Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, the Last Command) – Timothy Zahn

1-heirI might as well sacrifice one more day of applying for jobs or revising my novel in order to do something that really matters, like telling you what Jedi knights drink. It’s hot chocolate. Apparently the Jedi drink hot chocolate. The early scene in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy where Luke tells C-3PO about the amazing drink Lando told him about pretty much encapsulates the uncanny valley of any Star Wars story not directly influenced by George Lucas. There’s just something off about this series, like when someone tells you, “I am just an average earth human

The story begins with the shattered remnants of the Imperial fleet taking a page from the Confederate South’s playbook, hoping to rise again after the war of rebel aggression. Super-top-secret Grand Admiral Thrawn, a phenomenal military tactician with a chiseled jaw, the eyes of Hannibal Lecter, and the smooth, beautiful skin of a deeply-tanned smurf, has discovered Palpatine’s old mountain full of secrets, and wants to use them to get out of the corner of the galaxy the rebels put him in to think about what he did. On his way, he discovers an old Jedi (apparently Palpatine’s order 66 was implemented about as effectively as Trump’s Muslim ban) who’s about as stable as a Jenga tower on the San Andreas fault. Fortunately, he had also just discovered a species of lizard that repels the Force, so the Jedi’s attacks had less of an impact than a carefully placed spit ball. Thrawn postulates that the Emperor had a habit of using the Force to coordinate battles (not very surprising, since we know that Qui-Gon cheated at dice, and I’m pretty sure Yoda rigged a few synchronized swimming events in his 900-year life), and strikes a deal with the new guy to do the same.

Meanwhile, Luke is drinking hot chocolate, Han knocked up Leia, Lando’s still trying to be a respectable businessman, the New Republic senators are laying a trap for Admiral Ackbar with no sense of irony whatsoever, Chewie still hasn’t torn anyone’s arms out of their sockets, and Jabba’s replacement has decided to forgo the lard-induced hedonism and actually hire his sexy sidekick—who just happens to want to murder the crap out of Luke—as his top aid.

2-darkI actually tried reading this series twice when I was younger, and both times I lost interest around the beginning of the third book. I finished this time around, but I know why the series struggles—the villains and the heroes interact about as much as I do with large sums of cash. The original movies were entirely about interaction between heroes and villains. Vader captured and tortured Leia in a way that would make Ned Stark proud. The second act of a New Hope put the heroes directly into the enemy lair, proving my mom wrong, that you can mix your lights and your darks and expect them to come out just as clean as before. Obi-Wan confronts Vader about his regrets over being a lousy teacher (trust me…any teacher who looks back at their first few years understands the urge to let your students have a free swipe at you), and Vader personally hops in a tie fighter—a ship that has the same safety rating as a bottle rocket—to take on Luke at the end. And that’s just the first movie! The Empire Strikes Back continues that trend of interaction, but changes the dynamic into that crushing disappointment you feel when you finally look up your biological father only to find out he’s waaaaay more right-wing than you’re comfortable with.

Meanwhile, Thrawn spends the trilogy sitting behind his desk like an eighth grader with an erection. He makes an intriguing character, to the point where I wished Zahn would focus less on Han and Leia and tell us more about Thrawn, but the only conflicts he has with other characters is with the Jedi he hired without checking his references. Since the Imperials immediately start bickering like Bill and Hillary, they never really get their act together in a way that threatens the heroes, and as soon as Leia starts accepting friend requests from the same species as Thrawn’s bodyguard, the bookies stopped accepting bets on the Grand Admiral’s death. Worst of all, because of this lack of interaction, the anti-Force Lizard League, and because Bonkers McNotasith doesn’t actually use a lightsaber, we never get to see Luke use his newfound Jedi powers for anything more than wisely settling a dispute between two guys in a bar. Because Star Wars fans really only wanted an intergalactic episode of Judge Judy. So with no one to fight, anytime we see Luke pull out his lightsaber, it’s usually to cut open a door, emergency escape route, or especially tightly-sealed jam jars.

However, the trilogy did make it onto several lists of top sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time, so there must be something worth reading. Even though Zahn treats the original cast like a rich kid who was given last year’s toys for Christmas (even going so far as to play up Vader as an incompetent, bumbling meathead with a short fuse—and mind you, this was years before the prequel trilogy had been written), his original characters have a lot more appeal. Thrawn truly comes off as a genius tactician, capable of predicting his opponents’ every move. The crazy Jedi gives off that same creepy, get-me-out-of-here vibe that my doctor did when he started spouting right-wing conspiracy theories during my last appointment. Even the new gangster in town, Talon Kardde, manages that Han-Solo-esque charm without feeling like a Han Solo clone. But the real star of the show is Mara Jade, the Ahab to Luke Skywalker’s Dick. Uh, Moby Dick, that is.

3-lastIf anyone has a conflict comparable to Luke’s do-I-kill-my-dad problem from the original trilogy, it’s Mara Jade. For that alone, Zahn should have written the entire book to focus on her. She’s Force-sensitive, but carries a mysterious vendetta against Luke, and while she has good reasons for it, she’s never quite clear if she wants him dead, or if she’s being manipulated by voices and dreams sent to her through the Force. Unfortunately, lacking any clear protagonist, Jade gets far too little screen time, as Zahn has clearly favored scenes of the original heroes having conversations in bars, so the one character who could give the Star Wars books an actual Star Wars feel is rarely present. But if you liked the cantina scene in A New Hope, boy are you in luck! Unless you liked it for Obi-wan’s spontaneous dismembering of the other patrons, or for the clever character development where Han Shoots Greedo in Cold Blood, thereby introducing us to the fact that Luke might be heading into deep space with a potentially crazed murderer. But if it was the dialogue and the setting you liked…good news.

So perhaps it’s a good book, but doesn’t know exactly why it’s good. I think when George Lucas extended the original trilogy to the prequels, he pretty much established that that’s the Star Wars way. Disney has taken subtle inspiration from Zahn’s novels, so it’s possible they’ll throw us a nod to Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn in episodes VIII and IX. But then again, Disney has managed to produce an episode VII where every line is less memorable than, “Mesa Jar-Jar binks.” You’ll probably just want to read the books.

In other news, I just started Final Fantasy XII. Be prepared for a lot of book reviews and possibly a few off-weeks. I’ve never finished that game in less than 100 hours.

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