Timothy Zahn, the architect of the LEGENDS Expanded Universe, originally re-launched the STAR WARS saga in 1991 with the first of three novels, HEIR TO THE EMPIRE. Unfortunately, the Expanded Universe fell into other hands after Zahn had completed the third book of his THRAWN trilogy. Those follow-up efforts did not do much to advance the story from there and actually did more than a little to set it back. Like any architect seeing his design to succumb to shoddy craftsmanship, Zahn eventually stepped in to set things right. His follow-up to the THRAWN trilogy, the HAND OF THRAWN duology, was a thinly veiled effort to do just that. Trouble is, by 1997 the extent of the damage was just too broad. And I think by then the effort just wasn't sufficient to the task.
The New Republic era has a maddening number of stories that begin with our heroes getting caught up in a failed diplomatic effort. I don’t understand this as a device, because authors always have to write around it to get the book going. In SPECTER OF THE PAST, the first part of the HAND OF THRAWN story, Han wants to give Leia some much-needed time off with the kids, so he volunteers to mediate a shipping dispute between the Diamola and the Ishori, somehow also roping Luke into going with him. You start to wonder after a while if the New Republic is just five guys and a room. Nothing gets done, regardless of how insignificant, without the involvement of the core characters from the original film trilogy. The irony is that I think people felt like showing all these political troubles would give a sense of scope to the galaxy’s new government, but dividing all these problems among a handful of mainstay characters makes the world feel smaller, not bigger.
As always happens in these stories, the mission quickly becomes unimportant and ends up triggering some other arc for the characters to follow. After being met with distrust at the negotiations, Luke feels that his fears of his own Jedi powers are becoming justified. As the only real Jedi Master in the galaxy, Luke is not sure what the limits of his powers are or in fact should be. Because of this, he’s been trying to scale back the use of those abilities.
"What do you think, guys? Have I been getting a little... dark, lately? Be honest."
This is a clever response on Zahn’s part to stories in the Expanded Universe that had overblown Luke’s powers to the point where he was too difficult to write and was no longer relatable to the reader. It also addresses a legitimate concern within the story that continues to be an issue throughout the saga. The original Jedi Council brought on the downfall of the Old Republic by improperly governing their powers. In the third film trilogy we see, just as we see in the Expanded Universe, that Luke’s efforts to rebuild the Jedi Order have some disastrous consequences for the galaxy. SPECTER OF THE PAST was written well before the first and third film trilogies, so this consideration is prescient in predicting the inherent threat the existence of the Jedi can pose, regardless of their intentions.
Han and Luke quickly abandon their efforts, deciding that if mediation between two hostile groups isn’t satisfactorily resolved in a few hours, then it must be completely hopeless. On their way off the planet, they stumble onto a gang of space pirates and Luke senses that the pirates are using clones.
Remember: This book was published before the prequels. The only real references to clones in STAR WARS outside of an offhand comment in EPISODE IV were Thrawn’s reintroduction of clones in his original campaign against the New Republic and an unfortunate bit of mess where Dark Horse comics resurrected the Emperor as a clone. The clones in this story obviously call back to the original THRAWN trilogy, leaving Luke and Han to wonder if some of Thrawn’s clones have now somehow fallen into the wrong hands.
Leia is spending her vacation on Wayland with the Noghri and the kids. While there, they discover a smuggler trying to steal data chips from Mount Tantiss (Emperor Palpatine’s old super-secret storehouse). One of the files in question reveals that a group of Bothan spies was instrumental in a particularly brutal Imperial attack on the planet Caamas that took place many years ago. That massacre resulted in the destruction of the planet’s populace and most of the planet too, so it’s still a super sore point with most members of the New Republic.
"So on my right you see the Imperial fleet and on my left, well... Nothing.
Didn't Caamas used to be there? Who can say? Damnedest thing."
The uselessness of Bothans cannot be understated. Despite their brave sacrifice to get the Second Death Star plans to the Rebellion, it turns out they're actually terrible spies.
In the 20th Anniversary Edition of HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, Timothy Zahn explains that he thought the Bothans might play up their contribution to the Rebel Alliance in order to broker a favorable position in the new government. That interpretation of events would have the Bothans retroactively taking credit for their spy work even though it ultimately proved worthless. The Emperor would have made sure the Rebel Alliance got wind of his trap regardless of how many Bothans lived or died to deliver the message for him. But their effort and their sacrifice proved to be a feather in their collective caps, as Zahn wrote it, so any apocryphal interpretation of the Bothans as a race of spies was not directly his doing.
While all this has been going on, opposing forces within the Empire are struggling to assert their vision of its future. Leading the Imperial fleet is Admiral Pellaeon, who served under Grand Admiral Thrawn during Thrawn’s doomed campaign to rejuvenate the Empire’s former glory and defeat the building forces of the New Republic. The failure of that campaign and the death of Thrawn left the Empire in a state of disarray, and despite several efforts to realize Thrawn’s vision, the Empire has failed to resurrect itself and seems to be locked in a perpetual state of military defeat. Coming to this conclusion, Pellaeon believes the time has come at last for the Empire to officially and definitively offer its surrender to the New Republic.
