Timothy Zahn's second novel in the "Thrawn Trilogy," Dark Force Rising, showed the literary and publishing world how a well-written sequel in the Star Wars canon could become a top seller before the book was even published. Zahn's ability to "revive" the Star Wars series in Heir to the Empire, the first novel in the "Thrawn Trilogy," and further develop and infuse elements of the Star Wars world in Dark Force Rising set up the trilogy for an extensive amount of copies sold and fans of Zahn's work worldwide. Critics argue that Zahn's capacity to recreate characters seen in Lucas' ever-popular films and create new characters unseen in the movies shape Dark Force Rising into a bestseller. The Star Wars name was fundamental in becoming a bestseller in the first novel of the three, but terrific writing and character development/creation contributed to the sales of all three books, especially Dark Force Rising. Zahn's mastery of characters and pacing in a book of gigantic scale make the novel ever popular among Star Wars fans and fans of the space opera/science fiction genre.
Star Wars phenomenon
After George Lucas made his original Star Wars Trilogy in the late 70's and early 80's he didn't intend to have anyone else work on anything in the Star Wars Universe outside of the movies, much to the chagrin of thousands of fans. For almost 7 years the world of Star Wars was dormant before Timothy Zahn was offered the chance to continue the derelict universe and become a Star Wars "savior." Jeff Carver of the website Echo Station phrased in wonderfully saying, "Timothy Zahn's [Thrawn Trilogy] quickly became an enormous wake-up call to the Star Wars-starved masses to rise from their 6 year slumber and usher in a new era for George Lucas' beloved space saga" (http://www.echostation.com/interview/zahn.htm). There is no doubt in anyone's mind that because the words "STAR WARS" were embroidered across the front of the book, it would automatically sell well to a large audience of Star Wars enthusiasts. Even Zahn acknowledged the fact that Lucas' movies helped sell his books saying, "I didn't revive Star Wars so much as I simply tapped into the interest that was already simmering below the surface. The fact that the first 60,000 copy printing vanished within a week shows that it wasn't the quality of writing that people were first buying, but the name "Star Wars" on the cover" (http://www.echostation.com/interview/zahn.htm).
Reviewers and critics are quick to turn around and say that while the named helped sell, it was the quality of the writing brought fans back for more. Publisher's Weekly picked up on what made this book bestseller quality as far as writing was concerned soon after the book was published. They said, "Hugo Award winner Zahn follows up Heir to the Empire with still more adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and their merry band, adroitly juggling an abundance of plot lines to produce skillfully paced entertainment." While Lucas' seal was critical in initial sales, it is Zahn's ability to work with characters and "skillfully pace" a gigantic space opera that helps inform us of the "Thrawn Trilogy's" affect on the bestseller world.
Developing and Creating Characters
Zahn has become so well known and critically acclaimed over the years (two analog awards and one hugo award) because of his ability to craft and cultivate characters in any universe he creates or writes in. This is his strongest feature in Dark Force Rising and what makes the novel so popular among the masses. The fact that Zahn's new characters and character development is so well known puts the novel in a category that could be called famous author book, in addition to the idea of a "follow on book" and "co-dependent bestseller," which are two categories this books fits into as well. While it is important that Zahn uses Lucas' universe and previous works, a book like Dark Force Rising could have been extremely popular and exciting to read, though sales and acclaim might not have been as high without Lucas' name sprayed across the work.
As is stated above, Zahn's so called "fame" among science fiction enthusiasts comes from his ability to create and develop terrific new characters, as well as keeping main characters used in Lucas' movies sounding and feeling like they are out of the movie. In his review of Dark Force Rising David Ziebart from Theforce.net says that "every character is written in character. I can actually picture Leia doing/saying the things she does/says, the same for all the characters" (http://www.theforce.net/books/reviews/ttt_dfr.shtml). In reviewing another one of Zahn's novels in the Star Wars universe, Specter of the Past, Chris Kivlehan agrees with this train of thought saying, "with his first trilogy, Zahn rendered the characters of the novel in a way that made me feel like I was meeting dear, old friends again. Character development is a beautiful thing and Zahn recognizes the beauty in it" (http://www.theforce.net/books/reviews/hot_sotp.shtml). Zahn understands how crucial engaging characters are when going for a bestseller in today's market. Action and adventure is fine and dandy, but if the reader doesn't believe in the characters they are following, the novel simply won't have the same amount of intensity.
In addition to the development of other characters, Zahn introduces several new characters in this series, mainly in Dark Force Rising. This was a make or break feature for Zahn in his trilogy as these were the first characters to hit the Star Wars universe that were not introduced by George Lucas, and if they were not done well, it could wreck people's impressions of Zahn's novels and kept them from being the bestsellers that they could become. Luckily for Bantam Books, who published the novels, Zahn was dead on with his new characters, ones that would later become just as much a part of the Star Wars universe as those created by George Lucas. Zahn's main creations, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Talon Karrde are still used prominently in Star Wars novels today (December 2002), 10 years later. Mara Jade, who has become the most well known of the group, eventually marries Luke Skywalker (the Star Wars universe's ?main' protagonist), which means her character development was so strong in this trilogy that other authors would want to use her so prominently. Jeff Carter says, "two of [his] creations, Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn, have become so popular and entrenched in the Star Wars mythos, that you'd think they had been around since the inception. They appear alongside Luke, Han, and Leia in CD-ROM's, video games, and even action figures. Characters from subsequent novels have not been as enduring" (http://www.echostation.com/interview/zahn.htm). The characters that Zahn created had a personality of their own and ability to "wow" the Star Wars crowd with something new interacting with everything that the fans of the series were used to. Pulling off new characters was right up Zahn's alley, which helped Dark Force Rising go into the category of famous author novel.
