Reading Challenge #88: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

It’s reading challenge time again! This time I’ll be sharing my thoughts on #88, The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, originally published in 1991. This is a rare find for this challenge – part of a large series of novels licensed to expand on a movie franchise, as opposed to the many novels on the challenge list that eventually got made into movies.

I have been looking forward to reading this book (series) for a while now. In fact, the weight of other people’s opinions and my own expectations actually made me delay starting this book a bit. What if I hate it? What if it doesn’t live up to the hype? Eventually though, my own curiosity and honest desire to see what all the fuss was about won out and I got started. I only read the first book, Heir to the Empire. As with the Elric saga, I suspect I’ll want to pick up the rest of this story once I am finished with this challenge list but it didn’t quite grab me enough to convince me to get sidetracked from my goal for it.

This first novel in the Thrawn trilogy takes place after the events in the movie Return of the Jedi. There’s no way to place it into context with the newest films since the entire Extended Universe of these old Star Wars novels has been declared non-canon. This was unexpectedly off-putting for me while I was reading. I felt like I was reading a piece of fan fiction instead of a professional, sanctioned novel simply because I knew up front that the world in this book is no longer connected in any way to the events in the ongoing movies. Sure, the new movies are going through and systematically lifting some of the choicest bits from the Extended Universe, but the specific events and specific characters and their reactions in this novel are no longer tied to the greater cinematic universe.

In this novel, Leia has been training with Luke to become a Jedi herself. She is also pregnant with force-sensitive twins, representing a potential rebirth for the Jedi order. The New Republic is established as the new government for at least part of the galaxy, and the remnants of the Empire are trying to fight its expansion. The main antagonist of the story is Admiral Thrawn, whose keen strategic thinking keeps him a step ahead of our heroes for much of the book. I can see why Thrawn is so memorable as a villain, he’s smart and calculating and poses a true threat to the Republic. Unlike many movie villains, Thrawn also knows when a battle is lost, and chooses to save his forces and regroup instead of lashing out. That move definitely raised him in my esteem.

Throughout the book Thrawn is slowly drawing together several threads of his plan to defeat the Republic. Some of these come to fruition in this novel, while others are left hanging for the other two books in the trilogy. While he is thinking on a grand scale, the story also becomes personally perilous for Luke and Leia. Thrawn enters into a bargain with a dark jedi, promising to hand them over in exchange for help coordinating the fleet’s attacks using the force. Both bounty hunters and squads of lethal aliens under Thrawn’s command are hunting both Luke and Leia.

One of the people hunting Luke in particular, for her own reasons, is fan-favorite Mara Jade. I can only imagine that she does some awesome stuff in the later books, because I didn’t really like her much in this one. She spent most of the book brooding, with a planet-sized chip on her shoulder. Sure, I wanted to find out what her deal was with Luke, and her hatred was probably justified. After all that build-up, though, I’m still not sure why exactly she never just orchestrated an “accident” to kill him on the many occasions she had the opportunity. Something about honor? It never came across clearly.

The book ends almost immediately after the climatic space battle, with a fairly major cliffhanger. It threw me off a bit, mostly because my copy had a hefty excerpt from the 2nd book tacked on at the end so I didn’t realize I was so close to being finished. Zahn did a good job of making me want to see what happens next with Thrawn’s plan, but not quite good enough to get me to dig into the second book right away. Overall, Heir to the Empire felt like a huge disappointment mostly because it had been hyped up so much over the years. I believe I would have loved it if I had read this back in the 90’s when I was both younger and desperate for any new continuation of my beloved Star Wars. Now it’s just a reasonably decent “what-if” story set in that universe.

TL;DR: It’s essentially high-quality fan fiction at this point. It was okay but I’m sad it didn’t remotely live up to the hype. I wish I had read it back when it was first published.

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Rating: 3/5 stars

Verdict: Great for die-hard Star Wars fans but I’m not sure it’s a must-read in a post-The Force Awakens world. If you don’t love Star Wars (what’s wrong with you???) you can definitely skip it.

Next up: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

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