'Star Wars: Heir to the Empire' at 20: An EW tribute, plus author Timothy Zahn on Mara Jade and whether Thrawn could've won at Endor


Twenty years ago Star Wars began its true second act. Not on the big screen, mind you, or the tube, but in print. It was eight years after Return of the Jedi, eight before The Phantom Menace, and while George Lucas was still filling legal pads full of notes about Gungans and midichlorians, author Timothy Zahn published Heir to the Empire and forever changed the way fans thought about that Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Rather than fill-in backstory to tales fans already knew, as earlier novels like Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures had done, Zahn set his cosmic yarn five years AFTER Return of the Jedi, then a completely unexplored part of the Star Wars timeline. Fans of the movies found out that, no, the Empire was not defeated overnight with the death of Emperor Palpatine and the destruction of the Second Death Star—in spite of that Jedi-capping orgy of drunken Ewoks. In fact, though the Rebel Alliance had become the New Republic and controlled half the galaxy from the Empire’s former capital at Coruscant (which Zahn himself named), the Imperial Navy was set to launch perhaps its greatest onslaught ever—led by the blue-skinned, red-eyed, art-loving master tactician Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Unlike Vader and Palpatine, Thrawn was no Manichaean symbol of evil, but an incredibly charismatic and even sympathetic foe—Erwin Rommel crossed with Sherlock Holmes—but just as deadly. Heir to the Empire was the first of three novels penned by Zahn (the others being Dark Force Rising and The Last Command) that charted Thrawn’s war against the New Republic and delved deep into his dizzying array of tactics, like blockading Coruscant with asteroids rendered invisible by cloaking devices; finding a presumed-mythical fleet of Old Republic-era dreadnaughts thought lost after their crews went mad; employing Force-blocking ysalamiri to repel Jedi; even going so far as to clone Luke Skywalker from the hand Vader cut off on Cloud City. Remember that creepy, dream-like vision Luke receives on Dagobah about fighting himself in The Empire Strikes Back? Consider that a portent of what happens for real at the end of The Last Command.

Previous Star Wars novels had tried to capture the quirky, retro thrills of the movies, harkening back to ’30s Flash Gordon serials and Saturday morning cartoons. The Thrawn Trilogy, for all its operatic flair, grounded Star Wars in a new, more tactile reality, taking that “used universe” concept from the movies to its lived-in limit, while populating that world with terse military brass and haunted anti-heroes, like the Eastwood-esque smuggler Talon Karrde (who always shoots first) and Mara Jade, the crimson-haired former Emperor’s Hand hell-bent on assassinating the baby-faced Rebel she suspects killed her master, Palpatine: one Mr. Luke Skywalker. Jade defined a new breed of tough-talking, no-nonsense sci-fi heroine years before Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck brawled and imbibed her way into fangirls’ hearts. And even as she was trying to kill Luke, you just knew she was the only woman for him.

Poll any diehard Star Wars fan, and he or she will tell you that if George Lucas ever gets around to making a “sequel” trilogy, it should be an adaptation of Zahn’s three-book opus. Why? It was the characters that above all made Heir to the Empire and its follow-ups such a geeky treat—after all, what was Thrawn’s greatest weapon? His intellect.—and it launched what we now know as the Expanded Universe: dozens of novels, ebooks, and comics set up to 130 years after the original Star Wars and 5,000 years before it, like the 19-book New Jedi Order series that saw a fanatical extra-galactic alien horde invade the Star Wars galaxy or the current Fate of the Jedi series, many of which still crack the New York Times Bestsellers List, which Heir to the Empire topped 20 years ago.

Now, to celebrate the anniversary, Del Rey Books has released a 20th anniversary re-issue of Heir with annotations from Timothy Zahn himself about the creation of his epic. Here are three EW’s been authorized to reprint in their entirety:

Zahn on the greatest compliment Grand Admiral Thrawn’s ever received and whether he could have defeated the Rebels at Endor:

“I think the greatest compliment Thrawn has ever received came from a U.S. serviceman. (I can’t remember if he was a soldier or Marine.) He told me he and his buddies had read the Thrawn Trilogy, and had agreed that they would unreservedly follow a commander like Thrawn. Oh, and what would have happened if Thrawn had been in command at Endor? The Rebels, in my humble opinion, would almost certainly have lost.”

