“You’re not the last of the old Jedi, Luke, you’re the first of the new.”
After twenty-four years of Star Wars books, it’s hard to put into words just how excited fans were when the first Star Wars novel post-Return of the Jedi was announced. Sure we’d had comic books and TV shows set in the same universe. But this was the first story – officially sanctioned by George Lucas himself – that continued the adventures of all our favorite characters, finally answering the question we’d been asking in the eight years since the last film ended: “And THEN what happened!?”
Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire was more than a spin-off. This was a sequel.
The action picks up five years after the destruction of the Death Star. (Feel free to picture this next bit as the opening crawl.) Princess Leia, now married to Han Solo and expecting twins, is struggling to unite the different factions of the new government. Han Solo and Chewbacca have the uphill task of convincing the smugglers to work with the New Republic instead of outside it. And Luke Skywalker is now the only person who can train new Jedi, uncomfortably aware of how it turned out for the last person who said “I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda.” (end crawl)
Just in case things weren’t complicated enough, there are still remnants of the Empire left for the New Republic to deal with. In the galactic fringes, a long-hidden Grand General of the Imperial Starfleet is putting together a plan to overthrow what he still thinks of as “The Rebel Alliance.” A young smuggler is stoically grieving the loss of the Empire and plotting to kill the person responsible for destroying her life. And sequestered on a world with a secret cache of Empire technology is a long-lost Jedi Master. The fact that he happens to be a Dark Jedi who hopes to be able to “train” Luke and his relatives is bad; the fact that he’s dangerously crazy is much, much worse.
A big concern when having an author write for an established universe like Star Wars is that they’re not going to be able to capture the voice of the characters we’re all familiar with. It’s not a problem for Zahn, since he absolutely nails the characterizations for everyone: irritated comments, determined resolve, endearments between Leia and Han (nothing too sappy; this is still Han we’re talking about), and Threepio still being a great big fuss-budget, it’s all pitch-perfect. The author juggles several different storylines between the different characters, meaning I was always eager to get to the point where one group will finally find out what the other group has been up to.
Knowing that everyone had been waiting for eight years for this, the author throws in a lot of fun call-backs to the original trilogy. The phrase “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” comes up at least once, but he also expands on things that we only got a taste of in the movies. We finally get an explanation for why Yoda chose to live on Dagoba, very close to a cave that radiates an aura of evil. A member of an alien species reveals late in the book that the Princess of Alderaan is a member of a very different type of royalty; you can probably guess what it is, but I thought it was an effectively shocking moment, and I really liked the title she’s given. And I don’t know if it was Zahn or George Lucas himself who came up with the full back-story on how Calrissian lost the Millennium Falcon in a card game, but ever since I read the explanation Zahn provided, I’ve accepted that as canon.
One of the best parts? We finally get to see Kashyyyk, the Wookie homeworld. It’s an amazing place, with trees as tall as skyscrapers and layers of ecosystems that get progressively more deadly the closer you get to the ground. Rumor has it that the Battle of Endor was originally supposed to have been set on Kashyyyk, with Wookies instead of Ewoks, and oh my God would that have been something to see.
Zahn had a whole universe to play with when he got the gig to write this trilogy, and he makes the most of it by creating whole new worlds and races and characters. All of them are fascinating (Lando’s new business venture would be a very bad-ass thing to see on film), and many would become the staples for all of the books that would follow. (Movies too; did you know that Heir to the Empire has the first reference ever to the city-world of Coruscant? Lucas liked that one enough to use it in the Prequels.)
Fan-favorite Mara Jade had her beginning here, starting out bitter and damaged, but also jaw-droppingly talented at everything. And oh does she hate Luke Skywalker. If there was anything at all clumsy about Zahn’s characters it was the Mara storyline; supposedly she’s a willing pawn of the Empire, but you’ve got someone that’s talented, and intelligent, and beautiful, and determined, and she can use the Force? Of course she’s destined to join the good-guys, and I think everyone knew it.
Grand Admiral Thrawn is probably one of the most fascinating villains I’ve seen in the whole Star Wars universe (after Darth Vader, natch), and he’s far and away the most believable. This isn’t a scenery-chewing Emperor throwing lightning bolts, or a general who’s entire strategy is based around a gigantic space station that can blow up planets. Thrawn is a military genius, someone who can study a race’s artwork and use what he’s learned to plan a devastatingly successful attack on an entire planet’s defenses. The Grand Admiral has several different plans in motion, and he’s playing a very long game, which we only get to see the very beginnings of here.
Looking back over this novel, it’s very easy to get depressed about the fact that this and all other Expanded Universe books are no longer canon. A lot of fans – myself included – desperately wanted to see these adapted to film. I remember a rumor that the Star Wars Prequels would eventually lead to Zahn’s books being made into episodes VII, IIX and IX; there were people who were convinced that one of the nameless characters watching the Pod Races was actually a young Mara Jade.
So yes, depressed. But not surprised. The time for the Zahn books to be made into movies was in 1993, maybe as late as 1996, but even that would have been pushing it. After that there was little chance you could get the original actors to return and still be able to portray much younger characters. And the stories of the new characters Zahn created – Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Han and Leia’s children – would have lost something by skipping over how they all started.
The only way we can have a feature film made now with the original characters is to write a whole new story. And the only way to do that is to cut the new films off from the timeline created by The Expanded Universe. I’ll treasure my favorite books in the EU (now re-labeled as Star Wars Legends), I’ll keep reading any that I haven’t gotten around to yet (apparently anything by James Luceno is particularly good), and I’d truly love it if there was any way to let the Legends continuity run parallel to the new canon.
But I’m also really excited about the new movie, and I’m actually looking forward to the prospect of many many books that can now be written in this brand new timeline. I supposed some people will say I’ve been seduced by the Dark Side…
Seeing as how Darth Vader has always been one of my favorite characters, I think that’s probably fair.