I put Star Wars posters in my apartment, placed Star Wars Battlefront in my PS2, and wrote three Star Wars reviews on this blog already, yet I didn’t spin circles like an Ewok on a speeder bike when Disney announced Episode VII. Much like how I feel about ‘Toy Story 3’ right now, the end of the original trilogy wrapped all matters up in a little box so nice that any attempts to take a jackhammer to the box sound ill-advised at best. Plus, for the longest time, fans like me had Episodes VII, VIII, and IX in the form of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. I enjoyed that cycle- Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command– so much that the announcement that this trilogy is now non-canon sent my inner nerd into a bloodthirsty rage that took several chocolate bars and a viewing of this article to quench. I loved the Thrawn trilogy. I still love it now, even in the midst of rereading and wound-picking it. Should J.J. Abrams just have made Heir to the Empire his Episode VII, or was it best to strike in a new direction even if that direction leads to thorns and a bear?
Most of my affection for this trilogy comes from Thrawn himself, that blue-skinned Grand Admiral who returns from his assignment in the Outer Rims to marshal what’s left of the Empire five years after ‘Return of the Jedi’. Thrawn as a character is easy to explain: he’s Sherlock Homes as a warlord. It just sounds cool, doesn’t it? In the first chapter of the book, Thrawn’s capital ship is attacked and outnumbered four to one. So Thrawn learns who’s in command of this enemy battalion, analyzes the commander’s species, and uses that alien race’s psychological blind spots to decimate the enemy forces. How’d he learn about aliens so thoroughly? In part by studying their artwork. I know, right? That’s actually what he was doing before he was attacked, browsing his own personal art gallery. It’s like if Roger Ebert conquered Germany by studying Uwe Boll films.
I still marvel at what a cool spin this is as a character and antagonist. But. Over the past year, I’ve read the majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I can now spot a poorer imitation even if he paints his skin blue. The audience has little choice but to trust Thrawn’s genius in the first chapter because he’s dealing with an unknown alien by utilizing war tactics that aren’t well described. Like Captain Pellaeon, the Watson in our equation, the audience can only shrug its shoulders and say, “I guess he’s pretty smart.” Arthur Conan Doyle, even when talking about customs and ideas unfamiliar to a 21st century reader, still walked through every blood-soaked step to show Holmes was a genius instead of a telepathic genius. And I don’t think Thrawn’s meant to be a telepath. Throughout the book, we’re treated to examples of Thrawn’s intelligence that aren’t as well explained as Holmes’ moments of brilliance. How does he know what Han, Luke, and Leia are planning, and how to thwart them? We get vague answers, logical while not satisfying to someone who knows the real Holmes or is reading these books for a third time like me. We’re in new places in the universe, yes, but all that Zahn needs to do is what he did for Thrawn: remix something familiar so that we can follow Thrawn’s train of thought. There’s a difference between a mysterious character (what Zahn wanted Thrawn to be) versus a character that’s just cheating (what could have happened to Thrawn).
Don’t think these nitpicks ruin Thrawn as a character; he’s still great enough that I want him to be the true villain in ‘The Force Awakens.’ He’s calm, diplomatic, constantly scheming, and learns from his mistakes without killing subordinates all the time. He only does it once, after a careful scan of the situation to find out who’s really at fault. Best of all, Thrawn gets in the audience’s good graces by receiving a tough test right away. The Grand Admiral picks up some ysalamiri, creatures that create a bubble of anti-Force, so he can talk to insane dark Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth without the lunatic force-pushing Thrawn’s red eyes into his throat. C’Baoth will help the Empire if Thrawn gives him Luke and Leia to mold into dark apprentices. But it’s a dangerous game, keeping Joruus sedate while the original trio keeps escaping traps and sensible thoughts keep eluding C’Baoth. Zahn established Thrawn’s character in a jiffy- he uses logic to manipulate and play off of others. Easy to grasp. Now Thrawn’s tested by a character who doesn’t operate under logic. We understand Thrawn, so we root for him as he pushes his abilities to the limit. Given this conflict, and how the first chapter of the book focuses on an Empire victory achieved by one of the coolest Star Wars characters ever, I imagine people reading this book without seeing the movies could mistake Thrawn for the protagonist.
