Review: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

It is only fitting that when it was revealed the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn was being resurrected from “Legends” to appear on Star Wars Rebels that he would also be getting his own new book. It is also only fitting that there was only one author who could write that book, Timothy Zahn.

While Zahn was not the first author to expand the Star Wars book in the pages of a book, he is perhaps the one most associated with Star Wars novels. He also pioneered what has become a publishing line that is a virtual lock to land an author on the New York Times Best Seller List.

I have been a life long reader but it wasn’t until I read Heir to the Empire that my love of books was ignited. The idea that these grand space adventures could be replicated away from the television screen with nothing more than ink and paper was a revelatory experience. I mention this upfront to say that I cannot and have no interest in being entirely objective when it comes to Thrawn or Zahn. What I will seek to do in this review however is to be as fair as I can be in explaining what worked best and what didn’t in this novel, a story that you don’t need me to tell you that you should read.

The novel Thrawn traces the story of Mitth’raw’nuruodo discovery by the Imperial Navy, his rise to power, his relationship with a young Imperial officer Eli Vanto who becomes his protege and the story of a parallel rise to power by Lothal’s Governor Arihnda Pryce. The novel works beautifully as a companion piece to the animated series Star Wars Rebels which featured Thrawn as the primary protagonist in season three and will see him return again in season four. Rebels also finally introduced Governor Pryce on-screen in season three, she had been an absentee ruler up until that point.

Publisher’s Summary:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In this definitive novel, readers will follow Thrawn’s rise to power—uncovering the events that created one of the most iconic villains in Star Wars history.

One of the most cunning and ruthless warriors in the history of the Galactic Empire, Grand Admiral Thrawn is also one of the most captivating characters in the Star Wars universe, from his introduction in bestselling author Timothy Zahn’s classic Heir to the Empire through his continuing adventures in Dark Force Rising, The Last Command, and beyond. But Thrawn’s origins and the story of his rise in the Imperial ranks have remained mysterious. Now, in Star Wars: Thrawn, Timothy Zahn chronicles the fateful events that launched the blue-skinned, red-eyed master of military strategy and lethal warfare into the highest realms of power—and infamy.

The novel does have some nods to the now “Legends” back story to Thrawn which was a nice touch, a minor character returns in Voss Parck and the general concept of the Chiss Ascendancy being isolated from the larger galaxy is reintroduced. The idea that Thrawn and the Chiss possess knowledge of external dangers unknown to the Empire but that may threaten the Empire is also a plot point that is played with.

A major connection is made with novel, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy and the sequel trilogy of films in that this novel confirms the revelation in Empire’s End that Thrawn helped Palpatine map hyperspace routes through the Unknown Regions. It may not seem like a hugely important deal but Thrawn’s finger prints even touch the First Order.

I received copies of the novel from Del Rey in both hardcover and audiobook forms and will speak a bit about both formats before going any farther. The hardcover edition is a beautiful presentation in any of the dust jacket variations you can find and the blue and white internal binding and cover is fitting. I have some minor issues with the style chosen for interior pages in that the printing for each chapter title i.e. “Chapter 1” looks faded and odd almost like a printer was running out of ink.

Both the book and the audiobook are very long, 448 pages and 17 hours respectively. Which isn’t an issue for most people who say the more Star Wars the better.

The audiobook is narrated by Marc Thompson who is the regular voice talent used on many Star Wars novels. Thompson does his usual good job, doing both male and female voices in this story. I really enjoyed his performances as Thrawn, Pryce, The Emperor and Yularen. His performance as Vanto may be a bit of an acquired taste as he has a very twangy American accent, which I wouldn’t have found as distracting if I didn’t think it would drive Thrawn nuts.

I enjoyed the structure of the story in which Thrawn begins each chapter with a brief monologue by Thrawn that is relevant to what is to follow after. This technique is a meatier version of the style that I always enjoyed in Karen Traviss’ Star Wars novel where she began each chapter with an epigraph. I enjoyed framing what is to come for the reader by provided additional perspective or information that doesn’t fit as part of narrative text of the chapter itself. These opening monologues are denoted by the use of italics, the use of which continue in the body of each chapter as the equivalent to thought bubbles that Thrawn is often indulging in while observing or participating in conversations. These thought bubbles or inner monologues are interesting in that it allows us a window into how Thrawn’s mind works and how he perceives the other characters he interacts with. As much as I did enjoy this, by the end of the novel some of this felt a little over used and repetitive.

