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Retro Review: HEIR TO THE EMPIRE by Timothy Zahn

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Thrawn Heir Cover

Heir to the Empire
Written by Timothy Zahn
Published by Del Rey in June 1991
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0553296129

I have a confession to make. Though I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a Star Wars fan, I have only ever read two of the dozens of novels that make up the Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU). Until now, that is.

I knew the gist of the adventures of the Skywalker-Solo family post-Return of the Jedi, of course. My family owns an extremely ragged copy of Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Characters. And my older sister read most of the EU novels and turned them into some pretty kick-ass bedtime stories (thanks, sis!). But somehow, I never got around to actually reading the novels themselves.

This is, of course, an incredibly dumb move on my part and I very much recognize that.

Published in 1991, Heir to the Empire was the first of Timothy Zahn’s many Star Wars novels and the first novel to be given the Lucasfilm stamp of approval. Its importance to the fandom cannot be overstated. Up until that point, devotees of the galaxy far, far away had very little official content, outside of the original trilogy and some roleplaying games. And the Star Wars Holiday Special, which is … well, it’s a thing that exists, that’s for sure.

Yeah. That happened, alright.

Heir to the Empire landed on bookstore shelves with a bang, hitting the New York Times bestseller list and kicking the door wide open for a steady stream of novels, comics, and official (and unofficial) guides. Characters Zahn introduced were taken up by other writers and several, such as the indomitable Mara Jade, have become beloved fan favorites. The fact that Disney relegated most EU content to the non-canon realm of “Legends” has done little to dim that passion. And even Disney doesn’t seem able to keep the EU too far away, considering that Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn will be appearing in the upcoming season of Star Wars Rebels.

With that reveal, and with last year’s The Force Awakens and this year’s Rogue One keeping Star Wars firmly in the zeitgeist, I thought it was high time I rectify my lifelong mistake and take a dive into Heir to the Empire. Also, I am a dyed-in-the-wool Han/Leia shipper and the end of Force Awakens was therefore the absolute worst and I’ve decided to jump into a fantasy wherein that … just … didn’t happen ….

Yeah, this sadness right here? Didn't happen. DO YOU HEAR ME, DISNEY? [Courtesy Disney]
Yeah, this sadness right here? Didn’t happen. DO YOU HEAR ME, DISNEY? [Courtesy Disney]
Look, if Disney gets to just decide willy-nilly what is and is not canon, then I can, too, right? RIGHT?

Ahem. Anyway ….

Always one to be thorough, I read the novel in paper form and also listened to the unabridged audiobook, released in 2011 for the book’s 20th anniversary and read by well-known voice actor Marc Thompson. There is also an abridged audiobook, released in 1991, but abridged audiobooks are an abomination upon the Earth and I refuse to acknowledge their existence.

So I’ll be reviewing the novel and the only audiobook that exists, okay?

Okay.

In an effort to help out those who, like me, are just really discovering the EU, I’ll start with a fairly non-spoilery review and then give fair warning before a spoiler-tastic section.

Non-Spoilery Plot and Such

Heir opens five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Rebel Alliance has become The New Republic. Han Solo and Leia Organa are now married and expecting twins. Luke Skywalker is still being Jedi-tastic. Everything is just peachy and they all lived happily ever after, the end, goodbye!

Well, not really. While the Republic is growing everyday, it remains fragile and rife with political tension. And out on the borders of the galaxy, the Empire is rudely refusing to die. Instead, it seems to be gathering strength again under the leadership of a mysterious new commander.

That leader is Grand Admiral Thrawn, an enigmatic, blue-skinned tactical genius determined to restore the Empire to its former glory.

Thrawn, as he appears in Star Wars Rebels. [Courtesy Disney]
Thrawn, as he appears in Star Wars Rebels. [Courtesy Disney]
The beginning of Heir sees Thrawn visiting the obscure planet of Myrkr, home to classy smuggler and all-round baller Talon Karrde. The planet is also home to yslamiri, tree-dwelling creatures who create bubbles wherein the mystical Force is rendered inert. Thrawn takes some yslamiri to another planet, Wayland, which was old Emperor Palpatine’s personal weapons storehouse. It’s also the residence of the mentally unstable and frankly quite creepy Joruus C’baoth, a Dark Force-using clone of a long-dead Jedi Master. Thrawn convinces Joruus to help coordinate the Imperial fleet using his (again, really quite creepy) powers. In return, Thrawn promises to provide Joruus with new apprentices to train in the ways of the Dark Side — namely, Luke, Leia, and Leia’s unborn children.

Me @ Thrawn all the time

This kicks off a trans-planetary adventure as Han, Luke, and Leia attempt to thwart the Grand Admiral’s plans while avoiding his kidnappers. Talon Karrde also gets pulled into the mix, not just by Thrawn, but also by his second-in-command, the all-round badass Mara Jade, who desperately wants to murder Luke Skywalker in his horrible face. (Her words, not mine. Probably.)

“‘You happened to me,’ she told him, her voice more fatigued than embittered. ‘You came out of a grubby sixth-rate farm on a tenth-rate planet, and destroyed my life.'”- Actual Mara Jade quote.

Joining the fray are all the Star Wars characters you know and love: C3PO, R2D2 (written as Artoo), Lando Calrissian, even X-Wing ace Wedge Antilles.

