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BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn

REVIEW SUMMARY: Zahn channels the spirit and energy of the original trilogy.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, the Death Star destroyed, but the war has not yet been won. Struggling under the responsibility of politics and diplomatic duties Luke, Han, and Leia now face a new challenge. On the outskirts of the New Republic a brilliant Grand Admiral is gathering the remnants of the Empire in order to strike at the heart of the Rebels.

Zahn accurately portrays well known characters, the fight against the Empire didn’t end with the Ewoks on Endor, Grand Admiral Thrawn is a superb villain, author’s notes enhance the experience.
Luke is sort of a sissy, too many cases of coincidence, Mara Jade isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, Grand Admiral Thrawn might be too smart.
Despite some flaws this is still better than anything offered in Episodes I-III and the 20th Anniversary Edition is a great collector’s item.

The news of Disney buying Lucasfilm accomplished something that I never would have thought possible. It got me excited about Star Wars again. I used to be a major fan of the series as I think most kids are. My aunt took me to see the original trilogy when the movies were re-released to theaters in the 90’s. At the time Taco Bell had promotional Star Wars toys and I also got my first battery-powered lightsaber. It was the Golden Age of my childhood. I continued to love the series well into my teenage years. It wasn’t the new trilogy that killed it for me (although that was the start), but the CGI movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the Cartoon Network show it spawned. I hadn’t looked back since…that is, until the news of Disney’s acquisition.

My first reaction was to laugh. Disney! Buying Star Wars! What a joke! And then I realized that I’d had the same reaction when Disney bought Marvel…and look how awesome The Avengers turned out. Then all the speculation started about what would be in store for Episode VII and that is how I came across Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. And fortunately for me, Zahn’s classic had been released in a beautiful 20th Anniversary Edition, complete with a foreword and author’s notes. But enough background and onto the review!

The Rebels won the Battle of Endor. The Emperor and Darth Vader are dead, the Death Star has been destroyed (again), and the Imperial forces have been routed. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi ends on a high note. Too high a note if you ask me. It would seem as though Timothy Zahn felt the same way when he wrote Heir to the Empire. The battle has been won but the war is far from over. Heir to the Empire picks up five years after we left off. Luke is coming to terms with the loss of his mentors. Leia is pregnant with twins. Han has gone legit. All three are chaffing at the roles they find themselves in within the New Republic. Organizing an effective rebellion isn’t the same as building a working government. Politics threaten to tear the New Republic apart and a new threat is rising from Imperial territory. That threat is Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant strategist that has gathered the remnants of the Empire together in order to take back what the Rebels have stolen.

First I have to say that the author’s notes are an awesome edition to the story. Zahn put an amazing amount of work into Heir to the Empire. The author’s notes serve to highlight the special details that might otherwise be glossed over during the read. It turns out that Zahn is responsible for a lot of terms and ideas that most Star Wars fans probably take for granted. This is the man that came up with the legendary Rogue Squadron.

Zahn’s greatest strength is in translating everyone’s favorite movie characters into text. As I read the dialogue I could hear the actors’ voices and picture their mannerisms. Zahn is especially deft at writing Han Solo’s roguish wit, Lando Calrissian’s charm, C-3PO’s neurotic twittering, and (surprisingly) R2-D2’s beeping and chirping. Han and Lando really steal the show, it is great fun to see them operating as partners. Leia sort of gets shafted with Heir to the Empire, as she spends the majority of the novel running and hiding from Imperial kidnappers. I was also mildly disappointed with Luke Skywalker. When deprived of the Force and his lightsaber Luke loses most of his appeal. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi left a striking image of Luke in his black suit, taking matters into his own hands. That inspiring version of the Jedi Skywalker is not to be found here. I appreciate Zahn touching on Luke’s light depression and anxiety but he fails to show him as the heroic figure that he became with the closing of the original trilogy.

