I need to preface this with a full disclosure. I really like almost anything Timothy Zahn writes. He never dazzles me with prose or weakens me with emotional tension. He never writes anything that leaves me speechless in awe at the end. What he does, and does fantastically well, is give me a handful of characters that feel like old friends and give them some curiously difficult problems to solve.
With Timothy Zahn much of the fun of his books is not seeing what will happen but seeing how it will happen.
In 1992 the world had been absent of any significant Star Wars influence for nearly a decade. The last movie had come out seven years earlier, no (Star Wars) novels had been published in at least that long. Timothy Zahn entered the scene, writing Star Wars, not as a no-name author trying to make a dollar but as a Hugo winning science fiction author ready to tell a story in George Lucas’s universe. Applying his signature style of twists and turns and unexpected plot developments Zahn shoved Luke, Leia and Han into a series of puzzles that would take all their skill, panache and even considerable luck to get out of.
The arrival of Heir to the Empire started a trilogy of books, in the grand tradition of the original story. It also sparked a wave of Star Wars novels that grew into a towering behemoth that continues to this day — becoming a genre all to itself. Sadly, every work of Star Wars fiction (including the newest three movies) has tried to capture the magic of Timothy Zahn’s initial trilogy of books.
They’ve all failed to one degree or another because Zahn did Star Wars better than Star Wars did.
If Star Wars (let’s just ignore Episodes I, II, and III) is examined too closely it begins to fall apart really fast. That’s okay because we don’t watch Star Wars because the plot is full of intriguing ideas. We watch Star Wars because it has Han Solo, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker and it has lightsabers and spaceships.
What Timothy Zahn did was take that core of characters, sprinkled in some of the other memorable ones like Admiral “It’s a Trap” Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, Lando Calrissian and of course Chewbacca and the droids and told a story about them. What he got right were the characters. Zahn’s specialty is memorable and likable characters, those were given to him. All he had to do was sound like them and he is the only author to date who has succeeded at that venture.
But Zahn didn’t stop there. He threw in a handful of his own characters and this, I think is the key to why his books are the best ones. All the authors to come after have created their own characters. Those characters show up only in other books by that same author (mostly — later on the trend started of bringing back every single character ever mentioned in every medium to act as a villain). Zahn’s characters, Fey’lya, Mara, Karrde, Thrawn, Pellaeon, show up all the time because they fit. Each one of them has enough charisma, gumption and power to stand up with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker without looking like shadow puppets.
To top it off Zahn drops all of these characters into a story that mostly makes sense and then throws increasingly difficult problems at them to see how they’ll handle it.
Thrawn is a conceit that only works in the hands of Zahn, other authors have tried and it always comes across as stupid. He is some kind of tactical and strategical super genius who can discern what his opponents will do by studying the popular art of their home world. This makes no sense really, but Zahn sells it so well that it’s hard to realize that until the book is over and firmly back on the shelf. Thrawn is devious and makes leaps of logic based on observation that would have left Sherlock Holmes open-mouthed in surprise.
There are new planets, new technologies, super wily trickery politicians, assassins, some Force-cancelling animals, smugglers, pirates, space battles, political machinations, Jedi tricks, Jedi moral dilemmas, Wookies, jungle chases, wild animal attacks, a decoy Millenium Falcon, and a new Grand Admiral able to see the big picture and play his chess game twelve moves ahead.
And that’s just the first book.
I’ve read this book before, multiple times. Sometimes a book just needs to be read again. I stopped reading Star Wars a couple years ago when Han and Leia spent three hundred pages at a stock show and I just couldn’t take the terrible terrible things that lesser authors had done to this universe.
Star Wars will never be what it was. Episodes I – III have ruined that for us. It’s no longer fun. It’s no longer free of heavy handed political statements, it’s no longer acted by real people or written by human beings. When George Lucas lowered the standards of all movies by releasing the rough draft of a middle school child’s script at the turn of the century he unofficially gave permission for everything that came after to follow suit.
But if Star Wars cannot be the fun and thoughtless story of a Jedi trying to bring justice to the galaxy by only saving his friends and the heartless genocidal father he never knew, then at least I can go back to a time when it was. I can watch the old movies and I can read Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of books and they belong together because what Zahn has done might even be better than the original work that inspired them. Because he’s that good.
These will always be the true successors to Episode VI in my mind. Nothing will ever change that.