Superpowers exist in the Star Wars universe. If you remember Grand Admiral Thrawn from last time, his superpower is super-racism.
Yes, it shocked me to find out about that as well. But when you read events in The Thrawn Trilogy where Thrawn says “Oh the Pxyxlxnsx species won’t do three-point-turns in space because they psychologically can’t handle it,” it’s easy to imagine a political candidate working out how to appeal to minority voters in the same vein. Or Rommel invading Egypt with an army of locusts in order to expose a perceived psychological weakpoint. This is the easy trap to fall into when you’re writing alien species, where every single member of your warrior race is strong, headstrong, sings work songs, and have long dongs. Everyone’s the same, and there’s no way that can be real. It makes me wonder about the Vulcans that are our equivalent to punk anarchists or DJs or something.
Anyways, welcome back to our retrospective on Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, in particular the second book in the cycle. This book’s title: Dark Force Rising. And let me leap back to the first book to elaborate on a point I smacked on that post like a “100% organic reflection! Honest!” sticker. I talked about why the Star Wars movies outgrew Heir to the Empire, but didn’t elaborate on what grew to what. So let’s go back to 1983 and ask people what Star Wars is. They’d say it’s an adventure tale, an action serial, a rip-roaring good time with enough philosophy and emotion to separate it from other action movies. That’s what the series was at the time. But in 2005, people would describe the entirety of Star Wars as a saga, an epic mythology, a operatic tale that cycles themes, quotes, and ideas. Star Wars 4-6 is like Flash Gordon; Star Wars 1-6 is like Greek Mythology (and not just because both the prequels and Zeus fucked mortals up). Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’ while Star Wars 1-6 is The Dark Knight Trilogy. Now imagine if they made another movie in the Dark Knight movieverse where Batman just defeats a guy. It may be a cool guy, and it may be a fun time, but it wouldn’t justify three movies worth of buildup and the ruination of a finished character arc. Star Wars 4-6 is a three-part TV episode, Star Wars 1-6 is an epic movie series, Star Wars 1-6 plus the Thrawn Trilogy is an epic movie series followed by a TV episode with TV-like stakes and arcs. The Thrawn trilogy was once just a continuation of a serial- compared to the mass the Star Wars movies evolved into both in scope and in popular consciousness, the Thrawn Trilogy is not a big enough, or worthy, follow-up.
This is a roundabout way of saying that the stakes in Dark Force Rising are too small and no one cares. The subplots- one with an ambitious Rebel leader arresting Akbar with a false accusation of treason, another one we’ll discuss later- are interesting. The main plot is a MacGuffin hunt, a search for a lost fleet of technologically-advanced-yet-strategically-iffy warships. They say whomever gets to the warships first, New Republic or Empire Remnants, will turn the tide of the war. “Watch us raise the stakes while we postpone the question of whether the stakes’ll be raised!” We went from moon that can blow up planets, to shocking revelations, to shocking revelations and a moon that can blow up planets, to a really cool bad guy, and arrive now at a scavenger hunt. Boy, isn’t that a ramp? Maybe this kind of smaller conflict is for the best, so we don’t have the ridiculous lightsaber escalation that occurred in the prequels. But this threat should pump fear in my bloodstream, and it’s not. One reason concerns the minimalist, imagery-deprived prose of author Zahn, which moves along action without letting time for describing scope or magnitude.
The other reason deals with Thrawn. Thrawn, bless his heart, loses so much. The fandom considers him such a badass that they forget how bad he is at chasing ass. He always is a pinch away from catching a hero or outwitting a member of The Holy Trio before Thrawn’s prey zips away. The Grand Admiral captures one character in this book, and guess what? Luke and Mara (Mara’s a former Imperial assassin) bust said character out of a Star Destroyer prison block in a series of lucky escapes and coincidences that are a blast to read and are also a moment to consider how many scented meditation candles Thrawn must now buy so he can stay calm this time. And even when (SPOILERS COMING CROSS YOUR LEGS) Thrawn takes most of the Dark Force fleet at the end, the worry is dampened by Thrawn’s previous failures (TERROR LEVEL LOWERED, SPOILERS GONE). Luke had some lucky escapes in the past, but even then he lost a mentor, and hand, or a father, you know, something actually devastating.
The highlight of this book comes from the meeting of Joruus and Luke. The Imperials spread rumors of a rediscovered Jedi Master throughout the galaxy. That way, when Luke hears Joruus’ voice in his head asking him to resume his training on Joruus’ planet, Luke doesn’t suspect the Imperial trap Joruus has been setting. Joruus now has the opportunity to turn Luke to the Dark Side while pretending to be a Light-Sider. The two Jedi- one good, one evil and bonkers- meet on Jormark, Joruus’ planet of choice. This meeting precedes a tense encounter (another highlight in the book) where Luke and Joruus are asked to mediate a complicated spat between two cheated individuals. Something similar happened to Luke earlier in the book, on a different planet. When Luke was by himself judging a dispute, he listened to both sides, deliberated, then reached a compromised-but-fair decision. Joruus, in a near-identical situation on Jormark, invades the mind of one of the participants and uses that information to Force-lightening the bollocks off of the one he thinks is responsible. Before this event, the Jormark story arc was a dark mirror to Yoda training Luke, with a Dark Side master in place of a Light one. This scene, in particular, mirrors the dispute from earlier in the book, and moves Luke from thinking “he’s a weird guy, but I need guidance,” to “maybe this Jedi Master isn’t so masterful.” This is a good way of sequalizing- build on what was before, twisting it until it’s beyond a repeat. There’s a lot of sympathy for Luke combined with dramatic tension over Joruus’ Imperial motivations and Joruus’ crazy-based motivations.
Only Joruus C’Boath is not insane. Not really. Even though everyone says he is. He’s just power hungry, desperate to bring his warped Jedi-on-top-of-food-chain-by-messing-with-Muggle-brains philosophy into dominant Imperial Goals. And that’s the problem with this character, this book, and the entire trilogy- nothing’s expanded on. The prose is business-oriented, getting us to the next scene with minimal time setting the previous scene or developing moments. I’d do the same, I imagine, if I was to write a follow-up to 3 action movies that kept the pace going and I already had a universe developed for me. The prose is cut down in service of… of what, the high stakes? The best parts in this book are character-driven subplots, not the endlessly repeating space battles or the repetitive Thrawn failures. This book would’ve been fine at 50 pages longer- it’s overall the slowest section of The Thrawn Trilogy, and the pacing should serve the content.
Am I focusing on the negative because I automatically like books with Star Wars in the title, and I’m only waking up to that now? Not according to the many Expanded Universe novels I gave away to my library while keeping these three books for re-reading many years later. Worlds change. Mine does on a weekly basis, and my views on this book change from chapter to chapter. Check out the series not just for what it is, but what can be built off of it- and what things looked like in a franchise while it was still expanding.
NEXT TIME: The Last Command! Can I nurture my love for this Trilogy while more weeds spring up?