Aside from its immense contribution to the Star Wars universe, Heir proves a solid science fiction novel. Zahn’s world building is certainly one of the main strengths of his writing. He teases details from the original film trilogy and fleshes them out with a plethora of believable detail, taking the Lucas’ screen models and turning them into functional machines, complete with their own quirks and techno-jargon.

Timothy Zahn, seen here being a great SciFi author. [Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
Timothy Zahn, seen here being a great SciFi author. [Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]
People and places get the same treatment. Heir takes readers to several different planets, each with a distinct environment and personality. Like the short-lived Firefly TV series, Zahn doesn’t shy away from the grittier, more realistic elements of a futuristic galaxy. We see plenty more aliens than in the original trilogy and each species has its own history and culture. (Though to be fair, it certainly helps that Zahn isn’t limited by the constraints of 1970s special effects.) Lucas gave us the war. Zahn gives us the universe in which the war took place.

Heir is told from several different viewpoints, including the Imperial Captain Pellaeon, smuggler Karrde, Mara Jade, and our familiar heroes. While so many POVs might be confusing, Zahn balances them with ease, creating authentic and individual voices for every character.

That being said, the prose is somewhat simplistic in parts. In others, Zahn can go a little too far with the techno-babble; there were times I found myself skimming passages to see when we’d get back to the actual plot. But this didn’t occur very often. Overall, things clip along at a good pace, keeping the audience turning pages right till the end.

Han, Luke, and Chewie from The Empire Strikes Back. He also gives us plenty of Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewie being just plain fantastic. [Courtesy StarWars.com]
He also gives us plenty of Han, Luke, Leia, and Chewie being just plain fantastic. [Courtesy StarWars.com]
The audiobook, meanwhile, takes a good book and gives it an extremely fun twist. It’s a quality production that uses music and sound effects from the original films to pull the listener right back into that familiar galaxy. But the music and effects are only a backdrop to Marc Thompson’s impressive performance. Thompson provides unique and recognizable voices for each and every character, no matter how brief their appearance. He has solid imitations of the characters we already know. And his pace is easy to follow without being too slow (a common narration trap).

My only (minor) quibble is with his voices for Leia and Mara Jade. Both have higher pitched voices than I would imagine. Leia, in particular, sounds far less surefooted and determined than Carrie Fisher’s performance. But again, this is a minor concern. While annoying at times, it doesn’t take too much away from an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

Okay, are you ready for spoilers?

I SAID, ARE YOU READY FOR SPOILERS????

Because I used INTERNET YELLING LETTERS so if you read spoilers, it’s not my fault.

Damn straight.

Some More Minor Quibbles

I want to get these out of the way first because they really are very minor. And really, there’s only one and that’s Zahn’s reliance on references to the original film trilogy. I don’t have a problem with it overall. The references do help settle the reader back into the Star Wars world, reminding you that yes, you really are at home here. But he could have cut the number of references by a third and still done the job just as well.

Wow, glad I got that off my chest! Now onto gushing. Because this book is just a heap of fun.

Things I’m Going to Gush About

Zahn does an excellent job of getting into the heads of established characters and continuing what Lucas and company began. Luke really seems like Luke, Leia really seems like Leia, etc. In fact, they seem almost more so, since we’re finally getting a peek into their inner thoughts.

Zahn’s original characters are just as multifaceted and interesting. We only see Thrawn, for example, through the eyes of Captain Pellaeon and Talon Karrde. This gives plenty of opportunity for readers to observe him while keeping him a very enigmatic and very intriguing villain.

Talon Karrde is, as I said, smooth and totally baller. And Mara Jade is … well ….

Me, when Mara Jade does literally anything.

She’s just SO GREAT, GUYS. Like, I just can’t even with her. She’s capable and badass, but we also get to see the vulnerable, barely-holding-it-together-at-times side of herself that she hides so effectively from the world. My favorite chapters, hands down, are following Mara and Luke through the predator-infested forest of Mrykr, as Luke tries very hard to be polite and helpful and she tries very hard to keep from murdering him every time he does so.

Actual scene from the book (probably):

Luke: *breathes*

Mara: I WILL LITERALLY MURDER YOU IN YOUR FACE RIGHT NOW, I SWEAR TO GOD.

I must confess, the “enemies to friends to lovers” trope is a favorite of mine, so this whole Mara/Luke budding relationship is basically my shipping drug of choice. And it is, quite frankly, glorious and amazing and I will bask in its light forever and ever.

Sorry, was that too strong? Well, too bad, I don’t care. MARA X LUKE 4EVER.

On a slightly less crazy note, I also very much enjoyed Leia and Chewie’s time on Kashyyk, the Wookie homeworld. Princess Leia was one of my idols growing up. So getting to see her move capably through a storyline independent of Luke and Han was awesome.

SPOILERS END HERE.

In case you couldn’t tell from my gushing, Heir to the Empire is a solid A+ of a book, well deserving of its exalted position in both the Star Wars universe and the science fiction genre. I’m very much looking forward to reading the next installment of the EU, Dark Force Rising.

Current editions of Heir to the Empire are available through most major booksellers. The audiobook is similarly available through major audiobook providers.

And while you’re hanging around, check out our other Star Wars coverage or previous Retro Reviews.

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