Like the movies, HTTE opens with an Imperial Star Destroyer and our introduction to the most important character in the book - the villain. Grand Admiral Thrawn, an antagonist the like of which we have not seen since A C Doyle's Professor Moriarty, has returned from the Unknown Regions 5 years after the death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader. His goal - the destruction of the New Republic [formerly the Rebel Alliance] and the resurrection of the Empire.
Thrawn is a tactical and strategic genius, and his tools include not only a small fleet of Star Destroyers but also a race of expert hunter-assassins, the Noghri, and a species of Force-using tree-rodents called the Ysalamiri which can cancel out Jedi powers. He also has a Jedi Master as his ally - however, the Jedi is dangerously unstable and even Thrawn himself underestimates the dangers in having such an ally.
The New Republic is beset with difficulties. The Empire did not die out when Palpatine met his doom, and the New Republic has been at war constantly for the previous 5 years. Now Admiral Ackbar's position is threatened by political interference, just when the Republic is in greatest need of its most competent strategist.
Han and Leia are married, and are still both highly-ranked in the New Republic. Leia is pregnant with twins, and she has finally begun her jedi training. Luke and Leia's capture is one of Thrawn's main objectives - not only are the two New Republic jedi a major threat to his campaign, but he has promised to deliver them to his Jedi Master ally, who wants jedi students to command.
Han's mission for the New Republic is to recruit his former smuggler associates and compatriots into working for the Republic. One of the most powerful smugglers, Talon Karrde, is secretly working for both sides - which is a mixed blessing when he captures Luke. Luke ends up trapped in a forest full of Ysalamiri with a woman who wants him dead - and Thrawn knows where he is. But Han and Lando know where he is too ...
Thrawn's military campaign has a mysterious strategic goal - the book is filled with naval attacks which seemingly have little tactical importance, but Thrawn's moves all fit into place by the end. The climax of the book is a huge space battle, which Zahn brings off perfectly.
"In spring 1977 a film called Star Wars was released - and a cultural phenomenon was born." So reads the inside cover of Heir to the Empire. But the original Star Wars phenomenon died out after ten years, when the Marvel Comics adaption ceased in 1986. Five years later Timothy Zahn was contracted by George Lucas to write the official continuation to the Star Wars saga, and in so doing he would also resurrect the phenomenon itself.
One thing that strikes the long-time Star Wars fan about this book is that while it does not follow on from the Marvel stories, there are obvious similarities to it. Zahn's Noghri race have some superficial similarities to Marvel's Nagai, but Zahn's character Mara Jade is an almost blatant steal from Marvel's Shira Brie. The reason most Star Wars fans feel that Mara is Luke Skywalker's perfect love interest is no doubt because of the many similarites the character has with Shira.
The plot complexities of the novel pull it way above the level of the average Science Fiction story. From the first scene in the Mos Eisley cantina when Han meets with a former smuggler associate, we learn that in this book the characters will PLAN AHEAD. Thrawn is such a dangerous opponent because he thinks ahead - he does not rely on the mere hope that something will be in the right place at the right time, he ensures that everything is how it should be. This is straight out of Return of the Jedi - Luke Skywalker's plan to rescue Han Solo is so subtle and complex that even today, fifteen years later, many people cannot even percieve it!
Another plus is that characters actually THINK. The Ysalamiris' ability to cancel out Jedi Force powers has no obvious explanation - so the characters go along with the assumption that the Ysalamiri actually exist OUTSIDE the Force. This is of course impossible - the creatures merely harness the force in order to deny other Force users access to their powers. However, some people foolishly assume that because a character makes a statement, the author deliberately intended that statement to be 100% accurate in the context of the book!
Zahn is a damn fine novelist, and it has to be said that Heir to the Empire is a worthy continuation of the Star Wars saga.
Purchase this novel at ORB-Store.com