Book Review: The Last Command (1993) by Timothy Zahn

“The fortunes of war rise and fall.”
-Grand Admiral Thrawn

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The exhilerating conclusion to Timothy Zahn’s “Thrawn Trilogy” delivers yet another gripping Star Wars tale complete with a satisfying end to the adventure which was established in the previous two books, Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising. While The Last Command represents the end of a trilogy, it also offers the promise of new stories to tell –it serves as a bridge between the original Star Wars trilogy and the rich, extensive lore within the Expanded Universe (now known as “Legends”).

We begin a month or so after the loss of the Katana fleet in the previous book (Dark Force Rising), and the fleet of dreadnaughts allows Grand Admiral Thrawn to begin taking control of no less than four sectors of the galaxy with thirteen more on the edge. By now, Grand Admiral Thrawn holds the higher ground –he has gained control of the “Dark Force” Katana Fleet, he is quickly amassing a vast army of Imperial clones from the secret facility on Wayland, and planetary systems along the Outer Rim continue to fall under his shadow, one after another –places like the water-covered planet of Ando, the outpost on Filve, the icy Mid-Rim world of Crondre, the safe planet of Ord Pardron, the Outer Rim trade hub of Ketaris, and Generis in the Atrivis System, as well as the Abrion and Dufilvian sectors. One of the key worlds Thrawn takes is Ukio, a planet with vital food production facilities (one of the top five food producers in the New Republic) which will feed his growing army. However, cracks are beginning to show on both sides in this war. On the New Republic side, the provisional council bears the fresh scars of Senator Borsk Fey’lya’s perceived treachery which was displayed in the previous book (he is now discredited and Admiral Ackbar has been reinstated as Supreme Commander). Meanwhile, there are growing rumors of a “Delta Source” Imperial informant who has infiltrated the highest levels of Coruscant. Who could it be? I thought it would surely turn out to be Winter –the person we least suspect as a result of her care and attention for Leia’s twins. However, the informant is actually revealed to be organic microphones discovered within the purple and green Ch’hala trees lining the Grand Corridor of the Imperial Palace.  At any rate, within Thrawn’s Empire, the Grand Admiral continues to struggle to control the delusional “Dark Jedi” Joruus C’baoth (note the unique spelling of “Joruus”), a clone of the real Jorus C’baoth, who declares himself to be the “true heir to the Empire.” He has fallen prey to the “slippery twilight of clone madness” (24) and intends to rule the “lesser beings” throughout the galaxy.  

The New Republic is forced on defensive as the Imperial forces continue their march closer to Coruscant –the strength of the New Republic has been significantly shaken by Thrawn’s minions. And there are also rumors of a new super-weapon which can shoot through shields, but it turns out to merely be a clever ploy of cloaked cruisers and carefully timed turbolaser blasts. However, the Empire still manages to place a cloaked asteroid field around the atmosphere of Coruscant (leading the New Republic to pursue “Project Stardust” to destroy the asteroid field) while Leia Organa Solo delivers her twin babies –Jacen and Jaina Solo—and Mara Jade lies unconscious while undergoing neural recovery on Coruscant. At the same time, Luke Skywalker ventures out to the Calius and Berchest systems, following the trail of Thrawn’s clone army. Typically, clones require one year to fully grow otherwise they quickly become insane (three to five years are preferable per some of the old Clone Wars documents), however Thrawn has now managed to grow new clones in a mere fifteen to twenty days. This poses a significant challenge for the New Republic. Here, Luke is followed by a strange, shadowy figure who turns out to be none other than Mara Jade’s boss, the smuggler Talon Karrde. Karrde professes to maintain his own “neutrality” in the growing war in order to preserve his business relationships –he is friends with the Berchestian governor (Governor Staffa whose associate Fingal reports Luke to Thrawn). Luke agrees to a vague “line of credit” in order to pay Karrde for his assistance to the New Republic in exchange for vital information and supply lines. With this in mind, Karrde manages to orchestrate a loose confederation of smugglers working to sell information to the New Republic (despite Niles Ferrier and his “Wraith” Defel associate attempting to frame Karrde for treachery). The smugglers then plot to steal the Imperial CGT at Tangrene, a distraction for the Empire, while the true destination turns out to be the shipyards of Bilbringi.   

