Timothy Zahn is famous as the father of the Star Wars "Expanded Universe" from the days of his original Thrawn trilogy way back in the early Ď90s. He kept mostly to that part of the universe until he wrote Outbound Flight, and even that was a prequel to a previous Zahn book. Now he has written Allegiance, a complete throwback that takes place between the first and second movie (or between the fourth and fifth movie, if you want to get pedantic with George Lucas' titles). He includes his favorite character, Mara Jade, but itís interesting to see her in her "Emperor's Hand" days rather than the Jedi she becomes. Itís also nice that he doesn't try to shoehorn in his other adored child, Admiral Thrawn. Add all of that to seeing our heroes in their relatively immature days. The story's fun, and Zahn hits all the right buttons to make this quite an enjoyable read.
Allegiance tells multiple stories that end up tying together at the end (like that's a surprise). The main story is of five Stormtroopers (non-cloned ones, which is unusual) who become horrified at the executions they are ordered to carry out. When they are called on their reluctance, an accidental killing of an officer results in them taking a ship and flying away. They find that the ideals that made them join the Imperial Forces are impossible to ignore, so they become a vigilante force righting wrongs without official sanction. Meanwhile, Mara Jade, the Emperor's personal operative, is on the trail of a planetary governor who is setting up his own area of power and siphoning money away from the Empire, getting involved with pirates to officially secede from Imperial governance. Finally, our heroes (Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie) are involved in trying to keep that same planetary system allied with the Rebel Alliance, unaware of the governor's plans to play one side against the other. It all comes together in an explosive climax.
Zahn masterfully keeps basic continuity straight in Allegiance. Mara's first meeting with Luke doesn't take place until after the Emperor is dead, but they are involved just enough that their paths brush without ever actually meeting. I'm not a continuity diehard, so I can't tell whether he makes any minor mistakes (I'm sure some Star Wars fan can, though!), but he does a good job with the bigger picture. The one part I'm not sure about is how much talking Ben Kenobi's spirit does with Luke. At the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, it definitely seems that Luke is shocked when Ben's spirit appears to him on the frozen wastes of Hoth. In Allegiance, they have whole conversations, which strikes me as wrong. Even so, that's a matter of interpretation more than anything else.
Zahn's character work is marvelous as well. He captures the mid-trilogy era characters almost perfectly, with Luke as the young hero looking for adventure, Han the reluctant rogue who finds himself tied to the rebels by a growing attraction to Leia and her appeals to his somewhat limited better nature. Leia is the former politician who hasn't quite risen to a position of leadership within the rebellion (at least from an operational point of view). All of them are young and quick-witted, but also inexperienced enough (except Han, of course) to make mistakes. We see Luke's infatuation with Leia, shown clearly when he's excited to go on a mission with her and devastated when he's asked to do something else instead (said infatuation being a little creepy, given what we know now).
As for the Imperials, Zahn avoids his usual trap of making Darth Vader look incompetent next to Mara Jade. The story about Jade and Vader plays a minor role, but it's a matter of a shift in story focus rather than Vader simply being a moron. Vader is still his menacing self, and a young Mara Jade is doing what she does best. One mildly disappointing aspect, however, is that we never really see her use any of the Dark Side of the Force. She has trained under the Emperor, so you know that she's been coached in how to do that stuff. Instead, she seems more like "Super Agent Mara Jade" than a disciple of the Emperor. We don't see any of the darkness in her character that you would think ought to be there given who her master is. The five Stormtroopers are also excellently done; all five have interesting personalities and backgrounds, making them three-dimensional and capable of adding a lot to the book.
As to the plot: While I've always had trouble with the massive coincidences involved in a Star Wars story that brings all of plot threads together, once I accepted them this story was a treat to read. The renegade Stormtrooopers are fascinating as they attempt to bring down the pirates terrorizing that sector of space. They are loyal to their ideal of the Empire, but they seem too intelligent not to realize that the reasons for their going renegade in the first place are systemic within the Emperor's power structure. They seem to believe it's mostly the fault of one bureau of the Imperial government rather than the Emperor's chosen way of doing things. Still, itís a rare treat to see individualized Stormtroopers doing their thing.
The intertwining stories are littered with twists and turns. The interaction between the Stormtroopers and our heroic trio (Luke, Han, Chewie) is gripping as both sides know the other is holding something back. They also know that they must ally, at least temporarily, to fulfill their individual missions. Zahn puts the characters in interesting situations, and the final battle on the planet's surface is a joy to read; Zahn's action scenes are extremely well done.
Overall, despite minor problems and disappointments, Allegiance is a masterful, fun-to-read Star Wars novel that harkens back to the old days of the franchise, when adventure was more important than a sappy, badly acted love story. I would love to see more stories set in this era, and Zahn has shown that he's capable of writing them. More, please!