Sunday, October 11, 2015

Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn

New York: Bantam, 1991, pp. 361.

I first read the books of the Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command) what now feels like a very long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and must admit that I have not thought about them very much since. It had been many years since I read very many tie-in novels, or for that matter, took much interest in the Expanded Star Wars universe.

Still, the approaching release of Episode VII, and the associated clearing of the decks with the branding of literally hundreds of tie-in works "Legends" rather than "Canon," drew me back and I decided to take a second look at Zahn's novels. I must admit that I had not expected very much. My memories of the books were favorable, but I was a far less demanding reader when I took them, quite able to enjoy fiction that, when I revisited it, later seemed appalling.

On the whole, though, Zahn's novels proved a pleasant surprise, starting with the first of his trilogy, Heir to the Empire. Of course, as a look at the back cover reveals that the premise is reasonably robust. (Five years after the Battle of Endor the Empire is down but not out, still in control of a quarter of the galaxy, and the New Republic in the ascendant not without its frailties as the former Rebels cope with the business of governance--giving the villainous imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn a chance to reverse the tide of history.) The relation of the events that unfold from it is brisk, helped by not just the promised abundance of action and intrigue, but rapid intercutting between one storyline and another. And the prose is sufficiently lucid and polished to keep the reader from tripping over awkward word choices and phrasing (as they do in so much commercial fiction).

However, these are more or less straightforward matters of craftsmanship, and not very much to ask from a veteran writer of this type of fiction like Zahn. What really impressed me was that the story genuinely feels like it belongs to the core of the Star Wars universe. Heir is not only rooted in the material of the original, canonical trilogy (replete with its characters, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando all central characters), but succeeds in making the newer content grow organically out of that, rather than a repetition of old content, or a painful grafting of new to old.

In this there is much use of the settings and situations of the original trilogy. A central mystery has Luke flying to Dagobah with R2 in his X-wing, and reentering the "Cave of Evil," where he has a vision of his rescue of Han on Tatooine at the start of the Return of the Jedi. Afterward he flies off to an exotically situated business enterprise of Lando's, where Leia and Han were also headed just before the Empire came calling.

Fortunately, such scenes prove not to be repetitions of earlier situations, but rather evocative bridges from the old to the new, that at their best also put the old in a new light. Luke's return to Dagobah provides addiitonal insight into just what the Cave is (and the broader history of the Jedi), while the vision he has inside, while reinforcing the connection of this tale with what came before, foreshadows an important connection with a new character who is smoothly retconned into the narrative. Other episodes, which only to a lesser extent build on the familiar, likewise have the virtue of deepening our knowledge of what we already saw, as with Chewie and Leia's journey to the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk.

This all occurs not only on the level of the overall plot, accomplished as it is in this respect. Zahn has clearly gone some way to imagining Lucas's galaxy "to saturation," reinforcing the connection in the smaller details--a spoken reference here, a recollection there, like the revelation of a compartment on R2 that makes Mara Jade think that this must have been how Luke smuggled his light saber into Jabba's hideout.

It helps, too, that most of what is more thoroughly invented is fairly compelling. Particularly striking are the two principal villains, namely the megalomaniacal Dark Jedi Master C'baoth, and Grand Admiral Thrawn, the latter an especially tricky character to write as a result of his being a "military genius."1 Most writers of such characters, unable to think of what a genius would say or do, either keep repeating that the characters are, in fact, geniuses (groan), or resort to intellectual displays that are caricatured, irrelevant or both (groan again). Zahn takes a subtler path by, among other things, providing successive opportunities for Thrawn to base his decisions on Sherlock Holmes-style deductions, with his subordinate Admiral Pellaeon playing Watson to the Great Detective (as when Thrawn fails to be fooled by Han's attempt to sneak Leia off the Millennium Falcon). He also proves artful enough to bring the act off, and displaying a flair for charismatic, polished schemers in general, imbues the smuggler Talon Karrde with his own considerable interest.

None of this is to deny that the book has its weaker points. In contrast with the original films, the story, without anything like Luke's earlier journey to Jedi knighthood to center it, seems relatively diffuse, with such unity as it enjoys derived from the villain's plan. Mara Jade is a one-note character through the book (careerism and revenge seem to be all there is to her), and her scenes with Luke are more tedious than tense, while C'baoth seems underutilized. And the conclusion is a bit abrupt and ambiguous, just when the reader might have expected fireworks. However, after finishing Heir to the Empire I was much more enthusiastic about turning to Dark Force Rising than I thought I would be when I first thought of revisiting the series.

1. The back stories of C'baoth (or rather, the original C'baoth) and Thrawn, as well as the initial meeting of the two men, is detailed in Outbound Flight, a review of which you can read here.

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