After writing up my initial impressions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was inspired to go back to a series of novels I haven’t read since I was a teenager: Timothy Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy. Published in 1991, these three books, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command were among the first entries in what became known as the Expanded Universe (EU), and were easily among the best as well. They were extremely influential in shaping the mythology of the novels that followed and served to carry on the spirit of the original movies until Star Wars was once again thrust into the mainstream.
The trilogy takes place five years after the events depicted in the Return of the Jedi film. The Rebel Alliance has established a government of its own, the New Republic, and has been steadily pushing back Imperial forces to only a quarter of what they once were. The Republic, however, faces a number of challenges as it struggles to establish its legitimacy. Internal factions pushed aside during the Rebellion are causing divisions that threaten the stability of the young government. Meanwhile, a formidable new opponent has emerged in the form of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last of the Emperor’s master strategists, who has come out of the shadows with a bold plan to unite the remaining Imperial forces and launch a crippling attack against the New Republic. Caught in the middle are a powerful smuggling organization, a deeply troubled Jedi Master come out of obscurity, and a fleet of long-lost warships that could be the difference between victory and defeat in the battles ahead.
Worth noting of course, is that these books, along with the rest of the EU, are no longer considered part of the officially licensed Star Wars story, per Disney. This series predates not only the current film franchise, but the prequel trilogy as well, and there are instances where it comes into conflict with what is now cannon. For example, it makes several references to the Clone Wars that are not easily reconciled with the prequel series. It also does not fit in with the events of The Force Awakens either.
So then, why care about these books? Because they make for a good, fun read. Zahn did a fantastic job in telling an engaging new story that allows the reader to explore the galaxy far, far away in a manner that feels authentic to the original movies. Since the EU was still so new at the time these books were written, Zahn had a wide range of possibilities to work with and used this freedom to great effect. He takes the reader through a variety of settings and locations that you can picture being right out of the movies; with the new locations fitting in perfectly with what is already familiar. They fit in so well that one of the planets Zahn introduced, Coruscant, ultimately made its way into the Special Edition release of The Return of the Jedi before being featured prominently in the prequel trilogy.
Just as importantly, Zahn populates this universe with an excellent cast of characters. He certainly did justice to the originals characters, all of whom were developed in ways that flow seamlessly and believably from their on-screen personas. Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, the droids – they’re all there. Secondary characters like Wedge, Admiral Ackbar, and Lando Calrissian were also included to good effect and make the story that much more interesting as a result.
Joining our old friends is a superb mix of newcomers. Grand Admiral Thrawn made for an excellent adversary and was an interesting departure from the usual Star Wars villain. He was a ruthless yet brilliant strategist that relies on his skill and uncanny intelligence as opposed to any Force sensitivity to carry out his goals. He is also pretty much the only non-human directly aligned with the Empire that we encounter. Smuggler Talon Karrde, a genius in his own right, provides a glimpse into the galactic underworld post-Jabba the Hutt and delivers a lot of the rogue charm originally provided by Han Solo, only with an entire smuggling organization at his command. The most popular and enduring character from this series though is no doubt Mara Jade. I will refrain from posting any major spoilers for this series or beyond and merely say here that she is a character with a very interesting back story and is an excellent foil and potential ally for Luke.
All this combines into a trilogy that is well executed and a lot of fun to read. It was everything that you would want and expect in a Star Wars novel and is the absolute best of what the EU had to offer. I recommend it to Star Wars fans, if only as an example of what could have been and to get a taste of what some of us older fans were into when all we had was the original trilogy. To me, this is the true fate of the original characters, no matter what may come of them in the Force Awakens timeline. Let the future films give Rey, Finn, and Poe their turn; I already know what happened to the old heroes.