The Empire Just Won’t Quit: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

This weekend, Star Wars’ Skywalker saga is poised for a grand finale with the release of its ninth installment, The Rise of Skywalker. The tie-in fiction, trailers, and press previews have already given us hints about what we’re going to see. We can, of course, expect the obligatory space battles, chase scenes, lightsaber duels and plenty of pew-pew-pew. But, despite the fact the Emperor was overthrown long ago, efforts to resurrect the Empire are ongoing, and it seems he is far from defeated. There are hints that, on the fringes of explored space, a long-forgotten fleet of ships may be lurking, ready to do his bidding. All of this puts me in mind of another story set in the Star Wars universe—one that appeared not on the big screen, but in the form of the Thrawn trilogy, tie-in novels written by Timothy Zahn. So, as kind of a tie-in review column, since I haven’t seen the new movie yet, I’ve decided to look back at this other important moment in Star Wars history…

In the early 1990s, Zahn became widely known both within and beyond the science fiction community for a trilogy of Star Wars novels: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. The books became known as the Thrawn Trilogy, taking the name from one of its major characters, an alien Admiral who served the Empire. They became huge successes, reaching The New York Times Best Seller list. The trilogy is credited with rekindling fan interest in Star Wars during a period when no new movies were forthcoming. The novels not only introduced new characters to the Star Wars saga, but were notable for Zahn’s careful and consistent use of settings, vehicles, and technology that had been introduced in the movies and in Star Wars tie-in games. Thrawn became so popular that additional books featuring the character were commissioned. And even when most of the characters from the older Star Wars novels were retired when the new series of movies appeared, Thrawn was written into the new Star Wars continuity, and the character has appeared in the canonical Star Wars: Rebels TV series.

I’m going to do something a little different this time around: Rather than refreshing my memory by revisting the books, I’m revisiting the story by reading the Dark Horse comics version. That not only allows me re-read the story more quickly, it also gives me a chance to talk about the Star Wars comics, which often approached the universe from a different direction.

 

About the Author

Timothy Zahn (born 1951) is a science fiction author who has written a significant amount of original work, but is perhaps more widely known as an author who writes in the Star Wars universe. I have reviewed Zahn’s work before, when I looked at his earliest Cobra stories. That article contains a short biography of the author, and a general introduction to his work. Zahn’s contribution to the Star Wars universe has also been discussed before on Tor.com. In 2013, Ryan Britt looked at Heir to the Empire here, Dark Force Rising here, and The Last Command here. And this link will take you to a list of all the recent articles at Tor.com mentioning Admiral Thrawn.

 

The Star Wars Expanded Universe

Book covers: Star Wars Thrawn trilogy

Right from the start, the success of the first Star Wars movie inspired further adventures in various other media. I’ve addressed one of my favorites examples in this column previously—the first of the X-Wing books, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron—and briefly discussed what became known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Comic books were one of the first spin-offs from the film franchise, and from 1977 to 1986, Marvel Comics provided further adventures and adaptations of the movies. These adventures were sometimes pulpy and silly (I’m looking at you, Jaxxon the giant space rabbit), but also included artwork from notables like Al Williamson. Star Wars toys became a major moneymaker, and since George Lucas had kept toy rights for himself, this helped fund his filmmaking efforts. In 1978, Alan Dean Foster’s novel Splinter in the Mind’s Eye appeared, based on an unfilmed script for a less ambitious sequel to the original movie. There was an infamously awkward made-for-TV Star Wars Holiday Special. There were some excellent Star Wars audio dramas, which I’ve discussed here, starting with NPR’s excellent adaption of the first movie in 1981. Two live-action Ewok Adventure movies appeared on television in 1984 and 1985. There were cartoons featuring the Droids and Ewoks. Two paperback trilogies were released, one featuring Han Solo’s early adventures, and one featuring young Lando Calrissian. A variety of video games appeared on the earliest game platforms, and in 1987, Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game appeared from West End Games.

Lucasfilm exerted a strong editorial hand over these spin-offs, creating a carefully crafted and constantly updated canon that kept all these efforts consistent. The West End Games guidebooks provided an early “bible” for these efforts, and a database that came to be known as the “Holocron” grew ever larger and more complex.

The books of Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy appeared in 1991, 1992 and 1993, and kicked off a new era of tie-ins. Many credit the success of these efforts for encouraging Lucas to produce and re-release “Special Editions” of the original films, and then go on to film the prequel trilogy.