In my view, Mara Jade is the most intriguing character in this story. She awakens on Coruscant after nearly dying in space during the battle for the Katana Fleet in Dark Force Rising and she begins remembering things… she remembers Leia’s assistant, Winter, who once had a secret codename (“Targeter”) when she worked in Rebel supply procurement thanks to her flawless memory, and Mara remembers a secret passage the Emperor once had installed in the Imperial Palace on Coruscant –her recollections actually help the New Republic thwart an attack force of commandos sent by Thrawn into the Palace to kidnap Leia and the twins. Mara also recalls the vague location of the Emperor’s secret cloning facility on Wayland, a remote uncharted blue-white mottled planet, all the while she continues having visions of the late Emperor instructing her to assassinate Luke: “YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER.” Later in the novel, she learns the truth, that it was not Luke, but rather Vader, who killed the Emperor in the Battle over Endor –and she learns the truth of Luke’s heritage. This new knowledge makes Luke’s offer of self-sacrifice for her sake so much more powerful.  

In time, a contingent of New Republic heroes including Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and Chewbacca decide to trust Mara Jade and allow her to guide them to the planet Wayland in the hopes of stopping Thrawn’s clone campaign (his attempt to launch a new string of Clone Wars). Upon arrival, they land on the outskirts of a remote overgrown jungle so as not to garner unwanted attention, but this requires a multi-day journey among hostile native species (the Psadans and Myneyrshi), as well as predatory, genetically-engineered Garrals. This journey leads deep into the bowels of Mount Tantiss where an elaborate cloning facility awaits (Spaarti cloning cylinders). There, they also encounter a fierce lightsaber contest with Joruus C’baoth. He resides in the Emperor’s former throne room where a central holo map of the galaxy sits –it is delineated by encirclements of color: the Core systems, the Outer Rim territories, Wild Space, and the Unknown Regions. It is a fascinating image as Joruus C’baoth swivels around in the Emperor’s chair. Why has Joruus C’baoth been allowed to live at all? Apparently, Thrawn has considered cloning C’baoth. At any rate, our heroes are followed by a band of Noghri soldiers disguised as Jawas who seek to protect Luke Skywalker (“son of Vader”), led by Cakhmaim of the Noghri honor guard and Ekhrikor of clan Bakh’tor. They are also soon joined by Talon Karrde and Leia Organa Solo who both hope to warn their friends about impending dangers that lie ahead. However, they are too late. A clone of Luke Skywalker (“Luuke Skywalker”) emerges, created using his severed hand left behind on the Cloud City of Bespin. The clone causes a strange buzzing in the real Luke’s brain, and it brandishes Luke’s lightsaber he lost in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke is shockingly forced to battle this clone of himself. With the help of Leia and Han, Luke fights back while C’baoth torments the others until Mara Jade delivers the finishing blow to Luke’s clone, much to C’baoth’s dismay. Distraught, C’baoth threatens to clone Mara Jade when Karrde’s force-sensitive vornskrs (Drang and Sturm) are suddenly turned on C’baoth which distracts him long enough for Mara Jade to get close enough to kneel before him and pierce his chest with Leia’s lightsaber, killing Joruus C’baoth in a fiery burst of blue power (not unlike the Emperor in Return of the Jedi). At last, the madness is over. Our heroes disable the cloning facility inside Mount Tantiss and the tide of war is finally turned. Thus, Mara Jade fulfills the Emperor’s “last command” to kill Luke Skywalker (albeit only a clone).    

There were a few interesting things to note in these scenes. When practicing using a lightsaber, Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker discuss their lightsaber techniques –Obi-Wan never taught Luke to use the tip of his lightsaber, while Mara claims the Emperor taught her to use all available means necessary. Also, we learn a bit more about C’baoth’s vision for the Empire. His hope was to control the minds of all the “lesser” beings in an effort for the Jedi Order to rule like philosopher kings over the galaxy. His argument is that the Old Republic had survived for a thousand generations where the Jedi were the guardians of peace, but that they failed because they allowed inferior begins to rise up against them.

