About the Author:
Timothy Zahn has been writing since 1978 and won a Hugo Award for best novella. He has a B.S. in physics from Michigan State University and an M.S. in physics from the University of Illinois. He lives with his family on the Oregon coast.
AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
4.4 out of 5
Star Wars: Allegiance
A stand-alone novel set just six months after 'A New Hope'. There are three main threads in this story, the first being the story of a squad of Stormtroopers who become disillusioned by the Empire's cruelty. These five Stormtroopers are great characters, each with specialist military skills, who travel from place to place attempting to serve and protect the people of the Empire, under the name the Hand of Judgement. The second story thread is much smaller in scale and deals with Han, Luke and Leia's operations on behalf of the Rebels. I'm torn between two factors as being the best element of this storyline; the fact that Chewie's back or the fact that the droids don't feature at all! The third story thread is by far the best and follows Mara Jade, as the Emperor's Hand, on a mission to root out a corrupt Imperial officer. It's great to finally see Mara in action at the height of her power as an Imperial agent and even better than that is her interaction with Darth Vader. The tension, jealousy and respect between the two characters is brilliantly written by Zahn.
Overall, this is another well-written and enjoyable story from the past master of Star Wars fiction. However, it is also completely unnecessary. The post-Episode IV time period is heavily populated by stories already and in relation to Han, Luke and Leia, no major character development can or does take place. I felt the stories of Mara and the Hand of Judgement probably warranted a short story at most and so I was disappointed at the lack of scope in this novel. I strongly feel that it was simply something to keep Mara Jade fans happy since her character was headed for bad times in 'Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice' by Karen Traviss.
Followed by John Whitman's 'Galaxy of Fear: Eaten Alive'.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: Choices Of One
A sequel to 'Allegiance' set not too long after that novel. Mara Jade, enlisting the help of the rogue Stormtroopers from the last book, travels to a distant world which has also become the destination of the heroes of the Rebellion, Luke, Han and Leia. Meanwhile, Imperial genius Thrawn finds himself matched by the similarly brilliant warlord Nuso Esva.
This book is full of complicated twists and turns, and just when you think you've got it figured out, Zahn brilliantly turns everything on its head. Its rare that the plot of a Star Wars book, particularly one set in an overpopulated part of the timeline, manages to genuinely surprise me but this one did time and again.
One of my favourite elements of this book was the way in which Zahn manages to bring together all of his best characters without actually spoiling their meetings later in the timeline, culminating in a wonderful scene where Luke and Mara fight to rescue a group of hostages but only see each other from a distance and, of course, not realising just how significant that distant figure will be to their future.
Truth be told, I wasn't expecting great things for a sequel to 'Allegiance', which was enjoyable but hardly on a par with the likes of 'Heir to the Empire'. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which actually manages to far exceed its predecessor in quality. Something should've been done about the title though; it's hardly inspiring.
Followed by James S. A. Corey's 'Honor Among Thieves'.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Dark Force Rising
The second book of the Thrawn trilogy, set 9 ABY. Grand Admiral Thrawn is attempting to aquire the Dark Force, a fleet of ships lost for decades, for his war against the New Republic. Meanwhile Luke seeks out the Jedi Master Joruus C'baoth in order to learn from him and the New Republic is torn by internal rivalries.
This book sees more of the near-perfect set up of the first book but develops the story and characters as Mara Jade is forced to save Luke from C'baoth in order to ask his help, which is an excellent twist in the tension between the two characters. Leia gets to test her diplomatic skills in her attempts to free the Noghri of decades of pro-Imperial dogma.
Although this is the middle part of a trilogy, it is a full and complete story and not just a bridge between the other two books and is, in fact, very much the equal of the other two books in the series.
Followed by 'The Last Command'.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Heir To The Empire
Set 9 ABY the first part of the Thrawn trilogy. Back in 1991 this was the the novel that first proved that there are many more tales to be told of Jedi Knights and Rebels than just those in the Star Wars movies. Here Zahn shows us the New Republic as it begins to heal the hurts caused by the Empire, only to be set back by the return of an Imperial genius named Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Zahn's characters became the mainstay of the Star Wars expanded universe and that is because they are so strong, with history and intelligence to rival those of the familiar cast of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Lando, C-3PO and R2-D2. Talon Karrde is a sutble mix of Lando and Han with a touch of Jabba the Hutt's ruthlessness, creating a clever and dangerous anti-hero whose loyalty is to himself alone. The pair of characters Gilad Pellaeon and Grand Admiral Thrawn are excellent, particularly with each other, sharing a Holmes-and-Watson sort of relationship where Thrawn is clearly the superior thinker but he treats Pellaeon as an equal. The next of Zahn's great characters is Joruus C'baoth. In the movies Darth Vader represented power and Emperor Palpatine represented evil, but here Zahn introduces a powerful dark sider who is the very essence of insanity, which makes for a deadly but also deceptive enemy who provides the perfect counterpoint to Thrawn's calm and analytical mind.
