Based on the success of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, Bantam and Lucas Arts offered several contracts for additional books in the Star Wars expanded universe. Various works starting to appear toward the end of the 20th century, all dealt with different aspects of the fictional world. Some told X-Wing stories, others tales from the Mos Eisley cantina, Jabba’s lair was expanded, and some picked up Zahn’s story where he’d left it at the end of The Last Command. The universe had not heard the last of Zahn, however, and four years after the completion of the Thrawn trilogy, a new duology of books appeared that continued the main Star Wars storyline, picking up where other writers left off.
Called the Hand of Thrawn duology, Zahn adds little new to the Star Wars universe, rather ties up a couple of important loose ends. Working with the story infrastructure handed him by Lucas and that which he created in the original Thrawn trilogy, the books bring together two key characters in matrimony, as well cements the New Republic’s position in the universe. The story divided between Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, the writing is in the same solid style that Zahn previously displayed and generally continues to show a respect and understanding for all things Star Wars. There are, however, a few new items which show authorial license. More importantly, the overall story is beginning to show its limits.
Now Jedi Master, Luke is concerned about being too dependent on the Force and is seeking to diminish his usage at the outset of Specter of the Past. He has a prescient vision of Mara in trouble, however, and sets out with R2D2 to a strange, out of the way planet to see if he can help. Meanwhile in Coruscant, Leia is dealing with rumors that sleeper cells of clone stormtroopers are still active, while Han is trying to find an important document that would relieve the Republic of blame in a scandal of cultural proportions that is threatening to burn out of control. Behind all of this, fragments of the Empire are creating a ruse wherein Thrawn is still alive. A puppet leader installed and cosmetics applied, the group seek, inch by inch, to use cracks in the New Republic’s façade to sow heresy, and if they are lucky, regain a foothold in universe politics.
Containing a good deal of interesting imagination: the Jedi trap set for Luke, the tunnel trip Mara takes, numerous episodes of smuggler intrigue, the Camaasi showdown, and several other aspects of the story are everything that Star Wars is, or was. Noticeable irregularities are, however, little of Chewbacca, little of the twins, and a certain annoying “technology” that appears at the end of the duology—certainly beyond the Star Wars universe. Otherwise, the individual threads of story Zahn plays out to the reader are enjoyable, relatively unpredictable, and capture the exotic and escapist joy that is Star Wars.
The Hand of Thrawn duology, while containing (most) everything Star Wars, is nevertheless a toned down story from the trilogy Zahn previously penned. It is especially low key given the divergent and excessive qualities Kevin J. Anderson contributed to the world. Opinion differing, some fans applaud Zahn for scaling down the story, particularly given that universe can only withstand so many takeover schemes before the story becomes stale. Others find this precise aspect the weakest, the scope of the story too multi-directional rather than focused on an all-encompassing evil. This, of course, is up to the reader to decide.
In the end, Timothy Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn duology has value for the diehard fans of Star Wars. The Thrawn trilogy more enjoyable, not to mention more interesting for its position in the flood of post-Return of the Jedi written material, Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future will be most satisfying for those who simply can’t bear to see the story end. Storytelling, characterization, and setting remain as good as Zahn has produced in the past, the difference being things now feel disconnected from the movie franchise, the product weaker. Given the plethora of low-grade material that has appeared in the decade since, however, Zahn still remains at the top of Star Wars literature.