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A novel by Timothy Zahn (1991, Bantam Spectra)
Book 1 of the Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy
9 years after Star Wars: A New Hope

A new Imperial Grand Admiral arrives in the New Republic to try and regain the galaxy in the name of the Empire.



4 stars

Read February 22nd to March 1st, 2005 for the second time  
    Excellent, and while this may not be the best Star Wars book ever, it is definitely in the top few.

This book was written back when there were few Star Wars book available, and it was the first of the new breed, setting standards for the authors who followed. Few authors could live up to these standards. I have wondered, in the years since I first read this book, if that is because the memory was better than the book, or if this book really was so amazing that few could truly follow it up.

The best thing about this book is the characterization. All of the movie characters behave exactly as we would expect them to. The new characters are solidly built. However, the character that everyone came away from this book talking about was the new Imperial leader -Grand Admiral Thrawn. A master strategist, Thrawn has information sources and tactical genius beyond just about everybody. By studying the art of various cultures, he is able to make deductions about how they will react to various situations. How he does this, I don't know. Sometimes it is little better than having him come to the conclusion just because the author wants him to. Most of the time, though, the conclusions are justified by more than just the "artwork". There are logical reasons, too, and knowing the culture in general, even without their art, could give him the clues he needs.

However he comes to his deductions, he is mostly correct, and he is a real nuisance to the fledgling New Republic. The author makes Thrawn very mysterious, and the mysteries are revealed throughout the book, as we gradually come to know the character. Thrawn is very condescending, which makes him an ideal Imperial, and the later Chiss are all modelled on him, making the trait inherent to the species.

Dialog, however, is the author's weak point in this book. I wondered if Thrawn's speech was stilted because he lived among humans for so long, but much of the dialog from the other characters is also stilted. Thrawn's "come along and learn" felt like the author trying to tell the readers the same thing, as if we were as naive as Captain Pellaeon. The author also uses a lot of quotes from the movies, sometimes effective, other times too obvious.

We are introduced to several new key concepts, which would resurface in future novels. One is the idea of the Emperor taking control of the fleet through the Force. Even Pellaeon, who was at the Battle of Endor, noticed that efficiency went way up when the new Dark Jedi took control during some battles. C'Boath is a clone of a Jedi Master, however, and proves to be suitably insane. The concept of the Emperor's Hand, being Mara Jade, also takes hold here. This is a cool concept, and the trials leading up to Mara's leave from the Empire are well told in By The Emperor's Hand. Her mysteries are not revealed until she is alone with Luke on Myrkyr. We also get to let go of the spectral shadows that might impair Luke's judgement, and could be used as a crutch by future authors. Ben here says goodbye for good, for which I am glad. He was not used effectively in The Truce at Bakura, only telling Luke to "go there". We are introduced to Page's commandos, whom I didn't realize were available in concept so early in the series. They have a really good history from Rogue Squadron all the way to The Unifying Force of the New Jedi Order.

Like everybody else, myself included, the author obviously believed that the clone armies of the Clone Wars were fighting against the Republic, so the characters' memories are tuned to that. It seems to be a stretch to suggest that Pellaeon initially fought for the Separatists. The clones seen in Attack of the Clones are obviously not unstable, contrary to what is said here. At this point in the franchise, however, I wonder if even George Lucas knew what to do with the clones.

From a character standpoint, I really like the way Luke's fears are given form. Knowing that Ben failed to keep Anakin Skywalker from the Dark Side, and Ben was a good teacher, he is afraid of teaching Leia and her forthcoming twins, because he might fail, too. It's no wonder that he seeks out C'boath. The author does a fantastic job of showing us how lost Luke is, showing his very serious doubts, while also providing him with the knowledge that he is not alone as a Force-user. The author showcases his fighting abilities well, also, when the Nogrhi attempt to capture them for the first time on Bimmissari. Luke has real limits in this book, which tend to be ignored in future books. In this story, the limits make a lot of sense. In future books, his abilities are expanded or contracted to fit the author's desires.

I wonder if we'll ever get a detailed storytelling of the Dark Jedi from the Sluis sector, near Bpfassh, and of the one who made it to Dagobah. I was always under the impression that Dagobah was not a commonly-known system, but if Leia brought it up in passing, why would she not know about Luke's training there? I have trouble believing that Luke would keep that from her. Luke travels to the cave on Dagobah again, attempting to confirm the story that Yoda was hidden by the Force because of his proximity to the essence of the Dark Jedi who died there. They cancelled each other out, effectively.