Grand Admiral Thrawn does not fall for C’baoth’s shenanigans. Thrawn simply continues to press forward with his ambitions. To give one small example, in contrast to an earlier encounter, in which Thrawn murdered an Imperial staffer on the bridge of the Chimaeara for accidentally allowing Luke to escape, in a new intense situation in The Last Command, Thrawn speaks directly to an ensign named Mithel who has just failed to capture Luke, and instead of slaughtering this poor, quivering ensign, Thrawn surprisingly promotes him to lieutenant for his quick thinking, garnering a sigh of relief and an air of respect from his subordinates –“And for the first time in five years, Pellaeon finally knew in the deepest level of his being that the old Empire gone. The new Empire, with Grand Admiral Thrawn at its head, had been born” (71).   

In the end, it is the Noghri who rise up and exact long-awaited vengeance upon the Empire. Long ago, they had sworn themselves to the Lord Darth Vader when he pledged to save them from the Rebellion, but the Empire in turn secretly betrayed Honoghr and physically destroyed its lush surface to serve their own whims. Earlier in The Last Command, Luke stopped by Honoghr for refueling when he was led into the cliffsides where the Noghri are quietly attempting to grow a collection of greenery to hopefully feed their struggling world. Thanks to Leia’s diplomatic work in the previous book, Luke is surprisingly welcomed by the Noghri, in particular by the Kabarkh clan of the Kihm’bar. However, Luke learns that the Noghri have spread word of the Empire’s betrayal among their ranks scattered throughout the galaxy. Power cells are provided to Luke from their capital of Nystao, and despite their humble gardens nestled in the cliffsides, they still need to find a new home to live —“Ever since the Lord Darth Vader had first duped the Noghri into their perpetual service to the Empire, the gullible gray-skinned aliens had insisted on putting their own personal honor on the line with each mission.” (51). Later, as the battle turns sour over Bilbringi between the New Republic forces (including Rogue Squadron and their smuggler allies like Aves) versus Thrawn’s forces, Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard Rukh suddenly turns on the Empire. Waiting for just the right moment, Rukh unexpectedly rips the throat of Captain Pellaeon. He manages to sound push an emergency alert button before collapsing. Struggling for breath, he looks over at Grand Admiral Thrawn who is calmly seated in his chair while a bright red blood stain slowly spreads across his chest. Smiling, Thrawn quietly remarks, “But… it was so artistically done.” And with that, the blood fades from his eyes and Thrawn, the last of the old Imperial Grand Admirals, is gone. With no one left to lead the ascendant Empire, a suffering Captain Pellaeon signals the retreat.  

Mara decides to finally let go of her Imperial past and she receives Luke’s old lightsaber as a gift from Luke (the one he lost on Bespin which was adopted by his clone) and Mara decides to join the New Republic as a trusted liaison with the smugglers. It represents both the end of a dark chapter in her life, as well as a new beginning which is set to launch hundreds of stories. Luke tells Mara: “The Emperor’s dead. The voice you hear is just a memory he left behind inside you… But you can’t use the voice as an excuse, either. Your destiny. Is in your hands, Mara. Not C’baoth’s or the Emperor’s. In the end you’re the one who makes the decisions. You have that right… and that responsibility” (393).

Notably, I was really struck by various descriptions of unique new planets peppered throughout this novel. For example, consider this description of Calius saj Leelo:“It was called Calius saj Leeloo, the City of Glowing Crystal of Berchest, and it had ben one of the most spectacular wonders of the galaxy since the earliest days of the Old Republic. The entire city was nothing more or less than a single gigantic crystal, created over the eons by saltile spray from the dark red-orange waters of the Leefari Sea that roiled up against the low bluff upon it rested. The original city had been painstakingly sculpted from the crystal over the decades by local Berchestian artisans, whose descendants continued to guide and nurture its slow growth. At the height of the Old Republic Calius had been a major tourist attraction, its populace making a comfortable living from the millions of beings who flocked to the stunning beauty of the city and its surroundings. But the chaos of the Clone Wars and the subsequent rise of the Empire had taken a severe toll on such idle amusements, and Calius had been forced to turn to other means for its support” (27). 

