in their individual volumes, giving readers complete single-volume stories, but played an important role in setting up the events of the final volume. A lot of plot elements and character arcs introduced in the first two books reach their zenith in The Last Command. Zahn really knows how to plot a three arc story and you need look no further than The Thrawn Trilogy to find proof of that.

When you break it down, Zahn doesn’t do anything revolutionary or entirely surprising in the way he structures this trilogy. What he does is take basic requirements for a good story and writes them really well. The books are filled with strong yet familiar voices for the characters from the movies. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and others are written true to their portrayals on the big screen. At the same time, Zahn ensures he doesn’t write them as stagnant or unchanging people. They grow and change. Leia in particular gets some really nice development. Luke, while he has a nice story arc, doesn’t really change much. Yet what is presented in The Last Command shows that he’s continued his path of controlled emotions and unwavering love, his version of the path of the Jedi. Han slips into a new role and becomes more supportive than ever of Leia while also retaining his slightly irritable edge that acts as a dupe for his softer side.

Added to these familiar characters are a slew of new ones. Zahn certainly loves his anti-heroes. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he likes his redemptive heroes. People who accidentally get pulled into increasingly difficult situations, playing politics and warfare with both the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire, and through their actions prove that they can still be a force for positive change in a galaxy that is always on the brink of falling into further corruption and hate. You see this most clearly in Mara Jade and Talon Kaarde.

Cover art by Mathieu Lauffray.

Here, with these characters, you get a sense that Zahn had more freedom. Kaarde gets a familiar character arc, but Zahn gives it just the right amount of detail to make it feel earned and natural. He avoids making his decisions feels cheap and predetermined by plotting concerns by making the reader know what Kaarde’s point of view is on the state of the galaxy. He’s a business man and a loyal friend and those two things together lead him to certain places. With Mara Jade, Zahn did the impossible. He made me care about a character that I had already made up my mind about not liking. In Choices of One, Jade didn’t interest me. I couldn’t fathom why the book focused on her so much. Having finished The Thrawn Trilogy where she first appeared in print, I understand the appeal of that book. I’m not ready to reread it, but seeing how her character was first introduced and how great a job Zahn did with her, I’m not surprised she became an EU mainstay. Her character arc took time to pick up speed. I enjoyed reading about her in the first volume but I feel like I only got to know her as of the second book. With the third and final volume, Zahn gives her a very good conclusion. Her character arc is very satisfying and the seemingly impossible resolution of her brainwashing actually works really well in the context of the third book.

Other new characters share the spotlight with those already mentioned. Dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth and Grand Admiral Thrawn present themselves as worthy adversaries to the New Republic and opportunistic heirs to the Empire. C’baoth is growing insane and by the third volume is practically exploding with Force energy and a desire to govern all around him. His main target, however, are other Force users and Force-sensitive beings. He finds plenty of potential students with Luke, Leia, the Organa-Solo twins, and Mara Jade. He wants to subjugate them to his will and create a troop of Dark Jedi.  He’s probably my least favourite character of the entire trilogy and I think it’s because he’s essentially a cackling over-the-top kind of villain. Sure, he’s insane, but somehow that justification just doesn’t cut it for me. I think it might have something to do with the fact that Zahn seems a little out of his element writing about the Force and the Jedi. As a science fiction writer whose work is often in the sub-genre of military science-fiction, it’s not entirely surprising. Really though, his shortcomings with C’baoth are probably the only thing that Zahn doesn’t do really well.

Grand Admiral Thrawn, however, is a superior example of a great character. The entire Star Wars EU is better because of his existence. It makes perfect sense that following the Emperor’s death in Return of the Jedi that a military commander would take over as the new leader of the Empire. Thrawn is distinguished by his complete command of his troops and his impressive and near-infallible ability to plan and execute complex military manoeuvres in battles. He is a strategist and we get to see his plans come to fruition time and again during the course of these three books. He’s as singularly focused and calculating in The Last Command as he has been since his first appearance in Heir to the Empire. While Thrawn doesn’t have as clear a character arc as some of the other characters, he’s continuously been the first or second most interesting character in the trilogy. It’s no surprise that fans have dubbed these books The Thrawn Trilogy.

I’ve spend a few paragraphs talking about characters and how that helps to make the book sing, but there is another reason why this trilogy works so well. The characters are what make the book enjoyable and engrossing to read, however, they’re not doing all the work. The heavy lifting is done by the plot and the structure that Zahn has setup for the characters. This is clearly a trilogy that was planned in its entirety prior to the release of the first book (I would be extremely surprised if that wasn’t the case). There are story elements coursing throughout all three books. Everything in the story serves the same purpose, everything is working towards the conclusion of The Last Command.

Covert art by Mathieu Lauffray.

You might have noticed that I’ve been dancing around the actual plot of this final volume. One reason for doing this is that if you’ve read two out of three books, you likely don’t need me to convince you to pick up the third volume by dangling a little plot summary in front of you. The other reason, the more important of the two, is that Zahn wrote an actual conclusion to his trilogy. Story elements begun in the previous books come to an end in this final volume. You know who the main players are and you know what the overall plot of the trilogy is, even if you don’t recognize the important of individual elements just yet. There aren’t any glaring loose treads or forgotten plots, rather there are endings. Like the best authors working in long form or serialized storytelling, Zahn also made sure that his endings acted as new beginnings. Most of the characters in these novels went on to have many more adventures detailed in other books of the EU. Some of the characters, like Jaina and Jacen Solo, were literally born in this book, and later became very important to the EU for two full decades of publication.

I had my doubts about Zahn and this trilogy because I dived into a large and convoluted fictional universe without a proper introduction. My judgement of Choices of One was probably unfair based on my limited perspective. I should have made the effort to start my exploration of the EU with this trilogy, a series of books that literally introduced readers to the EU. If you’re looking to dip your toes in the vast tapestry of interconnected novels that is the EU, I’d wholeheartedly recommend starting here. It will absolutely be worth your time. I’m surprised that few authors of the EU didn’t follow the formula that Zahn used for these books. They include realistic and engaging characters, a tonal shift towards military science fiction (without losing any defining characteristics of Star Wars), tense plotting, believably complicated political relations between people, organizations, and entire cultures. On top of that there is a good bit of action that feels really important because of how well developed the story and characters are. With the EU pushed aside in favour of the New Canon, I’m curious to see how much longer this trilogy’s good reputation will endure. It deserves to stay in the Star Wars conversation for another couple decades at least and if you don’t believe me, then maybe you should visit or revisit these books. They’re the second best Star Wars trilogy I know of in any media.

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