Heir to the Empire (1991) By Timothy Zahn Book Review

“You’re not the last of the old Jedi, Luke, you’re the first of the new…”

It was the end of the 1980s, an era which many Star Wars fans refer to as “The Dark Times.” There had been precious few Star Wars stories published since the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, and the future of Star Wars was very much in question. Nevertheless, keen to test audience’s desire for the continuing saga, Lucasfilm hired Timothy Zahn, winner of a 1984 Hugo Award for Best Novella, to write a new Star Wars novel. Would audiences respond to it favorably? Much to the surprise of everyone, Zahn’s Heir to the Empire (1991) became a massive success, reaching #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and effectively launching the Star Wars “Expanded Universe” of books, comics, and other media. It also generated two more books to form the celebrated “Thrawn Trilogy,” a series which many fans regard as the best of the Star Wars litverse, or at least vastly superior to Disney’s sequel film trilogy.

It is five years since the destruction of the second Death Star as featured in Return of the Jedi (1983). There are still lingering echoes of the Empire throughout the galaxy, though they have been pushed back to the distant fringe. However, despite the defeat of the Emperor, the New Republic remains politically fraught, torn by internal divisions on their capital city of Coruscant (Lucasfilm later reused “Coruscant” in the prequel films). There are tensions within the Provisional Council, namely between Admiral Ackbar, Mon Mothma, and a Bothan named Borsk Fey’lya. Many people across the galaxy are dissatisfied with the New Republic –it sends the wrong message for the Council to take up office in the old Imperial Palace on Coruscant. Princess Leia Organa Solo is attempting to keep the fledgling republic intact, while serving as a diplomat to various planets, and slowly learning the ways of the Jedi from her brother, Luke Skywalker. She is also pregnant with twins and relies on support from her assistant, Winter, who has a photographic memory.

Her husband, Han Solo, and his faithful Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca, travel throughout the galaxy (including to the famous cantina on Tatooine) to help locate smugglers who might be willing to work as legitimate businessmen shepherding necessary supplies for the New Republic. However, Han’s efforts are slow moving as smugglers are reluctant to get involved. On the other hand, Han does learn about a new criminal underworld boss replacing for Jabba the Hutt named Talon Karrde. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker receives a final vision from Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi who says it is his time to move on (“It is the pattern of all life to move on. You, too, will face this journey one day”) but as he departs, Kenobi prophecies that Luke will build new allies and that he is not the last of the old Jedi, but rather he represents the birth of a Jedi Order.

The crux of the novel hinges on the allure of its mercurial villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a soft-spoken, blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss who is renowned for his cold intellectualism. Unlike the impassioned rage of Darth Vader or the Emperor, Thrawn is an eerily calm and calculating tactician who explores culture and art as a means of uncovering his enemy’s weakness. He is “possibly the greatest military mind the Empire had ever seen” (6). Thrawn is the last of the old Imperial Grand Admirals after being sent to the unknown worlds during the Galactic Civil War where he conquered many of the still-barbaric sections of the outer galaxy (in Heir to the Empire Thrawn’s background remains shrouded in mystery). He leads a small but growing fleet of Star Destroyers alongside his associate, Captain Pellaeon, who both fears and respects the Grand Admiral. Interestingly enough, we are given a unique perspective into internal disappointments within the Imperial ranks about the late Emperor:

“There had been many commanders in the Fleet, he knew, who had seen the Emperor’s original Death Star as a blatant attempt to bring the Empire’s vast military power more tightly under his direct control, just as he’d already done with the Empire’s political power. The fact that he’d ignored the battle station’s proven vulnerability and gone ahead with a second Death Star had merely reinforced that suspicion. There would have been few in the Fleet’s upper echelons who would have genuinely mourned its loss… if it hadn’t, in its death throes, taken the Super Star Destroyer Executor with it” (5).