When the Nogrhi fail to capture Leia again (as potential students for C'boath), she and Han head out to see Lando, only to witness an Imperial raid on his facilities. The way that the characters managed to be at every major offensive in this book struck me as being too convenient, something that I wish the author had been more subtle about. Lando's mining complex was pretty cool, especially with the giant heat-shield canopies used to get so close to the star. Thrawn later uses the stolen mole miners to bore into New Republic ships in an attempt to steal them. It is only fortunate for the good guys that Lando ends up in the same system and is able to reactivate them and disrupt the plan.

While Thrawn seems at times to jump to correct conclusions with no logic, I liked the way he also accepts suggestions from Pellaeon, that he can't think of everything by himself. Thrawn's logic on the meeting of the Millennium Falcon and Lando's Lady Luck was flawless, however. From the moment they mentioned the plan, I knew that it was stupid to set up the docking offworld. Why didn't they board the proper ships on the ground, and head their separate ways right away, thus avoiding a time-consuming switch -even if they didn't consider that Thrawn might be watching.

Luke gets ambushed by the Imperials on his way to meet with C'boath, and ends up getting rescued because of a feeling that Mara Jade had while piloting Talon Karrde's ship, obviously using the Force. Han and Lando take a roundabout way of reaching Karrde, also, not knowing about Luke, and wanting some information. I think this was the first time we had seen an interdictor Star Destroyer, and it was nice setup for what comes at a later time, very casually done.

Grand Admiral Thrawn uses the ysalamiri from Karrde's base-world, of course, to keep the insane Jedi Master in line, and he coincidentally shows up at the same time as Luke is captured and Han and Lando are visiting. He sends a squad down when he figures that Luke must have been there and escaped. Luke and Mara spend a long time injured in the jungle, where she explains how he ruined her life by killing the Emperor. (A big deal is made here of how Luke didn't kill the Emperor; Vader did. I don't find that it is much of a difference. Vader did what Luke failed to do, but it was still his intention to kill the Emperor. She also mentions the argument put forward in Shadows of the Empire that Vader's offer to rule the galaxy with Luke was genuine, which I heartily disagree with, and Luke doesn't take seriously, either. I have always thought of it as more of a lure and trick to get him to surrender.) I have trouble believing that Luke losing his lightsaber to Mara on Jabba's sailbarge in Return of the Jedi could have affected the outcome much. He still had the Force -his lightsaber didn't do much that another weapon could have done. After all, Leia did just fine inside the barge, tied with a chain, and without a weapon of her own.

Luke and Mara escape Thrawn's army by surrendering to them, and Luke innovatively takes down what was probably a ceremonial and highly valuable (to the natives) archway onto the troop carrier. The whole squadron of stormtroopers was destroyed, with help from Karrde's people. Karrde is a difficult one to figure out. His explanations are good though, in that he feels that the New Republic is destined to win the war, but doesn't want to cross the Empire, which also makes him profits. But he does seem to do more against the Empire than for it, earning Thrawn's wrath in the end. Mara is right that his decisions are somewhat emotional, but perhaps they are just long term. 

Meanwhile, Leia and Chewie went into hiding on Kashyyyk, though it didn't do them much good, as the Nogrhi got there first, thanks to Thrawn's intuition. The entry into Kashyyyk was beautifully written, and I really liked the Wookies that we met. When the Nogrhi finally attack, Leia actually kills one of them. However, these killers have a gene-sensing nose! Kabarach recognises her as the heir to Darth Vader, their supposed savior. That was a pretty cool twist, regardless, especially when we wonder how Leia could possibly get out of that kind of situation yet again. If these creatures were so good at their jobs, why would they fail three times? Usually because of the Force, and then because of her heritage. The author uses excellent arguments to separate Luke and Leia in the last two assassination attempts. Unlike other situations, these don't seem fabricated in any way.

It's too bad other, later, authors made the Nogrhi into cannon fodder. Here it took three Wookies to best a party of assassins, and two even escaped. It seems that they are always used as a comparison to show how capable the enemies in those books were, when here nobody has even heard of them because they are so secretive and good at what they do. It is also too bad that Leia simply takes over Thrawn's tyranny over them, as she is always taking them away from their homeworld, too.

The book finishes with a big battle at the Sluis Van shipyards, where Thrawn tried to steal so many ships. Thanks to Luke, Han and Lando, his plan failed.

There are many mysteries left in this book, the biggest one being why Thrawn wants so many ships when he doesn't have the manpower for them... It is a true first part in a trilogy. There is very little closure in this book, which is what caused me to start Dark Force Rising on the same day as I finished this one.

While this book may not be the best Star Wars novel out there anymore (Star By Star did get a five star rating a few years ago), it is still among the best of them. Some dialog could have been improved, as well as character placements, and overused sentences such as "they just sat there...", which sounds amateurish, especially when compared to the excellently-plotted and well-written narrative parts of the book.



5 stars

Also read June 12th to 18th, 1993  

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