Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy revitalized the Star Wars universe, and created a new Star Wars mythos for a new generation. So a new Zahn Star Wars book is cause for celebration.
Even when, like Star Wars: Choices of One, it's kind of lukewarm. Spoilers ahead!
Choices of One is a fun read, with some nifty moments and some well-described action, not to mention a few clever plot twists. But it never quite becomes awesome, somehow. The book is a sequel to Zahn's 2007 novel Star Wars: Allegiance, and once again Zahn is filling in the gaps of what happened in between the first and second Star Wars movies.
We get to see Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca on a mission for the Rebels. The Emperor and Darth Vader have brief cameos. Also, Zahn brings back popular characters from the books, including Senior Captain Thrawn, Mara Jade and the team of rogue stormtroopers known as the Hand of Judgment. And Zahn introduces a brand new villain (at least I believe he's brand new) who seems to be set up as an ongoing antagonist for future books.
The whole thing feels slightly overstuffed, as though Zahn is juggling a few too many elements this time around. Especially after Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca get separated and go off on their own adventures, the book feels a bit dispersed. A lot of characters keep disappearing for long stretches at a time, only to turn out to be vital to the book's plot later. The plot has maybe a few too many random elements flung together, to give all of these characters something to deal with.
Part of the problem is that this is a prequel as well as filling in the gaps between movies. Zahn has a lot less freedom to maneuver than in his Thrawn Trilogy, because he has to be careful to avoid contradicting the original movies. And even with characters who aren't in the movies, like Thrawn himself, Zahn has to avoid contradicting anything he wrote in the book that take place later.
And yet, Choices of One is still a fun read, in which some of your favorite Star Wars characters each get some fun moments. You never really get tired of seeing Mara Jade kick ass with her lightsaber and dispense justice as she sees it, while trying to pretend that she's not really lonesome. And you could never really get sick of LaRone and his fellow rogue stormtroopers trying to do the right thing in a harsh galaxy. Zahn also gives good Han Solo, and does a great job of teasing the growing relationship between Han and Leia. Most of all, Zahn keeps you deeply invested in the reality of this universe, with characters geeking out constantly about battle strategy and about the natures of the different types of weapons systems that the Empire, the Rebels and various others are toting.
If there's one especially cool narrative thread running through this latest book, it's the further development of the idea that the Empire is full of smart, capable, well-intentioned people who want to do justice and protect the innocent. People who believe in a different Empire than the one we've seen in the movies — one which doesn't discriminate against aliens, or enslave Wookiees, or kill millions of unarmed civillians the way the Empire did on Alderaan and other places. Thrawn seems to have a humane, non-evil vision of the Empire, but so does Mara Jade. Nobody seems to like Darth Vader that much.
Apart from that, there's just enough cleverness and cool action in this book to make you feel like you've had a worthwhile experience — and the ending hints that Zahn might have someplace more galaxy-shattering to go with some of his non-movie characters the next time around. Choices of One isn't the best Star Wars novel ever, but it does leave us eager for the next installment.