Book Review: 'Star Wars: The Last Command'

Cover art by Tom Jung. (C) 1993 Bantam Spectra and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

In 1991, eight years after the release of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Lucasfilm's licensing division authorized various projects to revive interest in George Lucas' characters and situations in advance of both the 20th Anniversary of the Star Wars Trilogy and to create fan anticipation for the still-in-planning prequel trilogy. Among the many ideas that were given the green light was a publishing concept known as Star Wars: The Expanded Universe, which entailed hiring some of the best science fiction and fantasy writers to create new "further adventures" featuring Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Artoo Detoo (R2-D2) and See Threepio (C-3PO) and set in the time period immediately after Return of the Jedi.

Although there were many authors involved and not all the stories would be in the same format (Dark Horse Comics, for instance, would publish the Dark Empire series as a multi-issue series of comic books), they all had to be interconnected. For instance, a planet or character introduced seemingly in a minor role in one book would later appear in another author's literary project. They could still be enjoyed as stand-alone works, but readers soon understood that each new Star Wars novel or comic book was really just one tile in a big mosaic depicting the events taking place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...."

Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire began the three-volume Thrawn Trilogy in a spectacular way; in this phenomenal best-selling novel, the Hugo-award winning author not only got fans caught up with their favorite movie characters and their lives five years after the battle of Endor, but he also introduced several of the most popular Expanded Universe characters, including Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Garn Bel Iblis, Gilead Pellaeon, and the chillingly efficient and dangerous Grand Admiral Thrawn.

In the first two novels (Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising), the blue-skinned, red-eyed Thrawn cleverly uses his intellect and tactical acumen to slowly put together a devastating campaign to reconquer the galaxy from the former Rebels who have set up a New Republic in the wake of Emperor Palpatine's death on the second Death Star. Thrawn, the only alien to ever wear the white uniform of an Imperial Grand Admiral, has various intellectual assets that, when combined with his carefully thought out military strategies, will allow him to win several key battles against the Rebellion and begin to restore Palpatine's New Order.

In the first two novels, Thrawn's plans go mostly his way; he obtains Spaarti cloning cylinders and the specifications for a working cloaking device, and he beats the New Republic to the long-missing and almost legendary "Dark Force," a huge fleet of pre-Empire dreadnaughts that will augment the Imperial fleet. He takes advantage of secret information gathered from something -- or someone -- code-named "Delta Source" to divine what the New Republic is up to, especially paying attention to political intrigue involving the ambitious Bothan Borsk Fel'ya, who may or may not be planning a coup d'état.
With this witches' brew of Imperial resurgence and political infighting in the halls of the former Imperial Palace on Coruscant, Thrawn, despite a few setbacks here and there, is about to lead the formerly dejected Imperial forces to a chain of major victories.

But one of the elements of Thrawn's ambitious plan has proven to be one of the weak spots in the Grand Admiral's scheme. He has entered into an uneasy alliance with Joruus C'baoth, the unstable -- and possibly insane -- clone of a long-dead Jedi Master. At first, C'baoth used his Force-wielding skills to coordinate Thrawn's far-flung forces in much the same manner as the late Emperor used the dark side to control Imperial fleets and troops. But Thrawn's "ally" has ambitions of his own: to snare Luke Skywalker, his twin sister Leia, and Leia's twins Jacen and Jaina and train them as his own twisted variations of Jedi.

Zahn's The Last Command is the exciting conclusion of the Thrawn Trilogy, with the Grand Admiral's grand strategy finally coming together...yet there are ominous signs that even Thrawn is capable of making mistakes. For even as planet after planet falls back into the Empire's control, various strands in Thrawn's carefully woven tapestry are coming loose. C'baoth is growing stronger in the dark side of the Force and stealthily taking steps to undermine the Grand Admiral's rule and assert himself as the true heir to Palpatine's throne.

Meanwhile, the New Republic is not simply waiting around for Thrawn to reconquer Coruscant without a fight. The Heroes of the Rebellion (Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Leia, and Lando Calrissian) take on various challenging assignments, hoping to enlist both the Noghri on the ravaged planet of Honoghr and the various smuggling groups, particularly those who have good relations with Talon Karrde and his most talented associate, Mara Jade, a young woman who, at the height of the Empire, was once known as the Emperor's Hand.

