Heir to the Empire
Series: Thrawn Trilogy 1
Reviewed date: 2019 Mar 15
Timothy Zahn writes like Isaac Asimov. Clear, unimpeded prose that tells a story so effortlessly you forget it's being told at all. The author lets the story tell itself. It's tempting to dismiss this as a lack of artistry but actually it's supreme mastery of the craft.
Zahn references specific scenes and events in the Star Wars movies and gives them deeper meaning. In particular, I like how he explained the Emperor's direct involvement in controlling the Imperial fleet. It was the Emperor's use of the Force to directly control the fleet and enhanced the fleet's performance that allowed the Empire so many victories. That explains why Grand Admiral Thrawn seeks out a dark Jedi to complement his own forces in the fight against the New Republic.>
Grand Admiral Thrawn
All the cool villains were killed in the movies, so Zahn invents a new, very different bad guy. Grand Admiral Thrawn is not a dark Jedi and he doesn't lead through fear and intimidation. He treats his lieutenants with respect and they follow him because he has demonstrated his capability as a war strategist. Thrawn studies art; specifically, he studies art to gain insight into the culture of his enemies, and he exploits cultural weaknesses and blind spots to win victories for the Empire.
Destabilize and Delay
For all his miliary genius, Thrawn is limited by a lack of resources. He simply doesn't have the warships or the personnel to mount a serious action against the New Republic. So he distracts the New Republic by manipulating their politics. A few strings pulled, a few prods, and suddenly the factions in the fledgling republic are bickering amongst themselves. The Bothans decide they simply can't stand Admiral Ackbar and the rest of the Mon Calamari and that Mon Mothma is setting herself up as a new dictator. The partisanship severely hampers the New Republic.
Thrawn conducts a series of hit-and-fade raids against New Republic worlds--not enough to scare the various factions into uniting against a common enemy, but enough to manipulate them into consolidating a large number of stripped-down capital ships around the shipyards at Sluis Van.
Capital ships that Thrawn intends to steal.
Spoiler alert: he fails.
Meanwhile, Thrawn also finds a dark Jedi, Joruus C'baoth, and enlists his help. At first C'baoth wants nothing to do with the Empire, but he agrees to help when Thawn offers to capture Jedi pupils for him to instruct: Luke, Leia, and Leia's twin babies. C'baoth joins the Empire and uses his dark side Force powers to increase the efficiency of Thrawn's fleet during battle. At first C'baoth is clearly a servant of Thrawn, but by the third book, C'baoth's powers have increased such that he expects to lead the new Empire with Thrawn as his servant.
Mara Jade and Talon Karrde
Zahn also introduces two great characters on the side of the good guys. Mara Jade is a Force-sensitive special agent called the Emperor's Hand. She wants to kill Luke Skywalker to avenge the death of her master the Emperor, but eventually learns to let go of her hatred and serve the New Republic. Talon Karrde is Han Solo crossed with Lando Calrissian, but successful. He runs a profitable shipping and smuggling operation, and although his sympathies lie with the New Republic, his business operates in both Republic and Imperial territory and he can't afford to officially take sides. Karrde's official neutrality buys him a little more time than Lando's deal with Empire at Cloud City, but not much more. Fortunately Karrde has a trump card: he knows the location of the Katana fleet.
The Katana fleet. Also known as the Dark Force. It was a fleet of 200 dreadnaughts lost in space years ago. The fleet is a treasure that would turn the tide of the war. The Empire wants it. The New Republic wants it. And this is when I realized I'd read this plot before. In The Blackcollar. By Timothy Zahn. Yes, Timothy Zahn stole a plot point from himself. I guess a true master steals from the best, especially if the best is yourself. Nice.
A plethora of characters
My chief complaint (my only complaint really) is the overabundance of characters. Everyone from the movies gets their own bits. So we have all Zahn's new characters (Thrawn, Pellaeon, C'baoth, Mara Jade, and Talon Karrde) but we also have Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and Wedge. That's a lot of characters. I found the parts involving Thrawn and the Imperials to be compelling and focused. The adventures of the good guys were less compelling because they were so unfocused--on the New Republic side Zahn was juggling three or four subplots at a time simply because that's how many characters he had to find adventures for. At least that's my interpretation. To his credit, Zahn makes everything work. I just wish the New Republic storylines were as gripping as the Thrawn parts.
I first read the Thrawn trilogy in 1996 or thereabouts. I was afraid it wouldn't stand up to my recollection; so many amazing books from my teenage years turn out to be real duds when I re-read them as a more experienced adult reader. Not these. Timothy Zahn's trilogy is a masterpiece. It's Hugo-worthy. I haven't read all the competition for those years, but after a quick look at the list, I think Heir to the Empire would get my vote for the 1992 Hugo, Dark Force Rising would lose out to Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, and in 1994 The Last Command would get my vote over Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, David Brin's Glory Season, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars (which I haven't read but I gave up on Red Mars so I'm not gonna give Green Mars a shot.)
Space and the Future Award
I can't go back in time and correct the Hugo Awards, but I can give out my own award. Today I announce that the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn is the winner of the inaugural Space and the Future Award for Best Series.
(It's a bit of a cheat, though, because the books are actually set "a long time ago" rather than in the future.)