In the 12 days leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, we take a step onto the larger world of Star Wars by examining the novels, games, comics, albums, TV series and audio dramas that have fed our imaginations over the years. Some of these you may be aware of and some you won’t, but regardless we hope that you seek out some of these works and give them the appreciation they deserve. May the Force be with you.
A long time ago in galaxy far, far away, there was the Expanded Universe (EU) . For over 20 years, games, books, comics etc all informed the universe that was Star Wars. Until the dark times, until Disney bought the rights. In a great purge only comparable to the Empire’s mass slaughter of the Jedi Order, Disney wiped the slate clean and established a new canon consisting of the films, The Clone Wars TV show, Rebels and any work subsequently approved by the new Lucasfilm Story Group . The old EU was labeled the “Legends” timeline and its stories relegated to the realm of “what ifs”.
Two key texts kick-started what is now known as the “Legends” timeline. Dark Empire (written by Tom Veitch and illustrated Cam Kennedy) ; dealt with a revived Emperor Palpatine tempting Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side. An interesting premise, no doubt. If you are curious as to why Luke would fall to the Dark Side, the answer is that the plot demands it and tries to pass it off as all part of cunning plan. As you could reasonably predict the young Jedi is redeemed thanks to the love of his sister; Leia Organa. The story-line was sloppily executed despite featuring some important long-lasting plot points such as the birth of Han and Leia’s son; Anakin, but the less said about it the better. The real powerhouse and re-vitaliser of the franchise, however, came in the form of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire.
Set five years after Return of the Jedi, we are shown that despite
the victory at Endor, the Alliance has struggled to establish the New Republic as the bastion of hope and democracy that it so desired. The remnants of the Empire maintain a strong grip over much of the galaxy. Luke is struggling to find his place in the galaxy and desires to create a New Jedi Order. Meanwhile, the Imperials, led by Grand Admiral Thrawn search for their own trump card; a Dark Jedi to bolster their significant military might and restore the Empire to it’s former glory.
For many, Heir to the Empire and the Thrawn Trilogy as a whole served as the de facto sequel trilogy. The characters develop naturally and experience internal conflicts largely unexplored by the films. It’s also one of the first works to acknowledge that true political revolution doesn’t occur overnight and that the Battle of Endor was merely to first step. People often chastise the prequels and expanded universe for focusing too much on the politics of intergalactic war, but to ignore it would be a mistake. Zahn handles the issue quite well and makes the political context in which the novel takes place as compelling a setting as the conflict itself.
It’s not perfect in any respect. Leia is one of the characters who should benefit most from the space and character development opportunities a novel provides. Instead, her main role in the plot is as a goal for the Empire. By capturing Leia, the Empire captures her unborn twins which can then be manipulated into serving the Dark Side. Focusing on Leia as a protective mother is fine, but a missed opportunity. Were her story-line to center on the conflicting role as both diplomat and military commander, it would make for a more compelling piece. As it stands, despite having some stand-out moments, it hard to not feel that she is side-lined.
Early in the novel we get our last glimpse at Old Ben Kenobi as the Jedi Master reminds his pupil to pass on what he has learned noting that he isn’t the last of the old Jedi, but rather the first of the new. We get some interesting insights into the nature of the Force which suggests that Force Ghosts cannot maintain themselves in perpetuity. Once again demonstrating that Kenobi was exaggerating his claim of becoming “more powerful than you could possible imagine”. The lose of his mentor’s guidance further sends Luke into depression and an identity crisis of sorts which will continue to be explore throughout the trilogy. This is the first time he is truly alone and its central to his character development.
It also, to my knowledge, marks the first use of “Battle Meditation” a Force power which allows the user to improve their army’s combat-effectiveness through increased morale, stamina and battle-prowess. As abilities goes, the notion that the Force allows Jedi and Sith to co-ordinate fleets and troops as if they were one entity is fascinating. It arguably one of the most useful and intriging Force powers and explains somewhat why Jedi, in particular, were deemed to be suitable military commanders. It would be further explored to great effect in later works such as Knights of the Old Republic and Legacy of the Jedi.
Now for what you’ve all been waiting for. Heir to the Empire introduces the reader to Grand Admiral Thrawn; one of the greatest villains in the Star Wars universe. To say he isn’t your typical Star Wars villain is an understatement of Death Star proportions. He isn’t physically powerful, he isn’t Force sensitive and he, most importantly, isn’t Vader.
If he is to be compared to any of the established on-screen villains it would be Grand Moff Tarkin; a military strategist grounded in the world of realpolitik more so than ancient religions. Ideologically speaking, Thrawn doesn’t care about the Dark Side or the Force as a whole. The motivations of the Emperor mean nothing to him. He supports the Empire because he sees it as a source of stability and order within the galaxy. The use of Dark Jedi is merely a mean to an end for him. If it increases the effectiveness of the Empire’s military might then he will exploit it as such, no more and no less. In a universe where everyone is seemingly vying to be the next Dark Lord of the Sith, this is a welcome change of pace.
One of the most interesting aspects of his character is his appreciation for art. For Thrawn, to understand a culture’s art is to understand the culture itself. From this understanding, he is able to create military plans specifically designed to tackle that culture based on their values and social systems. He is Sherlock Holmes turned warlord with a fleet of Star Destroyers at his command.
There are other intriguing plot-points surrounding the character’s race and how that played into the xenophobic hierarchical structure of the Imperial Navy. There are not the primary focus of the piece and are explored more thoroughly in later works. Simply put, Thrawn knew that he was facing a glass ceiling and made himself so indispensable to the Empire that Palpatine could not but recognise his worth and grant him the title of “Grand Admiral”.
Just in case you haven’t twigged it, Thrawn is widely loved within the Star Wars fan community. Lucasfilm and Disney could probably appease many the EU fan by including a Thrawn cameo in one of their forthcoming movies. Indeed, if he happened to be played by Benedict Cumberbatch, then all would be forgiven.
The other major EU character who gets their introduction here is Mara Jade; a bounty hunter/smuggler with a grudge against Luke. In reality, Mara is a former Emperor’s Hand; an elite assassin trained in the ways of the Force by Palpatine himself. It’s probably best not to ask how many people Vader or the Emperor were training on the side because we’ll be here all day. To be honest, there isn’t much to say about Mara in this book, her primary goal is to kill Luke Skywalker thereby avenging the Emperor. The two have some nice dialogue exchanges, bur that’s really it. Its interesting from an indoctrinee viewing the Emperor as father figure perspective, but her character is fleshed out much better in the subsequent books of the Thrawn Trilogy.
There are a couple of ways that you can experience Heir to the Empire. You could, of course, read the book itself. The audio-book, like all Star Wars novels, greatly enhances the experience by providing suitably background music and sound effects to really immerse you in the action. Dark Horse also released a six-issue comic adaptation which is currently available through Marvel Unlimited. The disadvantage of that version is that you miss out on some of the inner monologues and beautiful descriptions which characterise Zahn’s work. Heir to the Empire has compelling villains, a gripping plot which takes its characters to their next level and cracking dialogue. If you are taking your first step into a larger world there is no better place to begin than Heir to the Empire.
Join us tomorrow for the next installment of the 12 Days of Star Wars; Jedi Outcast.