The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn
Bantam Spectra, 1991-1993
Having thoroughly disliked the last two films and vowing not to pay to see another after Rogue One, I got to thinking about what could have been a few months ago. And after being reminded of the Thrawn trilogy on a best of science fiction/fantasy list I decided it was worth a look and acquired the paperback trilogy soon after.
I’ve generally been disappointed with the novels I’ve read in the Star Wars expanded universe and this is even going back to when I was a teenager and the books were aimed at my reading level. They always seemed corny and though I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, I felt they clung too closely to the films. The Thrawn Trilogy hasn’t changed my mind.
I have to say upfront that I generally enjoyed these three books for what they were but they didn’t improve my opinion of Star Wars novels in general. They certainly don’t belong on any list of notable sci-fi/fantasy books where I found them listed though I’d certainly encourage any younger readers who like Star Wars to give them a go.
Before I get into the parts I disliked, I’ll start with what I did. As I mentioned, what prompted me to read them was my disgust with the more recent Star Wars films. I can say that Timothy Zahn has done a far better job with what followed the original trilogy than what Episode VII and (I can only assume) VIII has done. It makes sense that there is a New Republic and that its existence is precarious. It also makes sense that remnants of the Empire would be holding on to any part of the galaxy they could; and that there would be a leader among this remnant ambitious enough to try and restore the Empire’s former glory.
This brings us to Grand Admiral Thrawn who really is the most interesting character in this series as its name indicates. He is interesting and imposing and comes off as a credible threat to the fledgling New Republic. As he has no power over the Force and lacks the military might of the Empire, it is good that Zahn never tries to overplay how threatening he really is. This fits into another positive of the series in that Zahn never tries to re-live or ape the events of the original trilogy.
The only problem with Thrawn is that his ability as a tactician and strategist was sometimes stretched to absurd lengths. As an example, in one part of the story he sees perfectly through an act of subterfuge by the protagonists that had to be carefully explained to the reader in character dialogue just pages earlier. Then sometimes he is fooled by far less complicated acts when it is convenient for the story.
Mara Jade is another character first introduced in this trilogy and before these stories became Legends (read: didn’t happen), to make way for whatever the Disney corporate offices come up with; she was a very popular character. She actually becomes Luke Skywalker’s wife and the mother of his son in later stories. I was generally unimpressed with her myself. While understanding these novels were written in the early 1990s, she is still a typical ‘kick-ass’ female trope and nothing more. She predates Xena and is contemporary with Sarah Connor though only the latter makes sense with this trope. I also found her connection with the original trilogy as a senior hench(wo)man of the Emperor incongruous and well… silly. I actually think there should be a rule about making new characters that were previously unknown yet somehow tied closely with major events in earlier stories. If there isn’t already a name for them, calling them a “Mara” would be a good fit.
And this brings me to what I suppose must be the biggest problem I have with these books. Now I am sure that the author was creatively limited in a number of ways by people with red pens at Lucasfilm, but I think at the very least, he could have done a better job with the dialogue. The first time a character repeats a line from the original films, I brushed it off but by the time Admiral Ackbar actually uses the word “trap”, it had become nauseating. They might not have been “memes” back then but people still made jokes about these lines and there are so many reused. “I know,” “golden rod”, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”, “It’s me” and it goes on. There are also frequent references to events in the original trilogy when events or locations remind them of a time, place, battle or some other event from the movies along with what seemed forced revisits of places like Endor and Dagobah.
These are small things to be sure and probably assumed to be welcome by readers but I would have preferred they tried to develop the characters beyond the films. They aren’t really developed at all though and are much the same as they were at the end of Return of the Jedi. Leia and Han are married and Leia has twins in the course of the events but you learn nothing new about them. Luke, Chewbacca, Lando, the droids and even Wedge are the same. And I don’t mean this to be interpreted as a complaint that they aren’t completely different but that there is no growth and nothing to learn about them that isn’t found in the films. Wedge as an example, could have been much better developed since he has but a few lines in each of the films and we only know he’s a good pilot.
Where there are genuinely new aspects introduced they are generally silly. One in particular was the introduction of the ysalamiri lizard-creatures which create bubbles where Force users are unable to exert control over it. These animals are central to much of the plot and similar to kryptonite in Superman, seem to be employed as a lazy way to hold back Luke’s abilities. This could have been done better in a variety of ways especially since a single Jedi can still be overwhelmed no matter how powerful. They are also absurd since their existence would no doubt have seen them bred widely when Jedi were the Galaxies defenders. It seems to me that such creatures would either be so prevalent as to make Jedi powers virtually useless, or their existence would have necessitated their annihilation by both Jedi and Sith. The universal nature of the Force is thus undermined for a plot device.
In mentioning Sith, I was struck that this word did not seem to exist at the time this was written as the evil Jedi in the story is called a ‘Dark Jedi’. This character named C’baoth existed at the time of the original trilogy despite Luke being told explicitly he was the last of the Jedi in the films. The explanation of him being hidden somehow and also a clone doesn’t work any better than Mara’s origins. What is interesting though is not so much the character but how little had been developed back then. George Lucas did a very good job of convincing everyone there was a lot more than there was to the original movies. And it is clear just from reading these books how little developed the universe was at the time.
As with the blandness of the newer films, these has given me some better feelings towards the prequel trilogy. To be clear, I did not and do not now like them but within the poor writing, visual effect flooded messes, there were original stories with original characters and they did at least feel like Star Wars films. This probably explains why video games have been much more successful with the license in general. As they can take aspects people like from the films whether Jedi or starfighters and make something compelling out of them with little in the way of a plot needed to drive the gameplay.
With all this criticism it might seem that I have contradicted what I stated earlier about liking the books. I really did enjoy them for what they were but they would have to have been significantly altered to work as a film trilogy. Warts and all though, they would have been far better than what we ended up with. If you loved the original trilogy and have hated everything since, I think I can give these books a cautious recommendation but only that.