I’ve been rambling a lot in my recent blogs about Warhammer stuff, but it’s time for a change of scenery today as I switch over to my other obsession, Star Wars, and the Tim Zahn duology from 1997-8, The Hand of Thrawn!
I first read these novels years ago now, completely out of sequence as I had just finished Zahn’s seminal trilogy, the Thrawn Trilogy, and was hungry for more! It was the summer after my GCSE exams had been finished, and I was free to read whatever I wanted, rather than trying to catch chapters of The Last Command in between revising physics, or whatever.
Specter of the Past begins with the discovery of a badly damaged copy of The Caamas Document – a datacard that details the Bothan saboteurs involved in the destruction of the planet Caamas long before the Clone Wars. The planet’s inhabitants, the Caamasi, were well-known peacekeepers and valued mediators, and the destruction of their world was cause for galactic outcry back in the day. The discovery that there were Bothans involved leads the New Republic almost to civil war, as several species come down either on the side of wanting to make the Bothans pay for their crime, or else on the side of those who believe a more peaceful solution is needed. Of course, plenty of folks are just using the discovery of the document to reignite old hatreds and resume petty conflicts that the Empire had pretty much put on hold.
While Leia attempts to keep the New Republic from fracturing too much, Luke is off trying to discover who is backing the Cavrilhu Pirates into attacking New Republic shipping, with what he believes to be clone pilots. His investigation almost leads to his death at their asteroid base, but Mara Jade manages to rescue him and, as they’re leaving the system, they notice an odd type of TIE-fighter lurking in the asteroid field.
Turns out, the renegade Imperial Moff Disra has been using the Pirates as part of his plan to restore the Empire to greatness, a plan that involves resurrecting Grand Admiral Thrawn through the use of the con artist known as Flim, and the tactical acumen of a Major Tierce, former Imperial Guardsman to the Emperor. He sets a plan in motion to cause said civil war above Bothawui, using elements from Imperial Intelligence to forment riots and general dissension over the Caamas issue, leading our heroes to try and find an intact copy of the Caamas Document, and name those Bothans responsible for destroying the shield generator, rather than holding the entire species accountable.
This is the background, and the duology takes us through the sort of galaxy-spanning epic that we expect from Zahn in his Bantam era. It really has that sort of feel that we know from the earlier trilogy – our heroes flying across the galaxy, visiting planets we have never heard of and encountering a whole load of weird aliens along the way. While Admiral Pellaeon is trying to sue for peace with the New Republic, Disra’s plans lead to a more subtle conflict with the Empire at first, which is a different change of pace for pretty much any Bantam novel. There is a lot of the shadow war with Imperial Intelligence, and while Flim’s Thrawn impersonation is seemingly flawless, he is nevertheless kept almost hidden from view, with merely the rumour of his return being cause enough to send the New Republic into a frenzy. The civil war is balanced along a knife edge that almost runs on too long, but is nevertheless built up really very well.
One of my earliest gripes with this novel was the fact that Zahn seemingly felt the need to bring Thrawn back from the dead. Of course, the book is pretty much from the off about a con game and we know it, but it did feel a bit like he couldn’t think up a more convincing villain for the heroes to go up against, so he just brought the earlier one back. Of course, when you get to the end of the book, and reflect on the story as a whole, it actually works really well.
We get to meet Thrawn’s people, the Chiss, and learn that Thrawn had in fact set up a clone of himself to return to known space ten years after his death, should that come to pass. Irony of ironies, it’s been ten years and now Disra puts his plan into action. The Chiss almost enter the war on the side of the Imperial Remnant, but by the end of Vision of the Future, it appears that they’re content instead to sit this one out, keeping their focus on the myriad threats of the Unknown Regions.
I find it interesting to go back and re-read these old novels, and compare them with what we have now from Disney. While I don’t feel that The Hand of Thrawn has held up as well as The Thrawn Trilogy, I still think there is a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s a shame to see so much of it just thrown out, really. The idea of the Unknown Regions holding some unimaginable threat was never really picked up on, of course, Vision of the Future was one of the last novels Bantam got to publish before Del Rey got the licence back and started the New Jedi Order off. However, the Aftermath trilogy does feel a bit like it’s picking up on this idea of the Unknown Regions and the threats there, having the Imperial Remnant following the Battle of Jakku head off there. What is going on, I wonder? Of course, Disney has managed to open up so much of the Star Wars galaxy once more, and really make it feel like a huge place, so we’re probably fine for now to leave the Unknown Regions as they are…
Naturally, given when this duology was published, Zahn has got a lot more Star Wars lore to pull from this time around, rather than having to make the whole lot up for himself, and there are a lot of references to Mike Stackpole’s work, particularly the Rogue Squadron comics. Baron Fel makes an appearance, and Corran Horn is something of a major second-tier character. Zahn and Stackpole are friends, of course, so that isn’t unexpected, but it does feel weird that we get that sort of detail this time around. There is also reference made to both the Black Fleet Crisis books and the Callista trilogy, though these do feel a little forced at times.
