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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Star Wars: Thrawn Cycle

It was way back in 1991 or 1992 when I first walked into the local Waldenbooks and saw the display for "Heir to the Empire" by Timothy Zahn billed as "the official continuation of the Star Wars saga!" My first reaction was skepticism. I mean, did we really need a continuation to the Star Wars saga? Was this going to be some really lame sequel like "Godfather III" or "Scarlett" (the sequel to "Gone With the Wind")? Turns out the answers are not really and no. We certainly didn't NEED a continuation to the Star Wars saga as most of us who grew up with the movies had been doing that on our own for over a decade with our action figures and friends and fanfics. Still, if there was going to be a continuation, the three books by Timothy Zahn were a good choice.

(With all apologies to the purists I have no idea what the technical title for this trilogy ended up being. Let's just call it the Thrawn Trilogy for lack of a better name.)

So then, "Heir to the Empire" picks up five years after our favorite heroes from a galaxy far, far away destroyed the Death Star, killed Darth Vader and the Emperor (indirectly), and toppled the evil Galactic Empire. Now Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the rest of the gang are putting together a government called the New Republic to bring peace and freedom to all the peoples of the galaxy.

But the Empire is not finished yet by any means. The brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn has taken the reins of power over what's left of the Empire and he aims to bring it back to its glory. But to do this he's going to need some help from a cloned Jedi Master named Joruus C'Baoth, who agrees to help so long as Thrawn delivers Luke, Leia, and the Jedi twins she's carrying in her belly. As well, Thrawn is planning a little Attack of the Clones of his own.

The main purpose of this book is mostly to familiarize readers with all the new characters who will play prominent roles not just in the rest of this trilogy but in many of the future books as well. Besides the aforementioned Thrawn and Master C'Baoth, we also have Talon Karrde the gentleman smuggler who knows everything that's going on in both the New Republic and Empire but refuses to take sides in the struggle, though like Han Solo in "A New Hope" (the original 1977 movie if you're not a nerdy fan like me) he eventually has to make a choice. And more importantly there's the enigmatic Mara Jade, a young woman who was known as the Emperor's Hand and has a personal grudge against Luke Skywalker for bumping off her boss.

All our old favorites like Lando, Chewie, C3PO, R2D2, and Wedge Antilles (I'm just throwing him in there because he's my brother's favorite character) show up as well. What Mr. Zahn does well (unlike George Lucas' childish attempts in the woeful prequels) is to mix political intrigue into the action so there's more depth than the good guys are Good and the bad guys are Evil. As well, I think he does a good job in keeping the established characters more or less the way we remember them except, as five years have gone by and Han and Leia are married now, a little bit more mature. In some of the sequels that followed over the years under other authors there were times when you thought, "Han wouldn't say that." Or "Luke wouldn't act like that." But that doesn't happen here. As well, Zahn keeps Luke Skywalker's Jedi powers consistent with the movies so while he can block laser blasts with his lightsaber and confuse weak-minded stormtroopers, he can't fly or bring down whole buildings with his mind or anything like that. There was a tendency in later books (after Luke unilaterally decides he's a Jedi Master, which always seemed completely out of character to me) to make him a superhero with a lightsaber only without the tights and cape. The new characters fit right into the story and with the existing characters. I have to say Thrawn is one of my favorites because he's as smart and evil as a Bond villain but unlike a Goldfinger or Dr. Evil he doesn't have that blind arrogance; he wouldn't play some idiotic game to kill our heroes like dangle them over a shark pit or whatever. His only mistake was underestimating the colossal good fortune of the heroes. (If you know Luke Skywalker is on a planet, just bomb the whole thing from orbit until there's nothing left but ashes--and even then he'll probably find the one rock or cave or something to hide under.)

The only thing lacking from "Heir to the Empire" and the two sequels is that while there's lots of space there's not much opera. There's no epic lightsaber duel (which really disappoints me as I love those unless Yoda is involved, in which case it's unintentionally funny) or Death Star or "I Am Your Father" moment to give it the same epic grandeur and spectacle of the movies. But I think the story and characters are interesting enough to more than offset this. And on the bright side there's no Muppets or teddy bears or mildly racist caricatures like the movies either.

The sequel and second one in the trilogy "Dark Force Rising" is kind of dull in places. Mostly this one is designed to bridge the gap between the introduction and the epic conclusion and so the pace at some times suffers while all the pieces are maneuvered into place. Luke goes off to study with C'Baoth until he realizes the Jedi Master is nuts, Leia goes to the planet of the Noghri who are trying to kill her so she can make peace, and Han and Lando race to find a lost fleet of ships before Thrawn.

In the epic conclusion the good guys are on the rope as Thrawn launches his Attack of the Clones and seems on the verge of winning. To stop him, our heroes must find the source of his clones on the remote planet of Wayland and do battle against C'Baoth and his minions. The excitement here definitely picks up, rewarding readers for slogging through some of that setting up in the prior book. I don't want to spoil too much here but it should be obvious the good guys win or how else could they have done about a thousand sequels afterwards?

I kept up with most of those sequels by many of whom I would consider lesser authors over the next ten years or so. I finally got tired and bored during the whole "New Jedi Order" series. I think by now Han is like seventy and Luke and Leia are in their 50s with Jedi grandchildren and the epic struggle is not to wet their Depends undergarments. Sorry, but it's getting a little ridiculous by now with our heroes having foiled more evil capers than Scooby and the gang. No one is that lucky.

One of the things I would love to ask Mr. Zahn about if I went to see him at a convention would be how annoyed he was at some of the sequels that came out. That's probably a discussion that would be better to have at a bar over a few drinks than standing in line at a booth, though. Because about six years later Mr. Zahn returned to Star Wars writing with the two-book "Hand of Thrawn" series that seemed to serve little other purpose (besides making money for the Lucas Empire) than to correct some of the mistakes made in the sequels, most notably the relationship between Luke and Mara Jade.

My personal theory is you can tell which books Mr. Zahn liked and which he didn't by doing a little reading between the lines. For instance characters like Corran Horn from Michael Stackpole's "Rogue Squadron" series are featured prominently while the Solo children are conveniently herded off to some distant planet and none of the Jedi from Luke's Jedi Academy really show up. As well Mara Jade refers at one point to essentially wasting the last ten years of her life (which is the time between the two Zahn series) and Luke decides he ought to rein in overusing his Jedi powers.

The excuse for all this to happen in "Spectre of the Past" and "Vision of the Future" is that Grand Admiral Thrawn has supposedly returned from the dead and is plotting to reinvigorate the little bit of the Empire that remains. There's not quite as much action and political intrigue as the previous three books and really no new characters worthy of note. Still, it was refreshing after all the lesser efforts that preceded it because for my money Timothy Zahn's books are the gold standard by which to judge any other Star Wars novel. Others will disagree--and they will be wrong, wrong, WRONG! but they're entitled to their idiotic opinions (just kidding...maybe)--but as the first one to take a crack at it he set the bar pretty high.

I rented the other two adult Star Wars novels Mr. Zahn has written--"Survivor's Quest" and "Outbound Flight"--from the library so I'll read those as well. They certainly aren't essential reading, but it's a fun way to kill a few hours. And no matter your opinion of his books, one thing is for sure: Mr. Zahn wouldn't have made as much of a hash of the prequels as Lucas did. (I mean, just about any of us geeks playing with our action figures and writing fanfics could have written better scripts than those!)

Sorry to go on so long about this. I am a total nerd about it, but then the Star Wars movies were pretty much the first ones I can remember seeing so there's a lot of love there.

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