I remember being wary when I discovered Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels at my school library. Even at that young age, I’d been stung by poor quality film novelizations and adaptations, and didn’t want something as formative as Star Wars to be sullied by sub-par additions to the canon (hello prequel trilogy!). Eventually I relented – or simply ran out of other books to read – and borrowed Heir to the Empire, the first book in Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. Before long, I’d devoured all three books.
The trilogy blew my mind with the way it expanded on the Star Wars universe as I had previously known it. Picking up five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy features all the heroes from the original films and follows the struggles of the New Republic in setting up a viable government, whilst fighting off remnants of the Empire. As well as all the old favorites, Zahn introduced a number of new characters who would become pivotal figures in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, including Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade. The main focus of the trilogy is Thrawn, who was out on the edge of the galaxy when the Empire fell, and his plan to rally the remaining forces loyal to the old Empire and shatter the fledgling New Republic.
Reading Zahn’s books, it felt as though I’d come across some secret tome that revealed a whole new set of Star Wars films that few other people knew about. These films may have only been projected on the inside of my head, but the special effects were incredible, and none of the characters suffered from the passage of time their actors were subjected to.
Timothy Zahn added to the Star Wars universe in both scope and depth, filling his books with characters, events, and countless other minutiae that would resonate with fans for years to come. Even twenty years later (oh god, I’m getting old), I can clearly remember bits and pieces from the trilogy. For one thing, it was Thrawn’s experiences as a non-human officer in the Imperial military that helped me realize the xenophobia of the Empire and see the parallels to Nazi Germany. Then there’s the Ysalamir and their Force-negating abilities, used by Thrawn to neutralize Luke Skywalker’s abilities, and the Wookiees on Kashyyk who have a speech impediment that enables them to speak English. I never said they were particularly important or interesting things that stuck in my mind all this time, but it speaks to the quality of the books that I can still recall these seemingly inconsequential details years later.
Since the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, Zahn’s books – along with countless other books, comics, games, and more – are no longer canon. Thankfully though, the books are still out there, available to be read as a sort of alternate timeline – a Star Wars sequel trilogy that might have been. Interestingly, some elements of Zahn’s trilogy managed to survive the pruning of the canon tree to return to the main branch. Grand Admiral Thrawn has appeared in the Star Wars Rebels show, and Zahn himself has been given the opportunity to recreate the character within the new canon in a novel simply called Thrawn, which takes place before the original film.
I don’t know if I’ll read Thrawn, as I want to hold onto these fading memories of the old trilogy for as long as possible. But maybe, just maybe, in the long, painful wait between Episodes VIII and IX, I’ll revisit these favorites of my youth, and soak in all the things that could have been and, for a time, were.