In the Star Wars universe, there are few moments that compare to the one felt on May 1, 1991, when Heir to the Empire first released. Hardcore fans had been waiting for this for years. Even casual fans noted it, but not many could have predicted the wave of awesomeness that followed in its wake, for this novel had just changed everything.

After Return of the Jedi exited theaters, Star Wars fans were left hanging. They weren’t sure if the story that had inexplicably changed and shaped their lives was truly over or if something else was around the corner. For eight long years fans waited for the merest hint of something new on the horizon. They held their collective breath, hoping that George Lucas didn’t really hate the galaxy he’d created. That, instead, he was hard at work coming up with something entirely new.

How It Changed Everything

Image featuring Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and C-3PO

Heir to the Empire wasn’t written by Lucas. Rather, it was authored by Timothy Zahn. Zahn, a competent science fiction writer, had earned his chops, winning a Hugo award in 1984. He knew how to write characters and create memorable scenes. Yet, he didn’t have Lucas’s clout. More to the point, he wasn’t associated with Star Wars. Inevitably, the question became — would his book be any good?

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to say yes. At the time, however, Star Wars wasn’t a hot franchise. It was barely clinging to life in a second rate batca tank. Much of the fandom had gone on to other things. What was known — or remembered — of the original trilogy was getting cold. Only the most ardent were still keeping the faith, clinging to morsels handed out by West End Games in their role-playing manuals.

But then the novel released — and all sorts of mayhem ensued. Heir to the Empire rocketed in sales, reaching number 1 on The New York Times best seller list. It received numerous rave reviews. Fans, meanwhile, gave the novel their enthusiastic stamp of approval. An acceptance that would allow the book to be followed by two others. Not to mention a host of other novels, comics, games, and enough lore to fill an expanded universe.

What Is It About?

Lukę Skywalker and Mara Jade in Heir to the Empire

Perhaps it was a need for anything Star Wars. Maybe it was an attempt to convince Lucas to return, but no matter why those early fans read the book, they continued to read it and recommend it because the story is amazing. The characters are pitch perfect, and the new villains so incredibly nefarious that they’ve become household names.

All someone had to do was read that first chapter, that first introduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn, to know that Star Wars was back. And that a new direction had begun, because while the grand admiral is evil (he is the heir to the Empire, after all!), he isn’t the same kind of evil that Star Wars had presented before. Thrawn’s is a more competent evil, aided not by an overwhelming force of Imperial might, but cobbled together and deployed with tactical mastery.

Heir to the Empire works because everyone is intelligently written. There are no easy outs, no plot armor characters or situations awkwardly introduced. No character is dumbed down so that lazy writing can be hidden. Rather, the writing excels at taking readers to new locations, introducing them to new powers and threats.

Why Heir To The Empire?

Book covers for Heir to the Empire, the novel that changed everything Star Wars

The book went through multiple title changes. Originally it was called Wild Card. Then The Emperor’s Hand, and finally Warlord’s Gambit. None of them captured the full extent of Thrawn’s influence, or the existential threat he posed to the entire galaxy. As heir to the Empire, however, Thrawn could be seen with full malicious intent. This was a character bent on bringing back the evil Empire. Not someone unaccounted for, or just a legacy of the Emperor, or even someone taking a chance. No, this character had a birthright and a mission.

So starts Thrawn’s ambition. Five years after the Battle of Endor, with an Imperial force less than half what it had in Return of the Jedi and with it taking up less than a quarter of the systems it used to oversee, Thrawn begins to issue his last commands. Despite the Imperial war machine being on the run, disorganized, and using conscripts on its front lines, Thrawn trains and builds up its effectiveness. From a position of weakness, the Imperials soon become a dark force rising, strong enough to push back against the New Republic.

Such is the gravitas of a grand admiral, especially one as brilliant and brutally efficient as Thrawn. By himself, he can take a ragtag group of Imperials and turn them into a feared fighting force.  One that has the New Republic harassed and on the defensive and questioning its own capabilities.

Thrawn’s Plan

Lukę Skywalker and Joruus C'Baoth from Heir to the Empire

In quick order, Thrawn executes his vision of the future. Noghri — once Darth Vader’s personal assassins — are used to capture Luke and Leia. Meanwhile, a large and plentiful warehouse of the Emperor’s own playthings is commandeered at Mount Tantiss. Along with that coup, a Dark Jedi clone by the name of Joruus C’Baoth is coaxed into helping the cause. This feat is achieved because Thrawn is able to collect ysalamiri — creatures that expel the Force.

Even when Luke and Leia defy capture, Thrawn doesn’t dwell on the specter of the past. Instead, he pivots, using others to handle the smaller details. Meanwhile, he focuses on the bigger picture. His planned attack on the Sluis Van shipyards. It’s here that Thrawn excels, taking disparate elements — such as a cloaking shield and mining vehicles — and combining them to spectacular effect.

Unfortunately for Thrawn, even a mastermind can’t account for every element. Particularly those that betray him or those gifted with luck and a habit of being at the right place at the right time. All of that combines to foil him, but even in the foiling Thrawn turns a minor setback into a victory, scoring an important turning point against the New Republic.

The Mystique Of Heir To The Empire

Main Star Wars characters from Heir to the Empire

Even after thirty years, Heir to the Empire continues to impress those who read it. The scope of the novel and the two others that comprised its trilogy is staggering. Not only is there Thrawn and Captain Pellaeon, but memorable characters such as Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, both of whom would go on to grace multiple novels in their own right and be part of the greater expanded universe.

In this book, there’s Coruscant, the world that Lucas would purloin for his prequel trilogy. There’s the concept of Dreadnaughts, which would again factor into the prequels. Also, cloning, which would not only feature in the prequels but in the sequels and now The Mandalorian. Additionally, there’s Mount Tantiss, a huge location for the EU and now the Bad Batch, and, perhaps most noteworthy of all, the concept of Dark Jedi as something separate from the Jedi and the Sith.

But even above all that, the novel provided hope. It proved that Lucas wasn’t done with Star Wars and that the magic he’d captured in the original trilogy would live on. That the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han weren’t over. There was a threat, another reason for them to fight and for us to care about what happens to them in a galaxy far, far away.

Heir To The Empire — How Does It Compare?

Going strictly on writing, other novels within the Star Wars universe (Legends and canon) have it beat, but when its impact on everything that followed is taken into account, this book truly has no equal. It’s on a tier by itself.

And when its companion novels are included — Dark Force Rising and The Last Command — they create a trilogy as important and as well done as any within the Star Wars franchise. Even after thirty years, they still hold up.

Of course, Heir to the Empire has become a talking point again thanks in part to the Ahsoka trailer. That callout has newer fans wondering what the phrase means and even has older fans going back to the book to glean what they can about the direction of the new shows. Hopefully, all the attention will impress upon fans just how pivotal this novel is and how enjoyable Star Wars can be when in the hands of a great writer.

Put Star Wars back into the mainstream
Numerous canonical characters introduced
Movie quality scenes throughout
Some of the very best villains
Engrossing story

Review Summary

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