Zahn’s Star Wars; Or, Will This Death be Permanent?

coruscant-small.jpgA scrappy rebellion, a victory against an evil overlord, leftover spaceships in the dark outer reaches of the galaxy, warriors with extraordinary powers (nearly wiped out), now on the verge of a comeback. Laughs, thrills, moments of sadness, moments of sheer action. Exciting stuff! And oh yeah, it’s a Star Wars tie-in novel.

I’ve been listening to Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars trilogy from the early 1990s – the first book is called Heir to the Empire, and I’m just about finished it (I’ve read it twice before, listening now for the first time). I have great fondness for Zahn’s original work: here on the Gutter, I’ve reviewed his recent Dragonback series (first four books and the conclusion), and a few years ago, a science-fiction novel set in NYC. But in some ways, Zahn made his reputation with Heir to the Empire and its two sequels (the Thrawn trilogy), since they were enormously, hugely popular.

Coincidentally, I ran across two links on the topic of media tie-in novels: John Scalzi takes detractors to task and Chris Roberson talks about writing a Warhammer 40K novel (based on a videogame based on a toy property, no less). I don’t have a particular bias one way or the other; I’ve been on the receiving end of ignorance and snark for my sci-fi tastes, and I’ve passed along some of the same myself. But media tie-in novels are probably the easiest thing in the world to avoid if you don’t care for them – a Star Wars novel generally trumpets STAR WARS in giant letters on the cover – so most offence can be chalked up to… people who like taking offence.

The other immediate issue: isn’t most media tie-in material crap? I agree, and Zahn is a master of this kind of action-packed story, so his example is not particularly generalizable. On the other hand, 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. Media tie-in or original property, you still have to look around for the good stuff.

To me, the
most interesting point to come out of the Scalzi comment thread (which is worth checking) is the
issue of canon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 is canon; a metric
truckload of other Buffy comics are not, and hence lower on the totem
pole. In some ways, this is short-hand for whether a certain line is
crossed: will characters change? Or do they have to return to how they
were at the beginning? Some recent Star Trek novels have apparently
worked in the direction of changing storylines (and definitively
defeating the Borg!
), but that’s not always been the case.

coruscant-big.jpgInterestingly, Star Wars is an exception. Everything is canon, for the simple reason that only authorized, tightly-controlled stories are allowed.

Star Wars trilogy had the historical accident of coming at a time when
Star Wars, as weird as this may seem, was not heavily merchandised… or
at least, heavily tied-in. And since the books take place after the classic movies, Zahn really took a free hand to the material. Lots of Zahn’s ideas have become key parts of the franchise: check out how often Coruscant, Zahn’s city-planet capital for the galaxy, shows up in the prequel movies. And Mara Jade, the antagonist/heroine of the trilogy, is such a popular character that she pops up everywhere in Star Wars history.

mentioned earlier that I had read Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy twice. In both
of those cases – back about two years after the books came out, and
then again ten years later – I inhaled the books so fast that I could
hardly remember anything about them, never mind do any kind of
analysis! Now that I’m listening to the books, it’s been interesting, and uncomfortable:
I’m forced to encounter the books at a pace that is… unnatural. These
books are designed to hit the reader at a blinding speed. Listening to the audiobook version, Heir to the Empire has held up surprisingly well and I’ve had time to ponder how Zahn does it.

My conclusion? A masterful control of pace. Zahn is really, really good
at set-up, and the situations flow from one to the other with such
force and breathlessness, it’s astounding. He really knows how to show
us the peril that the heroes are in. And as happens in Star Wars,
that’s often. He’s inherited, and faithfully mimics, many of the
annoying things about Lucas’ Star Wars, but I will have to say that
when the characters here say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” it’s
usually a more suspenseful situation than the movies.

I won’t argue that his prose is deathless, or that his characters are deep, or any such thing. Pretty clearly, Zahn gives us just enough characterization to not let the fast pace degenerate into one mindless action scene after another. Telling a story with such a fast yet balanced pace is a difficult achievement. That’s rare, media tie-in or not.


I’m planning to revisit Zahn’s Conqueror trilogy later this year, since I’d like to confirm my memory that it has all the thrills and spills of the Thrawn trilogy but in an original setting.

3 replies »

  1. it’s funny how much more i like star wars done by other people. genndy tarkovsky’s clone wars shored a lot of things up for me.


  2. My personal favorite (possibly because it was the first tie-in novel I read and maybe even the first Star Wars tie-in novel ever published) is Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
    However, I haven’t actually read very many of the Star Wars novels that came out after the 1980’s. (I was disappointed with the Han Solo books by Brian Daley; although I remember finding the Lando Calrissian series by L. Neil Smith pretty readable.) It sounds like Timothy Zahn’s books might be worth checking out.


  3. Just finished listening to the third book in the trilogy, The Last Command. There were some slower bits in the second and third books, but Zahn is a master of setting up and then paying off on the setup in a satisfying way. I remembered some of the twists and turns – like how Thrawn was listening in to the Imperial Palace, and the nature of Thrawn’s fate at the end – but I had forgotten the whole twist that’s related to the title of the third book. The resolution of the last command is something that’s kind of schematic, deeply logical, and satisfying all in one. Nicely played.
    Speaking again about how Zahn sets up his story, I think it’s in the pacing, but I also noticed that he uses dramatic irony heavily. For example, our heroes will be heading into a situation, and we already know it’s a trap. That’s a simple version; Zahn can really raise the tension in the various ways he uses this.
    Oh, and Thrawn’s final words are pretty classy! I can see why Zahn had to bring him back as a villain in some later books.


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