With this in mind, Thrawn stands apart from the flawed Imperial decisions of the past. He represents a new path forward for the revitalization of the Empire. So what is Thrawn hoping to accomplish? Why not simply rule over his distant regions? Reading Thrawn’s mind proves notoriously elusive.

At the helm of a Star Destroyer known as The Chimaera, Thrawn has been masterminding a series of new Imperial attacks on New Republic outposts. Despite having a young and inexperienced crew of conscripts, he uses each attack as an opportunity to better understand his enemy. On Obroa-skai, a planet which holds a strategic position in the borderland region, Thrawn accurately outplays his Elomin opponents by exploiting their only known defense against the classic Marg Sabl closure maneuver. Information learned on Obroa-Skai leads Thrawn first to a jungle planet called Myrkyr which has a native lizard-esque creature called the Ysalamiri (this creature possesses the unusual ability to block and push back the force). Myrkyr is also the seat of Talon Karrde’s underworld operation. After claiming a variety of Ysalamiri, Thrawn heads for the planet Wayland with the information garnered from Obroa-skai. On Wayland he finds a secret Imperial storehouse hidden within Mount Tantiss, guarded by an eccentric “Dark Jedi” with long hair and a long beard named Joruus C’baoth (pronounced “Sub-Bay-Eth”). At first, C’baoth attempts to kill Thrawn and Captain Pellaeon via force lightning, joining hundreds of others he has killed and commemorated with hundreds of candles lining this tomb. However, the Ysalamiri prevent any such force attacks. Surprised, C’baoth agrees to partner with Thrawn in exchange for the last two remaining Jedi –Luke and Leia (and her twins). In return, Thrawn is granted access to the Imperial secrets held within Mount Tantiss, namely rare cloaking technology, and something else far more important…

The idea of recalcitrant “Dark Jedi” is another fascinating addition to the Star Wars lore in this novel. Joruus C’baoth is revealed to be mostly insane, and Thrawn later reveals that C’baoth is actually a clone of the true “Jorus C’baoth” (note the slightly different spelling of his name). The real C’baoth was killed years ago by none other than Thrawn himself while on a mission to colonize the outer galaxy known as Outbound Flight. At any rate, Luke Skywalker begins receiving visions from C’baoth which sends him on a mission back to Dagobah where he locates a strange cylindrical artifact (and C’baoth hopes to lure him to the remote planet of Jomark) but Luke’s X-Wing is attacked by the Thrawn’s vessel and he quickly flees only to end up in a near-death situation where he is suspended in deadspace with no means of communication (interestingly enough, we learn that the Jedi are capable of placing themselves into a trance-like state during these deep-space travels). Luke’s death seems all but certain until he is suddenly rescued by a passing freighter helmed by the gangster Talon Karrde and his associate, Mara Jade –a green-eyed woman with a dark past who carries nothing less than passionate contempt for Luke Skywalker. Luke is then imprisoned at their base on Myrkyr while they discuss his fate –should they sell him to Thrawn? Or could they find a higher price with the New Republic?

Meanwhile, Thrawn has been sending out scores of Noghri assassins to hunt down Princess Leia (his own personal bodyguard is a Noghri named Rukh). She is attacked on several diplomatic missions (in a public market on Bimmisaari as well as on the arid planet of Bpfassh), narrowly escaping both times, thus they head for Nkllon (in the Athega system), a mineral-rich planet with a sun in close proximity to the surface that threatens to vaporize the hulls of ships. The planet has a successful mobile mining operation called “Nomad City” currently operated by none other than Lando Calrissian, but when the Empire suddenly appears again to confiscate the planet’s mining vehicles, Han, Lando, and Chewbacca decide to hide Leia away on Kashyyyk this time –but still the Noghri manage to find her. In time, we learn that the Noghri actually secretly revere Leia as the daughter of Darth Vader because he once saved the Noghri from certain destruction. This fact complicates matters.    

