Today will be a day long remembered for Star Wars fans, particularly for enthusiasts of the Expanded Universe: LucasBooks has released their Star Wars: Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition written by Timothy Zahn. The novel has long been an enduring fixture in the reading collections not only of Star Wars fans, but also for general readers of Sci-Fi as well. Zahn contributed a significant first chapter in the beginning of a journey that would continue expanding the cosmos of Star Wars.
Originally released in 1991, Heir to the Empire was the first part of The Thrawn Trilogy. Set five years after Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance has claimed Coruscant and instituted the New Republic. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Empire have coalesced under the strategic genius and foresight of Grand Admiral Thrawn, placing the Imperial Forces under the strongest direction it has had since the fall of Palpatine and Vader, and becoming a new menace to the infancy of the New Republic.
The updated hardcover edition of the novel is presented with substantial annotations on many aspects of the story — written by Zahn himself, detailing his thoughts on the genesis of precise moments during the novel, his explanations of some of the continuity issues that arise, and general musings on the seeds he was unknowingly planting for his future Star Wars works.
For a great deal of the younger fans out there, it is probably hard to comprehend why LucasBooks and the fans are making such a big deal over this 20th anniversary release. Once you consider where the world of Star Wars was back in 1991, it is not hard to imagine.
In 1991, it had been 8 years since the release of any Star Wars film. The only novels to have been released aside from the film novelizations were Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye (right after the release of the first Star Wars) and then the adventures of Han Solo and then Lando Calrissian (written by Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith, respectively), but it had been over a decade since the latter books were first released.
In a nutshell, by 1991, there was nothing out there for Star Wars fans. In effect, it could be fair to say that in a pre-prequel world, a majority of fans simply had fond memories of the films and the simple concept that “new stuff” could come out just never entered our minds. Pretty astonishing when looking at it in retrospect, isn’t it?
The significance of Heir to the Empire is that it was the first officially approved Star Wars novel to be released since the theatrical screenings of the movies. And it exploded. Fans snapped up copies of the novelization, and word began spreading that Star Wars was back. The book reached the New York Times bestseller list, and fandom was reignited with life in that strange pre-internet world.
The novel’s sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, also sold splendidly and attained as many positive reviews as the first chapter did. With The Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn was responsible for opening the floodgates of what now seems inevitable: the beginning of an exploration into the Star Wars universe beyond the Original Trilogy — an exploration that continues to this day. Commonly referred to as the Expanded Universe, I prefer to think of it as the Expanding Universe â€“ a universe in which Zahn is still contributing to in this era.
The Thrawn Trilogy is responsible for pioneering a significant new cast of characters alongside Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, and others. Many of these characters continue to be incorporated into new novel releases, 20 years later. However, there were two individuals introduced by Zahn that would go beyond becoming long-loved characters — they would become iconic.
Chiefly among these characters was Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Chiss military strategist with the blue skin and the radiant red eyes would not only become a fan favorite, he would become a significant representation of the new Empire under the watchful eyes of author Timothy Zahn. Thrawn was an unbelievable strategist who was drawn to artworks that in turn helped him appreciate species and cultures, which in turn helped him understand how they thought and reacted in warfare. He was continually leaps ahead of the New Republic, and always had larger and longer term ideas and models in mind with every step he took.
The other iconic character was Mara Jade. Formerly an Imperial Agent known as The Emperor’s Hand, the novel finds Jade working with Talon Karrde’s smuggling and intelligence operations. Force-sensitive, calculating, and methodical, Mara Jade appears in Heir to the Empire as a character we are very uncertain about: is she an ally or is she an enemy? With the benefit of hindsight, we know the answer now, and also know the magnitude she eventually plays in future novels. The popularity of Mara Jade was later solidified when model Shannon McRandle portrayed her in a series of photo shoots used for a variety of Star Wars products. McRandle brought a surprising lifelike aspect to the character that fans had not previously consideredâ€¦ causing a further surge of popularity for Jade.
Regardless of how you look at it, Heir to the Empire (along with the rest of The Thrawn Trilogy) is perhaps one of the most major releases in the history of the Star Wars franchise. Released during a “Jedi Drought,” the triumph of the novels would not only pave the way for future books and comics, but also contributed to the eventual resurgence of the series overall, and no doubt contributed to Lucas’ decision to continue work on the Star Wars yarn. In spite of its historical place in the franchise, the novel continues to be one of many books pointed to by fans as a “must-read”, and continues to be a good introduction to the Expanded Universe for new readers as well.
Star Wars: Heir to The Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn was released today, September 6, 2011. It was published by LucasBooks, and is currently available at hardcover and for the Kindle.