A long, long time ago, Star Wars fans were left hanging about the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and others following the events in the film Return of the Jedi. Finally, in 1991, eight years after the release of that last film, George Lucas authorized a series of three novels by Hugo-award winner Timothy Zahn.
Heir to the Empire is the first novel in that series. It is now five years following the events in Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia and Han Solo are now married, and Leia is expecting twins.
The Rebellion has evolved into The New Republic as it sets up government in the previous Imperial stronghold of Coruscant. All is not well within this government as various factions fight for control of both the military as well as the governing body itself.
The Imperials have not disappeared completely, either. Regrouping the fleet is Grand Admiral Thrawn, a human hybrid and master strategist. Taking what knowledge he has of what the Emperor left behind, he amasses a good-sized fleet. For a long time, he has been engaging in hit-and-run attacks on various systems, making it hard for those that align with the New Republic to feel safe. However, now he is making a move to gain a more complete control. He has also unearthed the last of the Dark Jedi to help his cause.
The novel involves the usual cat-and-mouse games depicted in the three films. Our heroes manage to get themselves into some fairly difficult situations, and also manage to get out of them. Luke and Leia are endlessly pursued by the Imperials on behalf of the Dark Jedi, intent on having subjects to control. However, it’s Leia’s knack for diplomacy that seems to finally manage to get the heat off of them, at least for a little while.
Meanwhile Han Solo is off with Lando Calrissian trying to figure out who stole ships from Lando’s new mining operations, as well as trying to lure smugglers to helping the New Republic with its shipping lines. It is during this time that Han encounters Talon Kaarde, an infamous smuggler that works in the gray area between both the Imperials and the New Republic. His assistant, Mara Jade, has it in for Luke Skywalker very bad. Her animosity leaves only the question between will she kill him herself or hand him over to the Imperials?
I really enjoyed this novel when it first came out, and I enjoyed it again re-reading it all these years later. Zahn develops all the characters with an incredible depth. Even a character like Mara Jade who could be such a one-dimensional villain, is written with such complexity that it is never clear what her actions will be in any particular situation. All of the characters Zahn created and added to the Star Wars universe truly seem to fit with the characters I’ve known from the films and novels all those years ago.
Zahn builds onto those characters quite a bit. Lando’s sense for launching new enterprises, much like his Cloud City endeavor in The Empire Strikes Back, is explored here in a new mining operation on a super-heated planet. Han Solo cannot quite handle the respectability of being a General in the New Republic, and instead is off doing tasks that others – who are “more respectable” – would prefer not to get their hands dirty with.
Where Zahn seems to build best, however, is with Luke. I could see how he has grown and matured since the end of Return of the Jedi, yet at the same time there is still some of that innocent farm-boy that sneaks through in his thoughts and actions. His naive belief that the Jedi voice that calls out to him is one that he can learn from demonstrates the growth still to come for him, and may also prove to be both his and Leia’s undoing. As people turn to him more and more as the lone Jedi in the universe, he bears a weight on his shoulders that even he is not sure he is ready for.
What really drew me in, however, were the descriptions of the locations in the book. Coruscant has now been seen in the two newest movies. Even depicted here all these years later, Zahn gave me a feel for how the Emperor maintained a presence there intending to intimidate those subjugated by him. Zahn’s description of the palace matches the personality of the Emperor shown in the movies, making the presence of the New Republic government there almost seem out of place.
Another world Zahn described so well is the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk. When Chewbacca takes Leia there thinking she will be safe, the description of the Wookies and how they live is incredible. It’s easy to dismiss a Wookie as a dog-like companion to Han Solo (I have actually heard people say that Chewie was just a really smart dog!), but after reading the description of the world Zahn created for them, it would be impossible to do that. Just the way it is constructed and integrated into its environment made me realize the intelligence a Wookie must have without Zahn having to come out and actually say that they are beings much more intelligent than they were given credit for.
The pacing of the novel is great, setting up events without feeling like I was being rushed from one setting to another. Even though he jumped around from various settings, I had no trouble following the action – and there is action! If there’s one complaint it’s that there are a few instances where the three main characters have been separated and it feels as if them ending up at the same place is a bit too coincidental. The main instance I felt this was when both Luke and Han and Leia end up going to visit Lando Calrissian at the same time his operation is attacked by Grand Admiral Thrawn’s Imperial Forces. However, Zahn has done a tremendous job weaving the story together, and the situations are such that it’s not totally unbelievable for them to end up there. I’m willing to cut him a little slack in that department.
Anyone who thinks they are a Star Wars fan owes it to themselves to read this book, and the whole series. It is very easy to read and drew me in so easily that I couldn’t put it down.
Next book in the series (link): Star Wars: Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn