Review: Specter of the Past by Timothy Zahn

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Timothy Zahn writes The Best Star Wars books! I can therefore think of no author more perfectly qualified to wrap up the New Republic era then Zahn himself. Having so masterfully kicked the era off way back when with the Thrawn trilogy, the Hand of Thrawn duology marks the end of the New Republic era of novels and the dawn of the New Jedi Order.

So, the Empire is almost finished. In fact, Admiral Pellaeon has approached all the other Imperial leaders to propose that now is the time for them to surrender to the New Republic. Most grudgingly go along with this suggestion and Pellaeon plans to meet with General Bel Iblis to negotiate the terms of the Empire’s surrender. Some have other ideas however – Moff Disra has hatched a plan to sow the seeds of discord amongst the New Republic, with devastating consequences. Throughout the course of this book the New Republic is brought almost to the brink of civil war, and the violence only escalates as
rumour flies through the galaxy that the feared Grand Admiral Thrawn, long considered dead, has returned from the grave to bring about the end of the New Republic.

Leia and Han and trying to hold the New Republic together but just keep getting shot at, and Luke teams up with Mara Jade to track down some pirate ships, aboard which Luke has sensed the all too familiar presence of clones. However, after going their separate ways, Mara ends up in serious trouble and it’s down to Luke to see if he can help – he might just be her only hope…Yes I went there. #sorrynotsorry

What’s good

Returning to Zahn’s writing has the lovely, familiar feeling of returning home in the Star Wars universe. Everyone just feels…right. We get some old faces like Talon Karrde and General Bel Iblis make a welcome return after a few books away. We also get Mara written by Zahn which I have missed. Although some of the other authors made an effort to include her (the Corellian trilogy sticks out in particular) no-one writes Mara quite like Zahn.

It was interesting to see Zahn’s efforts with continuity and he seamlessly weaves characters and events from the other novels into the plot without over-referencing or info dumping. He doesn’t labour the point, there is a causal reference here and a stray thought from a character there just to make the continuity feel tight.

We are introduced to a new Imperial, Moff Disra – he’s a more old school Imperial and an interesting sparring opponent for Admiral Pellaeon as he tries to navigate a peace settlement with the New Republic. (I liked the touch about the fact that the Imperials would rather surrender to someone like Bel Iblis, thought this was a nice detail and shows the respect Bel Iblis commands not only amongst his peers but his adversaries too!)

Han and Leia get a tense and exciting story and Luke and Mara are as compelling as ever (as always when Zahn writes them) but I found I was actually most interested in the plot surrounding the intrigue of the beleaguered empire. The scheming of Moff Disra and his cronies was interesting, as was Pellaeon’s attempts to negotiate a surrender. Maybe because we know that Han, Luke and Leia aren’t going to die, and you get the feeling anything could happen with Pellaeon and the Imperials. A mark of Zahn’s writing that we feel oddly protective over Pellaeon and are kind of rooting for him even though he’s technically a ‘bad guy’. It’s so clever of Zahn and he has such a deft touch as he weaves Thrawn’s presence into almost every scene the Imperials are in – he has left a remarkable legacy with the Imperials and especially with Pellaeon.

He also keeps the involvement of the children Jacen, Jaina and Anakin to a minimum for which I am very grateful. Whilst on the one hand it spares us their general annoyance but it also frees Leia up for some extremely cool scenes of her own and much political drama. Leia and politics are where we really see her at her best!

Finally, a small touch, I really like Zahn’s use of the force, in all of his books of course but this one in particular. When Luke reaches a crossroads in life, he decides to look into the future and let the force guide what action he should take next. This force vision of the future was extremely well done and really fun to read about. It underpinned Yoda’s
old statement of ‘always in motion the future is’. Luke sees various possibilities of the future, some might happen, some might not. Some might only come about because of his reactions to the visions. He has to use his gut, and faith in the force, to pick the right option for him. This wasn’t an easy decision for him, however he takes a measured approach, unlike in Empire Strikes Back, and I thought this scene was a really great bit of character development for Luke. Zahn just really ‘gets’ Luke and writes him so well it makes me all warm and fuzzy!

What’s bad

For once from a Zahn book I do actually have a little gripe! (Shocking I know, I thought this man could do no wrong!) For me personally I found the complete absence of the Jedi Academy and Yavin 4 to be pretty jarring and conspicuous. Whether this is deliberate by Zahn I’ll never know and it might crop up in book 2 of the duology. I’m not sure whether maybe Zahn wasn’t interested in writing Luke interacting with the students (after all, it wasn’t Zahn who came up with the Academy, maybe it was not a future he personally ever had in mind for Luke – preferring to write him as some kind of galactic peace officer rather than Jedi Master? It definitely feels like Zahn writes Luke in the former role, maybe he just didn’t want to get bogged down in writing about the other characters? It doesn’t detract much, we get Zahn writing the characters that he has created that he obviously enjoys writing about, Mara, Karrde and Pellaeon, but like I said, whether Zahn liked it or not the Academy back story was there and it felt a little strange that he didn’t include it save for some passing thoughts by Luke. I missed Kyp!

Overall: another solid novel by Zahn!

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Death Stars – the lack of the Jedi Academy is really only a quibble and definitely not worth docking an entire Death Star off the score here!

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