This is still a Leia-Han-Luke tale, for the record. The three are entangled with the politics of the New Republic, their run-ins with kidnappers and Imperials arguably a welcome escape from the murky, treacherous ocean that is governance. It’s an adventure story, but with heavy doses of political thriller added on like snow tires. Han struggles to unite the smugglers he left behind with the new government he helps run, Leia balances never-ending diplomacy missions with pregnancy and constant kidnapping attempts, and Luke’s just trying to find his role as the last sane Jedi alive. In comes a mysterious Grand Admiral to complicate matters, stealing mining equipment and engaging in bizarre hit-and-run attacks, working towards an unknown, nefarious end. There’s the old high-fun sense of adventure here mixed in with enough backstabbings, deals, power plays and politics to keep the series from becoming a retread of the originals. Where the prequels tried to mix swashbuckling with committees, this trilogy succeeds at doing so by letting politics inform the adventure, instead of each aspect taking turns to talk.
But Zahn doesn’t evolve the concept at hand beyond a mixing of tropes. Remember the anti-Force creatures I mentioned before, the ysalamiri? Our heroes end up on a planet full of them. Now isn’t this a great opportunity. We’ve seen a universe with the Force, and all-encompassing field that not even non-believers can escape from. How do the players of that universe operate without the Force? If the Force has a will, does a planet without the Force become more anarchic? Do the residents of said planet feel empty and dead inside? How does a society separated from the rest of the universe in a symbolic sense operate? I wish I knew. There are some tense adventures to be had here, especially for Luke, as the Jedi Knight must survive without the Force or his lightsaber here. Yet people double-deal, plot, and shoot here the same way they double-deal, plot, and shoot on other planets. Ysalamiri are a cool concept, but a concept not used to its full potential. This isn’t a deep or insightful book, so the trio doesn’t need to do much soul-searching. Perhaps just an aside mention that the absence of the Force almost caused Leia to fall for an obvious trap of some kind, perhaps a mug of hot chocolate on top of a bear trap.
All joking aside- should this have been our Episode VII movie? As much as I love these books- and recommend them as a fun, light read for Star Wars fans- I think the saga may have outgrown them. Published in 1991, Heir to the Empire was such a big hit that it started a whole line of Expanded Universe novels, to the point where Michael Kaminski’s book ‘The Secret History of Star Wars’ credits Zahn’s trilogy as a factor convincing Lucas to make the prequels. Interest in Star Wars might have died out without these books. And Zahn’s work led to the saga evolving into something much different from what he created. The Holy Trilogy acted as a tribute to the action serials of the past, so this book trilogy followed suit. Then came the prequels. Taken as a whole nowadays, the Star Wars story is a mythic saga like the Ring cycle. Each trilogy had some old characters, but mostly new faces and archetypes. So now the door’s open for some new people in ‘The Force Awakens,’ instead of rehashing old inner conflicts (and as an aside, I hope those people in the trailer are just borrowing Stormtrooper gear and red lightsabers, cause we’ve tread that ground enough already). Writers need to understand the environment they’re writing in as much as the thing they’re writing about. Remember, the best part of the Thrawn trilogy is Thrawn himself, a new (if not necessarily original) character in a world created by a great (if not necessarily original) film. Wouldn’t you like to see characters like Space Othello or Space Christopher Columbus play around in such a rich universe? The Thrawn Trilogy is comfort food to me- fun, engrossing, maybe not satisfying as a full meal. So yes, Heir to the Empire is not a good fit for Episode VII, and it’s another thing you can blame on the goddamn prequels. And you can blame the goddamn prequels on ‘Heir to the Empire.’
NEXT REVIEW: The second book in the Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising! How well written is this series anyways?