Dark Force Rising is one of those cliched-sounding titles that originates with, as far as I can tell, a Country and Western song from the early 1980s entitled Black Moon Rising. It was only a matter of time before a Star Wars book bore such a title - but have no fear, Zahn's story is definitely up to scratch.
The "Dark Force" of the title is the fabled Katana Fleet, 200 Dreadnought Cruisers from the Old Republic that were lost in space and never recovered ...
The first of the books' three story threads is Han and Lando's quest to locate the Katana fleet, and thus deny Thrawn access to the extra warships he needs to launch his next major offensive.
The second plot thread is Luke and Mara Jade's. Luke encounters the insane Jedi clone Joruus C'Baoth, while Mara is torn between her loyalty to Karrde and her former allegience to the Empire that Thrawn now controls.
The final thread is also a follow-up to a thread in the previous book. This time, Leia does not seek to hide from Thrawn's alien Noghri assassins; she keeps her arrangement with the young Noghri commando she captured, and he takes her to his homeworld. But can she leave it without Thrawn discovering her presence?
The book is most noticible for the development of Grand Admiral Thrawn himself. In "Heir to the Empire" he is cold, chilling - but somewhat admirable. "Dark Force Rising" alters this somewhat radically.
The obvious change in Thrawn's portrayal is that he is a VILLAIN - in the previous volume he presided over the cliched execution of a pathetic underling, but in this book we see a completely different side to his personality. His brutal betrayals and treachery towards Mara Jade, Talen Karrde and his own Noghri show him as nothing more than a merciless dictator, bent on Galactic domination.
Some people feel that Zahn failed to develop Thrawn's character correctly. In Dark Force Rising we see Thrawn for what he truly is, something we were not allowed to do in Heir To The Empire. Thrawn's characetr is definitely well-developed!
The second complaint about Thrawn is that he has the almost Jedi-like power to make amazing deductions from seemingly flimsy evidence. The most improbable example of this in Heir to the Empire was his deduction that Leia would hide with the wookiees on Kashyyyk - and this turned out to be the case!
Dark Force Rising does not include that kind of plot-led precognition - Thrawn makes several guesses in the book, all of which are logical, but which are seriously flawed. He actually underestimates each of the opponents he faces, and allows himself to be outwitted by characters whom he no doubt feels to be inferior.
This is the true strength of Dark Force Rising - it shows that not only is Thrawn a villain, but that his powers of deduction are every bit as falible and flimsy as his other resources, the TIE fighters and stormtroopers that the good guys wade through at every turn.
And yet, at the end of the book the flawed and villainous Grand Admiral has managed to do what he is best at. For even when at his lowest ebb, the Grand Admiral is exactly that - the finest mind the Empire has ever employed!
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