Twenty years ago this summer, in a mall bookstore not so far away, I rediscovered Star Wars.
Long before the prequels were a reality, and the thought of the Saga making the jump to a weekly TV series was preposterous, there was Heir to the Empire, a novel by Timothy Zahn that picked up five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, when the ragtag Rebellion was continuing to take back the galaxy from the Empire while building a fragile New Republic. It was, and still is, amazing, even after that “Expanded Universe,” as the vast collection of original fiction that would follow would come to be known, was blown to hell by invasion and strife.
This gift from the gods came seemingly out of the blue in an era when Star Wars seemed all but forgotten. My Kenner action figures lay in perfect hibernation within their C-3PO and Darth Vader storage cases under my bed — and it would be still years before merchandising would catch up and the characters of the EU would join them. Zahn’s book wasn’t the first original Star Wars novel — Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye from 1978 has that distinction. Nor would it be the last: Heir was but the first in a series of novels by Zahn later dubbed “The Thrawn Trilogy,” which also included Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. What followed was a long succession of trilogies and standalone novels in hardback and paperback, reaching a crescendo with the epic “New Jedi Order” series and continuing today with the “Fate of the Jedi” line.
I devoured Heir to the Empire on a 1991 summer road trip from Phoenix to California. The writing took all the whizzing blaster bolts and furious lightsaber battles and made them as real as Lucasfilm’s screen magic ever could. The droids bickered, the Millennium Falcon faltered and the dark side beckoned once more. No original Star Wars fiction before or since has ever been as meticulous and yet so tight — it was as if Tom Clancy had decided to write about Jedi Knights and stormtroopers.
On June 21, Del Rey will commemorate the occasion with Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition, a hardcover reissue featuring “commentary-style” annotations from Zahn and others involved in the novel’s creation, an introduction by the author, a reflective platinum-colored jacket overlaying a special version of the original cover artwork by Drew Struzan, and a new Zahn novella, Crisis of Faith, starring Grand Admiral Thrawn — a calculating villain that gave the Emperor and Darth Vader a run for their credits.
This being a “special edition” of a Star Wars story, let the jokes commence about Han shooting first and inserting superfluous creatures into every scene. But whatever has happened to the Saga since, let’s pause to reflect on this groundbreaking addition to the Star Wars universe.