Way back in the mid-1990s, my parents and I would routinely pick up books from the local library’s bookmobile when it visited our neighborhood. I was about fourteen at the time, and had progressed to adult-level science fiction a few years earlier, and would usually pick the shelves clean every chance I got. I don’t remember the exact occasion, but I know that one day I happened upon a book that would change my view of Star Wars forever: Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire.
I had been a Star Wars fan since childhood; one of my earliest memories was of seeing Return of the Jedi with my parents in a theater in the fall of 1983. But here was that most elusive Star Wars item: Something new. (To be fair, it was a few years old when I discovered it around the end of 1993 or so; the hardback I was reading was already battered and worn.) That book and its sequels kicked off a love for the newly-christened Expanded Universe, or EU, that lasted all the way to its decanonization under Disney a few years ago—and still persists.
What I want to do here is to revisit those old favorite books. I appreciate the place that Disney’s version of Lucasfilm is carving out for itself; but nothing can, or should, replace the EU, with the vast worlds and fantastic characters it created. To that end, I’ve started a reread of the post-Return of the Jedi EU novels, and I aim to review them here. (Full disclosure: I’m simultaneously posting this material over on Reddit’s Star Wars EU community, so if you encounter it there, it’s not plagiarism, it’s really me.) There are a lot of books in that portion of the EU, and I may or may not get through them; also I may not be very regular about it, as other responsibilities demand my time. However, I will go in order as much as possible; and if we do get through all of them, I may go back and do some of the other sections of the EU. (One caveat: I’m probably going to skip over the novels intended for children, such as the Jedi Prince series and the Junior Jedi Knights series. Young Jedi Knights gets a pass, though, only because it introduces some things that are important later on.)
Today I’m looking at The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers. I’ve seen conflicting publication dates of December 1993 and January 1994 (the latter being the date cited by Wookieepedia); either way, it’s the first adult Star Wars novel to be published after the release of The Last Command, the final volume of Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. The novel picks up just hours after the destruction of the Death Star II at Endor. Let’s get started!
It should go without saying, but, SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT READ THIS NOVEL!
For all that we love them, movies aren’t great at certain things—at least, as compared to books. The original Star Wars trilogy does a great job of giving us as much characterization as is needed—for the movies, that is. It’s much different, however, when an author sits down to write a novel about the same characters. Kathy Tyers faced a unique task when she wrote The Truce at Bakura; she had to flesh out these characters that we had followed through three movies. Moreover, she had to do it in such a way as to add to the characters, but not contradict anything in the films. She also had to do so without contradicting Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which was only a year or two old at this point, but which takes place a few years later in the story. It’s a balancing act; you want to introduce new characters and settings, but you can’t do it in such a way that those things should still be in the foreground a few years later. At the same time, if you add them in and then wipe them out, it feels like a cheap shot.
There’s no perfect way to do that, but Tyers did the best she could. The elements she introduced—the planet Bakura, the Ssi-Ruuk enemies, Bakuran senator (and would-be love interest for Luke Skywalker) Gaeriel Captison—are left hanging at the end, temporarily resolved, but still dangling there as threads to be pulled by another author. The threads of Bakura and Captison would later be pulled by Roger MacBride Allen in the Corellian Trilogy, and the thread of the Ssi-Ruuk would be pulled by Sean Williams and Shane Dix during the New Jedi Order series…but those are stories for later.
The book features the newly-victorious alliance responding to a distress call from a nominally-Imperial backwater world called Bakura, which is under attack from an unknown alien threat. The aliens are the Ssi-Ruuk, reptilian aliens who believe themselves superior to all other life…and who use that life as a tool for conquest. They possess technology that allows them to “entech” humans and others, ripping the still-conscious life energies—the soul, if you prefer—out of them and using them to power battle droids and other technologies. They do this with the assistance of an enslaved and brainwashed Force-sensitive young man named Dev Sibwarra, who guides the transfer. However, when the Ssi-Ruuk become aware of Luke Skywalker—whose mastery of the Force is much greater than Dev’s—they make it their goal to kidnap him and use him to entech humans from a distance, possibly even from the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, Luke encounters Gaeriel Captison, a young and beautiful Imperial-trained senator (that’s Bakuran senate, not Imperial senate; recall that the Imperial senate was dissolved a few years earlier). While the two are drawn to each other, both as allies and possible love interests, Gaeriel is caught in the conflict between the Empire’s designs for her world and the Alliance’s. In the short term, the local Imperial detachment is forced to work with the Alliance to repel the Ssi-Ruuk; but of course the Empire can’t be trusted. In the end, the Bakurans rise up and seize control of their own world, and forge a new truce with the Alliance—but Dev is lost in the conflict, and Gaeriel chooses to stay behind and decline a place at Luke’s side.
