The Thrawn Trilogy, Retrospective

z: Hello, gentlebeings, and welcome to–



So yeah, this is happening.  After nearly two full years and what must be close to ninety, one hundred posts, here we are wrapping up the books that started it all.

But sticking to the format we’ve developed so far, this week’s crazy is due to concert coming up on Saturday for me.  I’m sure Will has his own stuff, even before the part where he and his lovely wife are traveling down from NYC to attend said concert.

will: And they said it wouldn’t last…”they” being me, because I wasn’t convinced that Z and I could keep this up. But we have.

Wow indeed.

z: After giving it some thought, I decided that what I wanted to do as a retrospective was to focus on character arcs.  After all, we’ve gone over the plot with a fine-toothed comb.

But first, the setting may warrant a few words of its own:  We’ve discussed the setting as it became relevant, and remarked repeatedly on how successfully Zahn kept the “large, lived-in Galaxy” sense.  The discerning reader may have noticed a number of places where I’ve said “I want to go there,” always in one of the new places Zahn introduced: The Bimm market, the Whirlpool Cafe, that city carved of crystal, the fortress in Hijarna…point being, he never lost sight of the fact that there is a lot a lot a lot of SensaWunda (™ Leigh Butler) to be tapped into here.

Before moving on to said character arcs, I’ll pause here for Will to step in.

will: I’m going to quote myself, because I get to do that…

Picture: it’s 1992. Star Wars is a closed canon and it’s starting to fade. Oh sure, there were a couple of tie-in novels in the ‘80s, mostly frothy little side stories like some goofy adventures Han and Lando had before the movies, and there were some comics and any number of fanzines and stuff in the early and mid-80s, but there’s been nothing serious in a while. “Prequels” are a word no one knows, and people think of the three movies and that’s it when they hear the title. And it’s pre-the Internet Explosion and the birth of the World Wide Web, so it’s a lot harder for fans to talk. (NB: They still did it plenty, but it’s a lot harder. Substantially higher barriers to entry.)

Then, there’s this book. The first new Star Wars content in a few years. It picks up after Return of the Jedi, which nothing had ever done before. It creates a whole lived-in universe and tells us what happened to our favorite characters. Invents dozens of new characters and a complex storyline. And then there are two more, and they’re basically Episodes 7, 8, and 9.

And that starts the avalanche. Books. Comics. Video games that have novelizations that fit into the universe. You don’t play as any character you’ve seen, you’re an entirely new character created for the game/novel. There’s Star Wars meets Top Gun (in game, comic, and book form, all in-continuity together). There’s YA books. And the Internet explodes in the middle of it, so all these people, who watched Star Wars as kids and are now teenagers and growing up and starting out making friends online, have all this new stuff from the thing they loved as children.

You want my honest opinion? If it wasn’t for that book, and everything it jumpstarted, we probably wouldn’t have had any new Star Wars for the past twenty years.

Of course, I was talking about Heir to the Empire.

The question we faced in this series wasn’t whether the Thrawn Trilogy was significant. It was. That’s really not up for debate.

The question we faced–and I’ve been asked this in as many words by people who learned about this blog–is, “does the Thrawn Trilogy hold up, almost 25 years later?”

And I can answer: yes.

Not all of it, of course. It bears all the hallmarks of being from the ‘90s: the conception of technology, especially computers, mark it as just before the personal computing revolution (it’s not alone in that), and occasionally, its concept of multiculturalism is wince-inducing in that way that you can only say “well, they tried back then, but they had some hangups.”

(At least they tried…

*deep breaths*)

z: *joins him*

will: But more fundamentally, the Thrawn Trilogy holds up as a story, contained within itself, with worldbuilding to give the right sense of scope and scale to the Galaxy Far Far Away. And the themes it works with are accurate to the space-operatic nature of the universe: power, control, responsibility.

z: This is a great place for me to break in, isn’t it. So I will.

All of the above themes have to hang on characters: Their motivations, their planned and unplanned actions, their reactions and responses.  We’ve talked at great length before about how extremely, very good Zahn was at taking the characters we knew and making sure we recognized them.  Beat-perfect dialogue and note-perfect interactions are everywhere.

But even with the old cast, that’s not all he did.  The written medium, by its nature, allows the reader access into the characters’ heads. You would almost need to intentionally try not to add more depth and dimension into the characterization that way–

–yes, I know, I know–

–so we get Luke building up his doubts and worries about teaching, get Han displaying steely pragmatism inside as well as out while the “heart of gold” bit of the “rogue with a heart of gold” shines through; get Leia…


Will it make sense if I say “Compared to the movies, Zahn shows, not tells, just how awesome Leia is and why?”

That’s a bit unfair to the movies, true, but while the original trilogy Leia is brave and independent and determined, Zahn’s Leia is also thoughtful, intelligent, patient and emphatic.  It’s as if he sat down and thought “Senate representative, on a diplomatic mission, at that age, what would her training have been really like and what would it have given her?”

