Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn (⅘)
The second entry in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising, opens up shortly after the events of the first novel and the battle of Sluice Van. Zahn takes this opportunity to splinter the characters, so that we follow a handful of different narrative threads: the criminals with a code of honor, Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, go on the run from Admiral Thrawn, Luke chases down the batty Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth, Han and Lando encounter a general from the Old Republic turned independent freedom fighter, and Leia negotiates with longtime Imperial mercenaries, the Noghri, to prevent them from coming after her and her unborn children.
Tying most of these disparate plot threads together is the Katana fleet, a lost fleet of starships that, if recovered, have the potential of shifting the balance between the New Republic and Admiral Thrawn’s imperial forces. The Katana Fleet consists of two hundred Dreadnaughts, precursors to the Imperial Star Destroyer, and years prior to even the Clone Wars, its crew was infected by a virus that caused insanity, leading the crew to fling the compliment of starships out into the void of the galaxy. (Along with unstable Jorus C’baoth, the madness of the crew of the Katana fleet makes insanity something of a recurring theme in the series). As a MacGuffin, the Katan fleet bends each plot thread together by the end of the novel, although, because this is the second novel in a trilogy, plenty goes unresolved.
Dark Force Rising improves on its predecessor in most ways. The multiple plots make sure that the narrative moves swiftly as we bounce around the galaxy catching up with what our characters are getting themselves into. The sequel also provides Leia with a more satisfying role than Heir to the Empire. In what is arguably the most interesting plot of the novel, Leia takes a Noghri captive to his homeworld where she uses her role as ambassador to try and convince the Noghri to abandon the Empire and join the Republic. Leia must navigate the unique culture of the Noghri while also avoiding detection by Imperial forces.
Too often Leia gets scant attention, but she’s actually the highlight of the novel. While tense negotiations with an alien race might not be the most visually interesting story in a film, it’s well tailored for the medium of a novel. In fact, the role that the Republic has in keeping the peace is granted renewed attention. In another wonderful moment in the novel, Luke must mediate between two seedy businessmen, and during the negotiation, he muses to himself that this must have been one of the central roles of the Jedi Knight. With an exception of the opening of Episode I, we never really see the Jedi Knight as keepers of the peace, and it’s smart of Zahn to acknowledge this purpose. (It’s also interesting to see how the prequels change Zahn’s timeline. At one point it’s suggested that the Clone Wars occurred fifty or more years ago, but according to Episodes I-III, it’s probably more like twenty-five or thirty).
Zahn’s great strength as a storyteller is his ability to plot out ways in which dueling characters continually think they have the upper hand until they don’t. In fact, the strategizing reaches its wonderfully absurd peak with the character of Thrawn who studies a culture’s art in order to learn how they think and in turn how to defeat them. At its most exciting, Zahn’s novels are like the sword fighting scene in The Princess Bride in which Bonetti is counteracted by Capo Ferro which is cancelled out by Thibault and then undermined by Agrippa. These moves and countermoves are what makes the Thrawn Trilogy exciting, and by the end of Dark Force Rising, it’s easy to become eager to know who, in this interplay of strategems, gets the upperhand next.