Retro Review: Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Last week, the new book Thrawn by Timothy Zahn came out, a book I didn’t expect to see until it was announced. It hit #2 on the NYT Bestsellers list, so big congratulations to Mr. Zahn. I picked it up, but I wanted to reread the original Thrawn Trilogy first as it’s been about 19 years, and see if it was as good as I remember as a teenager. 

I begin with Heir To The Empire. This is space opera at its finest. Sure, it helps that we already care about Luke, Leia, Han, Lando and Chewie as characters. But even if we didn’t, this book gives us reason to. Han is struggling with going legitimate, Leia is torn between starting a government, being pregnant with twins and potential training as a jedi. Luke is trying to forge a path on his own without mentors for the first time. Lando has a new business venture and is working with the republic. Chewie is Chewie. Good stuff!  But where the book shines is its original characters.

Zahn had to set up a credible threat for post Emperor and Vader in a star wars world, one without copying the two characters. Enter Thrawn. He’s a real tactician, thinking about the long term, not getting caught up in the power, but interested in showing real military prowess. The Empire is described as hurt from Endor, kinda in a role reversal with the rebels where they have to act more as the guerrillas now. It’s an intriguing future for Star Wars, and Thrawn as a character is deep and interesting. Naturally we have a dark Jedi to go along with our imperial tactician, and this guy has his own motives separate and distinct from the Emperor as well.

  But the new characters don’t stop there for interest. Karrde is a crime lord type, and the twist on this end of the galaxy is that he’s got a code of honor. His organization is where we meet Mara Jade, who’s been the dream of fanboys for a generation. This really is the seminal star wars novel, with a cast of characters about as interesting and memorable as the original films themselves, maybe moreso. He took the world, and he truly put a good twist on it, a nice backdrop for the future.

Plot and pacing are as you would expect — fast. There’s a lot of set up in the early chapters but it pays off as the last quarter of the book is a convergence of wall to wall action. My only critique here is it’s a little bit “oh I guess we’ll head here real quick before going to Coruscant” coincidence for all the characters to end up in the same place for a battle, but that’s fine. I can chalk that up to the force guiding the way.

But it’s pretty deep. We have our heroes all set out for their own separate motivations, making this a deeper work than the Star Wars trilogy, where they all kinda were forced into one simple battle each movie (other than Empire). Leia has her mission, Han has his plans, Luke is distinct and separate. They end up together in the end but with their own journeys.

What’s really interesting is the way Zahn takes away Luke’s force powers for a lot of the ground battle. He shows Luke’s innate talents to us as a scrappy fighter, something that we get hints of in the trilogy but we’re told it’s reliance on the force that gets him his lucky victories. I enjoyed the way Luke took down the imperials while “blinded” as he said. 

But what was most enjoyable was the end space battle. It was written perfectly, with a twist to objectives so it didn’t end up standard blow up pew pew. The Empire wanted to steal ships, not destroy them, and the way the New Republic was able to fend it off both had consequences and is refreshing. Thrawn made a point to not go all in over a small objective, furthering his distinction from the Emperor and showing that he is a threat for books to come.

Honestly, Heir to the Empire should be used as a primer for writers for character, depth, plot and pacing, and exciting action/adventure story. It’s got everything, and very little in the way of failings. Amazing work. It shows that tie-in novels can be just as good or better than other books. It not only holds up but I might say this is one of the best books of all time, and better than any individual Star Wars film. Onto book two!

4 thoughts on “Retro Review: Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

  1. I remember Razorfist mentioning this in one of his videos. Always wanted to know why he made mention of it over the many other EU Star Wars titles, and now I see why. Thanks for the review it, Jon.

  2. Pingback: SENSOR SWEEP: Indefatigable Passion, Infinite Wells, Consensual Storytelling, and Literary Respectability – castaliahouse.com

  3. Pingback: Retro Review: Star Wars: Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn | The Writings of Jon Del Arroz

  4. Amazing review and one I completely agree with. Heir to the Empire is such a perfect piece of Star Wars fiction that manages to capture all of the original trilogy’s fun but in what felt like a slightly more adult way. The characters felt more themselves than in virtually any other piece of fiction. Thrawn is an amazing villain and it also gave us Mara Jade. Joruus C’Boath seems a bit corny comparison but in the case of Zahn, that’s noted to be a result of his insanity and it cripples him rather than emboldens.

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