Thrawn by Timothy Zahn: A Statement, Not A Manifesto

In what seems like a long, long time ago, there was the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Using the events of the Star Wars trilogy films, notable authors like James Luceno, Karen Traviss, Aaron Allston, Kevin J. Anderson, and Drew Karpyshyn broadened the scope of the galaxy, infusing it with a host of new characters and conflicts. Chief among the cadre of Expanded Universe authors was science fiction writer Timothy Zahn, who’s Thrawn trilogy helped define the direction for a new era of Star Wars novels.

Zahn’s trilogy of novels established the Imperial Remnant, the chief antagonist for the New Republic, led by the mysterious Grand Admiral Thrawn, a military genius that conquers and subjugates by analyzing tactics and studying a civilization’s cultural output. The books also introduced Mara Jade, the former Emperor’s Hand who seeks revenge against Luke Skywalker for the death of Emperor Palpatine. Han and Leia are there too, along with their children Jaina and Jacen. What Zahn started in 1991 with Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command laid the foundation for major conflicts and character development that lasted right up to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise in 2012.

When Disney stepped in, they hit the reset button on the Star Wars Expanded Universe. This meant that nearly 4,000 years of Star Wars history, from the exploits of Exar Kun and Darth Bane to the Yuuzahn Vong and Jacen Solo’s turn to the Dark Side, was wiped clean and no longer considered canon. The biggest tragedy was the loss of Grand Admiral Thrawn, a character who is frequently brought up when discussing some of the more noteworthy characters from the Expanded Universe. However, all was made right when Dave Filoni announced that Grand Admiral Thrawn would be prominently featured in the third season of Star Wars Rebels. Even better, now that Thrawn was back on the narrative table, Disney brought in his creator Timothy Zahn to write a new book about the famous Chiss commander.

As someone who loved the Thrawn trilogy and the character, I couldn’t be happier to see his return. It’s been seven years since the last official Thrawn novel (Outbound Flight, 2006) and while I was happy that he got the chance to do it, I harbored a concern: This depiction of Thrawn would be shoehorned into the Star Wars mythos via a television show that hasn’t struck much of a chord. Would Zahn be capable of telling a story that does the character justice while staying within the continuity of the new canon?

Yes, he did. And then some.

Zahn’s Thrawn made me fall in love with the character all over again. It also made me realize how much I enjoy Zahn’s writing, which is considerably better than some of the books in the new canon. What made Thrawn so appealing in both the Heir to the Empire trilogy and this book is that he is unlike any Imperial officer depicted in the movies, books, and comics. Whereas officers and figureheads like Admiral Motti and Grand Moff Tarkin treat fear and intimidation as effective leadership tools, Thrawn gained a reputation for his cool and unorthodox method of military strategy and tactics, exploring weaknesses no one thought to consider. This allows him to pull off near impossible victories against his enemies, and ruffling the feathers of alien-hating Imperials.

The novel is set during the infancy of the Galactic Civil War. The Clone Wars are over, and the Empire has grown from the ashes by Emperor Palpatine. Order 66 has officially exterminated the Jedi and the galaxy is waking up to what it really means to live under the Imperial flag. Mitth’raw’nuruodo enters the conflict while living in exile. After single-handedly confounding an Imperial garrison and sneaking aboard a Star Destroyer, his skills captured the attention of the right people and is sent to Coruscant to meet with the Emperor. Impressed by his acumen, Palpatine admits Thrawn into the Imperial Academy to become an effective weapon for the Empire. He is assisted by Ensign Eli Vanto, a low ranking officer who wants nothing more than to keep his nose clean, head down, and squeak through the Academy without raising a fuss. Because of his ability to speak Thrawn’s native language, Vanto is assigned to perform as Thrawn’s translator and liaison, an assignment he often resents.

I thoroughly enjoyed following Thrawn’s career through the Imperial Navy. The book is not so much a traditional origin story for Thrawn–we don’t see him grow up or be introduced to him via his time in the Chiss Ascendency–and as such, there are little barriers to enjoying what Thrawn does best, which is generally outsmarting everyone. His penchant for out of the box thinking only gets tiring through the frequent scenes of Imperials being dumbfounded and shocked stupid by his schemes. In the end, such scenes are worth it when they come from smug Imperials who do what they can to make Thrawn fail or look bad in front of others. Thrawn doesn’t do everything by himself. As he is a bit rough around the edges when it comes to the Empire’s cronyism and political games, he gets a little help from his friends–or what qualifies as “friends” in the Empire’s meritocracy.

Thrawn’s exploits are largely told from the point of view of Eli Vanto and for most of the book, he acts as a reluctant follower. He dreams of an easy Navy career working supply routes close to his home in the Outer Rim but his encounter with Thrawn puts him in the spotlight, for better and for worse. Routinely put in the position to answer for Thrawn’s unique methods of strategy, he finds himself angry with the assignment (especially since he does not get promoted, out of retaliation) until he learns to respect Thrawn’s method of command. Thrawn is assisted politically by Arihnda  Pryce, an ambitious clerk who has grand schemes for becoming the governor of her homeworld, Lothal. Pryce’s story is fascinating to witness because of how she’s able to worm her way up by learning to play the game of Coruscanti politics.

Although Thrawn is often depicted as being an unstoppable analytical machine, a major plot point involves his ongoing battle against a rebel smuggler named Nightswan who frequently proves himself to be Thrawn’s closest equal. While the Empire has him running missions to protect their interests and keep the peace against pirates, Thrawn develops an obsession for Nightswan throughout the novel that leads to a surprising outcome between the two men. Again, what makes Thrawn such a great character to follow is how he eschews the traditional, “Muahaha, I’m evil AF” Imperial command. He holds respect for enemies that deserve it which makes him far more honorable than anyone else in the Empire. He actively engages with his crew by encouraging them to speak up and against Thrawn’s orders. The result is a genuine devotion among his subordinates. Even the most obstinant ones.

The novel ends well before the Battle of Yavin, so Thrawn’s fate after the events of Return of the Jedi are unknown, though Aftermath: Empire’s End suggests that he is partly responsible for the creation of the First Order. I’m hoping we’ll get more novels out of Zahn because the new canon has a lot of space to fill. By the time Disney took over, the Expanded Universe accounted for hundreds of books and comics that bridged the gap between the original and prequel trilogies. Disney is clearly looking towards the future, making a push for materials set during the Galactic Civil War and onward. Whatever the state of the galaxy is left in after Episode XI, I’m hoping the creative output will be as robust as the “Legends” catalog. But for now, I’m happy to be a part of a time where Grand Admiral Thrawn is alive, kicking ass, and taking names.

Title: Thrawn
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Del Ray
Media: Hardcover
Genre: Action, Science Fiction
Pages: 455
Release Date: 4/11/2017
Purchased Or Received For Review? Purchased
Where to buy: Amazon

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