Ultimately, though, Zahn's best new character is Mara Jade. The former personal assassin of the Emperor she has an undying hatred for Luke, but they are forced together by circumstance and discover, to Mara's discomfort, that their core values are not so different. She makes a perfect sounding board for Luke's beliefs and faults and helps him develop as a character too. The other characters from the movies are all done justice and the essence of the story is very much reminiscent of, although different to, the plots of the films. A fantastic book that is truly unmissable to people who enjoy or want to get into the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
Followed by 'Dark Force Rising'.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Outbound Flight
27 BBY. Following the trend of the Star Wars movies at the time, this book is a prequel. It is a prequel to Zahn's novels as a whole, but 'Survivor's Quest' in particular. But don't be put off if you've not read the other books, 'Outbound Flight' stands alone perfectly and may even be the best place to start in the Thrawn story arc. Here in glorious detail we have the story (set five years after Episode I and, similarly, five years before Episode II) of the Outbound Flight Project as it's colonists and Jedi leave the Republic to head into the unknown, only to be confronted by an alien military genius named Thrawn.
I consider Thrawn to be second only to Vader as a Star Wars villain, but here he shows that he is less a villain than he is a man who will go to any lengths to do what he thinks necessary. We learn that his attack on Outbound Flight and his work to preserve the Empire (in the later novels) are all in an attempt to counter the potential threat of the 'Far Outsiders' (aka the Yuuzhan Vong).
I liked how Zahn used his formerly mysterious master-smuggler Jorj Car'das in this book, providing the counterpoint to Thrawn that Pellaeon was in the Thrawn trilogy and allowing Thrawn's thought processes to explored and discussed. As well as giving us lots more Thrawn story to get to grips with, the author also fills out some of the background to the Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth (whose insane clone later threatens the New Republic). One of the things I liked most was that C'baoth becomes the epitome of what causes the galaxy to turn against the Jedi, as he's arrogant and overbearing. His slide towards insanity and the dark side make a good counterpoint to the story of his Padawan Lorana Jinzler, who is everything that Jorus isn't and goes from meek apprentice to heroic Jedi Knight.
The inclusion of Obi-Wan and Anakin seems a slightly cynical attempt to make the book more saleable, but Zahn balances this by making the relationships between the four main Jedi filled with all sorts of great subtext. Well, enough ranting from me, I'll just finish by saying that not only is this book great by itself, but it also erases all the faults that made 'Survivor's Quest' less than perfect (be sure to read this one first and then that one, if you haven't yet).
Followed by Jude Watson's 'Jedi Quest: The Trail of the Jedi'.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Scoundrels
Set not long after 'A New Hope', Han Solo's reward money has been stolen and he once again finds himself desperate for some cash. A man name Eanjer offers to hire him to raid a crimelord's vault in order to gain more credits than he could spend in a lifetime, an offer Han can't refuse. He then begins to put together a team of specialists to complete the job, including thieves, con artists, smugglers and tech experts. At his side throughout are his (mostly) reliable friends Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian.
This book was billed as 'Star Wars meets Ocean's 11' and whilst that's not inaccurate it makes the book sound trashy and it's anything but. Zahn is a master of constructing deep, convoluted plots which keep you guessing as to what will happen next and who knows how much; 'Scoundrels' in an excellent example of this. The plot is driven by the central team of scoundrels (obviously) and each one is given clear motivations as well as being experts at their respective trades, meaning that their aren't any characters who feel like they're there for padding. Well, except for Eanjer, but his character comes good in the end. Critically, the portrayal of Han as an experienced criminal with a code of honour is spot on.
The downsides to this book all stem from its setting. Between Episodes IV and V, we know that Han and Chewie aren't going to strike it rich and retire and we know that Han and Lando can't complete their reconciliation. Without this ability to offer new directions for these characters, it robs the story of some of its edge.
Followed by 'Allegiance'.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: Specter Of The Past
19 ABY, the first book of the Hand of Thrawn duology. Zahn makes a very welcome return to the Star Wars universe and once again gets to retake the reins of his characters such as Talon Karrde, Gilad Pellaeon and Mara Jade.
