Part II of Timothy Zahn’s celebrated “Thrawn Trilogy” (originally published in 1992), Dark Force Rising presents a multi-faceted Star Wars novel packed full of mystery and intrigue, rife with characters trapped inside a web of loyalty and betrayal. With more than a few nods to The Empire Strikes Back, Dark Force Rising picks up right where Heir to the Empire ended –trouble is brewing in the New Republic! Admiral Ackbar has been arrested on spurious charges of treason. Some suspect Bothan Senator Borsk Fey’lya as the culprit (he has the strong support of the military, making him a powerful leader on the council). Meanwhile, trapped at the Sluis Vaan shipyards following the battle at the end of the previous book, Luke Skywalker manages to secure a ship and race back to Coruscant, hoping to rescue Admiral Ackbar. But when all efforts fail, he must seek another path to justice…
The novel presents at least three different concurrent story arcs: 1) Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Lando Calrissian (aboard Lando’s ship The Lady Luck) head for the planet New Cov in the hopes of tracking down an associate of Fey’lya in order to uncover the truth about Ackbar’s arrest, though the trio are are soon separated and Luke departs for the planet Jomark to study under the questionably sane dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth; 2) Leia and Chewbacca, with help from the Noghri named Kabarakh, fulfill a promise and fly aboard the Millennium Falcon to Honoghr, the home world of the Noghri, where Leia attempts to forge a new partnership in spite of the Noghri’s steadfast loyalty to the Empire (a legacy remaining from Darth Vader’s reign); and lastly 3) Mara Jade and smuggler Talon Karrde (aboard the Wilde Karrde) attempt to evade Imperial capture resulting from aid given to the New Republic while protecting a powerful secret closely guarded by Talon Karrde.
Looming like a shadow over the novel is the ominous presence of Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the former twelve Imperial Grand Admirals who is a tactical genius and rules over his dominion through loyalty and fear, rather than coercion and manipulation (Thrawn’s vision of the Empire differs substantially from that of Darth Vader and the Emperor). We never actually enter inside the head of Thrawn which makes him seem more terrifying and mysterious –a mercurial and Machiavellian enemy who is always one step ahead. In Dark Force Rising, Thrawn, a brilliant blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss, is less concerned with the particulars art and culture of various species, which was his obsession in Heir to the Empire, and instead he is focused on one goal –acquiring a macguffin called the “Dark Force” or “Katana fleet,” a cohort of two hundred Old Republic dreadnaught class ships which were abandoned and presumed lost prior to the Clone Wars when a mysterious “hive virus” wiped out the crewmen and drove them insane. The Katana fleet has long been the stuff of legend, even Luke Skywalker once heard stories of the missing fleet while growing up on Tatooine. And in Dark Force Rising, both the fledgling New Republic and the rising Imperial remnants are in desperate need of new ships (recall Han Solo traveling to Tatooine to track down smugglers to help the flow of legitimate trade traffic within the New Republic). Thus, the novel becomes a race for the Katana fleet –both Thrawn and the scattered leaders of the New Republic are aggressively hunting down the fleet, while smuggler Talon Karrde secretly knows its location (Karrde accidentally stumbled upon the “Dark Force” six years ago while on a smuggling mission with six others fleeing from bounty hunters on Rishii).
Throughout the novel, we ask ourselves which characters are trustworthy –can we trust Talon Karrde? Mara Jade? Joruus C’baoth? Kabarakh? Niles Ferrier? Mon Mothma? Borsk Fey’lya? The New Republic appears to be on the edge of collapse, or perhaps civil war, following the arrest of Admiral Ackbar, while Grand Admiral Thrawn has somehow quietly secured a mysterious informant known as “Delta Source” who feeds him information from within the halls of Coruscant –is it Senator Borsk Fey’lya? Thrawn’s reborn Empire seems to have eyes and ears everywhere including among lowly ship thieves like Niles Ferrier, a big man frequently brandishing a cigar, whose companion is a Defel “wraith” (i.e. a creature capable of absorbing all visible light as a survival mechanism). This wraith allows Niles Ferrier to track Han Solo and Lando Calrissian aboard the Lady Luck, while the ship narrowly manages to outrun Thrawn’s forces at every turn –from the remote Mishra tapcafe in the city of Ilic on New Cov, to the underwater casino of Coral Vanda submerged in the waters of Pantolomin (“billed as the most impressive casino in the galaxy”)—until they eventually stumble upon the legendary Corellian Senator and rebel hero, General Garm Bel Ibliss, a man who was falsely rumored to have been killed in a battle on Anchoron. Bel Ibliss was involved in the early formation of the Rebel Alliance –Mon Mothma and Bail Organa initially organized the biggest rebel groups to form the alliance under the Corellian Treaty, which was then orchestrated by Senator Bel Ibliss, however Bel Ibliss has since grown to distrust Mon Mothma for a perceived power grab in the New Republic. As such, Bel Ibliss is reluctant to help Han Solo.