Making the Novel Fit the Movie
The importance of the Star Wars label cannot be stressed enough, but license that Star Wars brings means nothing if the author doesn't do a good job of transposing the characters of Luke, Han, Leia, the ships, the worlds, the ideals, and the continuity from film to novel, Dark Force Rising simply doesn't work as well and become as popular as it is. I classify Dark Force Rising as a "follow-on" and "co-dependent" bestseller because it does indeed rely heavily on the Star Wars myth and universe. Though it is relying on a lot of material not created by the author, I don't think that is a deterrent for Dark Force Rising as it could be seen in some novels. I think the fact that it relies on the Star Wars canon helps the book tremendously, especially considering that Zahn does such a fine job translating what fans have seen on the film into the novels.
As the numbers serve to show, Zahn did a wonderful job taking the elements from the film and making them sound so familiar and believable in the novel. The pacing and characters fill out the novel so well that it had reviewers raving about how well Zahn had made the transformation from film. The Providence Sunday Journal said that the Thrawn Trilogy "moves with a speed-of-light pace that captures the spirit of the movie trilogy so well, you can almost hear John Williams' soundtrack?This novel should feel like a reunion with old friends." Quotes like this one go to show how well Zahn was able to capture the magic that Lucas displayed on the cinema medium.
The process wasn't thrown together in a few minutes however, as Zahn did plenty of research to capture this "aura." At one point, he listened to audiotapes of the movie trilogy over and over to be able to visualize what happened without actually seeing the movie. It was in this way that Zahn was able to capture the essence of the Star Wars characters. In an interview he said, "But the point of that was that where I'd seen all the Star Wars movies ?X' number of times, I'd heard them without seeing them ?X plus five or ten' times. Which meant that without the distraction of the visuals, I listened to Han and Leia and Luke talk, and I think that kind of ingrained itself in my mind such that when I started writing the Star Wars books, I had a very good feel as to how they sounded, how they phrased things, and I could put that into the dialogue" (http://www.theforce.net/jedicouncil/interview/zahn.shtml). It is hard to question the quality of writing that Zahn has displayed throughout his writings in the Star Wars universe, especially in his first "reviving" trilogy, and I contend that while the Star Wars name did a terrific job in original sales, Zahn's masterful prose helped carry the book for the long haul, as Dark Force Rising continues to sell all over.
A Successful Phenomenon
Timothy Zahn's first foray into the Star Wars universe is still in print and continues to sell in decent quantities 11 years (December 2002) after it was originally published. There are a couple reasons for the trilogies continued success, and most of those are found within the pages of Dark Force Rising. First, and most importantly is the fact that Zahn has created characters that have been used heavily throughout 12 years of extended universe expansion through novels, comic books, and source books. One character, Mara Jade, was one of the main features in Dark Force Rising, as she was the suspicious, cunning character who goes through tremendous changes over the three novels. Because her character was created and written so well, she is a primary character in most of the recent Star Wars novels. Authors have gone to Zahn to make sure that they portray her correctly, because she is just as important as those characters from the film. With Jade featured so prominently in so many Star Wars novels, people go back to Dark Force Rising, and other novels in the trilogy to learn about her character.
The second point is similar to the first in that Zahn is one of the authoritative voices in the expanded universe. Many fans and authors alike return to Zahn for ideas and thoughts about the Star Wars universe that isn't directly dealing with the films. This is a tribute to Zahn's writing, and Dark Force Rising in particular. People continue to buy Dark Force Rising for this reason, as it is the beginning (as far as it being the first novel written) of the "extended universe."
Timothy Zahn had quite the challenge when Lucas Film Limited came and asked him to "revive" the Star Wars universe in 1988. He had to stay true to the movie, as thousands of Star Wars fans wouldn't appreciate a novel that strayed from George Lucas' vision, as well has formulating his own style and flavor in the Star Wars universe. His continued success 12 years after the fact speaks volumes of Zahn's triumph over a very difficult assignment. While there is no doubt that the co-dependency on the Star Wars name sold many copies of Dark Force Rising and helped propel it to bestseller status, Zahn's skill and style made it stay there and have the continued success it has enjoyed over the years.
Carver, Jeff. Timothy Zahn Interview. 29 November 2002.
"Dark Force Rising." Publishers Weekly. March 23, 1992. v239 n15 p64.
Kivlehan, Chris. Specter of the Past Review. 29 November 2002. < http://www.theforce.net/books/reviews/hot_sotp.shtml >
Knight, Chris. Timothy Zahn Interview. 29 November 2002. < http://www.theforce.net/jedicouncil/interview/zahn.shtml >
Providence Sunday Journal quote from Dark Force Rising paperback edition.
Zahn, Timothy. Dark Force Rising. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.
Ziebart, David. Dark Force Rising Review. 29 November 2002. < http://www.theforce.net/books/reviews/ttt_dfr.shtml >