And I will admit right now that, for the last 18 or so years, I thought the novel was titled Heir to Empire. At least that is the way my brain stored it away. I prefer it without the definite article, but that might just be me.
Anyway, back to 1991, a dark time for Star Wars fans… this is long, and not game related, so I won’t flood the front page with it.
Winter in the Galaxy
The first three movies generated a storm of interest, especially when George Lucas said that he planned a series of nine movies to complete his vision of the Star Wars space epic. This lead to some classic Lucas back-tracking when he later cut that number to six, saying things like, “The whole story has six episodes…. If I ever went beyond that, it would be something that was made up.”
Because the stuff in the first six films really happened?
Anyway, there we were in 1991. It had been 8 years since Revenge of the Ewoks, and it would be another 8 years before midichlorians would finish what the muppets started, the destruction of the series in the eyes of the most dedicated fans, the ruination of a cherished childhood experience.
And in this gap, with no new movies in sight and George Lucas apparently content to milk the franchise through licenses with vendors like Micromachines, there was not much to sustain a fan of the series. Sure, we could get the movies on video tape by that point.
But there was a hunger for something more (besides more freakin’ Ewoks), a void to be filled within many of us.
A Book is Published
And onto this fertile ground Timothy Zahn (with the express written consent of Lucas Films and all relevant subsidiaries) cast Heir to the Empire.
It is easy to understate the influence of this novel, the first in a trilogy.
It named the capital of the Republic/Empire, the planet of Coruscant, which George Lucas used in the subsequent prequel episodes I-III.
It made it on to the flawed but influential New York Times Best Seller List.
And by being a pretty decent and very popular book, it revitalized the Star Wars fiction segment and lead to a whole stream of new Expanded Universe novels.
And when I say it was a decent book, that is my memory speaking. This book, and the trilogy it kicked off, sparked me to read a number of other Expanded Universe novels, most of which were not on the same level of quality. I cannot even recall any of the titles of those novels.
But I remember Heir to Empire… to the Empire. And so when I saw a mention of the 20th Anniversary edition of the novel on Amazon.com, I felt a need to go back and re-read it.
A sign that it was a good example of the breed is the fact that I almost never see it on the shelf in used bookstores. There is a big used bookstore in Mountain View that has a whole set of shelves devoted to Star Wars fiction, and there isn’t a copy of Heir to the Empire on it. At least there wasn’t when I last checked.
Against that there is the fact that somewhere in the last 19 years I got rid of my paperback copy of it and the rest of the trilogy. I generally hang on to books I think I will re-read, so obviously at some point I felt I would never bother going back.
I saw that the audio book version was available on Audible.com. I listen to audio books in the car during my commute and sometimes when gaming, and I have a grandfathered subscription plan from 2000 with Audible.com that gets me any two audio books for a flat monthly fee. That fee is less than the price of 99% of the audio books they sell, and it is a “use it or lose it” deal every month, so I am often willing to try new things, or get old things I have read before, than I would otherwise be at a regular bookstore.
The Audio Book
Audio books have their own quirks. The person who reads the book can greatly influence your enjoyment and I have often found that simple beats more elaborate production values that include music and sound effects, which often come across poorly with the highly compressed format I favor. (My format choice is an artifact of the days when I was listening to audio books on a 64MB Diamond Rio 500.)
The audio book version of Heir to the Empire is one of those fully produced ones, with music and sound effects, but they did a pretty good job.
Despite there being a single narrator listed, every character in the production has a distinctive voice. The narrator, Marc Thompson, has done a lot of Star Wars audio books, so he seems well in practice, though some are better than others.
Han, Luke, Lando, C-3P0, and the disembodied voice of Obi-wan Kenobi all sound pretty much like they do in the movies. Leia, Mara Jade, and just about any female voice isn’t quite up to par, while Captain Pellaeon sounds like a much older man than I would have placed him. And some of the other characters voices seem to have been borrowed… Admiral Ackbar is Reverend Jim from Taxi, Talon Karde is clearly Ricardo Montalban, and Aves, one of Karde’s associates, is channeling Jack Nicholson.
But it all pretty much works except for the one Wookie on Kashyyyk who can speak common. The extended effort to emulate a Wookie with a speech impediment speaking to Leia may be the most painful 10 minutes in audio book history. Fortunately it is only about 10 minutes… though I might have blacked out from the pain for a bit, so it could be longer.
Sound effects are all high quality and recognizable. R2D2 chirps, blaster fire, light sabers swings, X-wing engine sounds, and the whine of attacking TIE fighters all sound like they came straight from the Lucas sound library… which they probably did. Most do not add much to the production, but they do not get annoying, though once in a while TIE fighters seem to be attacking for freaking ever during a passage.
