Friday, 26 August 2011

‘Heir to the Empire (20th Anniversary Edition)’ – Timothy Zahn (Del Rey)

Has it really been twenty years since ‘Heir to the Empire’ was first published? There’s no reason for the book cover to lie to us so I’m guessing it must be, what a way to make me feel really old...
I actually came to read Zahn’s trilogy a couple of years after ‘Heir to the Empire’ was first published. I was deeply into my fantasy reading before then (I’d only just discovered Tad Williams) and anyway, Star Wars was pretty much over and done with wasn’t it? There were no more films to come so there couldn’t be any more story, could there? How wrong I was... I heard of these three new books that carried the story on, after the events of ‘Return of the Jedi’, and borrowed them off a friend. It wasn’t long afterwards that I bought copies for myself and was into reading every subsequent Star Wars book as it came out. There have been countless Star Wars books since then and it would be fair to say that they all owe their existence to the trilogy that Zahn wrote all those years ago. As far as I’m concerned it’s also fair to say that very few of the subsequent books (if any at all) match up to the benchmark that Zahn originally set. Or is it? Am I just living in a glorious haze of nostalgia where Star Wars books were only just coming onto the market again with a story that was only just taking off and where it felt like anything could happen?
There was only one way to find out and I had great fun taking it. ‘Heir to the Empire’ stands up to the test of time although I’m not sure that particular ‘anniversary add-ons’ were entirely necessary...

It is five years since the decisive Battle of Endor took place and the Alliance is slowly adapting itself to the demands of governing star systems instead of fighting to free them. The pressures are great though and divisions within the fledgling government could tear things apart before they even get going.
However, a far greater danger lurks in the remnants of Imperial Space... Grand Admiral Thrawn’s duties kept him away from the one battle where he was needed the most; now he has returned to wrest control away from the Alliance and return the Empire to its former glory. If there’s anyone who can do this it is Grand Admiral Thrawn, ever the most devious and tactically adept of the Emperor’s Grand Admirals. Plans take shape and build towards an inevitable conclusion. Can even the likes of Luke, Leia and Han halt the machinations of the greatest tactical genius the Empire ever produced?

It may be a 20th Century Anniversary Edition but no changes have been made to the novel itself in terms of an ‘author’s preferred edition’ a la ‘The Stand’. This is good and totally as it should be. ‘Heir to the Empire’ stands the test of time and reading it now is just like reading it for the first time all those years ago. It’s been years since I last read this trilogy, now I think I’m going to have to dig the next two books out and read them again.

Zahn leaves you in no doubt that you’re reading a Star Wars book and you might think that’s not exactly a hard thing to do. After all, you’ve got a cast of well known characters to play around with in a setting that has been built up over the course of three films (along with role playing games, comic books and books published when the films were in cinemas). You’d be forgiven for shrugging your shoulders and saying “So what?” but bear with me a little here...

Zahn’s achievement comes in his taking a big step forward from the events of the films (a five year gap here) but still maintaining a real feel of continuity. He may be playing with established characters but he really gets inside their heads and captures what made them stand out on the screen. Han the ‘cocky smuggler’, Luke the ‘earnest Jedi’ and so on. There’s a solid link to the films right there. Zahn isn’t just satisfied with preserving continuity though as he forces his characters to move on and develop in a galaxy that is the same one we knew, from before but has changed in a number of important ways. Established characters are suddenly having to adapt to new situations (Leia trying to find time to complete her Jedi training, Han trying to form a coalition of smugglers that will work for the Alliance) and you find yourself wanting to read on and see how they cope.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Star Wars without an Imperial threat to contend with and Zahn really delivers here with the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Whereas Vader and the Emperor were a threat in terms of sheer power, Thrawn more than holds his own in terms of his constantly being three or four steps ahead of you mentally. Thrawn knows exactly what he is going to do and by the time you find out it’s too late as his plans are already in motion. It’s scary how on top of things Thrawn is and he is more than a match for our heroes here as, at this stage, they have no idea what they are dealing with. Thrawn’s plans are still in the early stages but there is still enough intrigue to them to make you want to come back for the next book and see how things pan out.

Zahn adds a fresh spin on the Star Wars universe but is clever enough to go with a tried and tested formula that worked for the original trilogy. ‘Heir to the Empire’ is space opera on that same grand scale; swashbuckling combat on alien planets, gigantic space battles and larger than life heroes. Zahn captures all of this perfectly and the pages fly by as a result.

It’s a shame then that the extra bits that make up this 20th Anniversary Edition take the shine off a little bit...
The book is annotated by the author (and his editor Betsy Mitchell) and these notes do make for some interesting reading; Zahn takes us through the process of the book’s creation and gives us some interesting facts along the way. If you’re a die hard fan then you may know it all already but there were more than a few surprises there for me. The problem that I had was that the positioning of these notes, at the side of the page, kept dragging me away from the book itself and I had to keep trying to get back in again. Maybe if these notes had been at the bottom of the page it would have made all the difference.

I have to say that the Thrawn novella ‘Crisis of Faith’ didn’t do an awful lot for me either. For me, Zahn works best when he is laying plans that won’t see fruition for at least a book or two. This short tale of bluff and double bluff just felt rushed to me and, as a result, didn’t show Thrawn in all his calculating and devious glory.

That shouldn’t take anything away from the main event though. Despite the issues I had with the book as a whole, ‘Heir to the Empire’ (in itself) is the prime example of all that is good about Star Wars fiction and I’m glad I got the chance to re-read it. Look out for this edition at the beginning of September. Now, onto the other two books.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Anonymous said...

Wow - twenty years. This series was the first set of books I ever received outside of educational material and started me on my reading journey. I agree whole heartedly that they are the cream of the crop when it comes to Star Wars fiction, with many of the other series books out there poor imitations that come across as trying too hard.

Bets Davies said...

I tend to think of Star Wars as space fantasy rather than space opera, but that is a niggle. The amazing thing about the original Star Wars universe (screw the following movies) was that it was fluid. Unlike, say, Star Trek, from Lucas on nobody tried to nail down every detail. This left Star Wars open for all sorts of books that further developed what the original movies had left fertile ground.

I have to admit, I read the side stories. The characters in the actual movie are holy to me. i grew up on Star Wars. At two, Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in the theater. My brother and I created universes for Star Wars. But not much of the rebels. If Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamell aren't interpreting them and putting every nuance of their well characterized voices and actions into the moment, it just ain't It.

That said, I do love Zahn. Maybe I'd better take a look at what he does with my demi-gods 20 years after the fact.

Jim Haley said...

You may want to hold off on reading the next two books - there are rumors that if this Anniversary Edition sells well enough, Del Rey will do the same for Dark Force Rising and The Last Command over the next two years (for their 20th Anniversaries).

Graeme Flory said...

Jim - Funnily enough, I was talking about this to the publicity guy at Del Rey. At the moment they've got no plans to give the other two books the anniversary treatment (which surprised me I have to say). I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens... :o)