Even as writers and artists have expanded the Star Wars universe decades beyond the last film and thousands of years before the first one (meaning A New Hope, of course), there are still only a handful of stories which exist between the movies. In recent years, this milieu has grown slightly, but it is a tricky business. With such well-defined, well-loved beginning and end points, it is hard to keep the drama high without risking continuity. Fortunately, it’s a big galaxy, and Timothy Zahn is an old hand at this helm.
This novel takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, as the Rebellion is trying to figure out what to do with its newfound status as well as find a new a base. All the principal players–Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie–are present and active. Even Wedge Antilles makes a meaningful appearance towards the end. The real star, though, is a Zahn favorite: Mara Jade. Jade is in full flight as the Emperor’s Hand, trained in the Force to deliver Palpatine’s personal justice. Interestingly, though, she is much more contemplative than I would have expected.
I first encountered Timothy Zahn and Mara Jade, as many people did I think, through the Heir to the Empire series (a masterful sci-fi trilogy which I wholeheartedly recommend). In those stories, Jade is powerfully angry and aggressive, fueled by her need to avenge the dead Emperor. Going into this book, which functions in many ways as a prequel to that trilogy, I expected the same sort of intensity. What I found, however, was an Imperial agent focused on her mission, but fully in possession of her own judgment and abilities. Indeed, from a certain point of view, she flagrantly defies her orders to get at the truth. In this, Zahn actually manages to flesh out his later books. Mara becomes more than a thoughtless puppet, a weapon of Imperial vengeance. She is an agent of justice, at least as defined through the lens of the Galactic Empire. She also becomes more likable which, in turn, adds depth and plausibility to her later relationship with Luke.
Mara’s interactions with Luke worried me almost until the end. Because I have read Heir to the Empire, I knew that the two would not meet face to face in this novel. The continuity patrol would have burned Zahn to the ground otherwise. What I feared though was that they would get ridiculously close, that they would each be pinned down on opposite sides of a single wall or something. Like I said, however, Zahn knows what he’s about. Although the two characters do hear each other’s name, and their paths do get close, the author avoids triteness for the sake of nerdy titillation. Indeed, one of the things I enjoyed most about this book was that when Zahn makes connections to the later movies and books, he does so naturally. The links make sense within the current story and don’t feel forced. Part of this is because Zahn makes far fewer references than could have and avoids hamstringing his own novel unnecessarily.
That’s an important point, I think, because this story is, as the title suggests, all about choices. Every single character who means anything within the context of the plot makes a significant choice, some make more than one. Their decisions affect the action in unalterable ways; the novel could not have been the same had even one person chosen differently. This dynamic is created subtly and acts as a nearly invisible infrastructure behind the traditional Star Wars style. Its result is well-defined and developed characters acting in a story which fits seamlessly into the existing timeline.