I’ve spent a lot of time in the Star Trek universe these past two months for the Sci Fi Experience, but I also spent some time in another major sci fi franchise, rereading Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. These three books are set about five years after Return of the Jedi and, I believe, largely set the stage for the Star Wars Expanded Universe in the books. The story begins in Heir to the Empire and continues in Dark Force Rising and The Last Command.
Following the victory at Endor, the Rebel Alliance has pushed the Empire back into the fringes of the galaxy. They have retaken Coruscant and set up the New Republic in the old Imperial Palace. Trouble begins brewing with rumors of a new and brilliant tactician leading the Imperial forces. Grand Admiral Thrawn is frighteningly intuitive with a flair for multi-layered plans and intrigue. Meanwhile on Coruscant, Leia and Han are expecting Force-strong twins, and Luke worries about someday training them to be Jedi. More immediate worries arise when Leia becomes the target of repeated kidnapping attempts. And then we also have thrown into the mix Joruus C’baoth, a dangerously unstable Jedi Master with an obsession about Luke and Leia; the Noghri, a gray-skinned alien race with a complex and tragic history; and Mara Jade, second-in-command to smuggler Talon Karrde, with a mysterious history and a burning enmity for Luke Skywalker.
As you can see, lots going on here! The complex web of plot stretches through all three books, and keeps the action tense and the excitement high. There are clever twists to the plot and usually some kind of complicated strategy going on at Thrawn’s direction at any time. In some ways it becomes a galactic chess match, with moves and counter-moves, victories and defeats for both the New Republic and the Empire. Or maybe it’s more like poker, considering there’s plenty of bluffing and psychology at work too.
The plot is solid, and the characters are equally good. Luke, Leia and Han are all strongly present, feeling very much like the movie characters, plus more insight and depth that’s hard to show on film. Lando and Chewie also get plenty to do and some very nice moments. C3PO and RT-DT felt a little under-represented, though they are definitely present. More impressive, perhaps, even some minor (but important) characters from the film, like Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar and Wedge Antilles, have their stories continue here.
Many of the new characters are just as strong and compelling as the familiar ones, Mara Jade in particular. With her shadowy past and Force-sensitivity, she’s complex and hard-edged yet still sympathetic–which is saying a lot, considering one of her driving goals (stated, at least) is to kill Luke.
Thrawn is a brilliant villain, very different from the Emperor or Vader. The terrifying thing about Thrawn is that he is not mindlessly evil. I think it’s telling that he wears a white uniform. Vader is famous for strangling subordinates if they make any mistake; Zahn does a nice play on that. Thrawn does kill one subordinate for a mistake–and in a later scene commends another for original thinking, even though the man’s effort failed. Thrawn thinks before he acts–though when he acts, he is ruthless and cold. We always see Thrawn through the eyes of his second-in-command, Captain Pellaeon. He’s a fascinating character too, a good soldier who really believes in the Empire. He can be a little contemptuous at times, but there’s nothing really villainous about Pellaeon. He’s just on the wrong side.
Seeing the continuing lives of familiar characters is of course a strong appeal here. Having seen other franchises go into bizarre places with characters, I think I owe thanks to Timothy Zahn. At the end of Return of the Jedi, I (most of us?) want Leia and Han to get married, and Luke to become the new leader of the returning Jedis. And that’s what happens in the Expanded Universe books, I think because Zahn set it up in these three. There might instead have been new romantic triangles for Leia and Han, beloved characters could have gone over to the Dark Side, someone might have been tragically killed…and all of that would have created plot and drama, but I’m so glad Zahn found his plot in other ways, and sent the characters down the path I for one feel they should have the opportunity to walk.
Beyond the plot and the characters we also have the universe. In three books, there’s enough time to visit many planets, and I love that. We get little glimpses into many, many different cultures and civilizations. It doesn’t generally get into the kind of depth that Star Trek offers, but in a way I like the sampling. It gives a sense of the vastness and variety of the galaxy. It actually reminds me of The Magician’s Nephew or The Lives of Christopher Chant, with the opportunity to travel to many different worlds, whether in different planes of existence or just different star systems!
The usual rule (in Star Trek, at least, and I think elsewhere) is that for cross-medium franchises, film counts as officially canon while books do not. For my personal canon of the Star Wars universe, the status of the prequel trilogy is decidedly iffy, but these three books are definitely accepted. I’ve read many good Star Wars books, but I recommend this trilogy as the must-read for fans!
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Buy it here: Thrawn Trilogy