In the end, all parties converge on Myrkyr in a tense stand-off between Talon Karrde and Grand Admiral Thrawn (why does Karrde decline to hand Luke over to Thrawn?) Han, Chewbacca, and Lando arrive to discuss matters with Talon Karrde, while unbeknownst to them, Luke escapes captivity and crashes a stolen ship deep in the jungle where he is followed by Mara Jade. Together with R2-D2, they are forced to venture deep into the jungle filled with lethal Vornskr creatures (Karrde has two pet Vornskr named Drang and Sturm) and Ysalamiri which prevent Luke from using the force. At the same time that Grand Admiral Thrawn makes a surprise appearance under the auspices of obtaining more Ysalamiri, a contingent of his stormtroopers enter into a firefight with Luke, Lando, Han, and Mara Jade. In one of the biggest reveals of the novel, Luke confronts Mara Jade and demands to know why she despises him. As it turns out, Mara Jade was once the Hand of the Emperor, a force-sensitive assassin who served as little more than a “shadow, working outside the normal lines of command and protocol” (404). She was an undercover operative moonlighting as a dancer at Jabba’s Palace on the day that Luke Skywalker arrived in Return of the Jedi. The killing of Jabba and then of the Emperor sent Mara Jade out into the underfringes of the galaxy, a forgotten former Imperial assassin with no connections to her former life. After four and a half years, she has managed to work her way into Talon Karrde’s smuggling ring –and her hated for Luke Skywalker is boundless, though she cannot deny a certain intrigue about him when they finally meet face-to-face…  

This is a world of smugglers, struggling politicians, and the ever-looming threat of an Imperial uprising. There are numerous shadowy characters with potentially traitorous alliances –Talon Karrde, Joruus C’baoth, and Mara Jade –who among them can be trusted? Heir to the Empire ends with a surprise attack by Thrawn’s forces outside the shipyards of Sluis Van, and the heroes accidentally arrive alongside Wedge Antilles of Rogue Squadron where they find the stolen mining ships from Nkllon now hijacking the New Republic vessels, however Lando manages to remotely hack into the ships to accelerate their activities, which destroys a variety of New Republic ships, but in the long run it effectively melts the mining ships. Thrawn acknowledges defeat in the battle and retreats. He is “a true warrior, with his eye set on the final goal and not on his own personal glory” (475) though he plots a forthcoming war. The book ends with a conspiracy in the Provisional Council as Admiral Ackbar has been arrested and accused of treason (Leia returns to Coruscant from Kashyyyk). While the battle at Sluis Van has been won, the future remains very much in question. What is to become of the New Republic? Will Admiral Ackbar be rescued? Will Leia’s twins be born safely? Will Joruus C’baoth seek revenge on Grand Admiral Thrawn for thwarting his plan to lure Luke Skywalker to Jomark? Will Thrawn seek revenge on Talon Karrde for withholding Luke Skywalker? Will Mara Jade let go of old prejudices and give-in to her budding interest in Luke Skywalker?

Heir to the Empire is my first foray into the Star Wars Expanded Universe and I can see why it is considered the genesis for a whole generation of Star Wars literary fans –it is truly the Star Wars sequel story we should have gotten had it not been for Disney’s bungling incompetence. However, in more recent years there have been efforts to subtly reintroduce some of Timothy Zahn’s characters into the new Star Wars “Canon” –including appearances by Grand Admiral Thrawn in Star Wars productions by Dave Filoni, such as Star Wars Rebels.

Zahn, Timothy. Heir to the Empire. Random House, New York, New York (2021). Paperback, Star Wars Essential Legends Collection.

1 thought on “Heir to the Empire (1991) By Timothy Zahn Book Review

  1. Always interesting when novelizations based on a favorite sci-fi franchise may achieve something better that the main cinema and TV versions may not. Audiobooks also, as Big Finish continues to remind us. To encourage sci-fi fans to read more, as it did for me when I was much younger, it’s a particularly healthier exercise for our imaginations. Thank you for this review.

    Liked by 2 people

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