This novel was a long time coming.
Heir to the Empire is the book that reignighted my Star Wars fandom. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that I wasn’t as much a fan of the old EU, but rather of Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels. In many ways, Timothy Zahn contributed as much to the Star Wars Universe as anyone.
The Thrawn trilogy in many ways defined Star Wars for over a decade. When Disney declared the EU as “Legends” and are no longer canon, they essentially excommunicated Timothy Zahn’s stories. So as Disney/Lucasfilm/DelRey continued to generate new Star Wars stories it begged the question as to when or if Timothy Zahn and his popular characters – Thrawn, Mara Jade particularly – would be incorporated.
We got our answer during Star Wars Celebration last year.
Fans, myself included, went crazy. People screamed and yelled. People cried. And we got an entire season of Thrawn being Thrawn.
But it wasn’t quite Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn.
With this novel Thrawn, we mark the inclusion of Timothy Zahn among the family of canon novels.
[Last warning: Spoilers below]
Thrawn is a fantastic story that should be considered a prequel to Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels. It begins with a mysterious and deadly introduction to Thrawn that introduced how cunning he is. We see Thrawn through the eyes of a young imperial officer who is unwittingly thrust into a role that intertwines their fate.
This book answers many questions about Thrawn’s history – how did he come to the Empire? Why? How did he become a Grand Admiral, particularly in a short enough time such that he does not appear in the prequels but is already in play by the time of Rebels.
We get answers to these questions and more.
In many ways, though, this story is as much about Arihnda Pryce as it is Grand Admiral Thrawn. We learn about her origins on Lothal and how she engineered her rise to power. She has to navigate the growing power of The Empire, negotiate friendships and adversaries, and learn how the political winds of Coruscant. Ultimately, we have more revealed to us about Governor Pryce than Thrawn. She undergoes the most character arc, while Thrawn demonstrates his mastery in the way we know he can.
Timothy Zahn is masterful in his ability to construct political intrigue. He, perhaps more than any author, has illustrated the political back-stabbing, power grabs, and conspiracy inherent to The Empire. We certainly get inklings of this in Aftermath: Life Debt, Bloodline, and Rogue One: Catalyst. But Zahn’s ability construct these machinations is unparalleled.
He even weaves in an interesting storyline of him trying to piece together a puzzle of why the various mining interests have drastically changed throughout the galaxy. The implication (known to the reader): he’s seeing evidence of the Death Star.
And yet there’s something missing about this book.
- We see Thrawn as the protagonist in this story with his main adversary being an underground Robin hood character. He continually must unravel various dangerous interactions where nothing is at it seems. But Thrawn is always a step ahead of everyone else – that’s kind of what we expected. However, his behavior is explained by himself and/or his padowan assistant Eli. The result is that the book becomes very reminiscent of an Encyclopedia Brown book. Or an episode of Scooby Doo – something amazing happens and then we get the run down of what Thrawn saw that nobody else saw. It would be more mysterious to have his insights revealed to us in the way that the Emperor’s plot to trap the Rebels in EpVI was revealed to us.
- Thrawn is really too familiar in this story. In the Thrawn trilogy, he is really a force himself. He never explains his intentions – he reveals them. We also don’t get a whole lot of him in those stories. We spend a lot of time with Han & Leia, Luke, Mara Jade, and the rest. Thrawn is really more mysterious. He’s not very mysterious in this book (except for its opening act).
- One take-away from this book is that Thrawn is not careless about casualties in meeting his objectives as is implied in his introduction into Rebels. We learn that the deadly operation on Batonn was due to Governor Pryce’s actions and not his. We learn of a detante within their relationship where Pryce helps Thrawn navigate Imperial politics while Thrawn can bring military victories to her advantages. This is a bit of a disappointment as it makes Thrawn not seem as powerful. But it does make Governor Pryce far more of an adversary for our Ghost Crew on Rebels.
- This story seems like an important story for Thrawn and for Rebels, but not necessarily for Star Wars as a whole. It lacks, perhaps understandably, the fantastic world-building that Zahn has so successfully created in his EU creations. We see how Thrawn seemingly easily moves through the ranks in the Empire of his own merits (perhaps not even helped by The Emperor’s influence). There’s no references to the Jedi. There’s very little revealed about The Emperor or Vader (though not nothing). We learn a bit about rebel activity, but nothing related to the characters who we know. We get some Tarkin in this book, but it’s Tarkin we know in Rebels and not the one we see in A New Hope or Tarkin. So there’s an element of scale missing to the overall plot. It’s a must read for anyone interested in either Thrawn or Rebels. But it’s probably not a must-read for a the more casual Star Wars fan.
These are just innocent observations. This is a great book, excellently crafted, that gives insight into many characters new and known. Much of Thrawn’s story from the EU persists. Much of what we read about the Chiss Ascendancy, the perils of the Unknown regions, Thrawn’s mandate from The Emperor, and his alienation by the rest of the Imperial fleet are all outlined in this single novel.
This book also makes me more excited to see Rebels Season 4. Thrawn isn’t guaranteed to live, but we also don’t know if he dies (there’s also nothing in Aftermath: Empire’s End that declares that he’s dead either). I hope that he lives – Thrawn having an influence on The First Order would add a new layer to the perils facing The Resistance in the new sequel trilogy. It would also be an unbelievable moment to see Thrawn in a live-action story.