Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Posted by DarkChaplain at 4/22/2017
After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy.

I breezed through this novel within about 4 days give or take. Timothy Zahn's done a fantastic job reviving his classic villain from the Star Wars Expanded Universe and I am pretty excited to be reviewing it.

The Story:
"After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy."

The Review:
Star Wars: Thrawn is easily one of the most satisfying novels in the new Disney Canon. Not only does Timothy Zahn reintroduce his classic Expanded Universe character in great detail and style, but it also makes for a cracking read. Thrawn, a master tactician by anyone's measure, is presented as brilliant, calculating and possibly menacing, but also compassionate and mysterious.
If you've never heard of this Grand Admiral before (which would be a pity), then this novel does a damn good job showcasing just why Mitth'raw'nuruodo, more commonly known as Thrawn, has been a fan-favorite for decades and has been one of the most-celebrated re-introductions to the Star Wars canon to date (and may remain so until Disney finally gets around to bringing Mara Jade back...).

Personally, I only ever scratched the surface of the Expanded Universe. I was about to dive fully in when news of Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm hit and the EU got thrown out the window - including Timothy Zahn's classic Thrawn trilogy. A few months back I tried to squeeze in Heir to the Empire, the first book, but didn't get more than maybe 10 chapters in before other reads called. However, what I read of Thrawn was thrilling and engaging. I'm happy to say that this new Thrawn book is just as satisfying as what I read then. But I don't intend to compare the two works. I honestly don't care to do that and there are plenty of analysis videos and articles on the net already. Instead I want to look at it more from the perspective of somebody who hasn't read much EU stuff, hasn't seen the "Yuuzhan Vong" invade the galaxy, or Thrawn's untimely demise. At least not in detail.

The reason for that is simple: Thrawn can stand very well on its own, without the nostalgia or big links to the old material. It simply is a great book exploring incredibly compelling characters and a complex mystery that spans many years of the Empire's history, up to just shortly before Grand Admiral Thrawn's appearance in the animated Rebels series. You do not have to watch the TV show to enjoy it either - in fact, I've seen very little of it outside of choice bits - but it will greatly enhance your understanding of various characters.

The novel primarily focuses on three characters: Thrawn himself, his translator/aide Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. Eli crosses paths with Thrawn when the latter is rescued from lonely exile and the Chiss quickly adopts him as his translator. From then on, their paths are invariably intertwined and we follow their rise through the imperial ranks from the academy to admirality.
In many ways I found their relationship quite resembled that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrawn is analytical, seeing patterns and studying his opponents' moves, both on the battlefield and in conversation. Eli, meanwhile, has a good degree of understanding but lacks the ability to quickly put things together. Thrawn, like Holmes, attempts to tease out his aide's potential, asking questions and letting him puzzle things out on his own. This also extends to the rest of his command staff later in the book - Thrawn is hugely intelligent, but tries to cultivate his allies for their mutual benefit.

Eli meanwhile has some misgivings about the situation. The encounter with Thrawn means that his career path changed drastically and he becomes the target for a lot of the political fallout of the Empire's upper classes. Having a non-human gain the favor of Emperor Palpatine just doesn't sit right with the higher echelon of the navy or the ruling classes and the duo face stiff opposition on a political level. Thrawn seems relatively oblivious to this - as much of a genius as he is, he isn't presented as flawless. He has his blind spots, and Eli, and later Arihnda Pryce, offer a way to balance those problems out.

Miss Pryce, who also appears in Rebels, gets her origin story here, up unto her introduction in the TV series. It is her that shows the most drastic changes in character and morals over the course of the book. Having grown up as the heir to a mining company on Lothal, she gets thrust into the political power play of Coruscant after her family's properties are taken from them under duress. Her goal? To take back what is rightfully hers and take revenge on the politicians that caused the fall of her family.
But as much as you may root for her success, as she gets further entangled in Coruscant's politics, attempting to raise her own status and forge convenient alliances, her character becomes far more dubious and devious. I loved it. She was never much of a nice person to begin with, but her course throughout Thrawn gives a fantastic view of the political intrigue of the Empire and its corrupting influences.

All these political shenanigans, whether within the army or government, make the book. There is little direct action for most of it, especially as far as Thrawn himself is concerned. Instead you get treated with fleet maneuvers, smartly orchestrated attacks to force surrender rather than devastate needlessly and mysteries rooted in the Empire's secret projects.
Thrawn's hunt for the book's antagonist Nightswan really felt more like something you'd expect from a mystery/detective novel rather than one on science fiction warfare. There are wild goosechases, but they were more considered than what you could find in, say, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Thrawn usually is in a bird's eye position, orchestrating rather than directly engaging, though there are exceptions to that throughout.

At first I was a little concerned by how disparate the Thrawn/Eli and Pryce plotlines seemed. There was the occassional crossover, but only late in the book did the two converge fully. That convergence was hugely satisfying to me, though, and well worth the setup. Both plotlines delivered different things that just clicked into place effortlessly as the story progressed.
Another thing I quite enjoyed were the depictions of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen. Both of them felt authentic to their other depictions and Tarkin, for as little time was spent on him, slotted right into place with his appearances in Catalyst, Tarkin and Rogue One. There were even cool little references to Tarkin throughout which served to make the universe and new canon feel even more connected.

The end of Thrawn will have a few very exciting implications for fans of the new canon. Taken along with the recent Rebels season 4 trailer, certain assumptions can be made. Adding to that knowledge of Palpatine's plans for the galaxy as a whole and teases of the threat coming from the unknown regions, you're in for a treat. It doesn't say too much on any of these matters, but just enough to get you speculating and anticipating the next piece in the puzzle. Zahn shows a satisfying kind of subtlety here.

I found much to love about Zahn's return to Thrawn. He maintained the essence of his original creation while reassessing his role and character for the new canon and timeline. Nowhere did the book feel bogged down and exciting twists and shifts of perspective occured throughout. Thrawn himself has proven to be a very complex character with a lot of depth, and pitching Eli Vanto as his aide was the perfect decision to build up the character. Their dynamic shaped the book into what I expect to be seen as a canon classic for years to come. It wouldn't surprise me if Thrawn was cementing the titular character's popularity for another twenty-five years - both with veterans and newcomers alike.

Star Wars: Thrawn on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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