Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Great Library: Star Wars: The Heir To The Empire Trilogy

Previously in The Great Library, we looked at String Theory, a web comic about a physicist headed down the path towards supervillainy.  Today on Nerd Up, we return to the Great Library to discuss a series of science fiction novels set in the expanded universe of Star Wars.  It is not unusual for many science fiction and fantasy intellectual properties that begin as a film to have novelizations based off of the original property.  Sometimes, there are officially expanded product universes created containing comic books, animated television shows, additional films, toys, video games, clothing, and just about anything else you can think of with the purpose of expanding upon the original story, enhancing the immersion into the fictional world, and making the intellectual property rights holders a lot of money.

The Star Wars universe is certainly no exception to this, and in fact the term Expanded Universe is used to refer to the entirety of the officially licensed background material produced outside of the (currently, as of the time of this writing) six feature films.  While we’re not going to go too in-depth about specific details here, the ghost writer of the novelization of “A New Hope” published the first novel in the Expanded Universe, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, in 1978 and there were also comics published during this time that contained material set in the Star Wars universe that was not directly originated from the main films.  All told, there have been over one hundred novels and multiple comics, animated series, and video games which comprise the Expanded Universe.

The Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn, also known as the Thrawn trilogy based on the name of one of the primary characters, has sold over 15 million copies since its first print, and it was responsible for bringing new interest to the Star Wars universe nearly a decade after Return of the Jedi was released in (1983).  Set roughly five years after the death of Emperor Palpatine and the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, it is a direct continuation of the events in Episodes IV, V, and VI, and features many of the characters from the original movies as well as multiple groups of new characters.  The surviving forces of the Galactic Empire are now being led by the lone remaining Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, the previously unknown Grand Admiral Thrawn.  The Rebel Alliance has now begun to move away from the temporary organization during the rebellion and is attempting to create a new government, the New Republic, to once again bring peace to the galaxy.  I’m going to attempt to avoid discussing spoilers here, but that won’t be entirely possible considering these books are now over twenty years old and the characters and subjects contained within have been mentioned elsewhere, some even within Episodes I, II, and III.

Star Wars: Heir To The Empire (1991)



The first novel, Heir to the Empire, begins the story arc with the closing of an arc from the original three films.  A quick look at the cover shows that Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca are still around, as are Imperial storm troopers.  All of these characters are more than familiar to anyone who has watched the original films.  There are two new figures shown on the cover as well: the person dressed all in white is Grand Admiral Thrawn, the leader of the remaining Imperial forces; there is also a mysterious bearded figure dressed in robes with light issuing from his hands.  Just who is the heir to the Empire?  Luke Skywalker, the son of Darth Vader?  Perhaps his sister, Princess Leia?  The Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy, Thrawn?  Or maybe there is another key Imperial figure which we have not been introduced to at this time.  Also present on the cover art, albeit on the side of the book, are C3-P0 and R2-D2, who show up on the side art on each of the three books.  A flight of X-wings streak through the sky as well… perhaps the infamous Rogue Squadron and Wedge Antilles?  Read the novels and find out.

Perhaps the greatest feature of this series, Heir To The Empire included, is that Zahn has managed to replicate the feel of the original three films.  The pacing of the story has a similar feel to the movies, with scene changes between different characters to continually progress the story.  The original characters are continuations of their film based counterparts, which is something that does not always happen in this type of expanded fantasy universe.  There are both familiar and new settings, and they all feel like they belong within the same universe.  The plot builds on the story from the first three films while standing on its own as a separate story as well.  With the death of the Emperor and destruction of the second Death Star, the Alliance forces now have the upper hand.  How could Grand Admiral Thrawn turn things around so drastically in such a short amount of time?  Again, read the novels and find out.

Star Wars: Dark Force Rising (1992)

The second novel, Dark Force Rising, has a darker feel to it than the first book, in much the same dynamic as existed between The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope.  Grand Admiral Thrawn has rallied the Imperial forces and is striking back against the forces of the New Republic; Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Leia strive to bring new allies to the side of the Republic to help defeat the Empire; and Luke Skywalker faces another personal struggle with the Dark Side of the force.  A quick look at the cover shows Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker – along with the Millennium Falcon – are present and fighting against Grand Admiral Thrawn, his fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers, and their accompanying TIE fighters.  Absent from this cover but present on the cover of the first novel are Chewbacca and the mysterious bearded, robed man.  Not much else can be said about the second novel without introducing spoilers to the first story or giving away the plot of the second, but the plot is further developed and is building up to the culmination in the final novel.

