Timothy Zahn’s Heir Comes of Age

Geek Culture

Heir to the Empire 20th Anniversary EditionHeir to the Empire 20th Anniversary Edition

Image: Del Rey Books

Sometime in the summer of 1991, when I had rented my first apartment and was staying in Bowling Green, Ohio between my sophomore and junior years of college, my hometown best friend Aaron came over for a visit.

He brought with him a thick, new hardback book with a giant Star Wars title logo emblazoned on the cover. And I’m sure my eyes did some Roger Rabbity pop-out thing while I stammered and wondered and spazzed a little, because Star Wars … had returned.

Two decades later, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire – The 20th Anniversary Edition, is set for a Sept. 6 release by Del Rey and LucasBooks.

It’s still difficult to convey the emotional impact of seeing this book, published eight years after Return of the Jedi‘s original theatrical run, at a time when the tides of Star Wars fandom had retreated to a niche audience level. Zahn even notes in his introduction to this new edition, that then-publisher Bantam Books “set the price of the book at fifteen dollars, considerably below market standard for hardcovers.”

Think about that for a second: A fully-licensed Star Wars tie-in was deliberately underpriced.

Zahn downplays the notion that Heir “restarted” Star Wars – A more accurate statement, he writes, would be that I was the first person since Jedi who was permitted to stick a fork into the piecrust to see if there was still any steam underneath.- but there’s no denying that this book’s debut atop the New York Times bestseller list was a Han Solo fist-to-the-console jolt for George Lucas’ property.

The 20th Anniversary edition features significant annotations by the author, notes from editor Betsy Mitchell, a foreword by Lucas Licensing president Howard Roffman, and a new dust jacket, although Tom Jung’s original artwork is reproduced in black and gray on the book cover itself. The book also concludes with a new Zahn novella, “Star Wars: Crisis of Faith.”

I’ve always felt that Zahn’s first works in the expanded Star Wars universe – Heir‘s story continued in Dark Force Rising and The Last Commandstand apart from the avalanche which followed. Very few of the book, comic or video game storylines grabbed me the way this trilogy (and some of Zahn’s related subsequent books) did, and I really enjoyed re-reading Heir to the Empire with Zahn’s notes and memories included in the margins.

If you’re unfamiliar Heir and its sequels, they marked the first time that an author was allowed to significantly continue the Star Wars storyline following Return of the Jedi, and the story focuses on the efforts of the tactical genius Grand Admiral Thrawn to re-establish the Empire as the Rebellion-birthed New Republic struggles to find its footing.

Early on, many of the notes address aspects of writing a new Star Wars story without the volumes of backstory and reference information which now exist. I thought one of Zahn’s neater ideas, for instance, was the suggestion that Darth Vader’s mask represented a stylized version of the Noghri, a species Zahn created as the Emperor’s personal death commandos.

Heir to the Empire cover by Tom JungHeir to the Empire cover by Tom Jung

Art by Tom Jung. Image: Del Rey Books

I also like that Zahn isn’t afraid to point out that there has been no effort to retcon some aspects of Heir to the Empire which don’t sync with the prequels or later stories. The Lucasfilm-supplied backround information he was working with, for example, indicated that the Clone Wars took place about 35 years before the events in the original Star Wars film. (Oh, fine: A New Hope. Get off my lawn.) Zahn notes in retrospect:

However, from the prequels we now know that the Clone Wars ended only 19 years before ANH. All the daties in Heir are therefore off by those sixteen years. Personally, I put it down to the chaos of information loss during the Empire, and sloppy work on the part of post-Empire historians.

He also writes about inadvertently planting seeds for his own later contributions to the Star Wars universe. There’s a moment in Heir where the always-frosty Thrawn loses his composure and lashes out at the Dark Jedi Jorus C’baoth. In the margins, Zahn notes:

Thrawn doesn’t show this kind of emotion very often. It’s likely some of this is the distant memories of his encounter years earlier with the original, nonclone C’baoth. Of course, I didn’t know that until years later when I wrote Outbound Flight. Another case of being able to fit pieces into a puzzle that at the time I didn’t even know I was making.

There’s also an insightful subset of entries among the annotations in which Zahn addresses the way he created and developed Thrawn as a character, deliberately establishing the Grand Admiral as a villain who leads not by coercion and fear but through valuing strategy and loyalty.

The included 50-page novella “Crisis of Faith,” centers on a strategic conflict beween Thrawn and Nuso Esva, a warlord introduced in Zahn’s July 2011 Star Wars novel Choices of One. I haven’t read that book, but even without the benefit of its context, “Crisis” is a quick and enteraining read in Zahn’s signature style and structure.

Heir to the Empire remains as good a read as it was 20 years ago, though to new readers, I’d still suggest reading the regular edition first – I mean, you wouldn’t recommend someone watch a movie for the first time with the director’s commentary on, right? For Star Wars fans already familiar with Zahn’s groundbreaking original Thrawn trilogy, though, this 20th Anniversary Edition provides plenty of reasons to revisit the tale.

Disclosure: Del Rey provided a copy of this book for review purposes.

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