I don’t mind admitting I’m a ‘Star Wars‘ fan – have been since the first movie back in the ’70’s. When the final credits rolled on my umpteenth viewing of ‘Return of the Jedi’ I was one of many who cast around sadly, looking for something more. Timothy Zahn stepped into the breach with his ‘Thrawn’ trilogy. Darth Vader and the Emperor were both dead but the Empire was still a formidable force – how very believable, suitable and fitting that a warlord would arise to fill the void?
There, in a nutshell, I have provided a clue to why I love these books. They ooze authenticity.
The basic background delineated in the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is still there, of course, with all the weird and wonderful worlds with identical gravity and breathable atmosphere. There, as always, the reader has to go along for the ride. But then, if you weren’t prepared to do that, you wouldn’t be reading this review. You’ll find Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, C3PO and R2D2 and other mainstays of the movies, along with new characters to love – and hate.
What Zahn has added is depth. The wounded Empire and the fledgling New Republic came across as very real, with the political in-fighting, brinkmanship and double-crossing one might have found as the Roman Empire fell into decline. Grand Admiral Thrawn is the warlord, one of the Emperor’s most trusted leaders. He is unusual because he is not human – but he’s as close as an alien could get. The Chiss are so humanoid that – apart from their red eyes and blue skin – they’re human in appearance. Thrawn poses a striking figure in his white grand admiral’s uniform. As a military leader he is unsurpassed – cunning, innovative, and resourceful. Thrawn is an art connoisseur, able to assess an alien adversary’s mental weaknesses through their art. This is a nice idea which certainly sets him apart. Once again, one must avoid asking too many questions, and go along for the ride. However he does it, Thrawn wins again and again, devising brilliant tactics to achieve his aims. I LOVED that part of the books.
The three books – Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – follow on from one to the next, as Thrawn’s Imperial forces advance on Republic planets. One pivotal character is a Jedi Master – or the clone of a Jedi Master, C’baoth. Thrawn has found a way to prevent the Jedi from using mind control on him, and seeks to use C’baoth’s Jedi powers to assist his own campaign. The unstable Jedi is masterfully depicted as flawed and arrogant. Not all the Jedi are perfect.
Of course, Zahn introduces new characters. One of the most important is Mara Jade, one of the Emperor’s most trusted agents. She is fixated on finding and killing Luke Skywalker. But so is Thrawn, who has promised to capture Luke, Leia and her unborn twins for C’baoth’s new Jedi order.
Each book starts with a star destroyer orbiting a planet – another gesture of unity with the Star Wars movies.
One thing I really, really liked is that the New Republic never wins a battle against Thrawn. They win in the end – you’d have to expect that – but the means is unexpected.
These three books date back to the early 1990’s and since then, Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn has become a cult figure. The author has been forced to write several other Thrawn books to cope with the demand. This is space opera at its finest – fun, fast-paced and action-packed, as you’d expect. But, as I said in my introduction, what Zahn really offered was depth, details that even someone like me (I have a history degree) could believe in. There have been very many Star Wars spin-off since then; some are good SF, a lot are crummy pulp fiction. The Thrawn trilogy has earned a place as one of the finest of its type.