Mara's ambiguous nature and internal conflicts make her one of the most fascinating of Zahn's characters; as a former Imperial secret operative, she had loyally served the Emperor himself. Indeed, she had been assigned to kill Luke Skywalker once Palpatine suspected Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker) had plans to take over the Empire and rule the galaxy with his son at his side. Her failure to do so had resulted in Palpatine's demise, and his last command ("You will kill Luke Skywalker!") has haunted Mara as she has criss-crossed the galaxy from job to job when the Empire she served collapsed after her Master's death on the second Death Star.

But in the course of the Thrawn Trilogy, Mara has had various chances to kill Luke....yet has been forced by circumstances to save his life and even collaborate with the man she most hates...or thinks she hates. And how Zahn depicts this new set of circumstances -- and how Mara resolves her inner conflict -- is one of the best features of this exciting and wonderfully written three-book cycle.

In this excerpt, Mara is haunted by a nightmare vision of the past, and she struggles with her new present:

The Emperor raised his hands, sending cascades of jagged blue-white lightning at his enemies. Both men staggered under the counterattack, and Mara watched with the sudden agonized hope that this time it might end differently. But no. Vader and Skywalker straightened, and with an electronic-sounding shriek of rage, they lifted their lightsabers high --

Mara snapped awake, her hand groping automatically under her bed for the blaster that wasn't there. That shriek had sounded like the start of an alarm from the G-2RD droid outside her room. An alarm that had suddenly been cut off....

Across the room, the lock clicked open. Mara's searching hand touched the data pad she'd been reading from before going to sleep...and as the door swung open she hurled the instrument with all her strength at the dark figure silhouetted in the doorway.

The impromptu missile never reached him. The figure simply raised a hand, and the data pad skidded to a halt in midair. "It's all right, Mara," he murmured as he took another step into the room. "It's just me -- Luke Skywalker."

Mara frowned through the darkness, stretching out with her mind toward the intruder. It was Skywalker, all right. "What do you want?" she demanded.

"We're here to get you out," Skywalker told her, stepping over to the desk and turning on a low light. "Come on -- you've got to get dressed."

"I do, huh?" Mara retorted, squinting for a moment before her eyes adjusted to the light. "Mind telling me where we're going?"

A slight frown creased Skywalker's forehead. "We're going to Wayland," he said. "You told Leia you could find it."

Mara stared at him. "Sure, I told her that. When did I ever say I'd take anyone there?"

"You have to, Mara," Skywalker said, his voice laced with that irritating earnestness of his. The same earnestness that had stopped her from killing that insane Joruus C'baoth back on Jomark. "We're standing on the edge of a new round of Clone Wars here. We have to stop it."

"So go stop it," she retorted. "This isn't my war, Skywalker."

But the words were mere reflex, and she knew it. The minute she'd told Organa Solo about the Emperor's storehouse she had committed herself to this side of the war, and that meant doing whatever she was called on to do. Even if it meant taking them personally to Wayland.

As a long-time fan and discerning reader, I really enjoyed reading this novel. Zahn tells his story in prose so clear and descriptive that it's almost cinematic. He also captures the spirit of George Lucas' films almost perfectly; The Last Command once again shows Zahn's knack for using visual and dialog references from the classic Star Wars trilogy and creating new and exciting characters and situations.
Additionally, the descriptions of the movies' familiar heroes are both true to fans' memories of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and the rest of the cast's performances in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi while showing the subtle changes in the characters' personalities over five years' time. Han as Leia's husband seems more mature and responsible, yet Zahn still gives the former smuggler glints of the charming "scoundrel" we remember from the films.

Although many other stories have since joined the Star Wars Expanded Universe over the past  30 years, the Thrawn Trilogy is considered to have "must-read" status by most Star Wars fans. The three novels have all the elements that made the original movie trilogy a cultural phenomenon: heroes, villains, intrigue, mysticism, romance, space battles, lightsaber duels, and the struggle between good and evil, all set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."