When George Lucas ended the Original Trilogy with Return of the Jedi in 1983, interest in Star Wars began to wane. Then, in 1991, Bantam published the novel Heir to the Empire, written by Timothy Zahn. The book was a hit, making it onto the New York Times Bestseller list, reigniting interest in the Star Wars franchise. Many believe that the success of Heir to the Empire - which kicked off a trilogy of novels - caught George Lucas's eye, and inspired him to write the prequels.
Over the weekend, the official Star Wars Books Facebook page revealed this:
We already knew that Grand Admiral Thrawn was appearing in Star Wars Rebels, but until now, we had no idea that he was starring in a new Star Wars novel. Even better, this novel is canon - part of the main Star Wars continuity, and written by none other than Timothy Zahn!
What's Going On?
When Disney took over Lucasfilm, they had to make some difficult decisions. Previously, Star Wars had taken a remarkably 'open' view to the canon; although the films came up trumps, everything else was accepted as canon too - from novels to role-playing games, from animated series to computer games! Disney wanted to create new stories based in the Star Wars universe, but the Expanded Universe essentially locked them in. So a brutal and efficient decision was made; the old Expanded Universe was relegated to the status of 'legends'. Unless the new canon chose to incorporate an element of the EU - be it a plot, a location, or a character - then it was just a possibility, not a reality.
Without this decision, Star Wars: The Force Awakens could never have happened; the Expanded Universe had literally charted a century's worth of history on from the Original Trilogy! Understandably, fans of the Expanded Universe were devastated.
Since that fateful decision, the new canon has gradually come to incorporate some minor elements of the Expanded Universe (such as the Hutt homeworld, shown in the Star Wars comics). But Grand Admiral Thrawn is no 'minor element', and bringing in Timothy Zahn is a pretty staggering decision.
Who Is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
Perhaps one of the greatest tactical geniuses in Star Wars, Thrawn is a Chiss strategist who became convinced that promising allegiance to the Empire was the only way to protect the galaxy from the countless deadly threats of the Unknown Regions. He was a fascinating character, obsessed with art, and usually developed insights into people - and entire races - by studying their artistic creations. Thrawn was capable of blind-siding even the most skilled military leaders, studying his enemies with care before defeating them utterly. In recognition of his skills, he became the only alien Grand Admiral in the Empire.
Thrawn was introduced in Heir to the Empire as an Imperial warlord who waged war on the New Republic - and a brutally efficient war, at that. He came within a stone's throw of defeating them, but was ultimately killed by treachery. As the years passed, Timothy Zahn returned time and again to the Expanded Universe to flesh out Thrawn's backstory. Outbound Flight revealed Thrawn's secret motivation - knowledge of the extra-galactic invaders known as the Yuuzhan Vong, which caused him to justify going to any lengths to unify the galaxy.
The character is one of the Expanded Universe's greatest legends, and is tied to one of the greatest writers of Star Wars fiction.
Why Is Timothy Zahn So Important?
Although the Expanded Universe had existed in some form or other since 1978's Splinter of the Mind's Eye, a novel written by Alan Dean Foster, the franchise was a feeble one. Timothy Zahn changed all that. He stepped into George Lucas's world and did something completely new; he created entirely original concepts (the Emperor's Hands being a key one), new worlds (the planet Coruscant was absorbed into the Prequel Trilogy, but made its debut in Zahn's novels), and countless new characters.
In short, Zahn expanded the Star Wars galaxy more than had ever been done before. He single-handedly reinvigorated the franchise, and since then, he's returned to the Expanded Universe many times.
Timothy Zahn has had his controversies, though; He's notoriously protective of his characters, and has a deep-rooted love for one particular Jedi - Mara Jade, who, in the Expanded Universe, married Luke Skywalker. His Hand of Thrawn duology featured Mara giving Luke a lecture on the nature of the Force, and many fans didn't take kindly to it.
What's So Exciting About This?
For fans of the Expanded Universe, this is a moment to rejoice. Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the most creative characters in the old Expanded Universe, and bringing him into this new Disney world is a masterstroke. What's more, the character comes with a lot of baggage - such as the alien race known as the Chiss. No doubt Timothy Zahn will have to heavily adapt the character and his history (the Yuuzhan Vong are unlikely to ever appear, for example), but this is pretty much guaranteed to import a massive amount from the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
What's more, Zahn has a level of creativity that's pretty remarkable among science-fiction writers. He creates new characters and worlds with skill, and this book is sure to demonstrate that creative flair. This novel is going to dramatically expand the Star Wars galaxy that Disney are building - and it fits in perfectly with Rogue One, which features the distinctive white uniform of a Grand Admiral (an idea Zahn developed in his books).
The old Expanded Universe had one major problem: If George Lucas made a movie that contradicted something in the Expanded Universe, then the Expanded Universe was summarily dismissed - branded 'Infinities'. Disney's approach is very different. If something isn't marked as 'Legend', then it's canon. This book is just as much a part of Disney's Star Wars universe as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In giving Timothy Zahn a chance to focus on his iconic character, Disney has given him a degree of influence he has never had before.
I freely admit that I grew up with the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Second only to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this is easily the most exciting Star Wars news I've heard since Disney took over the franchise.
This is one book I'll be getting on pre-order.