Or consider Luke’s observations upon arrival at Honoghr, the homeworld of the Noghri: “Leia had told him what to expect; but even with that warning the sight of the world lying in the X-wing’s path was a shock. Beneath the sparse white clouds floating over the surface, the entire planetary landmass was a flat, uniform brown. Kholm-grass, Leia had called it: the genetically modified to perpetuate their systematic destruction of the planet’s ecology. That deceit, combined with first Vader’s and later Thrawn’s carefully limited aid, had bought the Empire four decades of Noghri service” (96).

These and so many other planets are introduced, giving us the impression of an immensely complex galaxy populated by many different species — Woostri, Kessel, Mrisst, Ord Mantell, Orus Sector, the white dwarf sun over Chazwa, the mobile Nomad City on Nkllon, The Fortress of Hijarna, which has been crumbling away for a thousand years before the Fifth Alderaanian Expedition found it as it sat perched on a bluff overlooking a vast plain, the Poderis system, which is described as “marginal,” a planet which has remained colonized resulting from the stubborn spirit of its colonists (a land with a tough ecology and a vast archipelago spread between tall mesas and high winds, not a common tourist destination unlike Calius saj Leelo on Berchest), and lastly there is Whistler’s Whirlpool Tapcafe on Trogan, located on the coast of a densely populated continent built around a natural formation called “The Drinking Cup,” a bowl-shaped rock pit open to the sea.

So much of the Star Wars universe is expanded upon in this trilogy –a few other examples include the extraordinary attention to detail as Mara notes the time-saving turbolifts added to the Imperial Palace on Coruscant by the Emperor, or the ornate hand-carved wooded furnishings in her quarters (on the President’s Guests floor) inside the Palace, with old-fashioned doors which echoing back a thousand years in time (Mara’s suite on Coruscant was completed in mostly Fijisi wood from Cardooine).

If you are a Star Wars fan, the “Thrawn Trilogy” represents the peak of media tie-in story-telling. There are so many memorable new characters introduced, including Talon Karrde (and his ship “The Wilde Karrde”), Mara Jade (the former “Emperor’s Hand”), Leia’s personal assistant Winter, the questionably loyal Senator Borsk Fey’lya (who seems to know about more secret Imperial technology on Wayland), the lunatic Dark Jedi clone Joruus C’baoth, the cold military tactician and art-collector Grand Admiral Thrawn (who apparently refused to obey the Emperor no less than four times in the past), Thrawn’s right-hand man named Captain Pellaeon, the fiercely honor-bound Noghri creatures, the traitorous Imperial-serving smuggler Niles Ferrier, the legendary Corellian Senator Garm Bel Iblis (and his nebulous rival in the provisional council, Mon Mothma), the skilled splicer Zakarisz Ghent, Karrde’s communications officer named Aves, the son of legendary General Airen Cracken, Pash Cracken (one of the best starfighter commanders in the business), and the whole merry band of smugglers including Samuel Tomas Gillespee, Par’tah (who speaks in the singsong Ho’Din language), Brasck, a Brub creature, Mazzic (a horn-headed Gotal), Dravis, Clynggunn, and Ellor the Duro. The most important characters of all are Han and Leia’s twins: Jacen and Jaina Solo. Their future remains uncertain, but there is a fascinating moment wherein Luke confesses to Mara Jade that he is worried about training the twins one day. How do you teach wisdom, compassion, and nobility? This was one of the great questions posed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. At any rate, all these new characters are complemented nicely by everyone’s favorite Star Wars characters, including some we never got to see enough of in the movies, like Wedge Antilles and his compatriots in Rogue Squadron. All things considered, The Last Command is a terrific installment in the Star Wars universe.

“The Empire rules by force and threat; we rule instead by inspiration and leadership”
–Mon Mothma (326)

Zahn, Timothy. The Last Command. Random House, New York, New York (2021). Paperback, Star Wars Essential Legends Collection.

Return to my survey of the Star Wars series

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Last Command (1993) by Timothy Zahn

  1. Star Wars, like all science fiction, can be at its best when it parallels real issues like a most essential question by Socrates. Indeed when it comes to how we can teach wisdom, compassion and nobility which in this challenging era is especially crucial. Thank you for this review.

    Liked by 2 people

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