The Force Awakens wasn’t the first attempt to continue the story of the Skywalker family. The original Star Wars sequel trilogy actually launched way back in 1991, although you’d be forgiven for missing it–after all, it debuted in bookstores, not the local theater.

Now that The Last Jedi has split the Star Wars community in two, some fans have proposed that Disney should have brought author Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn books–the original Star Wars sequel trilogy–to the big screen instead of introducing viewers to Rey, Finn, Poe and the rest. But those books are decades old. Would they really be better than Lucasfilms’ newest efforts? And what makes them so popular, anyway?

It’s all a matter of timing.

Reanimating a dead universe

It’s hard to imagine these days, when every year brings a new Star Wars movie and a truckload of spin-off media, but in the early ’90s Star Wars was effectively dead. In the ’80s, Lucasfilm had tried to keep the franchise alive with animated series like Droids and Ewoks, but those fizzled out. George Lucas claimed that he had more Star Wars stories to tell, but not a single film was in active production. At the time, the only real source of fresh Star Wars material was West End Games’ tabletop role-playing game.

 

Sourcebooks full of stats and trivia aren’t the same as brand new stories, however. Fans were hungry for new Star Wars adventures, and Lucasfilm left them high and dry.

That’s the climate in which Bantam Spectra released Heir to the Empire, the first book in the Thrawn trilogy. While the book came out in 1991, work on the novel had begun two years earlier, when Bantam Spectra editor Lou Aronica negotiated a secret publishing deal with Lucasfilm. After securing the rights, Aronica hired Hugo Award winner Timothy Zahn to pen the new trilogy, and gave the author carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with Star Wars’ classic characters.

There had been Star Wars books before, of course. Before the original film’s debut, George Lucas tapped sci-fi legend Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which doubled as a blueprint for a potential low-budget Star Wars sequel (obviously, Star Wars did quite well at the box office, and Lucas decided not to adapt Foster’s modest story). Two prose trilogies featuring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian appeared on shelves between 1979 and 1983, but those were prequels set before the main Star Wars films.

By contrast, Heir to the Empire is a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, taking place about five years after the second Death Star exploded. In the book, a blue-skinned and red-eyed Imperial warlord named Grand Admiral Thrawn attempts to restore the Empire to its former glory. In order to secure victory, Thrawn enlists Joruus C’baoth, the deranged clone of a dead Jedi who agrees to help Thrawn in exchange for the deliverance of Luke and Leia, who he hopes to convert into his dark side apprentices. Along the way, the Skywalkers and the gang team up with a nefarious smuggler named Talon Karrde and butt heads with Mara Jade, a Force-sensitive assassin with a dark past.