Dark Force Rising – Further Geek Reminiscences

The second book of Thrawn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy is unique in that it ultimately revolves around a MacGuffin, in this case a lost fleet of warships that could tilt that balance of the war in favor of whoever acquires it, and it focuses almost entirely on the backwaters of the Star Wars universe.

The central character in this chase is the smuggler-king Talon Karrde. Karrde is another character who would prove so popular that he would continue to play major and minor parts throughout the rest of the Expanded Universe’s development. He is established as a criminal counterpart to Grand Admiral Thrawn. Both men are practically omniscient: Thrawn assesses people and predicts events by studying their art, while  information-gathering have been Karrde’s life’s work. Karrde leads a smuggling organization mainly because that’s the best job for someone who wants to know what is really going on in the galaxy; the wealth and power are fringe benefits.

This means that Karrde starts out a dedicated neutral in the war between the New Republic and the Empire. He is content to do arms-length business with both sides, but mostly wishes to keep tabs on them. Yet Thrawn is on a crusade to defeat the New Republic, and begins dividing the galaxy into those who are with the Empire, and those who are against it. As he applies greater pressure to Karrde, Karrde watches his options dwindle until Thrawn finally eliminates the middle-course: neutrality is hostility, and so Karrde finds himself alone against the might of the Empire, his destruction one of the Grand Admiral’s pet projects.

By the end of the book, Karrde has been forced to cast his lot with the New Republic. Thrawn’s attempts to force Karrde into compliance have produced a marriage between the most capable and well-informed criminal organization and the New Republic’s military power. It is another Thrawn miscalculation, and one whose consequences he fails to appreciate. If Karrde could not be made into a friend, he should at all costs not have been made into an enemy. But Thrawn’s mistake is in thinking that understanding and predicting his enemies neutralizes them.

Thrawn’s antithesis in this book is Leia, who goes on a secret mission to Honoghr to convince the Noghri to stop working for the Empire. Thrawn happens to be there at the same time, and the mission nearly goes catastrophically awry, but Thrawn proves once again that his confidence in his own intelligence and capability is his undoing. Where Leia arrives as an uninvited guest, ignorant of local customs and circumstances, Thrawn is a revered lord with long experience dealing with the Noghri. Yet Thrawn casts aside his regard for custom the moment it becomes expedient, using orbital bombardment and the threat of genocide to terrify a people who are already in awe of him. Meanwhile, Leia salvages her mission simply by watching and listening to her hosts, and cooperating with their wishes that she leave their world before she causes trouble.

When I was younger, Leia’s segments of the book bored me. Her wanderings around Noghri villages and growing understanding of their history were poor substitutes for the battles and chases that comprise the rest of the book. This time I found it instructive. The films hinted that Leia was a trained diplomat and politician, but we scarcely ever saw her without a weapon in her hand or a man at her side. What Zahn does with Dark Force Rising is show the heroism of negotiation and discovery. It is Leia’s compassionate and respectful example, as a representative of the New Republic, standing against Thrawn’s blatant manipulations and threats, that make the Noghri willing to listen to what she has to say, and admit some uncomfortable truths to themselves. At the end of this subplot, there is a dramatic speech to a Noghri assembly in which smoking-gun evidence of Imperial perfidy is introduced. But it is the conversations about family and culture that lay the groundwork for victory. Leia’s compassion and understanding are revealed to be strengths just as much as Luke’s Force abilities or Han Solo’s cunning.

I would be lying, however, if I said these were my favorite parts of the book. They are pretty tame compared to the rest of the book, which includes a battle aboard an underwater luxury casino, Luke Skywalker’s and Mara Jade’s heist caper aboard Thrawn’s flagship, a massive battle at the Katana Fleet’s location, and an Alamo-style holding action aboard the Katana itself. The middle installment of any trilogy risks being flat, because it cannot really resolve anything, but Zahn solves this problem the same way The Empire Strikes Back did: by turning the characters loose on a breakneck series of set-pieces that make defeat exhilarating enough to feel like victory.

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