The New Republic is once again under threat, but this time from internal discontent. A document implicating the Bothans in the Imperial devastation of the planet Caamas has been found and a desperate search for a complete version of the document begins so that the guilty can be punished and civil war averted. Amid this turmoil, a trio of Imperial conspirators decide to stage the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Mara Jade sets off to the remote planet Nirauan in response to the appearance of strange alien ships and there is lost and Luke must set out to find her.
This book is an excellent next step for Zahn's characters as Mara and Luke's friendship deepens, Karrde must take on a mission out of selflessness and, perfectly, Gilad Pellaeon must wrestle with the tough decision to sue for peace with the New Republic, despite the treachery of his own subordinates. Han and Leia are also developed well, many Star Wars books simply have them regurgetating their 'diplomat and edgy partner' roles, but Zahn shows them dealing with their new positions out of the public eye as Han has retired from military service and Leia has stepped down from government.
Zahn also pays astute and intricate attention to the politics of the New Republic government, which gives a nice extra depth to the story. This novel was also written with close links to Michael A. Stackpole's 'I, Jedi', so we get to see characters such as Corran Horn and Elegos A'kla developing in the new socio-political climate.
I must say that this book lacks the pace and epic scale of the Thrawn trilogy and will be tedious to those who're into Star Wars for the lightsabers and dogfights, but those readers who like a good science fiction story with a Star Wars twist should definitely have a read.
Followed by 'Vision of the Future'.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: Survivor's Quest
A standalone novel set 23 ABY. Here Zahn takes up one of his most intriguing story threads as Luke and Mara are invited to help recover the remains of the Outbound Flight Project, a Jedi/Republic exploration vessel that disappeared decades before, courtesy of a young Chiss named Thrawn. Zahn assembles a diverse group of characters to undertake this quest; Luke and Mara settling into their roles as husband and wife Jedi, Chak Fel (son of Soontir) and four fearsomely efficient Stormtroopers of the 'Fighting' 501st Regiment, a group of strange aliens whose history and motivations are questionable, and finally the Chiss themselves in all their pretentious but honourable glory.
This book has several flaws, the first being that both Luke and Mara's relationship and the Chiss have already been explored in The New Jedi Order series, meaning that Zahn is unable to explore those ideas very far (despite the fact that he came up with them in the first place!). The second major flaw is that, when all is said and done, we basically don't learn anything about what happened to Outbound Flight, which is supposed to be the book's hook. This turns out to be an irritating marketing scam, because Zahn subsequently released 'Outbound Flight', so basically this book's plot is nothing but a teaser trailer. Annoying.
These, of course, are only problems for people who, like me, follow the entire span of the Star Wars universe; anyone merely wishing for a good book won't go wrong with this one. It is written with Zahn's impecable skill at both personal and practical levels, balancing thought and emotional content against excitement and classic Star Wars action. That leads me onto my final point, which is to mention this novel's finest scene. In it Luke and Mara confront a Destroyer Droid whilst attempting to cut into the bridge of a starship in a brilliantly staged echo of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon's similar experience in 'The Phantom Menace'.
Following the release of 'Outbound Flight', this book definitely ranks up there with Zahn's other Star Wars books as part of an epic subseries within the Expanded Universe.
Followed by 'Young Jedi Knights: Jedi Shadow' by Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: The Last Command
The climatic book of the Thrawn trilogy, set 9 ABY. The war is going against the New Republic as Grand Admiral Thrawn's fleets win victory after victory. The New Republic leadership plans to capture vital cloak-detectors via misdirecting Imperial attention away from the Imperial facility that they will target, but Grand Admiral Thrawn is one step ahead and Admiral Ackbar's fleet is heading into a trap.
Meanwhile, Mara Jade has been arrested for treason but she is soon sprung from her prison by Han, Leia and Luke. She is shocked by the actions of these people who she considered enemies and it is in this way that Zahn turns a corner with Mara that will lead her to overcome her Imperial conditioning to stand side by side with Luke and Leia against the insane Dark Jedi Joruus C'baoth.
This novel is the perfect ending to this series, completing the development of Zahn's own characters as well as progressing the characters of the familiar heroes of the Rebellion. The stunning Battle of Bilbringi is one of the best written and clever battles in the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe.
Followed by Michael A. Stackpole's 'X-Wing: Isard's Revenge'.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Thrawn
Spanning several years between Episodes III and IV, this book tells the story of how the Chiss tactical mastermind of the title came to join the Imperial Navy and rise rapidly through its ranks. Running parallel to Thrawn's rise is that of Arindha Pryce, a mining executive from Lothal destined to become a powerful Imperial politician.