But actually, I think it’s Lando of all people who benefited most.  Lando was a silhouette before: Han calls him a gambler and apparently won the Millennium Falcon from him; he’s an able enough administrator to run what’s obviously a large and complex operation on Bespin and that indicates him “going respectable” to Han; and he’s got military experience from…somewhere.  Here, both the gambler and the responsible administrator get showcased in his abilities, actions, and the chances he takes.  We also get to see him trust people (or not trust people) and base his decisions on that judgment.  Finally, he’s got heaps and loads more agency in his roles here than he has in the movies: With the one exception of getting Leia and Chewie free (which to be fair is no small thing), everything movie-Lando does is determined by someone else.

Then there’s Wedge.  Which name we’re going to type many many many times when the time comes, so I’ll actually not delve into it here, except to mention that reading this trilogy with hindsight, it’s lovely to notice the seeds of so many things that Wedge eventually becomes sown right here.

Okay, okay, fine.  Original characters.

But what can I say about them that would be specific to this trilogy, as opposed to, say, every novel ever?  They are shaped in-depth, are given conflicts and motivations, and go through character arcs that spring naturally from the same.  Karrde’s big arc is discovering his idealism while fighting it every step of the way, of say.  Mara’s is discovering that she has a self to discover, after all, and has people to help her along while she does it. The Noghri’s is making the same discovery, then immediately taking the steps to affect their change.

On the other side, well, there’s C’baoth. Whose “idiosyncratic” attitude towards power and the Force allows Zahn to dive into some very welcome exploration of those things, what it means to be a Jedi, and what it means to be a Jedi especially in a Galaxy full of non-Jedi.  His predecessor will ultimately be the starting point for Much Setting, Background and Plot.  Those in themselves make him a worthy construct, but as a character he really doesn’t change much.  (Changing scope of ambition notwithstanding.)

And we’ve got Pellaeon.  Who doesn’t change much either, which is OK, since his role is to be the reader’s eyes and ears most of the time.  I could take him as a starting point to leap into discussions of good, or at least not actively evil, people supporting an evil system because they are oblivious to some things and unquestioning in some of their assumptions, but…uh, maybe not this week.   Besides, we’ll have the chance later on.

And there’s the shadow that lies over everything, the eponymous character of the trilogy from whom we never get a single point of view.  Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Of course it’s impossible to get his point of view; his is a character built around mystique of a sort.  He’s also the catalyst, motivator, of every bit of plot, except maybe Mara’s struggle with the Emperor’s last command (and even for that, it’s his actions that drop Luke squarely into her path). But without that, it’s really hard to judge whether he gets a character arc or not.  We see him infallible, then we see him make mistakes; we see him supremely calm, then we see him get angry; we see him with eyes on the prize, then—well actually that’s almost all we see from him.

But maybe that was the right way to approach the Everpresent Plot Driver after all, so who am I to argue?

will: I’m very interested to see what happens with Thrawn under the new continuity (I haven’t managed to watch Star Wars: Rebels yet), and I recognize that diving back into the preboot material isn’t always something that a new Star Wars fan wants to do–and I do not believe that it’s necessary

In fact, let me expand this a second right now, because I can.

I love what’s now called Star Wars: Legends. I love so many of the books and stories that we’re going to review here, and they were a formative part of my childhood, and many of them I recommend to this day as excellent Star Wars stories and excellent entertaining stuff.

But I absolutely refuse to accept that you “have” to read any of that to be a Star Wars fan.

I recognize that this may be preaching to the choir–it’s not like this blog is a hotbed of gatekeeping assholes–but I refuse to accept that there is Only One Way, or even A Number of Right Ways, to be a Star Wars fan. If you love Star Wars, however you define it, that’s enough.

OK, digression over.

Anyway. All that said, I still recommend the Thrawn Trilogy to any Star Wars fan, old or new, not as a requirement, but as a set of excellent Star Wars stories that hold to the universe and feel true to the characters, and create more characters that stand up with the originals.


z: …what he said.

Hey, you knew I’d say that.

And that’s all she said, too, gentlebeings.  Next week…actually, I don’t know what we’re doing next week, besides the fact that there will definitely be something.  We’ll discuss with Will.  We’ve already picked the next book, but there’ll be a few more interim posts first. So check back next Friday to see where we’ve gone.

will: And to you Americans out there, have a happy Thanksgiving.

z: Until then, may the Force be with you, always.


One thought on “The Thrawn Trilogy, Retrospective

  1. It occurs to me that, although there are movies yet that could undo this, very little of the Thrawn trilogy is contradicted by Episode 7. Mara having the lightsaber is on shaky ground, and of course the specific outcome of Leia’s pregnancy. But I think that’s all, at least so far.


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