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A long time ago, almost a decade after Return of the Jedi, there weren’t many ways for Star Wars fans to get more of the universe created by George Lucas. It’s hard to comprehend that fact these days, when the franchise has seeped into almost every form of media imaginable. Luckily, I never knew a time when there weren’t numerous Star Wars books available at the bookstore and steadily filling up my shelves. It’s something I only discovered as I began a deep dive into the Expanded Universe -- now called Legends -- as a teenager, and not long after read the Heir to the Empire trilogy, better known as the Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn. Even when I read it at that time, the number of Star Wars books paled in comparison to what’s available today, and it was clear that Zahn’s work was the spark that led to the wildfire expansion of Star Wars.
The first installment was released 25 years ago, on May 1, 1991. Now, Zahn’s books may have fallen from the canon, but their impact on the franchise remains a quarter-century later.
In the 20th-anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, Zahn writes the following in the book’s introduction: “It’s been said by some that the Thrawn Trilogy restarted Star Wars. That sounds very impressive, but it’s not really true. A more accurate statement would be that I was the first person since Jedi who was permitted to stick a fork into the piecrust to see if there was still any steam underneath. There was steam. Man, was there steam.”
It may be true that Zahn was the first given this chance, yet if it had been anyone else stabbing that piecrust there is the possibility that Star Wars would not look the same today. If another author had handled this opportunity differently, the result may not have had such a far-reaching influence as Zahn’s trilogy.
Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command were released in the early '90s. They are set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, at a time when there are only remnants of the Empire and a New Republic has grown from the Rebellion. The three main heroes of the original trilogy, of course, remain major players in the galaxy, though they are clearly entering new stages of their lives. Leia and Han are married, with twins on the way, and Luke says goodbye to Obi-Wan’s Force ghost in just the second chapter. Other familiar faces appear, like Lando Calrissian and Wedge Antilles, while a new officer, Grand Admiral Thrawn, leads the Imperials against the New Republic and enlists the help of a cloned Dark Jedi, Joruus C'baoth.
As a continuation of the original movies, Zahn's novels succeed in capturing the essence of the films in his mix of old and new elements. The main characters for the most part act as we would expect them to, while obviously having gone through some changes since we last saw them at the Battle of Endor. Zahn also does this well with the plot, presenting us with a new adventure while still giving us a story that feels like Star Wars. Most importantly, the new additions he created feel like they fit in that universe and successfully expanded the world of Star Wars beyond what was seen on screen. In these books, Zahn grew the universe in many ways, making it even richer and more interesting. He introduced new species like the Noghri, the Barabel and the Chiss, all of which would appear regularly in future Expanded Universe works. Zahn also brought us to new locations and reminded readers that there was a larger galaxy for Star Wars to play with. He even named the planet-wide capital city Coruscant, which would remain its name in other media, including the prequel films.
Perhaps Zahn’s most successful expansion of the universe, however, was in the introduction of numerous new characters that worked extremely well in the Star Wars world. Many of his characters became staples of the Expanded Universe and cherished additions to the lore. Fans would love them, love to hate them, and even be outraged when they would meet their deaths years later, and these characters received their start in this trilogy. Among these characters are Talon Karrde, a smuggler who became a perhaps unlikely ally against Thrawn, and Winter, who was Leia’s longtime friend, a former Rebel spy and trusted aide. There’s an ambitious Bothan politician in Borsk Fey'lya, a former leader of the Rebellion named Garm Bel Iblis, and a dedicated Imperial officer in Captain Gilad Pellaeon. It is here that fans even witness the birth of the next generation with the twins Jaina and Jacen Solo, two characters fans would be able to watch grow up and have massive impacts on the galaxy in future books.
More memorable than the rest, though, might be the characters of Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn. In Mara Jade, fans received a smart, intriguing character with a complicated past who needed to make a decision about her future when she encountered Luke. She was a much-needed new female character in the universe, but more than that, was just a great character all around. In Thrawn, fans welcomed a brilliant tactician who is fascinating from the very first chapter, in which readers are already given a sense of his strategic mind when he explains to Pellaeon that, “when you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.” The warlord also showed fans that he didn’t need the Force to be a very clear threat to the New Republic, and that the Empire could be a threat without a Sith at the helm. While the movies show a few competent officers, for the most part, it’s the mistakes of the officers that are highlighted more than anything else, leading to Darth Vader choking them left and right. Here, however, we see Thrawn able to command respect and loyalty without the need to lead purely by inspiring fear. It gave us further insight into the Empire and opened up possibilities about the threats our heroes could face from the remains of the Empire as their stories were continued.
Add to all of these aspects other small world building nods in the books, like mentions of Outbound Flight, and you can follow so many threads that have remained a part of, and been expanded upon, in the franchise through the decades back to this trilogy. Even beyond the content of the trilogy that has impacted the franchise, it influenced Star Wars by just showing there was still a hunger among fans for more. By making its way onto The New York Times bestsellers list, it showed that there was a market for Star Wars. In the foreword of that same 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing at the time, relates how the news that the book was number one on the list “was an emotional moment” and that it showed them the passion among fans had not died.
Zahn might not want to take credit for revitalizing Star Wars, but if his book hadn’t acted as proof that Star Wars could continue to be successful, we may never have received such a large Expanded Universe, with companies willing to try making more inspired by the franchise. It may have never snowballed into the many different types of media and even the films that we see today. It may not have inspired the creation of more worlds and characters, and a desire among fans to learn more about these new faces just as much as the characters they met in the films. Star Wars is alive and well in part due to the success and the creativity of the Thrawn Trilogy. Without it, who knows where the galaxy far, far away would be today?