In 1991, Bantam took a massive gamble by releasing Heir to the Empire, the first continuation of Star Wars since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. For a book based in a universe that hadn’t seen any influential commercial life for nearly a decade, it had a lot of people crossing their fingers that someone out there was still interested.
They were. Really interested. Heir to the Empire sold 70,000 copies in two weeks and hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, beating out John Grisham’s The Firm.
A work, however, doesn’t get a devout fan base on a title alone. Sure, nowadays it seems like you can slap Star Wars on anything and be guaranteed at least a few sales. But back in the early 90s, before everyone realized that not only were there still fans eager for new stories, publishing a Star Wars book was a risk. Fortunately, Bantam Spectra picked the right man to reignite the commercial presence with Timothy Zahn. He was a Star Wars fan who was savvy enough to know he couldn’t simply write a space opera with Star Wars slapped on it. He had to bring to life a universe that fans already intimately knew the rhythm and style for. The shape of a Star Wars story is evident in Heir to the Empire, from the opening visual of a Star Destroyer sliding through space, to the forbidding darkness of an Imperial Leader’s private sanctum. The reader even gets to reunite with Han and Chewie in Mos Eisley. Heir to the Empire was a welcomed return to a universe that so many people still loved.
Zahn remains to this day one of the most revered authors in the now renamed Legends era of Star Wars books. Several of his characters that made their debut in what was for many years were considered Episodes 7, 8 and 9, went on to become fan favorites. Characters like Mara Jade (later Mara Jade Skywalker), Talon Karrde, Han and Leia’s twins Jaina and Jacen and, of course, his iconic villain: Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Of all the shoes to be filled by Zahn’s original characters, Thrawn had the biggest to slip into as the saga’s new threat. With the fall of the Emperor and Darth Vader, not only was a powerful villain missing within the universe, Star Wars now needed a new icon of evil. It must have been quite the task for Zahn to create him, some new and some original, but also someone who made sense for Luke, Leia, Han and the rest of the galaxy to struggle against. Who could compare to the Emperor and Vader? It’s an interesting question to ask. What makes a memorable villain? What is it about a character that sends a tingle down readers’ spines? How do you create an opposition for the heroes that allows the reader to believe believe their struggle?
It’s very hard to forget our first glimpse of Darth Vader as he steps out of the smoke and surveys the dead bodies littering the hall. He’s physically remarkable in his black, armored life-support leaving us initially to wonder just what is under there. This aura of mystery around him grows as we wonder about the vague hints Obi-wan drops regarding his past as a fallen warrior. More machine than man? Twisted and evil? Our brief, tantalizing glimpse in The Empire Strikes Back tells us it’s truly awful.
Above all else, however, he is effective in his dark deeds. Any displeasure towards your performance or disrespect means your death. He is monstrous and brutal.
A major risk for villains in serialized stories is for them to come across as incompetent, and therefore unthreatening. You can’t have anything too awful happen to your main characters or you no longer have a story. In order to drag out a villain’s use, they sometimes end up shaking their fists at the heroes swearing “Next time! I’ll get you!” Everybody laughs and next week the whole cycle starts again. In the classic trilogy, Darth Vader was a successful villain because he was successful. In A New Hope he may have lost the first Death Star, however we see him kill good guys, we see him treat his own men with ruthlessness disregard, and plus he tortures Princess Leia. In Empire, he freezes Han Solo simply as a test, with total disregard for his life, sells him to a bounty hunter and then proceeds to slice off the hand of Luke Skywalker. He has failures, but they don’t diminish his presence as a villain because they are balanced by his successes. In Empire, which is widely regarded as the “best” Star Wars film, he may not have won the day but neither did the good guys.
Thrawn’s introduction in Heir to the Empire sets the stage for the presence he will have throughout the trilogy. The captain of his flagship, Chimera, Gilad Pellaeon, respects him but is also fearful of this mysterious new leader. Stalking the shadows around Thrawn’s private chambers is his Noghri bodyguard, Rukh, who is physically described as a knobbly, needle-toothed nightmare. As Pellaeon sets into the dimly lit room for the reader’s first encounter with the new villain, we share his fear that something terrible is about to happen. After all, Vader’s body count spoke for itself. However, rather than lashing out at the interruption or reprimanding Pellaeon in some fatal way, Thrawn instead starts a conversation about art.
It’s a very strange first encounter, as even an assault on the Star Destroyer fails to get a rise out of him. He calmly finishes his thought about art with Pelleon, suggests that his captain also make time for such pursuits and utterly demolishes the enemy by understanding the psychological weaknesses of their attackers’ race. Grand Admiral Thrawn is unlike any Imperial threat seen before. Calm. Confident.Cerebral. Brilliant. And what does he want?
“The complete, total, and utter destruction of the Rebellion.”
Come back on Wednesday to see how Thrawn went from creation to execution in part two or Thrawn: Terror and Triumph