Timothy Zahn strikes back with a noteworthy return for the master tactician of the Imperial Starfleet…
Space is cold. But even the vacuum of space cannot contend with the icy stare of the piercing red eyes staring through your retina and penetrating deep into your soul. They are evaluating your every move, intricately calculating your thoughts and mannerisms, watching for the slightest betrayal of your character. The low reverberating hum of the Star Destroyer engines is drowned out by the constant thump of your elevated heartbeat which goes with the territory when standing before an admiral of the Imperial Navy. A rendezvous of this kind would be unnerving enough for the average officer but standing before an admiral with blue skin and piercing red eyes carries an extra gravitas, for this is no ordinary admiral…this is Grand Admiral Thrawn.
The Thrawn Trilogy:
Like many fans of my generation, the incredible trilogy of novels from author Timothy Zahn detailing the aftereffects of the galactic civil war arrived at the opportune time to fill the void left in the wake of the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy. The brilliant stories not only propelled us into an entirely new story but also introduced us to one of the greatest villains ever to grace the literature of the galaxy far, far away…
Grand Admiral Thrawn.
With the Empire in ruins and Darth Vader and his sinister Emperor vanquished, the remnants of the Imperial Starfleet required a guiding hand to facilitate its ascension from ashes and found a perfect custodian in the unnerving alien commander of the seventh fleet. Commissioned by the Emperor and tasked with the exploration of the unknown regions of space, the Chiss warrior had transformed his exiled fleet into a self-contained division of the Empire.
The crushing defeat of the Emperor, along with the destruction of the second Death Star, served as a beacon for Thrawn to return to the fight, and with his entire fleet at his command, the Chiss commander absorbed the remnants of the Empire and set his sights on the victorious members of the Rebel Alliance. The Thrawn trilogy, as they came to be known were the stand out novels from the Star Wars Expanded Universe and their downgrading to the non-canon set of Star Wars adventures known as “Legends” did not sit well with the fans.
In response to the overwhelming fan backlash, Disney moved to reintroduce the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn into the narratives of the hugely successful television series, Star Wars: Rebels and commissioned the original author of the Thrawn trilogy, Timothy Zahn to craft an all-new origin story for the much-beloved character.
Whilst sat in the packed auditorium of the Star Wars: Rebels panel at Star Wars Celebration (London) 2016, my excitement was dialled to eleven when Dave Filoni himself, announced the imminent arrival of Timothy Zahn’s THRAWN. The fans erupted with euphoria as we all came together to share our excitement for a novel that had been over twenty years in the making, and after a laborious wait of what seemed like forever, my review copy arrived in my letterbox.
Reinserting Grand Admiral Thrawn into the events of the Galactic Civil War is no easy task, but Timothy Zahn manages it without missing a beat. Resisting the urge to begin his latest storyline with a fully seasoned Thrawn, Zahn introduces us to an exiled Chiss warrior who circumvents an Imperial raiding party and stowaways aboard their landing craft. Once safely aboard their Imperial Starship, the alien warrior known as Mitth’raw’nuruodo surrenders himself to the authorities and is conveyed to Coruscant for a meeting with Emperor Palpatine himself.
After convincing Palpatine of his value, with his apparent knowledge of the unknown regions of the galaxy being a deal breaker, Thrawn is commissioned into the Imperial Academy along with his appointed translator, a lowly cadet known as Eli Vanto where they demonstrate a unique relationship that propagates almost instantaneous results. Whilst the duo begins their ascension through the ranks of the Empire, the story expands to include the backstory for Star Wars: Rebels regular, Arindha Pryce who finds herself rising through the ranks of Coruscant’s political circle.
What follows is a game of political intrigue and military tactical brilliance that details their adventures from both perspectives. Thrawn demonstrates his remarkable abilities to dissect the artistic culture of an opponent in order to assess, predict and neutralise their plans, whilst Pryce finds her fortunes spiralling into despair at the hands of a corrupt diplomat.
Both characters demonstrate an amazing streak of ruthlessness that ensures their rise into a social circle that facilitates a chance encounter. From there they begin to unravel an unfolding mystery and develop a relationship that proves to be mutually beneficial, all the while Thrawn suspects the Empire of building something truly monstrous. Something that requires vast amounts of the expensive ore known as Doonium, a metal used in the creation its vast Imperial Starfleet.
After years without a new Thrawn novel, Zahn’s return to the Star Wars universe is a triumph for his blue-skinned Chiss tactician, who hits the ground running. Not only does Thrawn encompass every page he is inscribed on, but he remains an intricate and alluring afterthought when the narratives shift to the fortunes of the young Arindha Pryce.