In 1999, the license for Star Wars tie-in novels moved from Bantam Spectra to Del Rey Books, and the series took a new tack. The new stories were set a couple of decades after the last set of books left off, and focused on the children of the original characters as they fought off the Yuuzhan Vong, a race invading from beyond the reaches of their galaxy.

In 2012, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, and announced that they were producing a new movie trilogy, they decided that the new efforts would be too hemmed in creatively by adherence to the existing canon, and declared that only events that took place in the original six movies and in TV shows like Clone Wars, where Lucas participated, would be considered canon in developing the new movies and media tie-ins, and that a new canon would go into effect. In 2014, novels that followed the old continuity were rebranded as “Star Wars Legends.” The old canon was not completely abandoned, and writers are able to use characters, settings, and vehicles/tech from it as they wish. Since then, elements of the old canon that have been re-introduced into these newer stories—including a slightly retooled version of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

 

The Dark Horse Star Wars Comics

Among my favorite corners in the Star Wars Expanded Universe is the world of Dark Horse Comics; they had the comics license for the series from 1991 to 2014, and did a fantastic job. The comics started with a mini-series called Dark Empire, which writer Tom Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy conceived and initially pitched to Marvel, but ended up with Dark Horse when the license was transferred. Dark Empire was a great success, and was packaged into a best-selling graphic novel, a new format that was gaining popularity at that time. Dark Empire was a direct sequel to the Thrawn trilogy, and the comics intertwined with books and other media as part of a single, overarching storyline.

Dark Horse did truly excellent work on their Star Wars line, bringing in several top-notch writers and artists. They introduced original ideas, like books that looked at the ancient origins of the Sith and Jedi, and books that pushed the timeline further out into the future. There were adaptations of prequel movies, and a variety of mini-series that capitalized on the graphic novel format, including most notably Shadows of the Empire, Crimson Empire, and a comics version of the Thrawn trilogy that appeared between 1996 and 1999. There were many continuing comic series, including my favorite, Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron, which started in 1995 and nicely complemented the novels that followed the adventures of Wedge Antilles and his squadron. I was also a fan of Tales of the Jedi, a comic that started in 1993 and was set in the long-distant past, featuring the adventures of some headstrong young Jedi who clash with some entitled royalty who’ve fall under the influence of the Dark Side. The Jedi included a single mother, Nomi Sunrider, who still stands out as a unique and fascinating character.

Other continuing comics included Classic Star Wars, starting in 1992, Star Wars: Republic, launched in 1998, Star Wars Tales, starting in 1999, and Star Wars: Empire, which began in 2002. In 2006, a number of new lines were launched, including Knights of the Old Republic (tied to a popular video game), Star Wars: Dark Times (following a Jedi who survived Order 66), Star Wars: Legacy (set over a century after the fall of the Empire, following a descendant of Luke Skywalker).

In 2009, Dark Horse launched Star Wars: Invasion, which was set during the attack by the Yuuzhan Vong. And, going back to basics, they introduced the simply titled Star Wars comic in 2013.

In 2014, after Disney purchased both Marvel and Lucasfilm, they decided to bring the comic license “in house,” and the licensing went back to Marvel. Like a number of other fans, I was concerned that the high bar for quality set by Dark Horse would suffer, but so far, Marvel has put out some very enjoyable and well-crafted books.

 

Heir to the Empire

Since I’m recapping an entire trilogy in this review—in addition to discussing the Dark Horse comics run and touching on the entire Expanded Universe—I can’t hope to mention every detail of every book, but I’ll try to hit the high points, here. The trilogy picks up five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and while it reintroduces all our favorite characters, is also chock-full of new characters and settings. A previously unknown Grand Admiral—a blue-skinned, red-eyed alien named Thrawn—has emerged from the far reaches of the Empire, and instead of mopping up the scattered remnants of the Empire, the New Republic finds itself on the defensive. Thrawn is a fascinating character, who uses art appreciation to get into the minds of his opponents (which sounds goofy when I describe it, but trust me, it works). He has temporarily made common cause with an insane Jedi, Jorus C’baoth, who wants to rule the galaxy. C’baoth wants to round up the Skywalkers, including Luke and the pregnant Leia, to train as his minions. Thrawn has discovered creatures called Ysalamiri, whose natural ability to dampen force abilities in their vicinity keeps C’baoth from getting the upper hand.

