Comments contain ***SPOILERS***
How do I love Mara Jade from Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels. Let me count the ways. (Oh, and this is going to be a *spoiler free* post for recent Star Wars novels, if you know what I mean. I’d prefer to keep it that way. And if you don’t know what I mean, this warning isn’t for you.)
When Timothy Zahn came out with Heir to the Empire in 1991, it was the first officially Lucas-licensed Star Wars tie-in novel in years. And it was the first time authors were given permission to explore what happened after the end of Return of the Jedi. Zahn was the first to introduce a collection of new original characters that would eventually become the foundation upon which future Expanded Universe (EU) action would be based– chief among whom were tactical genius Grand Admiral Thrawn, smuggler boss Talon Karrde… and Mara Jade.
A lot of readers roll their eyes at Mara Jade, calling her a Mary Sue (the quintessentially perfect character). She’s a redhead who has the Force. She used to be the Emperor’s secret apprentice. She gets to hang out with all the main characters from the Star Wars movies.
But to do so is to overlook all the great things about Jade. In a science fiction novel, she was a female character who was presented as cold, calculating, and capable. In fact, she is not presented as very likable at all. This is pretty rare for a female character. She is a loner, and isn’t accustomed to having friends. She’s bounced from job to job, becoming talented in a number of technical professions. She is sarcastic, and her manner can be off-putting. Often female characters are presented as “Miss Popular,” but Mara Jade wasn’t.
Another aspect of Mara I like is that she isn’t there to be rescued. Over the course of the three novels, she is rescued several times by Luke Skywalker, but this is presented as very back-and-forth. She rescues him just as many times. Neither trusts the other, but they come to each other’s aid repeatedly because they are both smart and recognize the need to work together to get out of a sticky situation. And as they gain trust in each other, this has a humanizing effect on Mara. Which is also a nice reverse, because usually it’s the love of a good woman who humanizes the cold-hearted male outlaw. In situations where Luke isn’t around, she always has an extra blaster up her sleeve and is portrayed as more than capable of outsmarting her enemies and taking care of herself.
Yes, she has red hair and green eyes, which are rather stereotypical for a female character, but nowhere does Zahn describe Mara as beautiful or pretty. I think this is the conclusion that some fans have reached, which certainly has a tendency to occur in fandoms relating to books, when we aren’t presented with a visual representation of characters (ie: “I love Mara Jade, she’s so hot!” when really the author has left everything except eye color, hair color, and body type up to the imagination). Here’s her intro in Heir to the Empire:
“The door slid open, and with her usual catlike grace Mara Jade walked into the room. ‘You didn’t say what–’ her green eyes flicked to the elaborately set table ‘–this was all about,’ she finished, her tone just noticeably different. The green eyes came back to him, cool and measuring.
None of the other characters comment much on her looks, either. You expect Mara to have a romance with Karrde, her boss, but she doesn’t. You expect her to have a romance with Luke, and she doesn’t. She’s not there for anyone else, but is instead portrayed as a character in her own right, with an emotional arc that has nothing to do with a man. It certainly defied my expectations when I was twelve.
Of course, the downside to being a media tie-in author is that other authors have permission to play in your sandbox. In my opinion, the character of Mara Jade deteriorates in subsequent novels. Honestly, I don’t think future authors “got” her voice. They just couldn’t write her as well as Zahn could. As a result, she’s gone through many disappointing character arcs. But, as presented in the Thrawn trilogy, she remains one of my favorite Star Wars EU characters.