The Return of the Book
All of which leaves us with the book itself and how it has aged.
Whether to assuage any fears of the new, or to bring up to speed that odd-ball individual who has never seen the movies yet insists on picking up a copy of the book, the story spends a lot of time “remembering” things from Episodes IV-VI. It is like coming back from summer vacation and getting that refresher of what you learned last year before the teacher feels confident enough to move on into new territory.
On the New Republic side of things, the book sticks mostly with the cast of “good” guys you remember from the movies. Luke, Leia, Lando, Han, Chewbacca, R2D2, C-3P0, and Wedge Antilles all have prominent roles, which goes hand-in-hand with the “remembering” bit.
There are also some pretty silly/stupid things in the book.
Did you know when you make a clone of somebody, it makes an exact copy of them including all memories. In fact, the clone doesn’t know they are a clone, but thinks they are the original person. But you can spot a clone easily, because when a clone says its own name, it adds an extra vowel! So if you were a clone of somebody named Dave, you would probably pronounce your name “Da-ave.”
Seriously! Stop laughing! That is a fundamental plot point in the book!
And then there are the ysalamiri, sessile creatures that block the force. This seemed like a contrived plot complication in 1991 when we were all sure that the force was something that was part of all living things. But in the post-prequel era, you have to wonder what in the hell these creatures do to your midichlorian count. Does this cause some sort of force anemia?
So we have a stable of good guys we all know far too well and some odd choices for plot points, all in a post-Imperial universe. What can possibly bring this together and make it interesting?
The bad guys!
Specifically, Grand Admiral Thrawn. He has shown up in the post-Endor galaxy far, far away to take over the remnants of the Empire where he stands out by being neither arrogant nor incompetent.
Okay, he is arrogant, but he has reason. He is very smart. Is it arrogance when you are right all the time? He certainly impresses his subordinates with his keen intellect. Plus he doesn’t kill them for their errors nearly as often as Darth Vader. And he gets them all hitting back at their enemies in an effective manner.
He starts giving the New Republic fits as he begins to put his master plan to restore the empire into action.
Among his tidbits of knowledge, he also seems to be the only one who knows what really held the imperial fleet together under the Emperor. He alone seems to know why the imperials lost at Endor despite having a clear advantage in men and material.
Oh, and he needs a Jedi to complete his plans, which is kind of a tough call in the post-Endor galaxy, not to mention hazardous. Though as the Expanded Universe went on, it seemed like half the Jedi in the galaxy somehow avoided the great Jedi purge. Order 66 seemed more like Catch-22 in retrospect.
It is all one of those, “Need A to get B, B to get C, C to get D” situations for the Grand Admiral, which culminates with all the key players arriving rather coincidentally at the point of the grand finale. Imagine that!
So Was It Any Good?
It was not as good as I remembered it.
In addition to the silliness, there are too many “main” characters running around. When I read a book I almost always mentally latch onto one character and put myself in their place. They become my personal point of view on the book. This is easy in a book with a clear main protagonist. I am always Yossarian, or Thomas Covenant, or Hiro Protagonist, or whoever, even if I cannot see myself behaving like them in any way.
But in a big cast of main characters, I almost favor the person most like myself. And the only person for whom I found any real affinity for in the whole affair was Captain Pellaeon, who is a bit lost throughout the whole thing. I suppose that isn’t bad, but he doesn’t have a major role, he is just always around, which put some mental distance between me and a lot of the rest of the cast, because I wasn’t identifying with them.
And the book today feels like it was written at a young adult level, though it did not feel that way to me 20 years ago when I was… a younger adult than I am now. It wasn’t… intellectually satisfying?
I will compare it to a meal. Some meals leave me full and satisfied. Others leave me immediately hungry for more. This left me neither full nor interested in more. I am not sure I will pick up the remaining two books in the trilogy, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. I’ve read them. I know how things turn out. And there are two additional post-trilogy novels, Spectre of the Past and Vision of the Future which mildly interest me.
Still, if you are a hardcore Star Wars fan… then you’ve read this book already. Seriously, you cannot say you are a fan of the Expanded Universe and then admit to not having read the Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy.
So would I recommend this book (and its follow-ons) to anybody?
I suppose if you want to relive a simpler time in a galaxy far, far away when the force was a mystery and not a medical condition, you might be happy with this book. The key characters from the original movies are all there and ring true to how you remember them. And they spend a lot of time remembering the same stuff you probably like to hearken back to. Plus you can probably knock out each book in a weekend. These are not Robert Jordan tomes.
As for me, I am going to go back to the Legacy of the Aldenata series for my next audio book