Book Review: Heir to the Empire


We now come to the beginning of the Star Wars Expanded Universe as we know it.

Writer: Timothy Zahn
Publication Date: May 1st, 1991.

Heir to the Empire is available from Amazon.com in paperback, in an annotated hardcover edition (which I recommend), and an audio book (which I also really recommend).

Plot Notes

It is 5 years after the Battle of Endor and the death of the Emperor. The Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic, and has taken the capitol of the old Empire – Coruscant. The Empire has become fragmented and disjointed, with more and more factions getting pushed to the periphery. One of these factions, lead by an Imperial officer notable both for his skill as a tactician as for being a rare non-human in the Imperial military – Grand Admiral Thrawn – has a plan to drive the Republic from the Galaxy.

In this book, we see the first phase of Thrawn’s plan. First, recruiting the insane clone of a dead Jedi master with the promise of Luke Skywalker and/or the twin children of Princess Leia Organa-Solo and Han Solo. Second, obtain cloaking device technology from a storehouse of Imperial technology on the planet Wayland, (along with cloning cylinders). Third, launch a series of hit-and-run raids against Republic member worlds (and potential future member worlds) to spread their forces thin, not only in terms of using warships to transport freight, but in terms of escorts for those ships. Finally, steal or cripple as much of the Republic fleet as possible when they are concentrated at the Sluis Van shipyards.

Meanwhile, through all of this, Luke, Han, and Leia are coming across pieces of this plan through various means, through repelling kidnapping attempts against Leia and her unborn twins, through facing an attack against Lando’s new business venture on the mining colony of Niklon, ultimately leading to the planet of Myrkr and a smuggler chief named Talon Karrde, and his lieutenant Mara Jade, who now find themselves caught in between the Empire and the Republic. Karrde wants to stay on the fence, but wants to take out Luke, due her own dark background…

Worldbuilding

Hoo boy.

  • First work of Star Wars prose fiction set after the events of the original trilogy, and with it the establishment of what form the Empire would take after the original trilogy – the Empire being splintered into regions of space ruled various warlords, while the Republic fights off the warlords while also approaching various free worlds for membership.
  • Introduction of Imperial Grand Admirals
  • Introduction of the Chiss (but not by name)
  • Introduction of the Noghri
  • Introduction of the concept of the Unknown Regions as a geographic region of space.
  • Introduction of the concept that the Force is something that can be pushed back on (which will be retconned to hell and back once the Prequels happen)
  • Introduction of the Emperor’s Hand(s) – force-sensitive agents of the Emperor who answer directly to him. Presumably if Vader and Luke were slain by the Emperor (and the Emperor survived), one of his Hands would take Vader’s place as his Apprentice (probably following some big convoluted thing with the Hands being directed to slay each other, with the survivor becoming the Apprentice.
  • Wookies have cultural prohibitions against fighting with their claws, and the lower levels of Kashyyyk have a variety of incredibly dangerous predators.

Characterization

Luke Skywalker: Luke is training Leia in the ways of the Force. At this time he has no additional students. He has resigned his commission in the Republic military, but is still working in the government to assist in diplomatic efforts.

Leia Organa-Solo: Is married to Han Solo and is expecting twins. In spite of being very pregnant, is still part of the Republic Council and involved in diplomatic efforts to get new worlds to join the Republic.

Han Solo: Married to Leia. No longer part of the Republic military, but working with the Republic Council to try and get various Smugglers to go legit and ship for the Republic now that the Empire is on the ropes.

Lando Calrissian: Has not re-taken Cloud City, instead having moved on to a new business venture with the planet Niklon, with an ambulatory colony moving across the surface of the planet (a concept that was used in Kim Stanley Robinson’s story The Memory of Whiteness from 1985)

R2-D2: Has not only not gotten a memory wipe since Luke first got him in ANH, he’s built a level of counterpart familiarity with Luke’s X-Wing that makes him work better with the X-wing than any other astromech droid (indeed maintenance checks on Luke’s X-Wing can’t be run without R2.)

C3-P0: Can be re-programmed to have another human’s voice (though it’s against 3P0’s programming).

Chewbacca: Chewie’s life-debt is actually introduced for the first time here.

Other Notes

It bears mentioning that in between the conclusion of Marvel’s Star Wars run and Heir to the Empire, there was effectively no new Star Wars meant to expand on the universe, with a handful of exceptions -the Droids animated series, the Ewoks animated series, the Ewoks films, and the Star Wars RPG from West End Games. The first two are generally ignored from canon. The Ewok films are still discussed because, for a large part, they were the only new live action Star Wars anything to come out between the release of Return of the Jedi and, technically, Rebel Assault II.

However, the West End Games Star Wars RPG is something of a bigger deal, but one that skated clean under the radar unless you were into Tabletop role-playing. The books were less responsible for a degree of narrative expansion of the Star Wars universe, as much as they built out the world, introducing a variety of new weapons, worlds, vehicles, and starships to the universe. I’m not going to go through all of the books, but I’ll probably do a video on the topic later.

This is somewhat notable as because in between the ending of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, and the release of Heir to the Empire – there was no new “real” Star Wars. There was the Ewoks and Droids ancillary works, as mentioned above, but there were no new stories being told for the same level of audience that the films were aimed for. If you wanted Star Wars, you had kids books and that’s it.

By comparison, after the original Star Trek series was canceled for the second time, there were still novels published between the cancellation of the series and the release of The Motion Picture, and from the release of TMP on, there has been a steady diet of comics and novels in between the release of the films. Even Doctor Who had the Virgin New Adventures novels, BBC novels, and Big Finish radio plays throughout the long “hiatus”.

My Thoughts

This is the perfect way to bring Star Wars back out of its long dormancy. Tonally the book fits perfectly with the films. It’s like going back home again after spending a few years away for college – things have clearly changed, but a lot of things are still the same. It’s the same here – the conflict with the Empire is still on, but as you’d expect after the end of Jedi, they’re on the ropes – but enough time has passed that it make sense that they’d be this much on the ropes (instead of keeling over almost immediately like they do in the current chronology).

The book also continues on expanding on the worldbuilding in a way that fits with the way the films did it – hinting at other things that imply there’s a larger picture, but which doesn’t spell too much out. We hear more about the Clone Wars, and other Jedi, but we don’t see all of it. The dialog just fits with the voices of the characters in the film, and you can basically hear some of the score when you’re reading the book. I’m not just saying that now having listened to the audio book in addition to having read the book – this was the case when I was in middle school and read the book for the first time.

All in all, Heir to the Empire is a good step forward for what would become the modern EU, and definitely worth reading in whatever form you can find it.

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