In 1991, before George Lucas had released Episode I, II, and III in the Star Wars saga, and before the flood of franchised books in the Expanded Universe that followed, he offered contracts to a few, lesser-known writers to create spin-off stories. A handful of books appearing, they were well received. Working from the success, Lucas then allowed Timothy Zahn to pen Episode VII, VIII, and IX—the events following Return of the Jedi. Lucas’ instincts sound, Zahn produced a trilogy of books that live up to expectation, and from some angles, exceed the quality of the films.
Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, known as The Thrawn Trilogy (1991-1993), is a solid series that utilizes book format to expand the Star Wars universe after the fall of Darth Vadar, the Emperor, and the Empire. Set five years following the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO and all the fan favorites remain the focal characters. Though now in middle age, they are characterized exactly as seen in the films. (Zahn should be commended for this.) General Thrawn is the new villain, a ruthless but shrewd one, and fits into the natural evolution of the story if the Empire is to have any hope of getting back into the picture after the Rebellion’s victory. In fact a deeper character than any evil presented on screen thus far, Thrawn’s role has a complexity and ingenuity to it that makes reading his scenes interesting. Intelligence his weapon of choice, the recently formed New Republic finds itself in a fight for its life if it is to survive its own birth pains, not to mention Thrawn’s quest to bring the Empire back to power.
Regarding the series as a whole, Zahn does a remarkable job of carrying on the Star Wars saga in the style and tone of the films. The scope is still command of the universe, the characterization and character interaction remain operatic, and the settings and action scenes all indicate a strong familiarization with the Star Wars universe and fandom. The only artistic license Zahn indulges in is the creation of a few new characters to fill gaps left by those departed, a handful of new planets and settings, and of course a new storyline. Otherwise, Luke, Leia, Han, and the rest talk and act like they always have, the scenes on Tatooine, Coruscant, Star Destroyers feel as one expects, and X-Wing battles and lightsaber duels happen are as exciting as ever. The Force still exists and plot developments roll and turn like the space opera Star Wars always was. As a whole, Zahn shows respect for the franchise and never seeks to change it for his own designs unlike many of the contracted writers would later do.
Heir to the Empire opens things as one would expect given the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. Luke is attempting to open a new Jedi academy to rebuild the Jedi Academy, and is traveling the universe seeking people strong in the Force to become new Knights and Masters. Leai, still positioned prominently near the top, fights for equality and democracy amongst the host of people and species vying for political position in the burgeoning New Republic, all the while dealing with three months of pregnancy. Han, despite his doubts, has finally been persuaded to join the government and give up his smuggler’s ways and acts as a representative of the New Republic to recruit other smugglers into the heavily depleted New Republic shipping lines, Chewbacca at his side.
One of these smugglers is a new and important character. Intelligent and well-placed in the social and economic infrastructure of the universe, Talon Karrde’s talents prove difficult for Han to snare. Karrde’s second-in-command is the mysterious yet highly effective Mara Jade. Parts of her past a secret even to herself, she has an unstoppable obsession to kill Luke Skywalker and occasionally interrupts her smuggling duties to indulge the urge. Including Thrawn and the senile Joruus C’Boath dug out of a storehouse filled with the Emperor’s oddities, a handful of other minor but relevant characters flesh out the scenes and push the story forward in true Star Wars style.
Dark Force Rising and The Last Command pick up events precisely after the preceding volume. Style and tone contiguous with not only the books but the films, Zahn continues to move the well-paced story in a positive direction. He also shows the overall story arc was well-planned, plot developments evolving in interesting and unpredictable fashion (or at least semi-unpredictable fashion, this is Star Wars after all). Larger and more complex due to the medium, Zahn’s story is better in some ways than the films. Places are explored in greater depth, important events are more numerous, and character interaction is not at such a premium. With the larger degree of spatial freedom, scenes and situations are explored in a manner unavailable to the movies. The assassination attempt on Luke, the Dreadnaught space battle, Thrawn’s visit to the Noghri, the asteroids over Coruscant, and the final showdown are all classic Star Wars with more room for the imagination to play.
In the end, Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy is a solid addition to the Star Wars universe that will certainly meet the high expectations of most fans. Favorite characters are all there, as well as memorable new ones, including Thrawn, the noghri, Mara Jade, and Karrde. The overall story line of the universe takes a major step forward while, most importantly, Zahn adheres to the common understanding of what the Star Wars universe is and does not attempt any radical departures from this unwritten norm. Everything is in the spirit of and style of Lucas’ creation. It will be interesting to see whether Disney opts to adapt Zahn’s books, or move in an entirely new direction with the future episodes.