Timothy Zahn returns to give Star Wars fans the canonical origins for Thrawn’s service in the Empire, in an engaging new story.
It’s something fans have been waiting a long time for. Virtually since the announcement of new Star Wars movies, fans were clamoring to see one of the Expanded Universe’s most iconic characters get his time in the spotlight. That hope quieted down when all the previous material was relegated to “Legends” status, but fans were still adamant about seeing Thrawn appear (somehow) in the new Canon.
One of the most thrilling announcements from last year’s Star Wars Celebration in Europe was the Season Three trailer for Star Wars Rebels where it was confirmed the fan-favorite character would be making his return. While the show has given us some great moments, the new book has arrived to fill in some of the gaps.
The book takes place a few years before Star Wars Rebels and chronicles Thrawn’s rise through the Imperial ranks. It shows how he was discovered, an alien species mostly known through myth, and the events leading to him becoming the Grand Admiral we know and love. Arihnda Pryce (another Star Wars Rebels character) has a story that runs concurrent with Thrawn’s and intersect in various ways. Pryce seeks to climb the political ranks as Thrawn jumps up the military ladder and their paths continue to cross as Thrawn pits himself against a brilliant pirate who’s bordering on full Rebellion.
Throughout the years the book covers, Thrawn engages with the “Nightswan” again and again until everything (and multiple plot points) comes to a head. While the book has been out for a few weeks now, I’m still keeping this review largely spoiler free, so I’ll keep the plot to those facts.
There’s plenty of action, with wonderfully thought out battles, all bolstered by engaging character work. While Thrawn is the main character, much of the book is presented through the eyes of others, namely Eli Vanto. These extra characters add a lot of depth to the story and offer insights to the inner workings of Thrawn’s ideas from the “ground level.” Vanto himself is an interesting character with hints of a bigger future to come somewhere down the line in the canon.
As with every Timothy Zahn book, there are a number of things going on all at once, but it somehow manages to come together in a neat and tidy package. It’s an impressive skill and no matter how many times I read his stuff, I’m amazed at how he pulls it off.
Thrawn is smartly written and filled with plenty of technical details that flesh out the world and give credibility to the military/battle aspects. The best part, however, is it’s presented in a way that makes it easy to read and understand. Despite having some complex ideas thrown at you (especially when it comes to the character’s strategic machinations), there’s never a point where you feel lost. It’s just enough to make it clear that Thrawn is a hyper intelligent badass, while keeping you engaged and part of the action. It was much the same with Zahn’s last book (StarCraft: Evolution, which was also amazing) and the author continues to bring the goods. It’s a fun read and once I was able to pick it up (Celebration coverage and a newborn set me back), I had a hard time setting it down.
Back With Class
Thrawn’s lasting appeal with fans has much to do with his history as it does with his impact on the Star Wars story. Back in the early 90s, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy (commonly known as the Thrawn trilogy) arrived and kickstarted the Expanded Universe. It was the dawning of an all new era of Star Wars and showed how eager fans were for brand new stories.
Thrawn had some big shoes to fill, coming on the heels of villains like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Timothy Zahn managed to deliver and the result are some of the most well-loved (and best aged) Star Wars books out there.
Considering this historical importance, it’s not surprise fans were crossing their fingers to eventually see Thrawn pop up in the new canon. This new Thrawn book had to reintroduce the character’s origins in a clear way for new fans (who only know him from Rebels), while pleasing older fans as well. It’s a fine line to walk, but in this regard I think Zahn was incredibly successful. Fans of the older books will be delighted to know pretty much all of Thrawn’s backstory has been pulled, intact, from the Expanded Universe. Truly, the first chapter essentially works as a tweaked version of Timothy Zahn’s older short story detailing the Empire’s first encounter with Thrawn.
While some tweaks were made to fit more neatly into the current timeline and story, much of what we knew about Thrawn from before, remains the same. For a long time fan/reader, it was really cool to see how much of that was transferred over so seamlessly.
The entire book has bits and pieces from other “Legends” material sprinkled throughout or updated to fit into the new stuff. So if you were worried about picking this one up, concerned that the new Thrawn would be fundamentally altered…you’re in good hands. Having Timothy Zahn come back to write Thrawn’s origin story was a stroke of brilliance and the book manages to pay homage to what’s come before, while being inviting for newcomers.
Thrawn is a damn good book and despite having a newborn (along with several other deadlines), I managed to read the entire book in just a few days. It does have one primary problem, however, and it’s a problem that seems to persist throughout nearly all of the new canon Star Wars novels.
All the individual elements of the book are excellent, the characters are great and well presented, the action is engaging, and there are cool hints and connecting threads to the bigger Star Wars story…The issue, though, is the primary plot itself feels paper thin.
So many of the new canon books have felt like they’re more apart of the larger story, rather than focused on telling their own adventure. The teases and connections towards OTHER Star Wars things (movies, shows, etc.) feel more prevalent than the actual plot itself. As such, it’s hard to feel like the novel works well on its own. If you consume some, or all, of the other Star Wars canon material out there, Thrawn fits in neatly and feels great, but the plot is too thin to feel like a great story in and of itself.
Aside from a few novels (Bloodline, Lords of the Sith, Twilight Company), most of the new canon has fallen into this pitfall. It’s not entirely bad thing, as the books are still enjoyable as part of the whole, but it can be a bigger deterrent for those looking for a jumping-in point.