The star of Heir to the Empire is Zahn’s creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is an amazing villain. He has a military background that is something that separates him from the Emperor and Darth Vader. He commands through loyalty rather than fear, and he understands strategy. What is cool is that Thrawn is not Sith. He has no Force powers. If he is going to defeat the New Republic it will be through sheer force of will and military superiority. Granted, Thrawn’s intelligence can get to be grating at times. Thrawn is right 99% of the time. Stories aren’t fun if the hero always wins and there is a lack of fun if the villain is always right.

Mara Jade is supposed to be another of Zahn’s greatest creations, though I’m not yet convinced. From what I understand, she is a favorite among fans. I’m guessing that she gets better in the later novels. I will say that it is nice to have another strong female, especially given that Leia gets swept to the side for most of Heir to the Empire, but Jade’s beef with Luke just strikes me as silly. It basically comes down to, “You ruined my life because I didn’t get to kill you at Jabba’s Palace so now I hate you and want to kill you.” It definitely doesn’t help that once Luke finds out the motivation behind Jade’s hatred he is almost apologetic about the fact that he is still alive.

The plot is fun but the formula does get repetitive. The all knowing Thrawn sends his lackeys after our heroes, the heroes narrowly escape, the heroes devise a plan to avoid the Imperials, Thrawn almost automatically guesses what the plan is, annnnnd repeat. There is just too much coincidence. I’m willing to accept the guiding influence of the Force in the Star Wars universe but a rose by any other name is still deus ex machina. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back has always been my favorite of the movies because of the darker tone and so Heir to the Empire hits the sweet spot in that department. Heir to the Empire has that same dark flavor as well as some more mature themes relating to the politicking. The action isn’t quite what I’d hoped for though the Battle for the Sluis Van shipyards is a great finale to the novel.

All in all I enjoyed Heir to the Empire. It truly felt like the sequel Star Wars: Return of the Jedi always deserved. Those that dislike the Ewoks and found the Battle of Endor to end too cleanly will likely agree with this sentiment. I am interested to read more about Grand Admiral Thrawn and I hope to see Mara Jade develop into a better rounded character. I’d also like to see Luke return to his awesome heroic ways. I’d appreciate more of the Han/Lando team-up and maybe Leia will find more of the spotlight. I will be purchasing Star Wars: Dark Force Rising but I think perhaps I’ll wait to see if they release a 20th Anniversary Edition of that as well.

About Nick Sharps (85 Articles)
Nick is the Social Media Coordinator and Commissioning Editor for Ragnarok Publications and its imprint, Angelic Knight Press. He is a book critic and aspiring author. He is the co-editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters from Ragnarok Publications. He studies Advertising and Public Relations at Point Park University.

7 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn

  1. I hadn’t realized that Zahn had done another book written in the time period of the original trilogy, Choices of One, until I was signing up for the ebook novella, Winner Lose All, that comes out next week. I grew up in the Star Wars generation and have always loved Brian Daley’s Han Solo books and this trilogy of Zahn’s but have pretty much stayed away from all the rest of the Star Wars novels. So I’m excited that Zahn is doing more books that take place during the time of the original three films. He is one of the few authors I trust to respect the source material.

    • Nick Sharps // December 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm //

      Zahn strikes me as the right kind of author to respect source material. I really want to read his book “Scoundrels” coming out in January.

  2. Funny, I started reading the Star Wars novels after the Disney announcement too. I started with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (felt like a 1930s Flash Gordon serial, but not in a good way). Now I’m in the middle of Heir to the Empire. I agreed with your assessment of Zahn’s characterizations. Han feels like Han and C3PO feels like C3PO. But Luke is just too wimpy.

    • I have a real fondness for Splinter in the Mind’s Eye as it is one of the earliest books I remember borrowing from my uncle’s bookshelf, back when my 9 year old self saw Star Wars at the Drive In. I still pull it out and read it occasionally for nostalgia’s sake. The part early on where Luke has some innocently lustful thoughts about Leia always cracks me up.

    • Nick Sharps // December 7, 2012 at 7:05 pm //

      I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling that. I wondered if perhaps I just remembered Return of the Jedi wrong, but I don’t think that’s the case. Do you have plans to read any of the other Expanded Universe novels after this?

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