Friday, September 09, 2011

Book Review: Heir to the Empire – 20th Anniversary Edition

I didn’t talk much about this book when I gave my list of Star Wars books a new reader should start with, because I knew that this Anniversary Edition was coming out and I’d get to explore it some more in this review. There are lots of reasons why Heir to the Empire is so frequently recommended as a starting point for new readers. It brings with it no baggage – you need only have seen the original movies in order to read this book. It also perfectly captures the feel of the movies, and expands upon them in very believable ways. It’s a very well written book, with the right combination of fully realized characters (both new and old) as well as a smart plot, complete on its own but seeding many ideas for use in later novels. Five years have passed since the events of Return of the Jedi and a New Republic is still struggling to rise to power, as a new threat from the Empire comes in the form of a Grand Admiral named Thrawn. Thrawn believes in order, and these rebels are far too cluttered to ever be allowed to rule the galaxy – and his mind is always multiple steps ahead of his opponents, accounting for contingencies and looking for the perfect solutions to any problem he is presented with. He believes one important resource the Empire currently lacks is a powerful Force user, like the Emperor was, and so he seeks out a mad-clone named Joruus C’Baoth – looking to use him to help coordinate Imperial Forces in battle. Joruus has his own interest in passing on his knowledge of the Force, and so he agrees to the bargain only if Thrawn can bring him Skywalker and Leia, as well as her unborn children – the perfect students. Thrawn sends an army of his personal protectors, from a race called Noghri, to capture them – setting off a string of adventures which will lead to an epic conclusion as Luke struggles to escape from under the noses of the Imperials with the help of an Assassin who wants him dead, and grand space battle where even victory might mean defeat. I have purposefully left off a lot of details about the plot – for starters I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it, and there’s still much more to talk about with regards to this version of the novel anyway. But before I delve into that more, I do want to mention some stand out scenes from this book – even from my first read through 20 years ago they still stick with me to this day. There’s the swashbuckling which occurs very early on, when Luke and Leia are fist attacked by Thrawn’s forces, to the factory that Lando has set up on the cool side of a moon – with giant AT-ATs constantly keeping it from facing the sun. Leia gets to visit the Wookiee homeworld and begins a very important adventure which won’t be concluded until the next book. And most of all the introduction of Mara Jade, the Emperor’s personal assassin, and how she and Luke are forced to work together to avoid Thrawn’s stormtroopers. Moreso than the “Thrawn Trilogy” I’ve always thought that this should be considered the Mara Trilogy – it’s really her story, the way the original movies are Luke’s story. So what makes this Anniversary Edition so special? First there are annotations by the author and original editor throughout the book. These have the effect of working like a DVD commentary by the director of a movie – you get to see the author’s thoughts on a myriad of subjects, from rejected plot points to how scenes were reworked, to things that were later retconned (because this book was written well before the prequels were ever filmed). For long time fans, some of these comments are things we’ll have learned from Zahn in various interviews over the years – but even for this long time fan, I still learned many more new things from reading these annotations that I had never heard before. This isn’t a book about “how to write a book” so much as it gives you insight into how this particular book was written, and with it comes some extra insight into how a tie-in novel has special considerations. There’s also a new short story by the author included in this edition. It takes place shortly before the events of Heir to the Empire, though it is not a particularly good introduction to the many layers that Zahn has added to the Star Wars expanded universe over the years – so I’m glad it wasn’t placed first in the book (even if that’s the correct timeframe). However, for long-time fans it serves multiple purposes; it is both a continuation and conclusion to some of the plotlines introduced in Zahn’s recent book Choices of One, as well as providing a wonderful opportunity to revisit a fan-favorite character who hasn’t been seen for a long time, Baron Fel. With this story we get a much better look at the continuing threats in the Unkown Regions that Thrawn was fighting during the years after the Empire fell, and for the first time I can start to see the connection between the Thrawn who has been portrayed in more recent novels and the one readers were originally introduced to in Heir to the Empire – a disconnect that I’m glad to see is finally starting to fade. So then, should new fans pick up this Anniversary Edition or the original? That’s really up to you – what’s more important is if you’re a Star Wars fan and you haven’t read Heir to the Empire, you should. If you’re curious about the process that goes on behind the scenes in the making of a book – or ever just wanted to read the authors thoughts on their own material, I’d certainly recommend it on those grounds (and you won’t be bored by these annotations, they’re often amusing, entertaining, and always informative). If you plan to continue to read Star Wars fiction, the short story is a worthwhile addition because of its ties to later Star Wars works by Timothy Zahn. It’s a wonderful book to own, presented in a nice new package – this is one of the greatest Star Wars books even to this day, and I highly recommend reading it.

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