This is where the novel fails to deliver.
For a book titled Thrawn, one would be forgiven for thinking the narratives at play would all revolve around the titular character, but you would be dead wrong. In fact, this misconception and misplaced anticipation from the reader is what makes the story so anticlimactic. The inclusion of the Arindha Pryce origin story would make for a welcome standalone novel, but in Thrawn, it is an unwelcome distraction. Just when you settle into the rhythm of the intrigue of Thrawn’s emergence onto the scene, the story is sidetracked by Pryce’s hard luck story which leaves you feeling a little short-changed.
This detraction continues throughout the whole novel until the final stages where all roads converge and their stories from both ends of the adventure intertwine. As unwelcome as it is, the resolution of their story connects them in a pleasing fashion which filters through to the Rebels TV series and sets the foundations for their great repartee throughout the events on the planet Lothal.
The character of Eli Vanto is a breath of fresh air, and we join him on his journey through a constrained military career which finds him and Thrawn joined at the hip. Through these events, Vanto learns from Thrawn and fashions himself into a brilliant tactician in his own right, able to dissect enemy tactics with incredible ease.
Another unwelcome addition is an unsettling time jump phenomenon. Zahn in his brilliance teases us with his enjoyable and intricate storyline, but just as Thrawn shows a glimmer of his brilliance and deciphers part of the mystery, the novel jumps forward in time, sometimes spanning more than a year and a sudden climb up the ranks of the Empire. It is here that the novel leaves you frustrated. There is more than enough material teased amongst the events of the book to fill at least another two novels and the fact that so much of Thrawn’s origins are bypassed gives the story an incomplete quality. Personally, I would have rather sat down to a new series of books detailing Thrawn’s rise to power over the rushed roadmap of triumphs making up the events of Thrawn.
My final disparagement of this otherwise enjoyable novel is the fact that Thrawn himself feels like a shadow of the character we first met in “Heir to the Empire”. The Thrawn I remember was a sinister, shrewd, and brutal tactician completely at ease with committing mass genocide and wholly devoid of remorse for his actions, which sadly is not the character we are reunited within Thrawn.
This incarnation of Thrawn is the version we are used to watching in Star Wars: Rebels every week and not the heartless alien made famous in the novels. However, despite this flaw Thrawn, in this novel is a joy. Thanks to his involvement in Rebels, when Thrawn converses with both his colleagues and opponents, you can hear his cold and calculated voice from the series (provided by Lars Mikkelsen) echoing through your mind, bringing the words on the page to life.
Despite its flaws, Thrawn is a fantastic novel. It is an absolute joy to be reunited with a character we all fell in love with back in the day. Even with his sinister edge diluted, the character crafted by Zahn has more than enough intrigue to make returning readers, as well as a new generation of fans, embrace him wholeheartedly. Aside from her misplaced role in the novel, Arindha Pryce makes for a great addition to the Star Wars universe and Zahn creates an atmosphere where she slips into the events of the galactic civil war with ease. Eli Vanto is another success story from this novel. We practically share his journey, watching and learning from the Chiss mastermind as the mystery surrounding the missing Doonium ore unfolds before our very eyes.
Thrawn’s interactions with Emperor Palpatine, as well as an abundance of returning icons from the Star Wars universe, is a masterstroke from the author, one that will have you punching the air in delight in places. And its here where the novel triumphs. Despite its flaws, Thrawn is quintessential Star Wars. It resonates with the atmosphere of the original Thrawn novels intermixed with the characteristics of Star Wars: Rebels and feels familiar whilst projecting a contemporary tone which facilitates an agreeable result. Thrawn is by no means a ground-breaking novel, but what it boasts is a glorious character, restored into the events of the Galactic Civil War in stunning fashion, distinguishing himself as a brilliant military commander.
It is essential reading for every Star Wars fan. And In truth, it deserves a worthy sequel to build upon the foundations laid down by Zahn’s tireless efforts. Therefore, I was pleased to learn that Grand Admiral Thrawn will be making a welcome return in Timothy Zahn’s highly anticipated sequel, Thrawn: Alliances. The novel is set to be released this coming June and teases an affiliation with the dark lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.
Be sure to pre-order your copy.
Until then, grab yourself a copy of Thrawn and prepare yourself for a masterclass in the art of military brilliance.
Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn is published by Arrow Books in the UK and is available in paperback now. © Lucasfilm Ltd.
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Phil Roberts is the Owner, Daily Content Manager, and Editor-In-Chief of The Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Batman, DC, Marvel, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, King Kong, and the Ray Harryhausen movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force and babbles frequently!