Heir to the Empire (Timothy Zahn)
Heir to the Empire is the opening novel of the Thrawn Trilogy, and one of the most influential novels in Expanded Universe history. Its initial release in 1991 came after several years of dormancy for Star Wars products, and its huge success returned Star Wars to the mainstream, while opening the door for pretty much everything that came afterwards. The book introduces several key characters, and helps fill in the universe beyond the movies, despite having some now laughably contradictory elements. It is an absolutely essential read for all Star Wars fans, and was actually ranked in NPR's top 100 science fiction novels.
Heir to the Empire begins with a chilling introduction to new villain Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is an expertly crafted antagonist, ruling with logic and reason as opposed to emotion and irrationality. He concocts a plan that manages to keep us, and our heroes, guessing throughout the course of the novel, and maintains a cold, detached air even in the most trying of circumstances. His only flaw is the unconvincing way in which he studies art to make battle decisions. Knowing the art of a species doesn't seem like it would help much in a galaxy as diverse as Star Wars. It fails to account for the myriad of sub cultures surely present, and doesn't account for the fact that someone could've been born and raised in a completely different world than the one associated with their species. Thrawn is still an undeniably cool character though. Pellaeon, Thrawn's second in command, is a pretty good character too. During the "Imperial" passages of the story, we actually see things through Pellaeon's eyes, and this helps maintain Thrawn's mysterious aura, in addition to building his credibility as a leader.
Not all the antagonists are great though. Early on, Thrawn enlists the help of rogue Jedi clone Joruus C'Baoth. C'Baoth is revealed to be somewhat insane, yet capable of great feats of coordination between fleets light years apart. Thrawn exploits this to the fullest, promising C'Baoth an apprentice to train if he helps execute Thrawn's plan. C'Baoth is unconvincingly attracted to this idea, and proceeds to be easily manipulated and/or annoying for the rest of the book. As a foil to Thrawn's composed nature, C'Baoth is effect; he gets angry extremely easily, and in most scenes where he features. As a stand alone character, he just doesn't do much to establish a lasting impression.
Thrawn's plan to deliver an apprentice for C'Baoth provides much of the opposition to our heroes for the duration of the novel. He enlists the help of Noghri commandos to kidnap Leia Organa (now a budding Jedi Knight) through a series of action sequences that span the length of the book, Leia manages to evade capture, then turn the tables on the Noghri. This sub plot makes excellent use of Leia's blossoming force abilities, and includes a detour to Kashyyyk, where we learn a bit about Chewbacca's family.
Meanwhile, Luke's sub plot sees him imprisoned on the planet of Myrkr, where creatures known as Ysalamiri have cut off his ability to use the force. In addition, he is captured by freelance smuggler Talon Karrde, and his assistant Mara Jade. Jade has a deep hatred for Luke, and things get really interesting when the two are stranded in the jungle together, under pursuit by Imperial forces. The tension between the two is extremely compelling, and Luke being forced to overcome a struggle without his force powers was a good obstacle for the character. If I have one problem with Luke's arc throughout this novel, it is that it essentially "kills off" Obi-Wan long before his character runs out of interest and use in the overall scheme of things.
There are a handful of less significant, but still important sub plots throughout the novel. The large amount of content truly does make it feel like the first book in a series. It doesn't feel drawn out, unlike so many Star Wars trilogies, and most of the plot threads are left open for the next novel. The novel manages to incorporate everyone (Lando as the owner of a dangerous new mining operation is a highlight) from the movies, and the pacing is perfect.
As for the writing style, it is a simplistic but effective style that highlights action sequences and does an excellent job emulating the dialogue from the movies. Our heroes make corny jokes and sarcastic comments that help to lighten the tone of the novel, while the villains are a bit heavier on exposition and plotting. The world building is also very good, as the author does a great job of inserting us into the universe ten years after Return of the Jedi. We get some information on the Clone Wars, though it has since been rendered terribly inaccurate. More importantly, we learn about the blossoming New Republic, and the various problems it is encountering as it attempts to entrench itself as the dominant power in the galaxy. Finally, we are introduced to several new cultures, including the deadly Noghri assassins to the diminutive Bimms. Only the Noghri are particularly memorable, but all are believable.
The characters, tone, and dialogue are pitch perfect, the various elements of the story range from good to amazing, and there are plenty of new characters, planets, and species to learn about. Continuity issues and minor complaints about Thrawn aside, Heir to the Empire is an absolutely essential Star Wars book.