When it was announced that (evil) Disney would be reintroducing Grand Admiral Thrawn to their rebooted canon in the 'Rebels' TV show, I was very worried. Other elements from the old Expanded Universe have not been treated exactly respectfully in recent years, after all. However, when it was announced that Thrawn's original creator had been called on to write a novel tying-in to it, I began to breath a little easier. But how much would Zahn himself be forced to change given the fact that all of his other books are now non-canon?
As it turns out, not too much. This book genuinely feels like it sits comfortably amid Zahn's other stories, even though it studiously avoids mentioning them (a shame, I would've liked a bit of Thrawn looking back retrospectively at the events of 'Outbound Flight').
As for the story itself, whilst it's more a series of encounters than a single event, Zahn manages to tie the book together by having Thrawn match wits with a criminal and rebel who goes by the slightly incongruous name Nightswan, but who proves almost as much of a Moriarty to Thrawn's Holmes as Nuso Esva once did.
There are only two things I disliked about this book. The first is the fact that once again Thrawn has a tagalong human to whom he can explain his genius. I get that it's something of a necessity and furthers Zahn's Thrawn/Holmes idea by having a Watson; but this is the fourth different one in the author's books. I didn't mind Pellaeon, a character I love, but it has become a little contrived at this point. The other thing I disliked was also one of contrivance; as the fact that Thrawn and Pryce's paths, adversaries and missions keep crossing becomes increasingly unlikely. It does offer an interesting insight into their partnership in 'Rebels' however.
Overall, this book left me wanting more and I was therefore pleased to hear that there'll be a sequel, featuring both Thrawn and Darth Vader, coming in the not too distant future.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: Thrawn - Alliances
The sequel to 'Thrawn', set around 2 BBY (after Season 3 of 'Rebels'). When the Emperor senses a disturbance in the Force on the fringes of the Unknown Regions, he sends Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader to investigate and deal with the disturbance. But the mission is linked to an earlier alliance, during the Clone Wars, between Thrawn and the Jedi General Anakin Skywalker.
In all honesty, this is the worst Tim Zahn book I've read so far. That still puts it a full parsec ahead of a lot of Star Wars authors, but nevertheless it has to be said that, compared to his usual standard, this book had too many elements which just didn't hit the mark.
First off, the structure of the book didn't work for me. Intercutting the 'Then' and the 'Now' storylines made it hard to fully get into either in a way that reminded me of Tim Lebbon's 'Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void', robbing the book of momentum by throwing us from one timeline to the other whenever things start to get interesting. I got the distinct feeling that Zahn had wanted, at some point, to write a Clone Wars novel with Thrawn in but was forced to compress the concept into this Rebellion Era story instead. Both storylines would've been better if they'd each had a full-length novel to develop in.
The way that Thrawn is partnered up with Vader and Anakin felt pretty contrived too. In the Clone Wars storyline, they just bump into each other and Thrawn more or less immediately agrees to partner with Anakin, who for his part is more or less instantly completely accepting of this total stranger as his new bestie. The pairing of Thrawn and Vader feels even more arbitrary, with the Emperor giving them a vague mission and sending them off together seemingly just for shits and giggles.
Finally, Zahn's characterisation of Vader is just a bit off. I've said before that I was starting to get a bit sick of the author's habit of pairing Thrawn with someone who's just there to ask questions that allow the Grand Admiral to explain how smart he is. Having Darth Vader be that character is a huge miscalculation and leaves the Sith Lord coming across as a surly incompetent most of the time. I did enjoy the tension that Zahn extracts from the fact that Thrawn has deduced who Vader used to be, however.
This is not a bad book by any stretch, but for an author as talented as Zahn to produce such a middle-of-the-road book was quite a disappointment for me. A third book is out soon, so lets hope that the author can stick the landing for his second Thrawn Trilogy.
3 out of 5
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising
Book one. As the rest of the galaxy is embroiled in the Clone Wars, the isolated pocket of the Unknown Regions which contains the Chiss Ascendancy is thrown into disarray by two men. One is a ruthless warlord set on conquering all of the neighbouring civilisations and the other is a brilliant young officer of the Chiss known as Thrawn. Senior Captain Thrawn works to prove the threat the warlord represents whilst constantly restricted by his people's inward-looking policies, as well as being threatened by betrayal from within the Ascendancy itself.
This book takes us as far back in Thrawn's timeline as we've ever been and at first I was dubious about that since we had a Thrawn origin trilogy not that long ago. However, because Thrawn is so young and (relatively) inexperienced here, we get a version of the character who still has all of his brilliance and insight, but isn't quite as confident and who is capable of making mistakes that haunt him. In short, this is probably the most interesting Thrawn has been as a character since his first appearance in the original 1990s Thrawn trilogy. Added to that are some genuinely engaging supporting characters like the former sky-walker (Force-sensitive navigator) Thalias, who is trying to find her new place in the Ascendancy, and Thrawn's loyal friend Admiral Ar'alani, who sees both his vision and his shortcomings for what they are. Thrawn's opponent, Yiv the Benevolent, is a great antagonist too, not being as gifted as Thrawn but being a brilliant military and political manipulator all the same.
