01/06/2012. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books/Lucas Books. 380 page hardback. Price: $30.00 (US), $34.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-5589-2.
check out websites: www.delreybooks.com and www.starwars.com
'Heir To The Empire' has been described by its publishers as the book that kick-started the 'Star Wars' literary franchise. For sure there were 'Star Wars' novels before 'Heir', not least of which were the novelisations of the films themselves. But for the most part, what writing went on in the 'Star Wars' genre was directed at relatively small markets such as comics and role-playing games. If they had any literary merit, it went unnoticed.
'Heir To The Empire' was dramatically more successful than any previous 'Star Wars' novel, earning a place on the 'New York Times' bestseller list and forcing Lucasfilm to take 'Star Wars' novels much more seriously.
This commemorative re-issue of 'Heir To The Empire' features a brief preface written by the president of Lucas Licensing, a slightly longer introduction by the author, then the novel itself and finally a novelette called 'Crisis Of Faith' at the end. Peppering the novel are commentaries and footnotes added by the author and the editor, Betsy Mitchell. These provide insights into both the story and the development of the novel. Overall, they add much of the value to the book and they're pleasingly numerous and extensive.
What about the novel itself? Has it aged well? Broadly, yes. By the standards of the average 'Star Wars' novel, 'Heir' is well-written and presents lots of interesting new characters, not least of whom is Grand Admiral Thrawn, a compelling new villain to take the places of the Emperor and Darth Vader. He's an ambiguous character, engaging if not exactly likeable and several of the Zahn footnotes underline the character's nature as a good officer, if not necessarily a good person. Alongside Thrawn is Admiral Pellaeon, an efficient rather than imaginative officer who works primarily as a foil to the Grand Admiral, giving Thrawn the opportunity to reveal information and explain his plans and thereby keep the reader in the loop as well. Two other characters of note are Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, both of whom have gone on to become popular characters in the 'Star Wars' expanded universe. According to Zahn, Karrde is put forward as a Han Solo-like individual who stuck to smuggling instead of ending up as part of the Rebellion. We see in Karrde many of the same traits we admire in Solo, but this time being put to practical, even selfish ends as he tries to maintain his independence. Jade is a more cryptic character, a Force-sensitive individual with a grudge against Luke Skywalker that ends up putting both their lives in danger.
These new characters are entertaining and Zahn does a great job expanding outwards from the end of the 'Star Wars' movies creating post-Empire worlds, politics and personalities. But, as good as all this is, the novel isn't perfect. Thrawn's analytical approach to warfare is hinged, the author reveals, on his appreciation of the artworks native to those species he is fighting. That sounds great at first, but on reflection makes little sense. Really, how can an antique sculpture tell you anything much about how a sentient species would deploy its starfighters around a military installation? While we're supposed to see Thrawn as a military genius, it's not as if he achieves what he does through skill alone. Many of his victories seem to depend upon some game-changing plot device he happens to have that were never mentioned in the original films: cloaking devices and Force-neutralising creatures called ysalamiri to name but two.
The bottom line is that 'Heir' is a good, if not perfect, follow-on from the films and a great introduction to the expanded universe novels. Like the films themselves, it’s acquired a certain patina of brilliance that probably doesn't withstand much study, but taken for what it is, a piece of space opera, it's a fun read.
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