I got into the Star Wars Expanded Universe as a kid (through several YA books like Young Jedi Knights, I must confess), but it wasn’t until later that I started reading more serious books. Up until the time when I discovered the kick-ass glorious works of Matthew Woodring Stover, the absolute best novels I’d read in the EU was the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, which ran from 1991 to 1993.
In all seriousness, when I heard that Disney was going to produce the long-awaited Star Wars sequel trilogy, I was hoping that they’d be adapting this series above all others.
Zahn redefined a lot of what we know about the Star Wars universe in these novels. He gave us Imperials who were sympathetic, showed us what life was like for smugglers and other fringe dwellers, and raised the bar on military campaigns and strategies with the genius of his main villain, the alien mastermind Grand Admiral Thrawn. Even the mystical Force was taken down a peg thanks to Force-nullifying creatures like the ysalamiri and how unreliable a mad Force-user like Joruus C’baoth can be in the grand scheme of trying to restore the Empire. But at the same time, Zahn was able to recapture the spirit of the original films, bringing us the joy of space battles, lightsaber duels, smugglers outflying Star Destroyers, and seeing life on new and colorful planets.
So I’ll get into each book, with a quick rundown of the plot and what I enjoyed most about each novel.
Book One: Heir to the Empire (1991)
The Plot: Grand Admiral Thrawn arrives to take command of the surviving Imperial Fleet, with Captain Pellaeon by his side. He uncovers a hidden weapons depot on Wayland and acquires the service of an insane Dark Jedi Master named Joruus C’baoth. Meanwhile, Leia is expecting twins and take refuge from Noghri assassins on the Wookiee homeworld. Luke investigates a smuggler ring and comes into the crosshairs of Mara Jade, the late Emperor’s personal assassin, whose final order was to kill him. Thrawn begins his campaign against the New Republic, taking out several starships and sowing discord in the higher ranks.
In-Depth: Honestly, any scene between Thrawn and Pellaeon is a treat. It’s Star Wars‘s answer to Holmes and Watson, as the two Imperials discuss tactics and art. Meanwhile, there’s a kind of beauty in how logically Thrawn puts together his counterattack on the New Republic, gathering resources and allies like C’baoth with a very calm disposition. My only complaint is C’baoth himself; for a Dark Jedi, he seems less evil than Thrawn and more of a one-note megalomaniac like Grand Moff Tarkin. But the real meat of the story is the confrontations between Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, and Mara Jade, the late Emperor’s Hand. Watching them try to get past their hangups and work together to survive proves to be the main emotional spirit that keeps the trilogy strong.
Book Two: Dark Force Rising (1992)
The Plot: Luke Skywalker seeks out Joruus C’baoth in an attempt to learn more about the ways of the Jedi from him. Mara Jade rescues Luke from C’baoth’s trap and enlists his help in rescuing her boss Talon Karrde from the Empire. Meanwhile, Leia goes to the Noghri homeworld, using her lineage as Darth Vader’s daughter to convince the race to abandon Thrawn. Han and Lando seek out a retired Rebel general to help them turn the tide on the Imperial juggernaut. Finally, the New Republic forges an alliance with smugglers to locate the ancient Katana fleet before Thrawn acquires its 200 battleships.
In-Depth: I have to give Zahn credit for how well he uses Leia in this story. Despite being married to Han Solo and pregnant, she doesn’t stay out of the action. Here, she’s a diplomat and a princess, using her newfound authority with the Noghri to expose the Empire’s lies and turn the tide of the war. The subplot involving Han and Lando’s search for Garm bel Iblis is also pretty cool, as we get a glimpse into the internal politics of the Rebellion and how our freedom fighters weren’t exactly perfect. Again, the best part is Mara Jade confronting Thrawn and having so many of her illusions about the Empire broken. It’s a major crisis for her and a good stepping-stone for her arc as a potential Jedi.
Book Three: The Last Command (1993)
The Plot: While Luke investigates Thrawn’s cloning facilities (which gives him a strong advantage over the New Republic), Leia gives birth to Jacen and Jaina Solo. Meanwhile, Mara Jade puts aside her bitterness to work with the Republic and help them find the coordinates to Wayland, the source of Thrawn’s power. Thrawn unleashes a wave of cloaked asteroids over Coruscant, blockading the capital while he attacks Republic territory with impunity. While Han and the Smugglers’ Alliance go up against Thrawn’s fleet in Bilbringi, Luke, Mara, and their team go to Wayland to destroy the cloning facility and have one final showdown with the mad Joruus C’baoth.
In-Depth: I like how this novel began and ended, but it was the actual middle that felt weak to me. The beginning is a brilliant maneuver by Thrawn to reconquer a planet using some visual trickery, while the ending features a surprise betrayal, the Grand Admiral’s poetic last words, a clever twist on Mara Jade’s character arc, and a touching moment between Jade and Skywalker on a Coruscant rooftop. The rest of the novel, however, is Luke running around planets and getting into trouble, Talon Karrde trying to round up his fellow smugglers to join the Republic’s fight, and Leia giving birth to her twin children. Not that they’re terrible scenes, but they lack the same gravitas of the beginning and the end. The final showdown with Joruus C’baoth also doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, feeling like a weird rehash of the final confrontation with Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. But overall, it’s a solid end to the trilogy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this breakdown of this fine trilogy. If you have any opinions or other analyses about these stories, let me know in the comments section below.