Unbeknownst to Pellaeon, much shadier and zanier schemes are getting scummed within the Imperial ranks. Moff Disra, a political angler who has amassed a personal fortune and no small amount of power during the Empire’s reign, is not swayed by the quiet dignity of Pellaeon’s plan. Together with Grodin Tierce, an ex-Royal Guardsman who is a shrewd and savvy tactician, Disra plans to convince the remaining Imperial forces that Grand Admiral Thrawn is still alive. The plan involves a stand-in who looks and sounds like Thrawn, using strategies from Thrawn’s old play book to pick up where he left off.
When we cut back to Luke, he’s now on a self-imposed secret mission to infiltrate the space pirate gang and learn why they have clones. This is cool, but it’s really where Luke’s arc should have started instead of going with Han to negotiate a trade agreement, which neither of them are qualified to do. That story thread didn’t organically lead to this one and its only purpose besides getting Luke in the book sooner was to illustrate Luke’s misgivings about his powers. So rebooting with an unrelated arc feels a little like the book is starting over.
Regardless, Luke’s pirate adventure is the most exciting part of the book (another good reason it should have happened a little closer to the book’s beginning). Luke is rescued from the pirates in the nick of time by Mara Jade, bringing the two of them back together in their first satisfying interaction since the THRAWN trilogy. Other writers periodically used the characters that Zahn introduced to the saga, but not always to good effect. In the JEDI ACADEMY trilogy, Mara dabbled with studying the Force, but dropped out. Then she ran off with Lando Calrissian instead of Luke. I wasn’t too thrilled with that development, but I’ll chalk it up to what Zahn refers to as “out of character experiences” (mischaracterizations offered up by other authors).
The pirates are working for Moff Disra, of course, using clones provided by him to sow discord throughout the New Republic. This is a device to get Luke more involved in the story, but it doesn’t pay off right away.
The Caamas debate heats up across the New Republic, spurred on by protests orchestrated by Major Tierce. As more and more worlds demand some form of reparation or contrition from the Bothan governments, the seeds of unrest are being more successfully sown throughout the galaxy. New Republic President Gavrisom and Leia confront the Bothan Senator, Borsk Fey’lya, with a proposal for the Bothan government to pay for a new home world to be colonized for the Caamas survivors. Not sure how the survivors would feel about this, since they seem to be the only people in the galaxy not flipping their nut over this issue. It’s been many years since the destruction of Caamas. Aren’t they already settled somewhere else by now?
"No, we're good. We're fine just where we are. Never better."
It turns out to be a moot point, since Fey’lya reveals that the Bothan high clans are actually crippled with debts that they’ve been keeping a secret from the rest of the New Republic. Not only are they not in a position to help the Caamas survivors, their financial state is so poor that it jeopardizes the New Republic’s economy. Gavrisom decides the only reasonable next step is to send Leia to Bothawui to go over the Bothans’ books and see just how sorry a state they’re in. Apparently the whole rest of the New Republic’s diplomatic corps is never sent to do anything, since it always seems to fall on Leia when a job involves going to another planet.
Meanwhile, Luke has a Jedi vision that he drastically mis-prioritizes. He sees Leia being chased by an angry mob and sees Mara apparently dead, but he decides they’re fully capable of taking care of themselves so there’s not even any point in warning them. Instead he chooses to focus on the most benign element of the vision, in which he pictures himself on a mysterious planet. Seems strange for Luke to exclusively concern himself with the part of the vision that was about him and not even tell the others about the premonitions of imminent peril he’d received from the Force.
To be fair, the Luke parts of the visions tend to be pretty important.
Leia does indeed find herself confronted by an angry mob on Bothawui, when Imperial agents incite a protest into a riot. During Han and Leia’s escape, the Imperials fire on the crowd and make it look like Han did it, so yet another diplomatic mission degenerates into mayhem and failure. Why exactly does the New Republic insist on sending her on these missions?
Luke’s failure to warn Mara meets with equally predictable consequences. While investigating an unidentifiable alien ship on a remote world, Mara is overtaken by bat creatures in a cave. Her crew returns to Talon Karrde to mount a proper rescue, finding that Luke’s vision has led him to the world that Karrde is currently visiting. Finally Luke acquiesces to do what coincidence and mysticism are compelling him to do even after his own basic sense of loyalty and morality have failed: He begrudgingly agrees to go save Mara.
Tierce’s plan kicks it up a notch when he captures Lando Calrissian and the Diamalan Senator, revealing the false Thrawn to them and offering to help the New Republic discover the identities of the Bothans who betrayed Caamas.
The story is left hanging at this point, to be continued in the second book of the HAND OF THRAWN duology, VISION OF THE FUTURE.