Early books in the post-RotJ era were obligated to contain a good mix of politics and action, as the Alliance focused on becoming the New Republic. That’s definitely on display here, as the negotiations among the Bakurans, the Alliance (led on the diplomatic side by Leia), and the local Imperials (led by governor Wilek Nereus) take center stage. While the story doesn’t feature twists and strategy on the order of the Thrawn trilogy, it does a great job at balancing the differing interests of the characters. Watching the original trilogy gives the impression that there’s a single great goal to be accomplished; the war against the Empire—which is synonymous with the war against the Sith—is overwhelming, and winning it is everything. It’s nice to see that the characters and the situations are more complex than that. The Bakurans want not only to be free, but to overcome their own internal divisions; the Imperials want to remain in power; the Alliance seeks allies; Luke finds himself searching for both an apprentice and a possible love interest, when he expected neither; and the Ssi-Ruuk want to conquer everyone. These goals, even when aligned together, work at cross purposes sometimes—much as would happen in the real world.
When you’re dealing with an ensemble cast, it’s hard to give every character the development they deserve; and that’s a weakness found here. Luke gets quite a bit of screen time and development—this is definitely a Luke story—and likewise, new characters Gaeriel, Dev, and Nereus all get plenty of attention. Han Solo and Leia Organa feature prominently, but they aren’t portrayed as well; Tyers made an effort to include elements of their budding romance, but they’re a little scattered, both personally and professionally, with Han giving in to jealousy in comical ways, and Leia given to dramatic speeches. Chewbacca stay in the background, alongside Wedge Antilles (who, I have to say, gets a good scene in the introduction as he risks his own life to keep a message drone from self-destructing). R2-D2 doesn’t get much screen time, but his personality is handled well enough. C3PO, however, gets a surprisingly good treatment here, and I consider his portrayal to be a strong point for this book. Many authors like to use him as a punching bag for insults; there’s always going to be a little of that, but here we see him piloting a speeder through a battle zone, disguising himself as a stormtrooper, delivering intelligence, translating an unknown and strategically vital language, handling security for a captured Imperial…all quite impressive, and demonstrating that he’s more than just a prissy translator.
There are some elements of the Force worth noting here. Luke is able to sense emotions, but not read minds; Vader, in RotJ, was able to see Luke’s thoughts, so this is likely an aspect that will be expanded later. He’s able to sense the life energies of others, including the twisted energies of the Ssi-Ruuk’s victims; and he can communicate empathically, but not telepathically. Interestingly, the untrained Dev is able to do more than this, as he desperately passes a message to Luke in the latter’s dreams. Luke explores the notion of Jedi healing, both of himself and of others, which will be greatly expanded with the later introduction of the character Cray Mingla. Most interestingly, we get an expansion on the idea of Force ghosts when Anakin Skywalker appears—not to Luke, but to Leia, who is having trouble accepting that he was her father (a concept to be explored again in Tatooine Ghost). The description given of Anakin is no doubt based on the elderly version portrayed by Sebastian Shaw at the end of the original edition of Return of the Jedi, but it is phrased in such a way that it could also apply to the young version portrayed by Hayden Christensen in the special edition, if one prefers.
Overall, it’s a good read, and appropriate for the spirit of the original trilogy. The book tends to be a bit overlooked in the face of the Thrawn trilogy, and maybe that’s appropriate, as Zahn’s novels are easily among the best. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it, however; it’s a must-read for anyone who intends to read the Corellian Trilogy, but even if one doesn’t intend to read that trilogy, Truce is a great story on its own. It may not be necessary for the greater arc of the post-RotJ era, but it’s worth it for the experience. Here we get Leia’s first thoughts on what form the New Republic might take; here we get Luke’s first hints of the Jedi Order he will soon rebuild. Here are some early nods to Rogue Squadron, which will soon have its own series; and here are the first hints of the fracturing of the Empire in the face of the Emperor’s death. On top of all that, it’s a fun read; why skip something like that?
Next time: We’ll look at Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, by Matthew Stover! See you there.
The Truce at Bakura is available from Amazon and other booksellers.
You can find Wookieepedia’s treatment of this novel here.