Book Review: 'Star Wars: Heir to the Empire'

(C) 2014 LucasBooks and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL) Cover art by Tom Jung
In 1991, Bantam Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. reinvigorated interest in the Star Wars universe (well, galaxy) by gathering a diverse group of noted science fiction writers and starting an ongoing series of novels set in the time period which follows Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, the first volume of a three-book cycle, was almost an instant phenomenon when it was published in hardcover. With its depiction of the continuing battle between what is left of the Galactic Empire and the fledgling New Republic, this novel cleverly mixes the characters from the Classic Trilogy with a cast of newly created heroes and villains, some of whom will make appearances in other authors' Star Wars Expanded Universe works. 

As Heir to the Empire begins, the New Republic has been engaged in a five-year long campaign to mop up the remnants of the once-mighty Empire. The once dreaded Imperial Fleet is in disarray, political and military control of the late Emperor Palpatine's New Order has changed hands several times, and the former Rebels have reduced Imperial dominion to one quarter of its former size. Yet even as Mon Mothma and the New Republic government establish democratic rule from Coruscant (former capital of both the Old Republic and the Galactic Empire), a new dark force has arisen in the form of one of the Empire's most cunning warriors. 

His name is Thrawn, and his tactical and intellectual gifts are so great that the racist and sexist Palpatine had promoted him to be the only non-human to wear the white uniform of Grand Admiral. For several years after the Battle of Endor (where the Rebels destroyed the second Death Star and both the Emperor and Darth Vader died), Thrawn has been pacifying the Unknown Regions until his return to Imperial territory. Now, with a small but powerful Imperial fleet at his command, the mysterious Grand Admiral believes he holds the key to the undoing of the New Republic and the restoration of the Empire. 

Zahn not only introduced a set of new characters that would become essential to what fans know as the Expanded Universe series (the charming smuggler-chief Talon Karrde, the beautiful but mysterious Mara Jade, the devoted Imperial fleet captain Pelleaon, and the mad clone Joruus C'baoth), but he also brought fans of the movie heroes up to date on the lives of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa Solo, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and the droids. 

What I found appealing about Zahn's approach is how he uses the films as the launching pad for his three-book cycle (which includes Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. Each of the books starts, as does each Episode of the Classic Trilogy, with a scene depicting an Imperial Star Destroyer. Zahn also refers to incidents from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, sometimes by having characters remember events or even bits of dialog. 

A quarter of the way across the galaxy, Han Solo sipped at his mug and surveyed the semiorganized chaos flowing all around him. Didn't we, he quoted to himself, just leave this party? 

Still, it was nice to know that, in a galaxy busily turning itself upside down, there were some things than never changed. The band playing off in the corner was different, and the upholstery in the booth was noticeably less comfortable; but apart from that, the Mos Eisley cantina looked exactly the same as it always had before. The same as it had looked the day he'd first met Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi. 

It felt like a dozen lifetimes ago. 

A professional reviewer, at the time of the book's first appearance in 1991, wrote that Heir to the Empire "captures the spirit of the movie trilogy so well, you can almost hear John Williams' soundtrack." Indeed, Zahn does a superb job rendering the personalities from George Lucas' films that one can almost hear Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Daniels when reading their characters' dialogue. The pace of the book is brisk and the action sequences are so well done that one can swear they are cinematic. Although there are many Star Wars authors whose novels are spellbinding, Zahn stands head and shoulders above the crowd.