On how he came up with a literary shorthand to describe a lightsaber’s iconic sound:

“I thought long and hard about how to write the sound of an igniting lightsaber. I finally went with snap-hiss.”

On the creation of Mara Jade:

“Mara Jade’s creation began with a simple idea and plan: to tie the opening section of Return of the Jedi more closely to the main story presented by the Star Wars movies.

To elaborate a bit. Han’s rescue was, of course, a vital part of Jedi. But to me, it always felt a little disconnected from the main Rebellion plot line. (Which it was, of course. Rescuing Han was strictly personal, on everyone’s part.)

As I mulled it over, it occurred to me that, after Vader’s attempt to persuade Luke to join him in The Empire Strikes Back, the Emperor might very well have decided that Luke was more liability than potential asset and sent someone to take him out when he turned up at Jabba’s palace.

What kind of person might Palpatine send? It would have to be someone competent, naturally. It would also have to be someone who could meet Luke’s Jedi power head-on. Finally, it would have to be someone who was out of the normal chain of command, lest Vader get wind of the plan.

From all that came the idea of the Emperor’s Hand, a shadowy agent under Palpatine’s sole command. And from that, ultimately, came Mara Jade.”

Did you read Heir to the Empire when it first came out? If so, have you followed the Expanded Universe in the two decades since? And is Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy still the apex of the Expanded Universe?

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Comments (65 total) Add your comment
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  • zahn should have been involved in the prequels…

    Loved the Zahn trilogy. Everything he came up with was better than the garbage George gave us in the prequels. It would be wonderful to see these on the screen someday, but hard to see other actors as the core 3 (MH, HR and CF are just way too old at this point). Maybe an animated version from the Clone Wars team with the original actor voices? Seeing Mara Jade, Talon Karrde and Thrawn come to life would be fantastic.

    • Chase

      Totally agree… Great story, awesome bad guy. Zhan was a bad guy that you could like.

      • Melinda

        Zahn is a brilliant sci-fi writer and Thrawn is a fantastic character.
        But the whole deal about cloning Luke’s hand was a pathetic and embarrassing stain on this series. The fake Luuuukke is on the level of Jar Jar Binks, but even more desperate and ridiculous.

      • Good Luck Charlie

        The books were good BUT it also had its flaws like all other Star Wars books where they ‘wink-wink’ at the reader with full on quotes from the previous movies. As far as movies go – DO NOT LET LUCAS near this, he is a hack, it is better left to our imagination just as the backstory of Vader should have been left to our imagination

      • will

        I cringed when Luuke was introduced.

    • Roekest

      THIS series should be the next trilogy. Never shoulda had the prequels….

      • kinman

        You are so right!! I wish Lucas would go ahead with his idea on the next trilogy, if not give it to Peter Jackson to do it and he just produce the movies. Either way Lucas should consider it.

  • Scott P.

    I didn’t read it when it FIRST came out, but shortly thereafter. Plus, I was at an age where I could/wanted to pick up the kid books with no problem too. So I learned about the Solo kids dorky adventures after reading about them being born in the Thrawn Trilogy. I followed the Expanded Universe up until the newest series started. After what happened at the end of the Legacy of the Force series, I can’t really take any of the Skywalker/Solos seriously anymore. You’ll try to bring a girl raised as a Sith back from the dark side but not bother with one of your own at all? Really? :\

    Anyone starting the EU should definitely pick up Zahn’s books. They’re great.

  • will

    The Thrawn Trilogy was good but bloated. Two books would have been enough.

  • John

    Even though I’m a bigger Michael Stackpole fan myself, I love the characters that Zahn created, Thrawn especially. While the post-Jedi EU has become a little too bloated for my tastes, I’ll always remember what Zahn created fondly. He was a worthy pioneer and blazed a fantastic trail.

  • nodnarb

    The Zahn books are the best of the expanded universe novels, but that’s not exactly setting the bar high. And no, this Star Wars die-hard doesn’t think they should be made into films.

    • JK

      I agree, no movies for these books. I read these in hard back when they came out: They sucked then, they suck now.

  • Cygnus

    I still have my original first edition print. Last I looked it’s worth a couple of hundred bucks. Hope to hold it a while longer, and perhaps see movies made from it some day.

