(2017) Timothy Zahn, Century, £20, hrdbk, 427pp, ISBN 978-1-780-89484-3
Reading Timothy Zahnís 'Heir to the Empire' trilogy in the 1990s was a formative experience for me in my reintroduction to science fiction. I had, as a younger boy, read everything the library had to offer stop that included all of the Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip Josť Farmer, Larry Niven, and Harry Harrison I could lay my hands on. However, in my late teenage years, I had a disposable income and went to the local bookshop in search of different fare.
Star Wars seemed to pervade the early 1990s, with a plethora of new editions of the films, and a selection of computer games. At that time, Star Trek filled an entire shelf of the science fiction section, but Star Wars did not. Zahnís work changed all that. His trilogy of novels opened the doors for a selection of writers to entertain eager fans of the Skywalkers and their cosmopolitan friends.
Licensed fiction like this can be hit or miss. There were always good Star Wars novels and bad Star Wars novels. Those of us who loved reading and the fictional universe, chalked up the not so goods with a shrug of the shoulders and moved on.
It was perhaps one of the most painful parts of the decision to remove these novels from the Star Wars canon taken by Disney in the 2014 rebranding, that Timothy Zahnís work was rendered obsolete. Many fans saw his trilogy as the next story of Luke, Leia and Han. Prior to this, here was even talk of the 'Heir to the Empire Trilogy' being the story on which director J. J. Abrams should base his new films.
This might explain why Timothy is and was invited back to reimagine his signature character, Grand Admiral Thrawn as a part of the new official canon. At first glance, his new tome does this character justice. Star Wars: Thrawn is a beautiful book and the story inside delivers entirely on what fans of Zahnís work may have been craving. Here we have a narration that covers all of Thrawn's early career in the Imperial Navy. The slavish focus on this one character is very important. In Thrawn, Zahn created something unique. He was able to construct a character who feels every bit as iconic as the film characters. This is evidenced by the characters use across the Star Wars franchise. Thrawn has featured in computer games and in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. However, it is in his own novel that Thrawn shines as the calculating and rational protagonist who operates in a position that lends the Galactic Empire a sense of greyness. Thrawn is not a binary character. Whilst he was used by is an as the villain of his original trilogy, here he is very much the military officer solving problems that other corrupt officials in the Empire try to place in his way.
This shift enables Zahn to portray whatGeorge Lucas determined as a military enemy led by a decaying dictator as something more interesting. Granted, there are definite clues that Zahn works from when looking at the films. Imperial characters in the movies appear and disappear, but often seem to have lives and agendas of their own. Thrawn is a more detailed example, made more interesting by him being nonhuman and clearly the strongest intellect in the book.
At times, Zahn makes use of Vanto as a Watson to Thrawnís Holmes. The different obstacles they encounter are overcome by a mixture of intelligent thinking and targeted violence. For the most part, the Empire is portrayed as a progressive force, solving problems throughout the galaxy rather than acting as the aggressor. Indeed, the fleeting portrayals of rebels and revolutionaries are depicted as misguided and flawed in their outlook. However, with both the Emperor and Darth Vader much removed from this work (the latter only being mentioned), this professional portrayal of the Imperial military structure is much easier to achieve. It also fits in with the mood of modern fans who have continued to demonstrate their affiliation for all things related to Star Wars' Imperial culture.
Thrawn rises through the ranks gradually as the book progresses. This allows Zahn to expand the scale of his scenes and situations as is titular character becomes more and more powerful within the Galactic Empire. There are some clever additional perspectives that play out towards the end of this process. One or two characters, such as Arihnda, Moff Ghadi and Yularen are developed early and resolved later when required. This gives the story texture and layers beyond the ranked progress of Thrawn, and breaks up some of the different obstacle based scenes.
Zahn is writing is as economical and accurate as ever. The scenes are descriptive and evocative in equal measure, drawing on the residual imagination of our favourite movie franchise. If there is a weakness, it lies in Thrawnís true agenda. This is not particularly well realised in this book, but heís hinted at. The closing scenes do hint at the possibility of a sequel that will make further use of the principal characters in another work.
In summary, welcome back to Star Wars Timothy Zahn. Star Wars really, really missed you.
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