Go to your local bookstore’s science-fiction or fantasy section and you will find hundreds of movie and video game inspired spin-offs. You will see shelves riddled with sub-par plots and writing that can usually be described as “glorified fan-fiction.” While that may be a little harsh to the authors who have put their hearts, souls and massive amounts of time into creating these novelizations or adaptations of films, I doubt anyone would argue that these books are representative of literary genius. There are, however, a few exceptions, and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy sits on the top of this list.
As someone who has never found as much pleasure in reading spin-offs as I do any other fiction, I was apprehensive to commit to reading a three part book series. However, because I have always been a big Star Wars fan, I gave in to the pressure when a good friend assured me of their quality and heralded them as the the proverbial sequels the the original George Lucas trilogy. So, with a slightly pessimistic attitude, I dove into what many consider to be Star Wars’ episodes Seven, Eight, and Nine.
The Story picks up roughly five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker and the Rebels have defeated Emperor Palpatine and driven what is left of the Empire into the far reaches of space. Unknown to the Rebellion (now the New Republic) a new leader, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is rallying what is left of the Empire and plans to strike at the heart of the new government. The books contain almost all of the original characters from the much-beloved films, and introduce new characters who become a vital component of the Star Wars universe. Two of the major characters introduced in the series include the above mentioned Grand Admiral Thrawn, as well as the secret agent of Emperor Palpatine, code-named “The Emperor’s Hand,” Mara Jade.
Mara Jade plays a major role in the Heir to the Empire trilogy as well as the remainder of the post Return of the Jedi fiction. Her muted abilities to use the force provide an interesting dynamic in her character arc, especially when we discover exactly how great an influence the late Emperor has over her. The tension that comes about from her ingrained loyalty to Emperor Palpatine in her interractions with Luke Skywalker are some of the most gripping aspects of the entire series, making Mara Jade a crucial component of the ongoing Star Wars mythology.
That said, there is a reason why the trilogy is collectively referred to as The Thrawn Trilogy. It could not have been easy for Zahn to create and intriguing and compelling antagonist who is forced to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest villains in modern fiction: Darth Vader. Not only does he accomplish this quite successfully, you can even argue that this is where the Trilogy really shines. Thrawn is portrayed as a strategic mastermind who believes real power lies in the study and knowledge of war and culture. The tension of the films was established through the pure power and force that the antagonists held. Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and the Death Star, all were representative of the awesome power of the Empire. In contrast however, Thrawn is a character who, when first introduced in the books, is out-matched in terms of pure numbers and physical power, and yet Zahn manages to create enough tension to keep the reader interested through the development of Thrawn’s character and the revelation of his true genious. Thrawn holds a certain strategic omnipotence that keeps the New Republic in constant jeopardy. Thrawn is always one step ahead of everyone, including the reader.
Another villain that is introduced to the saga and helps to add an additional layer of tension to both the New Republic and Thrawn’s Empire is the mentally off-balance Jedi Master, Joruus C’Baoth. C’baoth fits into Grand Admiral Thrawn’s plan in a way the reader may not expect, and it establishes an interesting dynamic between characters. This is especially true when C’Baoth begins to see himself as more of an asset to the Empire than Thrawn himself, and fractures in the grand plan begin to appear.
One of the greatest aspects of the entire trilogy is how expertly Zahn weaves the separate storylines together. All of the main characters have their own story arc that unfolds over the course of the series and allows fans to explore aspects of each character that we didn’t get to see in the films, making each of the main characters feel fresh and new. For example, we get to see Leia’s growing connection to the force and explore her link to Darth Vader, revealing exactly how she feels about being the daughter of the Dark Lord of the Sith. Luke Skywalker is still the leader, but he is no longer the growing kid trying to learn who he is. He is a blossoming Jedi trying to understand his role in the universe. Han Solo is still witty as ever, but replacing the brash and selfish man is a soon-to-be father trying to figure out his place in the new government while keeping his family safe. Zahn evolves some of the most iconic characters in cinematic history and makes them new while remaining faithful to the source material.
If you have ever read any type of spin-off fiction, you should have some idea of what to expect if you decide to pick up Hier to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. I am happy to say, however, you will be picking up the very highest quality that one could hope for in a film-turned-book sequel. Zahn weaves a great, fresh, and interesting story that will make you sad there are only three books to be read, though he did write two additional Thrawn books that take place several years later that are definitely worth checking out as well.