  • Jenn

    Love Timothy Zahn’s SW books. All of them. And Michael A. Stackpole was another writer where you knew the book would be good and characters spot-on. I’ve said it before – if George Lucas would have let Zahn and Stackpole write the prequels, I think we would be having verrrry different discussions about those movie (if only!). I stopped reading the expanded universe somewhere in the beginning of New Jedi Order. But whenever I find out that Zahn has written a SW book I pick it up.
    And actually, I have to say that I don’t really want to see them made into movies because they would re-cast everyone nowadays (HF, CF, and MH can’t pass for “five years after ROJ” anymore) and that’s just no fun.

    • Hien

      I would much rather have these books as ebkoos. I would buy them and a second copy of Fatal Alliance if I could put them on my Nook. I’m willing to give you money if you let me, but I’ll have to hit the torrent sites instead.

  • Trista Blair

    I read the Zahn trilogy when I was in high school. I worked in a library and was the first to get my hands on the book. I was absolutelu riveted. I was not all that into SciFi /Fantasy at the time and because I knew the characters it was a good first forray into the genre. Of course I had to stop reading when the killed Mara Jade.

    • Chase


    • John

      I also stopped reading when they killed Mara Jade. Just did not care anymore.

      No lie, I actually shed a tear. End of an era, man…

  • Jean

    I was just thinking about buying this on my Kindle the other day. I read the books when they first came out and I was 13 years old. Mara Jade. Loved her.

  • TKGM

    I was a huge fan of these books and they kept me reading in my early middle school years as I blazed my way through these, the Jedi Academy series and more. I agree that Zahn’s and Stackpole’s books were the best. I might just have to pick this up.

  • Gerry

    Man, I loved these books when I was a kid. This was when I’d eagerly digest anything *new* that was Star Wars before the prequels forever tarnished it.

    Loved these books and Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures – which were better than the ones where we learn every single detail about Han’s life (prequel BS). I liked that they were just him and Chewbacca getting into all kinds of pre-New Hope adventures.

  • Psac

    The books had some good and bad parts. It went a little overboard with the clones, though it made more sense that the cloning was a more widely-used technology than just having all clones be a copy of Jango Fett. I thought the ysalamiri was a terrible idea. The idea that these animals could block the force was as bad as the force coming from the midichlorians. Overall a good read, though.

  • Vicky

    It’s been so long since I read these books. Might be time to break them out again.

  • pie thrower

    I have the first print editions of all three novels and since I met Mr. Zahn at Star Wars Celebration III, I now have them autographed.

    They are not bad reads, but far from the best. 50% of EU books are terrible especially the ones that involve Han, Luke and Leia. Why? Because it is hard to put those marvelous wisecracking characters down on paper.

    Oddly enough, the books that focus on the prequels are far better as they foreshadow and dwell the political differences in the universe and such, and there is hardly any Jar Jar Binks.

    Zahn’s best novel is actually “Outbound Flight” which is an origin story of Thrwan as he meets up with Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn.

    Legacy of the Force books were absolutely horrible. I regret having gone the distance with reading all 9 books. It was 9 books that could have been condensed in 2.

    The best books of all EU books, are the three Darth Bane novels by Drew Karpyshyn. You don’t even have to know anything about Star Wars to follow them and they depict a dark, dark tale of the origin of the Sith and how it became the rule of two.

    Thanks EW for recalling these books in this article.

    Spoken by a die hard Star Wars fan.

    • Todd

      A lot of the books that focus on Luke and Han are lousy. The best Han and Chewbacca stories are still Brian Daley’s Solo trilogy and those were written before Empire Strikes Back even came out.

      • pie thrower

        Absolutely agree with you Todd. There are even two published Daly books focusing on Lando Calrissean that are quite good.

      • MWeyer

        Daley was great adding stuff, such as in the various radio dramas for the movies for NPR.

      • Todd

        GREAT call on Lando’s books. Those too were highly enjoyable.

  • MWeyer

    While the trilogy is great, it did set up far too many authors copying the “remmants of the Empire trying to fight back” that watered down a lot of the EU storylines. Zahn himself would do a great two-book follow-up in which the Empire finally makes peace to protect what they have left and tie up loose ends of the story. Also worth checking out the Dark Horse comics adaptation which provides images for the action.

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