Max takes a deep-dive into Chiss mythology in Timothy Zahn’s hotly-anticipated new Thrawn adventure
Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising was truly a book for those with sharp minds. Extremely complex in the storyline; I can’t imagine ever writing something as intricate as this book. Timothy Zahn truly is an intellectual in crafting this story. The first thing I liked was instead of the usual “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” the opening says “A long time ago, BEYOND a galaxy far, far away.” This is a reference to the fact that this story takes place in the Unknown Regions of the Star Wars galaxy. This clever departure from the norm shows that Star Wars: post-Skywalker era, is moving in an entirely new direction.
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy Chaos Rising | By Timothy Zahn
The book even has a Dramatis Personae, which they haven’t done in years! The book also does something that many modern Star Wars books do. In between the chapter, there are flashback mini-chapters called “Memories” and we are treated to flashbacks of Thrawn’s early years. What makes reading this novel difficult is that it truly is an “alien” novel. It’s hard to keep track of the funky Chiss names, and a lot of the time, the sequence of events is so “advanced”, that it’s hard to sometimes keep up. Since all the main characters are Chiss, all of the characters are incredibly smart and Zahn really captured the essence of their culture.
The Chiss Ascendancy is ruled by 9 families and the family’s politics are very intertwined with the Chiss military. Thrawn becomes a member of the Mitth family very early in his life and because of his unorthodox methods and downright defiance; the Aristocrats do NOT like him and they try to block him at every turn. As I said, all of the Chiss seem to be intuitive and observant, but Thrawn is noted to be above the rest. A genius among geniuses. That’s why the government is so afraid of him. Ar’alani, Thrawn’s commander and friend is put in charge of Thrawn when the story begins. Thrawn disobeys a direct order but does not face consequences. Ar’alani is brought before the families to explain what Thrawn did. Ar’alani is a familiar character to hardcore readers, as she appeared in Thrawn: Treason, which chronologically takes place after the events of Chaos.
Basically, this tale is the story of how Thrawn deals with threats to the Ascendency. It has a very Star Trek-esque flair (except with more politics) and we meet many of the alien species of the Unknown Regions. The plot is a chess game between Thrawn and these beings and chess is of course, for the sharpest of minds. I had trouble following a lot of what was going on, and many readers may also get frustrated as they read. In Chiss culture, the Sky-walkers are one of the most revered and important parts of their society. They are children who use the Force to navigate the treacherous hyperlanes, as the Chiss never invented nav computers. Ch’eri is the main Sky-walker in the story and a lot of time; we see the universe through her eyes and also those of her caretaker Thalias, who was a former Sky-walker. Chiss who have the Force, lose their abilities at age 14 or 15 and there is a lot of anxiety they face when there is no longer any use for them.
Thalias faced that anxiety, and Ch’eri indeed faces it as well. Ch’eri’s life as a Sky-walker was one of the most interesting parts of the book for me, and I was horrified when she is revealed to not like reading. Reading and studying are essential to being a Sky-walker and this sets up Ch’eri being different than the other Sky-walkers. A lot of aliens are in this book. The Paccosh, the Nikaradun, the Vaks. It’s quite a menagerie. Thrawn figures out the Nikardun are trying to invade and conquer various species, so they are the main enemy. Thrawn, early on, tries to learn more about the Nikardun and takes Thalias as a “hostage” to talk to various alien groups without arousing suspicions. A very “alien” scene that I recall is Thrawn, undercover as an art collector, talking to the leader of the Nikardun; Yi the Benevolent. Yi is a pompous weirdo but undoubtedly, very smart, and Thrawn and he circle each other like sharks.
I have never read a Star Wars novel that was structured like this. I cannot tell if it’s a trailblazer or a nightmare. I’ll stick with the former. Yi and his Pathfinder spy Qilori (another species) plan to kill Thrawn but Thrawn is very slippery and often 2 steps ahead of them. Among my favorite scenes of the story is when Thrawn and Thalias are hiding from Yi in a special container-turned-life pod. Thrawn prepared their escape ahead of time, and Thalias reveals she met Thrawn when she was a Sky-walker and he was a young cadet. Thrawn had given Thalias hope that her life would continue after Sky-walking, and Thalias really was inspired by him. Then Thrawn shares a tender and rare moment of weakness, as he reveals his sister was taken to be a Sky-walker and he never saw her again. It’s fascinating to see Thrawn’s inner feelings and I really enjoyed his shields being lowered. It makes him more human. Sorry. More Chiss. Thrawn’s relationship with Ar’alani is also intriguing. You would think, based on the time they spend together that they would become lovers but…. That never happens. Are Chiss prudes? Thalias’s loyalty to Thrawn is put to the test, as she is ordered by an Aristocrat named Thurifan to reveal info she has “gathered” on Thrawn. Thurifan was the one who got Thalias on the same ship as Thrawn, in exchange for being his spy. Thalias does not want to keep her end of the bargain, and Thurifan threatens to have her removed from the Mirtth family. Chess skills high and too strong for Thurifan; she can declare that she will undergo The Trials, and if successfully passed, would allow her to become a permanent member of the Mirtth family, Well played, Thalias.
Thrawn later forms a relationship with Ch’eri, the young Sky-walker, and helps her; similar to how he helped Thalias. Honestly, Thrawn is amazing. He is a natural-born leader, a genius tactician in both space and hand to hand combat, and could be a very successful child psychologist if he wanted to. To my delight, Thrawn even breaks down his famous method of divining how a species fights based on their art to Ar’alani. This dissection of Thrawn’s psyche is expertly presented to us by Zahn. I would be amiss not to share Thrawn’s incredibly inspiring quote. He says to Thalias while sequestered “We all have regrets, however, just as we have hopes that will never be fulfilled. The key to a satisfying life is to accept those things that cannot be changed and make a positive difference with those that can.” Wow. This is one of the most resonating bits of life advice I’ve ever heard. Is Thrawn a Jedi?
Speaking of Jedi, I am so impressed that Zahn created an engaging world WITHOUT involving any of the parts of the galaxy that fans are so familiar with. The story is completely removed from anything; although there is a fun surprise in a sequence that acts like a bucket of cold water poured on the head; breaking the spell of the Chiss.Sociologically, I am immensely intrigued by the Chiss society. They are a strange animal. They have hyperspace technology, but no navicomputers (hence the Sky-walkers). They have sci-fi weapons but never figured out how to make deflector shields or cloaking devices. They also do NOT have droids of any kind, and droids are so alien to them that they refer to them as robots. I haven’t heard droids called robots since the original Star Wars. Incredible! The Chiss do not have a more advanced or less advanced society than the Galactic Republic and would be best described as divergent. I’d like to learn more as soon as possible. The final space battle was just as confusing as the rest of the book and I had to re-read it a few times to understand how Thrawn did what he did. Perhaps smarter readers will see it better than me.
Anyway, this book can be described in one word. Alien. Alien in the setting, alien in the storyline, alien in it’s thought process. I love a good challenge but this book really tested all my cognitive functions. I would give it an A for its brilliance, but since I had difficulty discerning it; it gets bumped down to a B+. However, Timothy Zahn truly delivered a literary work that sets a new standard in the mythos. I am very curious to see where the next book in the trilogy goes.
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Max Nocerino is a new addition to the Future of the Force roster. He is a passionate Star Wars fan and loves the literature of the galaxy far, far away. Follow him on Twitter @MaxN2100 where he channels his passion frequently!
Editors Note | A big thank you to our friends at Del Rey UK for sending over our advance review copy.