At the same time, Luke Skywalker departs from Han Solo and Lando Calrissian on New Cov. He travels to the three-mooned planet of Jomark where, under a cloud of mind control, Luke studies under the dark jedi Joruus C’baoth who rules Jomark like a tyrant from his dwelling in High Castle. C’baoth uses force lightning to punish people and teaches Luke that “pain is the one teacher no one will ignore” and “if you allow justice to be forgotten, you will be forced to repeat it again and again” (210). C’baoth wants to see a resurgence of the Jedi as the rightful rulers of the galaxy: “the Jedi can live again. We have a chance to rebuild” (200). He was once a personal jedi advisor to former Senator Palpatine and he was part of the attack on the dark jedi on Bfpaash but then apparently disobeyed orders at a battle on Taanab. He now wants harsh judgments issued against ordinary “primitive” people, and he resentfully believes the whole galaxy should submit to a new order of Jedi since the ‘lesser’ creatures once attempted to exterminate the jedi –at least according to his interpretation of the Clone Wars. Luke Skywalker quickly grows skeptical of Joruus C’baoth, especially regarding the ethics of wielding the force for mind control (while on Jomark, Luke has been kept in a docile, sleepy state by C’baoth). But before he can be fully molded into a dark jedi, Luke is mercifully rescued by Mara Jade. Up until this point, she has been on an extended mission serving Talon Karrde (Karrde asked Mara to fly to the Torgana System in order to locate two people: an associate named Aves who could help prep for a battle over the Katana Fleet, and Zakarisz Ghent, an expert slicer who might help prove the bank account framing off Admiral Ackbar) but her mission was interrupted when Grand Admiral Thrawn arrived at the Abregado-rae spaceport and captured Mara shortly after she met Wedge Antilles (she only managed to save herself by using an old Imperial code “Hapspir, Barrini, Corbolan, Triaxis” and promising to deliver the location of the Katana fleet to Thrawn). However, Mara Jade is then betrayed by Thrawn and the whole situation leads to the arrest of Talon Karrde. In a desperate effort to save her boss –and despite her deep hatred of Luke Skywalker– she decides to rescue Luke on Jomark, battle C’baoth, leave him unconscious, and rescue Karrde from imprisonment aboard the Chimaera (a future confrontation between Luke and C’baoth seems all but inevitable). Throughout this whole ordeal, Mara Jade comes to the painful realization that the old Empire she once served is now dead, never to be resurrected. Following her capture and betrayal, consider the way Thrawn speaks to Mara Jade: “I rule the Empire now. Not some long-dead Emperor; certainly not you. The only treason is defiance of my orders. I’m willing to let you come back to your rightful place in the Empire –as first officer, perhaps, of one of the Katana dreadnaughts. But any further outbursts like this one and that offer will be summarily withdrawn” (276).
Much like the rescue of Princess Leia in A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade assume disguises in order to rescue Talon Karrde before he is tortured by Thrawn’s goons. They pose as a supply ship and board the Chimaera. They don flight suits and travel via the ship’s garbage compactor and only narrowly break Karrde out of his cell when they stumble upon the Millennium Falcon which was recently captured by the Empire and has been held in deep storage on the Chimaera after Leia temporarily abandoned it while en route to Honoghr. Luke, Mara, and Karrde then head for Coruscant where Karrde intends to divulge the secret location of the Katana Fleet to the New Republic council in the hopes of preventing Thrawn from finding it first.
Meanwhile, Leia Organa Solo, Threepio, and Chewbacca fulfill their promise to the Noghri from the first book as they manage to persuade the Noghri that the Empire was actually at fault for the degradation of their home plant Honoghr (poisoning the planet’s kholm-grass): “Beneath the mottling of white clouds the planetary surface seemed to be a uniform brown, relieved only by the occasional deep blue of lakes and small oceans” (134). In exchange for 44 years of environmental destruction (resulting from the Clone Wars), the Noghri were unwittingly punished under permanent indebtedness masked as aid from the Empire. After Leia brings the truth to light, the New Republic gains a valuable new ally in the Noghri, one which Thrawn has apparently taken for granted.
In the end, our heroes regroup on Coruscant where a pursuit of the Dark Fleet is placed in the hands of Borsk Fey’lya, and so, with little trust remaining for Fey’lya, all parties converge upon the deep space location of the Dark Force fleet –Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade, Han Solo, and Lando Calrissian commandeer the Dark Force flagship entitled the “Katana” (“the backbone of the Old Republic’s fleet”), while Wedge Antilles and Rogue Squadron arrive for military support… but they are followed by a New Republic police contingent helmed by Borsk Fey’lya intent on arresting everyone for disobeying his orders, but Fey’lya is quickly prevented from doing so thanks to some quick thinking by Leia and Karrde. While Fey’lya demands to abandon Rogue Squadron and head back to Coruscant, Leia manages to reach out with the force and turn on the ship-wide communication system just as Fey’lya speaks dismissively about the military, his core supporters. After hearing this, Captain Virgilio of the Escort frigate Quenfis no longer respects Fey’lya’s authority and decides to remain in the area out of loyalty for Rogue Squadron.
