The Hand of Thrawn

Hey everybody!
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!

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!

Procrastination, part two

Well folks, the last weekend before my exam has been and (nearly) gone, and my revision is still near-nonexistent! Basically, I don’t exam well, so the sooner this is over, the better!

View this post on Instagram

I *should* be revising…

A post shared by Mark (@marrrkusss) on

What I have been reading, of course, is Star Wars stuff! I finished reading Darksaber yesterday, which I’ve been off-and-on reading for the past fortnight or so. It’s a book that I remember enjoying a lot when I first read it all those years ago, but as with a lot of these novels lately, I’m finding I’m less impressed with it.

Last year, I read the Jedi Academy trilogy, which was a bit of a let-down, too. Following that trilogy, we have the so-called ‘Callista trilogy’, written between Barbara Hambly and Kevin J Anderson. Children of the Jedi, by Hambly, sees Luke take on the re-activated superweapon Eye of Palpatine, during which time he falls in love with the disembodied spirit of former Jedi Knight Callista Ming. The weapon is destroyed, during which Callista manages to re-inhabit human form, though as the expense of her ability to use the Force. The book is about as dire as it sounds, thoughI seem to remember there are one or two moments that were interesting, but otherwise it doesn’t really warrant the effort to read it.

Darksaber forms more of a sequel to the Jedi Academy trilogy, as we see what some of the trainees have been up to over the past year or so. Written by Kevin J Anderson, the plot feels a bit more galaxy-spanning than his previous trilogy – indeed, it feels a little more ambitious overall. In addition to the Jedi trainees, we also get to catch up with Admiral Daala, who did indeed survive the events of Champions of the Force, and Captain Pellaeon, who has been wandering adrift since Thrawn’s defeat at Bilbringi. Two further storylines see the Hutts building a superweapon, and of course, Luke and Callista continuing their story trying to find Callista’s powers.

As typical for many of the Bantam novels, movie references are heavy and innovation tends to be weird. I mean, we revisit many of the movie locations, often on the slimmest of reasons (we even get to meet up with the Wampa from Empire Strikes Back again!), while new places include Dorsk 81’s home planet where everyone is a clone, and a luxury resort carved into a comet that is primarily used to mine water. Movie references can often be nice and grounding when you read tie-in material like this, but in many of these books the references are contrived and gratuitous, and can sometimes feel downright lazy, if I’m totally honest.

I actually feel really bad for criticising this book, as I really liked it back in the day, but the simple fact remains that it just isn’t all that good as some of the more serious Star Wars fiction. It definitely feels like a kids book that is taking itself a little too seriously at times. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing on kids books, but when a book is sold as adult fiction, I expect it to be pitched at an adult audience, even if the subject matter is Star Wars. The biggest thing on this is Luke and Callista. Something I found quite strange is how they seem to agree that their relationship isn’t worthwhile unless Callista has her Force powers, which comes across as elitist and weird, basically. Eventually, Callista discovers she can use the dark side, which just isn’t worth it, but she decides it might be best if she leaves Luke rather than being reminded of what she used to have. The whole storyline plays out as perhaps the worst sort of soap opera. I remember reading an article that stated Lucasfilm had decided Luke and Mara would end up together, but because the Bantam novels weren’t released in any sort of chronological order, stuff like this would happen as other women were brought into his life. In this respect, Anderson has a bit of a rough time trying to resolve the situation set up in Children of the Jedi, after Lucasfilm had decided Callista would not be the woman for Luke.

Kyp Durron is back, Anderson’s pet character, and while he isn’t quite so insufferable in this book (largely due to the fact he isn’t in a large portion of it), he still gets to brood wonderfully and rubbish like that. Daala is her usual fearsome-yet-ineffective self, as she tried to unite the Empire, kills a load of the squabbling warlords, but still manages to balls-up the whole thing.

The title story involves Durga the Hutt and his efforts to create a superweapon with which to terrorize the galaxy. It’s actually pretty hilarious, and while some of it is a bit too simplistic, like it’s more suited to a children’s book than anything else, but has the distinction of seeing the first ever Rebel speaking-character from the movies being killed off. Remember General Madine, from the Death Star II assault briefing in Return of the Jedi? Well, he gets killed. The character of Durga the Hutt was created for this novel, where he isn’t really much more than a pantomime villain, but he was further developed during AC Crispin’s excellent Han Solo trilogy, where the Hutt storyline of that book series is just wonderful. We also get to meet the Imperial Engineer, Bevel Lemelisk, who created the Death Star project and had been introduced primarily via the West End Games RPG.

Speaking of the RPG, I also read the Barbara Hambly short story Murder in Slushtime, from the Adventure Journal. The story involves Callista among a whole load of Gamorreans, following the events of Darksaber. The Adventure Journal has got some really great stuff, and not just the short stories – there are articles that provide settings for RPG campaigns that are really significant, as they were subsequently used by the novelists. Murder in Slushtime is a kinda throwaway story, which is sort of a murder-mystery that shows us a whole load of Gamorrean culture that I’m not entirely sure we ever wanted to know! This is only increased by the RPG article that follows. Who knew Gamorrean boars wrote love poetry when they felt all romantic during the wintertime?

The Callista storyline is ‘resolved’ in Planet of Twilight, which is perhaps the second-worst Star Wars novel of all time. I haven’t actually read it in decades, but it feels like a collection of shorter stories, or perhaps more like a short story that has been elongated beyond all business, with another couple of stories stuck on to try and mitigate the fact. Luke searches for Callista, but when he actually finds her, they merely agree to go their separate ways from afar – I mean, they don’t even converse, they just nod to each other from across a valley or something. It’s generally unsatisfactory, but there we have it.

I should probably return to the revision…or, at least, try to…