Review of Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

It may be hard to believe that prior to 1991 there were no Star Wars stories of any sort. Fans had what was in the original three films and that was all. So a Star Wars novel was viewed by publishers as a tremendous risk. Would fans accept a new image of such a beloved franchise? Publishers by and large did not think so. The initial hardcover offering of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) was marked at a low price in the hope of attracting customers, and the print run was kept low in order to limit the damage if the book flopped.

Few guesses about book success have been more wrong. Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) sold out immediately, forcing numerous reprints. The book rocketed up bestseller lists, even muscling John Grisham aside from the top spot back when that feat meant something. Demand was high that some reprints had jackets featuring less color and limited design elements. Fans couldn’t get enough.

Twenty years later, when every stone in the Star Wars universe has been turned over twice in the pages of some publication, it is hard to believe what a dramatic impact Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) had. Readers were treated to an extremely well written story –the first of a trilogy – that featured all their favorite characters and brought in some stalwart new ones.

The book is set 5 years after the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker and friends have set up the New Republic, and forced the remnants of the evil Empire to the backwaters of the galaxy. Instead of fighting battles Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca are building alliances and starting a family. But all is not right, and a military genius is stoking the fires of war to bring down all they have created.

Zahn clearly understands the way the heroes of Star Wars should be portrayed, and manages to give characters like Han Solo recognizable emotions and dialogue while simultaneously deepening the experience. These are the same characters from the films, but now you know them better than before. In creating what amounts to fan-based fiction, this level of comfort with well-known protagonists is half the battle in creating a good Star Wars novel.

The other half of the battle is providing engaging villains, and no Star Wars story since Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) has equaled Zahn’s creations. The key is Grand Admiral Thrawn, a blue skinned, red-eyed warlord of the Empire who had been across the galaxy when the Empire collapsed. Sort of an evil Sherlock Holmes or Special Agent Pendergast, Thrawn is wonderfully thoughtful and a master strategist. Extremely cultured, his tremendous intellect allows him to predict his opponents’ battle tactics just by examining a species art. His partner in crime is the clone of an ancient Jedi master, JoruusC’baoth, a twitchy, barely controlled Jedi of extreme power. Almost completely Thrawn’s opposite, C’baoth is willing to help in the Admiral’s designs, in exchange for Luke and Leia Skywalker.

Now with the publication of the 20th anniversary edition, it would seem Zahn’s initial offering has stood the test of time. The story is still fresh and enjoyable, and Grand Admiral Thrawn remains the lynchpin of the story. Since I first read the story as a teen I now realize there is not a great deal of depth in Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1), but there does not have to be.

This new edition has an introduction by the author, annotations throughout the text, and ends with a new Thrawn novella. The introduction relays the history of the novel’s initial publication, which turns out to be quite interesting. The annotations are fine though a touch mundane. The novella is a complete throwaway, both boring and disappointing. If you want to read a great Star Wars novel or are looking for a nice hardcover edition of your favorite tale, Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, Vol. 1) is the place to start.

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