In the midst of all the chaos, we of course get to catch up with Talon Karrde and his organisation, and get to see a lot of the smuggler chief’s history. It was interesting to see this sort of thing expanded upon, and we get a lot of links back to The Thrawn Trilogy and some of the plot points that were left hanging from that series are wrapped up. Notably, Mara Jade leaves the Karrde organisation at the end of the duology, although Karrde has already had an almost-replacement for her in the form of Shada D’ukal, the Mistryl Shadow Warrior from The Last Command. There is a lot of weaving of threads from earlier Zahn stories throughout the pair of books here, but I suppose Shada shows how far this goes when we get an almost synopsis of the short story Hammertong that Zahn wrote for Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. I wouldn’t say the references are particularly necessary to enjoy the books – I certainly did enjoy them when I first read them back in the day, having only previously read Zahn’s trilogy and Crimson Empire up to that point. But there is another layer that can be enjoyed if you have indeed read through the myriad offerings of short stories in this way.
Prior to reading the pair this time around, I re-read Jade Solitaire from Tales of the New Republic, which merely serves to show why Talon Karrde has a Togorian working on his crew now, as well as giving Mara Jade her ship, Jade’s Fire, which is featured in a somewhat significant plot point in Vision of the Future. It’s not necessary, for sure, but does add a layer or two that can be enjoyed. For me, I think it just helps to harken back to those days when the narrative was keen to explain away every single point in the movies and beyond, and brings back a lot of nostalgia for me. Talon Karrde’s journey into the Exocron system has even got me wanting to dig out my copy of The DarkStryder Campaign! Maybe that can be the subject of another blog here soon…
Don’t get me wrong, of course – it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Far from it, I was actually surprised to discover that I didn’t rate this duology nearly as highly as I remembered. I think a lot of that is down to the fact that I have such fond memories of reading these books as a sixteen year old, that now I’ve come to expect more from my literature in general, I found them to be a bit lacking. There is quite an effort made, I feel, to recapture the spirit of the Thrawn Trilogy, almost to the point where it becomes annoying, and I find myself wishing that Zahn had branched out into a completely new direction. Elements of the storyline such as Karrde’s plot were a lot more refreshing, because they had the hint of the earlier trilogy without rehashing it as much as, say, the Luke and Mara trek through the caverns of Nirauan – which Luke actually explicitly compares with their trek through the forest on Myrkr. There are also some vaguely silly scenes, particularly around the Caamas Incident politics. It’s nice that we get reference to the senate being rebuilt following the Almanian Uprising, that does help to make the universe feel really coherent, but the fact that the senate is populated by weird senators, one of whom is jabbering on about needing to sit on her eggs, just feels too out there. Weird.
There were also a lot of elements that felt a lot more like fan fiction than perhaps they should have been. I probably need to elaborate a lot more on this, so here goes. Any movie tie-in like this can of course fall under the heading of fan-fiction, as that’s basically what it is. However, for official licensed media by Lucasfilm, novels like these should feel more like a continuation of the storyline, and while new characters of course need to be introduced to keep the narrative fresh, the way that new characters interact with movie ones is usually where these things fall down. During the Thrawn Trilogy, the interaction was superb, and it felt like these people truly inhabited the same universe as the movies. But when you get a character (or characters) being made into something “better” than the movie heroes, the whole situation can quickly devolve, and it feels a lot like that happens in the scenes where Mara is berating Luke for his actions over the last few years. I know why it was included, of course, as the Bantam novels did have a tendency to make Luke into a kind of demigod at times, but it smacks of something I particularly dislike from Stackpole’s novel I, Jedi, where Corran tells Luke off in such a manner that makes Corran out to be a much better person – maybe even a better Jedi – than Luke is. It makes me cringe so much, and unfortunately that does happen a couple of times in the course of Vision of the Future. It feels very much like Zahn is trying to re-set the narrative by taking Luke away from the god-like portrayal of other novels, and instead set him up for the next stage (which may or may not have involved fighting the unnamed threats of the Unknown Regions), but has the end result of almost returning him to the sort of farmboy he was in A New Hope.
That was a bit rambly, but hopefully you can follow my point!
There is still a tremendous amount to enjoy from these books, and I can definitely recommend you getting a hold of them if you can and giving them a read. While they pretty much have no bearing on the Star Wars narrative post-Disney, of course, they’re nevertheless some of the better books to come out of the Legends canon, and are still some of my favourites!