Thrawn is back. His presence in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series has made quite a splash. It’s been fun seeing him on the the show and Rebels has done a great job with the character’s onscreen appearances, but now comes the moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s time for the Grand Admiral to return to his roots: the literary wing of the Star Wars franchise. There is no one more qualified to usher him in than Timothy Zahn. Fortunately for us, that’s exactly who got the job. Thrawn, the most anticipated novel in the new Star Wars canon, is here.
After Rebels season 3, Thrawn has been effectively reestablished in the official canon as one of the most notorious scourges of the Empire’s enemies. When we first see him onscreen, he has already risen to the rank of Grand Admiral. But that achievement is the culmination of a journey, the story of which Timothy Zahn’s new book tells us in the way that only Zahn himself can.
Spoilers may follow.
Thrawn’s introduction into the story is certainly fitting. It’s also very familiar. In an explosive escapade which closely mirrors Zahn’s short story Mist Encounter (from the Legends canon), Thrawn has military personnel chasing their tails while operating as a one-man guerilla unit. This activity inevitably intrigues Imperial leadership, leading to the beginning of Thrawn’s military career in the Empire. Perhaps this is some “recycled” material, but that hardly makes it boring. This is still an appropriate entrance for a character like Thrawn. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Since many fans are still very attached to the old Expanded Universe, transplanting an old Thrawn moment and tailoring it to fit a new story is actually a smart move on Zahn’s part.
Just about every hallmark of Thrawn’s persona is brought to bear, and then some. As he carries on with his endeavors and moves up the ranks, the skills and attributes that are unique to Thrawn’s character become effective tools in his strategies and problem solving. His sleuth-like power of deduction, his ability to anticipate the tactics and actions of others through the knowledge of their people’s culture and art, his expedient approach to bringing a conflict to the desired conclusion, his deadly patience and impeccable timing, etc. Every trait you can name that the true Thrawn ought to possess, Zahn remembers. No surprise there; Thrawn is a Timothy Zahn original.
As you’d expect, Zahn does an excellent job developing his novel’s characters. While Thrawn is the title character and the focal point of the story, a significant portion of that story is seen through the eyes of one Eli Vanto. Vanto is present when Thrawn first bursts onto the scene. His home world, Lysatra, lies in the Galaxy’s outer rim, bordering the Unknown Regions where Thrawn is from. To Vanto, Thrawn is the physical manifestation of myth and legend. Yet, his remote but rare knowledge of Thrawn’s race, the Chiss, as well as his fluency in the trade language they speak, makes him an asset. Due to his usefulness to Thrawn, Vanto is derailed from his intended career path towards becoming a supply officer.
Thrawn’s path intersects with those of other noteworthy figures, as well. In a way, his story is their story, too. In the Rebels series, we see Thrawn rubbing elbows with the likes of Governor Pryce and Colonel Yularen, as well as Grand Moff Tarkin. The meticulous web by which these individuals become connected is woven by Zahn with impressive detail and finesse. It is partly through these connections, direct and indirect, that Thrawn is able to climb the military ladder, but it is just as much because of his own genius and initiative. His methods are unorthodox and politically incorrect, but they get results. Despite the efforts of meddlesome colleagues, superior officers, and politicians motivated by bias and prejudice, Thrawn receives the advancements his successes and efforts warrant.
As Thrawn is often the intended victim of military politics, it is difficult not to sympathize with him. He is not like many of his colleagues in that he does not thirst for power and hunger for praise. He is an effective leader, goes out of his way to give credit to his subordinates when it is deserved, and generally exhibits concern for the safety of civilians. One cannot help but wonder how someone like that could serve the Empire. However, he is not as altruistic and transparent as he may seem. Thrawn, on more than one occasion, displays a devious streak in his tactical maneuvering, but his craftiness runs deeper than most would guess. It is later revealed that, while much of the Imperial stratosphere has been embroiled in political games and power plays, Thrawn has been covertly laying the framework for plans of his own. The murky morality of a drastic logician’s mind creeps into view, and we’re left with some sobering questions. In the pursuit of what is often called the “greater good,” what rationales will we stand by? How far is too far? What evils, if any, are we willing to overlook or even perpetuate to do what we deem necessary?
Timothy Zahn lives up to his reputation as a skilled storyteller. My only gripe is the language. There isn’t necessarily what I would consider an obscene amount of profanity, but it’s still more than I would have expected to encounter in a Star Wars book by Zahn. There’s also an instance or two of innuendo. But overall, Thrawn is the best novel that the new canon has yet to offer. Recruiting Zahn is the smartest decision Disney has made thus far. The bar has been set pretty high, and it may be that the only one who can raise that bar is Timothy Zahn himself.