At first I was intending to mark this down to a four out of five purely because it's links to the larger Star Wars universe are so few that it doesn't always feel like Star Wars at all. However, I realised that whilst it may not always feel like Star Wars, it is a really good, really enjoyable science fiction novel even without the Star Wars trappings and should be judged on that, rather than on whether it's got Wookiees or Star Destroyers in it.
5 out of 5
Star Wars: Thrawn - Treason
Book three of the (evil) Disney Thrawn trilogy, set amid the final season of 'Rebels'. In attempt to secure funding for his TIE Defender programme, Grand Admiral Thrawn accepts the challenge of fixing a problem with the supply chain of Project Stardust, the Empire's incomplete Death Star. However, his investigations lead him and the Chimaera into conflict with the expansionist Grysk and lead his loyalties to be questioned when he allies himself with forces from his homeworld.
The previous book of the series, 'Alliances', proved to be a big disappointment for me, but this is very much a return to form for the grand master of Star Wars authors. The plot has lots of twists and turns, there are some great scenes of the space battle tactics that are Zahn's hallmark and the characters are subtle and three-dimensional. On the latter point I want to particularly draw attention to Assistant Director Ronan, who proves to be much more than the arrogant, malicious Imperial bureaucrat that he appears to be at first. Lesser authors would've made him no more complex than that, by Zahn manages to turn this initally hateful character into a sympathetic protagonist.
There are only two elements that stopped this from being a perfect Zahn Star Wars novel. The first is a long-running problem with Thrawn in that many scenes are written just to slowly unfurl how clever he is. When used sparingly, like in the original Thrawn Trilogy from the early 90s, this works brilliantly, but when he is the focus of the entire novel these scenes rapidly become a bit contrived. Thankfully, having the antagonist Ronan as the one who acts as the obstinate disbeliever works much better than having Darth Vader do it did; one of big failings of 'Alliances'. The other somewhat negative element is one common to a number of (evil) Disney canon novels ('Tarkin' by James Luceno, 'Inferno Squad' by Christie Golden, etcetera); the fact that the protagonists we're given to root for are all loyal servants of a genocidal fascist government. It just spoils that essential Star Wars sense of good-versus-evil to have a book where all of the main characters are the baddies. I think Thrawn's popularity has unfortunately eclipsed the fact that the trilogy which made his name as a character had him as the villain. In a time period where there are no shortage of heroic Rebel characters, it just feels off to make the Empire the protagonists.
4 out of 5
Star Wars: Vision Of The Future
The second book of the Hand of Thrawn duology, set 19 ABY, this novel ties up all the various threads of its predecessor. The pace picks up here as civil war begins to break out above the Bothan homeworld and the three Imperial conspirators who have faked Grand Admiral Thrawn's return prepare to take advantage of the New Republic's weakness. Meanwhile Luke and Mara must infiltrate an Imperial facility on Nirauan where Thrawn's followers await his return.
The relationship between Luke and Mara continues to deepen as they both realise their love for one another. The love between Han and Leia has been done to death, but the interaction between Luke and Mara is something entirely new and refreshing and I was genuinely surprised at how the relationship turns out at the end.
This book has all of the good elements of the first book of the series and adds a bit of the old Star Wars, space battles and lightsabers, back in. The resolution of the New Republic-Imperial tension is also excellent, with Gilad Pellaon and Talon Karrde (unlikely heroes, I know) saving the day. Definitely the stronger book of the duology, it is nevertheless important to have read 'Specter of the Past'.
This book is really the end of the Star Wars era that Zahn began in the Thrawn trilogy as all of the storylines in between are resolved; the Jedi Academy is self-sufficient, Han and Leia are no longer public leaders, Luke and Mara have got it together, Karrde, Booster Terrik and Pellaeon have all finally found their places in society and the galaxy is at peace.
Followed by Jeff Grubb's 'Scourge'.
5 out of 5
Collaborations & Anthologies:
Star Wars Insider: The Fiction Collection - Volume 1 (here)
Star Wars: Mara Jade - By The Emperor's Hand (here)
Star Wars: Tales From Jabba's Palace (here)
Star Wars: Tales From The Empire (here)
Star Wars: Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina (here)
Star Wars: Tales From The New Republic (here)