We are also introduced to Talon Karrde, a smuggler whose number two is Mara Jade, a former Imperial who served as the Emperor’s Hand, and whose final command from the Emperor was to kill Luke Skywalker. Mara is an intriguing femme fatale, capable and deadly, and proved to be a fan favorite right from the start. Mara is thrown together with Luke while attempting to escape Thrawn’s forces, and the two find that they must cooperate in order to survive. Thrawn sends one of his Noghri assassin teams to capture Leia, but it turns out their people were once saved by Darth Vader—their keen sense of smell identifies Leia as his daughter, and the Noghri decide not to capture her, after all. There is a big space battle near a shipyard where Rogue Squadron saves the day, in keeping with the trend of ending the first installments of trilogies with a win for the good guys.

The comic book version was scripted by Mike Baron (who went on to script all comics in the series), with some very stylized and attractive interior art by Oliver Vatine, inks by Fred Blanchard, and colors by Isabelle Rabarot. The depictions of spaceships were all consistent with gaming material and other artwork, and I think this was the first time we saw what Bothans looked like (kind of like anthropomorphized goat people).

 

Dark Force Rising

Did I mention the Katana fleet up above? The two hundred or so ships from the Old Republic that were thought lost forever, but turned up just in time to impact the balance of power in the current struggle? The “Dark Force” that gives the middle book of the trilogy its title? If not, consider them mentioned now. In addition to the race to find the Katana fleet, this book features a lot of people being captured. Luke is captured by Jorus C’baoth, and Talon Karrde gets captured by Thrawn. Mara Jade, even though she hates him, decides to spring Luke so that he can in turn help her spring Karrde. Meanwhile, the New Republic is being torn apart by bickering. Bothans don’t like Mon Calamari, there is a spy among them, and a famous Corellian general named Garm Bel Iblis doesn’t like Mon Mothma and is playing hard to get, even though the New Republic desperately needs his skills. Leia, who is well along in her pregnancy, decides not to let this this keep her from new adventures. She visits the Noghri homeworld and convinces them to support the New Republic. The Noghri call her Lady Vader, which is both funny and creepy at the same time. We also get to meet Leia’s assistant, the silver-haired Winter, who is enigmatic and competent (Zahn introduces a lot more female characters, with a lot more agency, than we saw in previous Star Wars adventures). And at the end, perhaps because the bad guys always win at the end of the second installment of a trilogy, Thrawn gets to the Katana fleet before the New Republic does. Uh-oh!

The comic book version featured art by Terry Dodson, an artist known for pin-up art, whose rendition of Mara Jade became quite popular. Inks were by Kevin Nowlan, and color by Pamela Rambo.

 

The Last Command

Thrawn has the upper hand militarily, although an increasingly erratic Jorus C’baoth is causing him problems, insisting that he focus on capturing the Skywalkers. They go to the Emperor’s hidden stockpile on the planet Wayland, where there is cloning equipment that will allow Thrawn to provide a crew for the newly found Katana fleet. While Luke looks for the cloning facility, Leia gives birth to twins. Mara, who was injured fighting alongside Luke, rescues Leia from yet another kidnapping attempt. Luke returns, finds Mara knows where the cloning facility is located, and heads out with her and a small team to take it out. Thrawn cuts Coruscant off by surrounding the planet with cloaked asteroids, so no one wants to risk coming or going. Leia’s assistant Winter helps the New Republic find and neutralize the source of their intelligence leaks. There is a whole lot of plotting and counterplotting involving the smugglers, with Karrde coming out on top. Leia is concerned about Luke, and leaving her newborns with Winter, has Karrde take her to Wayland. It is C’baoth against the Skywalkers, with Mara in the background, fighting her compulsion to murder Luke. Before it is over, Luke ends up becoming his own worst enemy, but it will be no surprise to anyone that the final installment of the trilogy ends with the good guys triumphant.

The comic book version featured art and inks by Edvin Buikovic, and colors again by Pamela Rambo. Covers featured a distinctive circular framing for the cover painting, surrounded by lots of white space.

 

Final Thoughts

The popularity of the Thrawn trilogy triggered a renaissance of interest in Star Wars. Zahn produced an adventure that was full of the spirit that infused the original movies, while adding new characters and layers of complexity. His attention to detail helped lay the groundwork for an Expanded Universe of stories and tie-in products that delighted the fans, with Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade becoming almost as widely known as some of the movie characters.

Now it’s time for me to stop writing and turn the discussion over to you: What are your thoughts on the Thrawn trilogy, or Thrawn’s further adventures? And do you think the new movie will pick up on some ideas or elements from those tales?

[Note: Spoilers from the novels, which have been around for decades, are welcome in the discussion, but spoilers about the new movie are not. And if you don’t like the cast of the newest movie trilogy, or think Disney has spoiled Star Wars, or think The Last Jedi spoiled your childhood, we’ve heard that all before—let’s not relitigate it here in discussing these books and comics.]

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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