The Alexandrian

Heir to the Empire - Timothy ZahnPerhaps against all common sense, I’m actually excited by the imminent release of Revenge of the Sith. Actually, “ecstatic” would be the better word (although that doesn’t help my case for sanity.)

Sure, the last two films have shown what happens when you take someone who hasn’t written a script in 15 years and hasn’t directed a movie in 22 years and give them a $200 million budget without any editorial oversight: You get a flabby film from someone showing a lot of creative rust. But, hey, if you work off some of that flab, sand away that rust, and imagine a fresh paint job in a couple of places, you can turn these mediocre movies into some great movies.

But, more importantly, Attack of the Clones was a much better film than The Phantom Menace out of the starting gate. Lucas is working off that flab and he’s getting those rust spots cleaned up. If Revenge of the Sith shows as much improvement over Attack of the Clones as Attack of the Clones showed over The Phantom Menace — and if Lucas can keep his recent penchant for inappopriate humor in check (and the promised darker tone of the movie may indicate that as a serious possibility) — then Revenge of the Sith will be an absolutely fantastic movie. (The tragedy is that, with Revenge of the Sith completed, Lucas will probably retire back to his producer’s chair. Spielberg has spent the last twenty years constantly practicing his craft and improving his talent; if only the same could be said of Lucas.)

And I’m fully aware of the fact that I may be eating these words and washing them down with the bitter draft of disappointment come this time next month. But, right now, I’m pumped up. And I’m looking for things to slake my Star Wars thirst.

Getting widescreen copies of the original versions of the original movies on LD was what started the anticipation. The Clone Wars animated series is almost certainly what got me jumping up and down. Which left me to turn my attention to the Extended Universe.

Back in ’92, when Bantam first got the tie-in license for Star Wars novels and Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire was released with all the attendant fanfare, I religiously ordered each and every volume from Westfield Comics as they came out. I enjoyed them a lot, and unlike my massive collection of Star Trek tie-in novels (which are now buried in a box in my storeroom somewhere), these have almost always managed to find a place on my shelves. As result, as the hunger for Star Wars began to consume me, my eye conveniently fell upon the Thrawn Trilogy.

(Tangentially, Bantam would probably have benefitted more from my pubescent period of completist collectorism if the Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy had not been followed by the relatively atrocious Truce at Bakura and The Courtship of Princess Leia. And, if I recall correctly, these were followed by Kevin Anderon’s Jedi Search. At the time, I didn’t know who Kevin Anderson was, but I never forgot him. I didn’t pick up a Star Wars novel for more than a decade after that triumvirate of crap.)

What made these novels work for me? Well…

Dark Force Rising - Timothy ZahnZahn never violates my sense of what the Star Wars universe should be. This is a problem that a lot of tie-in novels have: For example, I recently glanced at a Star Wars comic which featured Yoda flying around on the Millennium Falcon with Luke, Han, and Chewie. That was just so wrong, on so many levels, that I immediately put the comic back down.

More importantly, Zahn gives us stories which feel like Star Wars stories. To some extent, he does it by stocking his story with familiar phrases (“I have a bad feeling about this”), locations (cantinas, asteroid fields), and dramatic tropes. But when it comes to Star Wars, that’s a legitimate dramatic technique. Lucas talks about writing the Star Wars movies as if they were true space operas, with certain themes being played again and again in variation. Some would simply scoff at this as being creatively lazy, but I find that Lucas is absolutely right: Exercised with the proper restraint, the technique adds a thematic depth and resonance. Zahn, perhaps, pushes a little too hard at times, but he succeeds at extending the thematic beats of the original movies into his sequels.

With the exception of Threepio, Zahn really manages to capture the unique voice of each character. (And I don’t know what it is about Threepio: I have yet to find a tie-in product that actually manages to capture Threepio’s unique voice. Even Lucas seems to struggle in finding it in Attack of the Clones.) Getting character voices fundamentally right is something a lot of tie-in authors struggle with — and some of them get it so wrong that, whatever other strengths their work may have, I find it impossible to enjoy their story. But when you can succeed at it like Zahn does, it goes a long ways towards legitimizing your story and immersing the reader back into the familiar environs of the original source material.

Zahn also does a great job of balancing familiar friends with brand new faces. Luke, Han, Leia, and all the other mainstays of the original trilogy get plenty of screen time — but Zahn also introduces a cast of new characters and fits them seamlessly into the Star Wars saga. Grand Admiral Thrawn may not be a Darth Vader (who is?), but he’s a great arch-villain nonetheless. Among the others, Mara Jade and Talon Karrde manage to do more than just hold their own as major members of the cast, while characters like Fey’lya, Winter, and Ferrier take up supporting roles alongside familiar faces like Admiral Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, and Mon Mothma.

The Last Command - Timothy ZahnWhen I first read these books, I took them up to my mother and I said: “You have to read these. You could literally film these tomorrow and they’d be perfect sequels.”

Looking at them again from a slightly older and wiser point of view, I can’t quite agree with my earlier sentiment. Not only because the prequels have caused these novels to slip out of synch with the canon (Zahn gets the Clone Wars completely inverted, for example), but also due to a certain lack of vigor: There is nothing I would point to here as a debilitating flaw, but there’s also nothing that I would call an outstanding success (with the possible exception of the character of Mara Jade). And, even more importantly, the essentially mythological flavor of the Star Wars movies is lacking here. This is a fun little adventure romp with some great military set-pieces and several moments of intriguing character drama. But that’s all it is.

Of course, that’s hardly a condemnation. The Thrawn Trilogy is a great little piece of space opera, and it’s absolutely perfect if you’re looking for nothing more than some rock solid entertainment.

TRILOGY GRADE: B

HEIR TO THE EMPIRE: B+
DARK FORCE RISING: B
THE LAST COMMAND: B-

Timothy Zahn
Published: 1992-1993
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Cover Price: $6.99
ISBNs: 0-55-329612-4 / 0-55-356071-9 / 0-55-356492-7
Buy Now!

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