Star Wars: The Last Command (1993)

The final novel in the trilogy, The Last Command, sees the conclusion of the events in the trilogy.  The cover art features a robed Skywalker facing off in a lightsaber battle against an unidentified red-haired woman in combat camouflage, Han Solo with Princess Leia on his arm, and the mysterious bearded, robed man present again.  Once again there is no Chewbacca, but this time there is no Grand Admiral Thrawn either.  Can Luke win his battle against the forces of the Dark Side, and will he ever be able to bring about the restoration of the Jedi Order?  Can the new allies that Han and Leia have striven to bring into the fold swing the war back to the side of the Alliance, or will Thrawn and the forces of the Imperial Fleet overwhelm the New Republic and restore the dominance of the Empire over the known galaxy once again?  While I do not want to spoil anything, you should know that events in this story span back to pre-Rebellion and even pre-Empire times, and references are made to the Old Republic, the old Jedi Order, and events during the Clone Wars.  The trilogy may come to an end, but the story is far from over.

As we previously mentioned, the Heir To The Empire trilogy was credited with reviving interest in the Star Wars universe after it had been declining from a decade of no new material received by the mainstream public.  When the original film trilogy was digitally remade and then the prequel film trilogy was released, several items which were first seen or named in the Heir To The Empire trilogy were incorporated into the film including a new type of ship, the name “Coruscant” for the Imperial capital planet, and perhaps an unmentioned character appearance or two at various points.  The films also introduced many other things found in various Expanded Universe sources, helping to create the feeling of a truly expanded universe from that found in the six theatrical releases.

However, despite the efforts of Lucas Licensing to avoid factual incongruities, it is nearly impossible to do so with so many authors and directors working in such a diverse pool of media.  The most glaring issue in the Heir To The Empire trilogy is a bungling of the timeline of the Clone Wars as given in the prequel film trilogy that contradicts with the timeline that Lucas had given to Zahn when he wrote this novel trilogy.  This incongruity was resolved after the fact by attributing the differences in the dates given to a different reckoning of years by the species that mentioned the events in the novel trilogy, but anyone who had seen the prequel film trilogy before reading the Heir To The Empire trilogy might be a bit confused when trying to place the timeline together.  The new sequel film trilogy that is being made might also destroy the events of the stories that Zahn has written, but we can only hope that this does not happen.  The Heir To The Empire trilogy was so well written that it could have easily been the sequel trilogy, although doing that now with all of the actors aged thirty years instead of only five might look slightly ridiculous.

Zahn’s story and the characters introduced in it are not isolated from the rest of the Expanded Universe.  The Old Republic’s failed galactic exploratory mission known as Outbound Flight, and the Jedi Masters who were on that mission, are featured in another novel written by Zahn.  Grand Admiral Thrawn, as well as the other new characters introduced in the trilogy, return in Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, the two of which comprise the story of The Hand of Thrawn, which were also written by Timothy Zahn.  Other newly introduced characters, including the lightsaber-wielding red-head from the cover of The Last Command, reappear in other Expanded Universe works by other authors.  The story told in Heir To The Empire lives on beyond the novels, just as the original film trilogy did.

I personally really enjoyed these novels, and I recommend that anyone who enjoyed the original trilogy read these books.  I first read these three novels in 1995, several years after they had been written but before the digital remastering of the original film trilogy was released, and I felt strongly at the time that this was the way that these characters would have progressed if the events of the story had come to pass.  This is contrary to my reaction when watching the prequel film trilogy, where I was constantly wondering why certain characters were taking certain actions, or why certain things were transpiring the way that was being set out in the story.  Having been disappointed with the prequel trilogy of films, I would suggest that people read the Heir To The Empire trilogy before the upcoming sequel trilogy is released to avoid the possibility that the new films will not be consistent with the story told in the novels and thus make reading the novels later more confusing and the story less enjoyable.

Heir To The Empire: 20th Anniversary Edition (2011)

The original printings of the three Heir To The Empire novels may be difficult to find now, 20 years later, but a 20 year anniversary edition was released that is available from retailers online and might be available at your local bookstores as well.  The books are also available as eBooks and audio books, if that is your preferred method of procurement.  Whatever method you choose, I highly recommend that you  read these stories if you are a fan of Star Wars.

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