As I mentioned earlier the novel tracks the three careers of Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce. Thrawn and Vanto are locked at the hip for most of the story as Vanto is the Imperial who helps translate for Thrawn to the other Imperials and whom Thrawn subsequently selects to be his aide. Pryce on the other hand follows her own story that at various points over the years intersects with Thrawn before becoming more closely connected towards the culmination of the story. While Thrawn follows a military rise to power, Pryce follows a political rise to power but as the novel shows these two professions are not as different as one may suspect, to quote Carl von Clausewitz, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

I love the relationship between Thrawn and Vanto, and the comparisons of this pair to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are inescapable, but what it reminded me of more was baseball. In baseball there are both statistically minded professionals who became famous with the rise of sabermetrics, which was a search to quantify events or skills in baseball games and among baseball players. More associated historically with baseball however is the role of the scout, the person who travels the country seeing high school, college or independent professional baseball players and evaluating them for possible addition to a Major League club’s farm system either through the draft or through free agent signing. Vanto is the sabermetrician, before meeting Thrawn his career track was of a supply officer, his parent’s business was in shipping. Vanto’s mind works in spreadsheets, in cataloging, in mathematics, using calculation over intuition. Thrawn is more of the scout, he is constantly watching even the smallest details in speech, physical movement and behavior. He enhances this observation by deep study into art and history which allows him to more accurately interpret his observations, just as a scout may look at the body type of a player or their swing mechanics and project what that player may do in the future.

As a baseball fan and more particularly as a Red Sox fan the marriage of these two disciplines is greater than the results that can be gathered by either alone. This to is true of Thrawn and Vanto, Thrawn’s command benefits from Vanto’s precise knowledge and skill where as Vanto benefits by the training that Thrawn provides him in his areas of weakness. While Thrawn would have risen high without Vanto, it is no doubt that Vanto smoothed the path. Thrawn’s effect on Vanto was more severe, permanently and profoundly changing the course of his career and life, arguably much for the better.

The relationship between the two men is a complicated and rich one. It is a relationship that is not perfect and something that I really appreciated. In some ways it is similar to Thrawn’s relationship to Gilad Pellaeon but in the totality it is much more personal and much more interesting to read.

Arihnda Pryce is the surprise star of the novel, her rise to power as unlikely and more of a tightrope walk than Thrawn’s own. In Star Wars Rebels, Pryce is not given much screen time or characterization so it is wonderful that Zahn was able to flesh out the character here. It provides us much greater context for the events of the series and actually raised some really interesting questions for me particularly regarding Ryder Azadi who was her predecessor in office who would go on to be a Rebel.

Both Pryce and Thrawn interact with some significant characters from the universe, Yularen, Tarkin and Palpatine. I loved the use of Yularen in this book because he was such a significant part of The Clone Wars and because of his role as a leader in the ISB. Tarkin is also an interesting addition not only for the reasons that we see him as anothe connection to Rebels but his prominence in the new canon novels and role in Rogue One. Tarkin is also a character who has risen to similar heights as Thrawn and that is a very select group of individuals in the Imperial court. Finally the relationship between Palpatine and Thrawn is really enjoyable to read or listen to. Thrawn is not a sycophant which I think Palpatine actually appreciates in the man (as long as he maintains his usefulness), but there is also a sort of demonic playfulness with which Palpatine indulges in from time to time for no other reason than his own entertainment.

There are a host of secondary characters throughout the novel, both political, military, familial, and others that Zahn populates the universe with. The most significant being the novels chief antagonist to Thrawn, Nightswan. A criminal and insurgent operative who was smarter than most Imperials except for Thrawn.

The novel does leave a couple fairly significant questions open at the end involving the fates of characters. This could be something that is explored in greater depth in future novels or simply as a minor plot point in other media. It will be interesting to see where Thrawn’s story goes in season four of Rebels and if this is the last time we see the Grand Admiral starring in a Star Wars novel.

In the end, Thrawn is a fitting memorial to the Legends character of Grand Admiral Thrawn and an engaging launching point for this new version of the character. We have and shall continue to watch his career with great interest.

Thrawn is on sale now in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats.

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