When the heroes finally arrive at the Katana fleet, the pace of the novel slows dramatically, leaving a broad sense of dread as we board one of these long dormant ships. Consider Luke’s observations upon first witnessing the ghostly dreadnaught: “The air in the bay had a strangely musty odor about it; a combination of oil and dust… with a slight metallic tang” (395-396). It is described as “one of the eeriest trips” of Luke’s life. He is surrounded by faint idling mechanical noises, whispers which have been echoing out in space for over five decades, along with a few droids still wandering around, and a perfectly maintained machine shop as if the crew had died only moments ago. “To all appearances, the ship might just as well have been abandoned yesterday. But it hadn’t been. The ships had been floating here in the blackness for half a century… and their crews had not left, but had died here in agony and madness. Looking down empty cross corridors as they walked, Luke wondered what the maintenance droids had made of it all as they cleared away the bodies” (396).
A giant space battle ensues when a Star Destroyer –the Judicator– suddenly appears and it becomes apparent that Thrawn has already claimed the whole Katana fleet, only fifteen of the two hundred ships are left behind as decoys in order to lure the New Republic. Now facing attack, TIE-fighters and X-wings face-off as the New Republic realizes their mission has failed. Just as the battle seems to turn for the worse, Senator Garm Bel Ibliss arrives aboard his ship the Peregrine which helps the New Republic gain just enough momentum to escape before facing total destruction (Bel Ibliss is joined by his associates Irenez and Sena Leikvold Midanyl). At the same time, Joruus C’baoth has awoken and escaped Jomark. He demands to speak with Thrawn before the Chimaera can enter battle. Now, the New Republic must find a way to retreat back to Coruscant. “Leia gazed out at the battle, the dark feeling of failure settling over her. They’d lost. After all their efforts, they’d lost… But it was just a battle, not the war. The Empire might have taken the Dark Force, but recruiting and training crews to man all those Dreadnaughts would take years” (423). The New Republic forces decide to flee upon the arrival of a second star destroyer –the Peremptory. As the battle comes to a close, Mara Jade is forced to eject from her Z-95, sending it crashing into an Imperial Star Destroyer. Luke later finds her unconscious with a depleted air supply suspended in space. They all manage to escape, albeit in a weakened position, as in The Empire Strikes Back. The New Republic is now beset by divisions while Thrawn has gained the upper hand. And as it turns out, before Luke left the Katana, he had battled a variety of Imperial troops who boarded the ship and killed them by opening a decompression chamber –in doing so, Luke revealed these troopers were actually clones. Bear in mind, the inclusion of cloning in this series predates the introduction of clones in the “prequel” movies. At any rate, Luke learns that the Empire has discovered a set of Spaarti Cloning cylinders and is secretly building a clone army. As a result, Thrawn is perhaps only a few months away from fully staffing the Katana fleet and invading Coruscant. The novel ends as Joruus C’baoth has grown impatient with Thrawn and announces he will be unilaterally taking over Thrawn’s secret Mount Tantiss project on Wayland, and that he has a “new arrangement” to discuss… Needless to say, the future looks grim for the New Republic.
Dark Force Rising is a terrific sequel to Heir to the Empire. Timothy Zahn presents us with an elaborate web of backstabbings and many new expansive elements to the Star Wars universe. A major theme I gleaned from the novel is the shaky line between friendship and trust contra villainy andbetrayal. Throughout the novel characters are overly eager to overlook personal treachery –Borsk Fey’lya and the council, Thrawn and the Noghri, Leia Organa Solo and a decon droid on Honoghr, Han and Lando with Niles Ferrier, and Luke with Joruus C’baoth. Secret alliances are spread wide throughout this book and we are never quite certain of who to trust. Also, do we accept Luke Skywalker as a hero even if he uses the force for mind control? If that is the case, what distinguishes him from Joruus C’baoth? At any rate, by the novel’s end the New Republic realizes that this ascendant iteration of the Empire is far more threatening than anyone could have imagined –Thrawn poses a much greater threat than any other mere warlord raiding the outer rim. And we are still left wondering: who is Thrawn’s mysterious Delta Source within the New Republic? Can Thrawn’s clone army and the Katana fleet ever be defeated? Will there ever be a conflict between Thrawn and Joruus C’baoth? Can we rely on the uneasy alliance between Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker? Dark Force Rising ends on a cliffhanger which preps the series nicely for a third book. In closing, I noticed many fascinating additions to the Star Wars lore in this novel, such as the “wookie life debt” (if a wookie’s life is saved, he owes a “life debt” to his protector), the idea that the Empire is conducting regular outer rim raids for “biomolecules,” further explication of the Bothans and their obsessive culture of prestige and honor, and lastly I was particularly drawn to some of the descriptions of newly introduced worlds in this series, like the three moons over Jomark, the Manari Mountains on Coruscant, and the submerged submarine luxury casino and hotel known as Coral Vanda –all of which illustrate a rich portrait of a dense galaxy filled with complex and diverse peoples in need of competent governance.
Zahn, Timothy. Dark Force Rising. Random House, New York, New York (2021). Paperback, Star Wars Essential Legends Collection.
Introducing new worlds and characters in a sci-fi franchise outside of its main film or TV versions, certainly for how it would influence continuity, is all the more fascinating for novels. I have much respect for authors who are creative enough to do that. Thank you for your review.
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