Anyway, long story short... this novel was terrible.
"What," you're probably asking yourselves, "You were expecting maybe... Tolstoy?" Well, no, but considering how much I loved it when it first came out (when I was 14!), and considering how much praise has been heaped on it over the years by my fellow Star Wars fans, I was expecting something special. Or, at the very least, something that wasn't, well terrible.
And, no, I don't think I was expecting too much. There is a stigma against licensed novels, but it is one that isn't necessarilly fair in the case of the "Expanded Universe" of the Star Wars novels. Unlike most licensed novels, the publishers of the Star Wars books actually hire a lot of well respected, established writers, which tends to give them a literary (or at least entertainment) value that would otherwise be lacking. Some of them are actually very good and compliment the films very well. And Heir to the Empire, the first in a trilogy by Timothy Zahn, should have been one of those good Star Wars novels. After all, Zahn was one of those well respected, established writers. He had already written a dozen or so science fiction novels, and had even won the Hugo award for best novella in 1984.
So why did he drop the ball with this novel? Some of its problem may have had to do with the fact that he was already an established science fiction novelist. After all, Star Wars is not science fiction, it's fantasy, and that is a problem many writers have had trouble resolving. Star Wars takes place in space, sure, and features technology and science concepts far advanced from our own, but it is told with a sense of mystery and magic and, well, fantasy, that makes it closer to Tolkien or even mythology than Asimov or Heinlein. Zahn doesn't understand that, and in fact seems to rebel against it. There is even an animal in this novel that is somehow able to repel the Force, almost as though Zahn is telling us that the very concept of the Force is silly and unneeded.
But we can't blame Zahn too much for inconsistencies in tone from the original trilogy of films, because this book was written almost ten years after Return of the Jedi was released, during a time well before the Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels really exploded. In fact, Zahn's novels helped to create that Expanded Universe, which brought the films back into popularity, which helped to generate the excitement that led to the release of the Special Editions and the Prequels. So the impact and importance of Zahn's novels can't be denied, but that still doesn't mean they're any good.
The humor from the films, for example, is something Zahn tried his best to translate to his books, but with little success. The films are very goofy and funny and silly, so Zahn attempted to add some levity, like in the scenes where 3PO is given Leia's voice to trick people over the communications link, or when Luke makes a big deal out of some new drink, that's called Hot chocolate. Hot chocolate? I'm willing to believe that such a drink exists in the Star Wars universe, but its existence shouldn't be used as a punchline to a joke. There is a chapter where Luke is said to be drinking some exotic beverage that Lando told him about. He keeps sipping from it, and then, finally, somebody asks him what it is, and he replies that it is called hot chocolate. I can't quite explain why this was so annoying and weak, but I bet you can kind of understand.
Then there are the huge, ridiculous plot contrivances. There are three huge coincidences in this novel that completely ruin any kind of plot or story flow. There are actually three instances where Luke in his X Wing and Han in the Millennium Falcon independently decide to visit some such location, at the exact moment when the Empire decides to launch an attack. Three times. Three. Once was annoying but forgivable, two was a sign of bad writing and poor editing, but three made me want to chuck the book across the room into the garbage can.
And, lastly, we have to discuss Thrawn, who was unjustly become something of a fan favorite villain amongst Star Wars fans. I saw unjustly because he's actually a really boring, ill-thought out character. To begin with, he has no real personality or defining characteristics beyond his blue skin. We're supposed to believe he's some kind of military genius, but not because we see him do anything remotely logical during battle, but because the writer has characters describe him as such.
But wait, you might be asking, what about his ability to understand the weaknesses of any race by completely studying their art? What about it? It's completely moronic and makes no sense. You really think that an alien culture could defeat Earth in a massive space battle simply because they studied the works of Picasso? It's a cute idea to be sure, and one that amost seems clever and smart, but it falls apart after even a three year old gives it two minutes of thought. Thrawn sucks.
And so did this book.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some Halo novels to read.