Heir to the Empire, what a Star Wars novel supposed to look like

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever since stepping into Star Wars, I’ve been dabbling in the (old and new) Expanded Universe books and comics. There’s so much to read about, so many people who truly love Star Wars who’ve written amazing things in it, and right now I’m almost tempted to make a series on my Adventures in Star Wars. Anyway, so far Timothy Zahn is the gold standard for SW novels. Here’s why.

I don’t even know where to start with my outright love for this book and Zahn’s writing. So many licensed books (and sequels) get things wrong. They’re out-of-character, uninventive, and a disrespect to the original story that inspired them. But this book gets it right. It develops familiar characters with dignity and gravity, and invents new, three-dimensional characters that carry a vast presence on the page.

We see Luke Skywalker with the same quiet, serious conviction that defined his arc in Return of the Jedi, but facing new fears as he questions his ability to be the Jedi his masters were, with no one to teach him but his own instincts and grounded morality. We see Han Solo, still as wry and witty as ever, but with the added sense of responsibility for not only his new wife but his unborn children. Leia holds her own, under attack by mysterious assassins, while learning the ways of the Force and her new lightsaber (oh how I wish she would have still become a Jedi in the Disney canon…). Characters are not taken for granted and are written with introspective awareness of their own journeys and their own beliefs. This is everything a Star Wars book needs to be to do justice to the incredible characters that gave life to the original. I am in love.

Zahn’s brilliant grasp on understanding a character’s core spills over into his new creations, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and the dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth. Foundational characters in the (now uncrowned) Star Wars Expanded Universe. And no wonder. None of them act out of simple hatred or rage, despite playing the “bad guys” of the story. He writes them with a surety of beliefs and conviction, clear and purposed goals, and complex motivations. They are people, with the nuances that come with that distinction.

Zahn is effortless with the concepts that make this story as a whole so vastly well-rounded. He’s got military strategy down like an expert — Thrawn is a real commander, the kind that could lead a successful army in real life… the guy’s a genius tactician, psychologist, and a great leader. The dogfights and battles spark of tangible reality and down-to-earth strategics, with physics a very real presence in so many tactics employed by Luke and others. Zahn’s got economy, he’s got politics, he’s got a stunning imagination for fantastic, but scientifically-grounded world-building (such as Lando’s walking city).

The details here aren’t arbitrary and we don’t get any lame references to nerf nuggets, hit singles, and throw-in-a-holo-prefix to create a world (sorry Heir to the Jedi is still my standard for a bad Star Wars novel). Instead, there’s logistics to Zahn’s worlds, unassuming uniqueness in his invention of terms and customs.

And then there’s the plot and humor. Zahn’s sense of comedy is so low-key and situational. Somehow he makes grand tense scenes like the ones between Thrawn and C’baoth both full of bone fide suspense and dignity, and equal parts squabbling crack. It’s utterly brilliant. The plot doesn’t try to reach beyond itself or be too mind-blowing, but is based on a sense of logistics with the new Republic and the scraps of the old Empire. Han is out trying to recruit smugglers to aid the Republic shipping and economics. Thrawn is recruiting the dark Jedi C’baoth to mentally unify the fleet into efficiency (while planning for his big attack). Elements fall together with insane (and sometimes humorous) genius, and build up with suspense and mystery. It’s small scale enough to feel like the little people that populate Star Wars, epic enough to feel like the largest ILM battle sequences.

The old Expanded Universe might have been scrapped, but to me this stuff is canon. It captures more of the heart and soul of the characters and the story of Star Wars than so many other books, and I only hope they use the template of deft characterization here to define what’s coming in the EU.

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