This is the long-awaited follow-up to Zahn's "Thrawn" trilogy. Mara Jade is back, this time as a major character again - and all Zahn's best characters get a look in. Even the Mistrals, the female mercenaries from Zahn's mundane "Tales of the Mos Eisley Cantina" offering, make a reappearance here.
Admiral Pellaeon, now commander of the remains of the Imperial Fleet, has realised what dire straits the Empire [now reduced to 8 sectors and under 1000 worlds] is in, and plans to negotiate a surrender to the New Republic. The Republic itself is in serious trouble - like the UN it has splintered into so many factions it is uncontrollable.
Before Pellaeon's peace plans can be put into action, Princess Leia and Talon Karrde discover a datacard from the Wayland vaults that mentions two things to cause the Republic consternation. The first is the mysterious "Hand of Thrawn" after which the book series is named; the other is the assertion that a number of Bothans aided the Empire in its destruction of the peaceful population of planet Camaas.
The Republic fragments still further once the allegations against the Bothans are revealed, and an ambitious Imperial Moff, Disra, sets his own plans into action with the intent of toppling the galactic democracy.
On top of everything else the Republic has to worry about, the Imperials now have a new tactical genius among their number - and he appears to have red eyes, blue skin and a white uniform!
Zahn has attempted to re-write the universe created post-TLC by the other authors, and does a fair job of it. Certainly, his collaboration with Crispin and Stackpole is effective, and gives more impact to the revelations about the destruction of Camaas. Also, Zahn has managed to tie up a few loose knots - no doubt Stackpole informed him of this reviewer's on-line theorizing, for several theories about how Thrawn could have survived are mentioned and ruled out. Best of all, we finally find out the fate of the traitorous Ruhk - and it was well-deserved!
Perhaps it is a positive reflection on the quality of the other writers' Star Wars novels, but somehow this much-awaited tome has failed to fulfill the high expectations it evoked. Instead of arousing the same excitement and breathless anticipation that the Thrawn Trilogy, this book seems to drag on forever. The main problem seems to be the most obvious one; while Zahn's previous books featured the greatest Star Wars villain, this one seems to completely lack any kind of powerful antagonist at all.
The ending is not the cliffhanger the author intended it to be. While each of Zahn's previous books was a complete volume in itself, this one has no climax or ending as such - and when this book was originally released the continuation book was not due out for another year. Disappointment indeed!
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