In fact, three books, and one story really, of the Expanded Universe were often regarded as sort of an unofficial Episodes 7-9: Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. These books essentially started the Expanded Universe and were a huge reason why it became a big deal in the first place, introducing several new characters who would make large impacts in the Star Wars world for years. As these books are being wiped from canon, I feel like it'd be a fun time to actually reread all three books in the trilogy to see how they hold up and what is being lost. I may also take a quick look at how adaptable these books actually would've been if Disney had decided to go that route.
Heir to the Empire skips ahead about 5 years after Return of the Jedi, but jumps right in. The Rebellion has established the New Republic, and while still fighting the Empire, has it seemingly in retreat. Leia and Han are married and Leia is pregnant with twins - who seem to be force sensitive. Luke is a lone Jedi still searching for a way to move forward as the first new Jedi.
But even this intro is getting ahead of itself. You see, Heir doesn't start with the characters we know and love. Instead, the first chapter dives straight into the new antagonists (starting of course with a ship in space, because every star wars movie needs to do that), a pair leading the Empire on a new surge: Captain Pellaeon, who serves basically as our Ishmael for this side of the story and Grand Admiral Thrawn, the new leader of the Empire. Thrawn is a tactical genius, whose race (he's a blue skinned alien with red eyes) is the only reason he wasn't deployed against the Rebellion in the movies, who often seems able to predict his enemies' every move. And his enemies....are our heroes.
The intro to Thrawn is brilliant, showing him using knowledge of an alien race to rout them in a space battle and showing his usage of art-study (!) to analyze the behavior of that species. This could seem awfully cheesy, but it's really not, and Thrawn is compelling from the start.
The first few chapters also introduce us to the second antagonist of the series: an insane dark jedi master named Joruus C'baoth. Thrawn recruits C'baoth with the promise of providing him Luke, Leia, and Leia's twins to train such that Thrawn can use C'baoth's abilities to help him restore the Empire (this'll be examined more later). C'baoth is not nearly as compelling as Thrawn because well...insane overpowered bad guys are insane overpowered bad guys. They're not particularly new. Still he works in this story - presenting an evil threat to the Empire's new actions that Thrawn doesn't himself. Think of him as the Emperor of the original trilogy to Thrawn's Vader - Vader was the compelling antagonist of the trilogy, but the Emperor showcased the true evil that the good guys were facing.
Of course, the book also introduces two new protagonist characters who would also have major influences on the Expanded Universe. First, Talon Karrde - a super smuggler/information broker who has become the big smuggler chief since Jabba the Hutt was killed, who is trying to manage to make a profit without becoming targetted by either the Republic or the Empire. Again, this could totally not work (and in some later books, Karrde basically does become just like a mary sue plot device type character so it doesn't), but it really works here.
And then there's Mara Jade. If there's a character that most EU Star Wars fans will miss, it's Mara Jade. A strong independent woman, who's force sensitive (and formerly worked as the Emperor's special agent himself), smart, and assured of herself, she's basically Zahn's greatest creation by far. The only woman in the original trilogy is Leia, and while she has some autonomy and badass moments in the series, she spends a good deal of time being rescued. Not Mara Jade - she's the rescuer, not the rescuee. TFA is introducing a new female character as one of the main characters, and Jade gives her a lot to live up to.
I'm this far in and I've basically not talked about the plot of the book at all, which is ridiculous.
Honestly, it's less important than the world building that's done here, introducing the various characters as well as various worlds and species that will pay off later:
Wayland - a hidden planet containing the Emperor's storehouse of secret technologies, such as a cloaking shield (and one other little technology hinted at but not explained here)
Myrkr - a planet the Old Republic Jedi avoided because it houses a species called the Ysalimiri, which suppress the force for a small distance around themselves
The Noghri - a species of aliens used as assassins by Thrawn, who regard the late Darth Vader as their savior.
Borsk Fey'yla - a Bothan councilmember of the New Republic plotting to take over power from Admiral Ackbar no matter what it takes.
Coruscant - the capital planet which actually remains canon thanks to the prequels.
These are big concepts, and this book introduces them all! It's the next two books where the world building pays off. But despite the climaxes of this book not involving some big epic battle with an epic victory (the two climaxes involve Luke slicing a few pillars with his lightsaber to collapse a building on top of stormtroopers and the good guys destroying 50 of their own ships that were about to be taken over by Thrawn), the book still works well at setting up the threat of Thrawn and C'baoth, while providing multiple great action sequences. It really feels cinematic.
Which is not to say adapting the book would be easy. Whereas the original trilogy tended to stay on certain locations for large sequences of time, this book jumps around a LOT - take a look at where the first few chapters take place
Chapter 1: Thrawn in space in a Star Destroyer
Chapter 2: Luke and Leia on Coruscant, Han on Tattooine
Chapter 3: Karrde and Mara on Myrkr
Chapter 4: Thrawn on Wayland
That's 5 different locations in four chapters! That's kind of hard to do without losing the audience in film, where you don't have internal dialogue to introduce concepts.
That said, again, the book FEELS cinematic. None of the battles here are large at all, but they feel epic. And this is only the beginning.
TOMORROW: We talk about Dark Force Rising, the second book in the trilogy. Much more focus on the plot of that one actually. (Oh and I'll have thoughts on TFA myself).