Timothy Zahn’s return to the Star Wars Universe could not have come at a better time. We are in the midst of some fantastic storytelling and Zahn’s return has to be one of the most welcome. Thrawn is a novel fans will be very pleased with; whether you were a fan of Zahn’s now Legends trilogy, or if you are just being introduced to the Grand Admiral. As an added bonus, this story continues to flesh out the years before the events of the Death Star’s destruction, and sets up some stories for the future. Beware, SPOILERS AHEAD.
(You can also read our spoiler free review of Thrawn here.)
I’m going to make a confession here: I have not read the Thrawn Trilogy since I was 14-years-old. I remember parts of it, but since I’m 36-years-old as I sit down to write this review, the 18 year gap leaves things a bit foggy. Though I plan on reading those novels again, I thought the lack of attachment I have to them would allow me more objectivity than if I was comparing this canon Thrawn to the Legends version. The only reason I’m sharing this before I begin to breakdown this novel is that I won’t have much context when it comes to the Thrawn Trilogy. I just didn’t want any of you readers to think I’m ignoring those earlier novels. That said…on with Thrawn.
Timothy Zahn has done a fantastic job of explaining the origins of Thrawn while still maintaining the mysteries of the character. This novel may frustrate some readers, because it’s not entirely dedicated to Thrawn himself, and there are some sections of the book where he could be perceived as a peripheral character. That’s not a mistake on Zahn’s part, because I feel after reading this novel, someone like Thrawn is constantly on the periphery of events and interpersonal conflicts. Thrawn plays the long game, studying every element that will lead to a victory or his ascension through the ranks of the Empire.
The novel opens on an unknown remote planet in the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. Imperial Cadet Eli Vanto accompanies a landing party searching for smugglers. Instead, they are attacked by an unseen adversary who makes quick work of the Imperial forces. Eli Vanto is cadet with unique circumstances, as he was born and raised on the planet Lysatra, in Wild Space at the edge of the Unknown Regions. His parents run a shipping company that navigates parts of the Unknown Regions, making his understanding of the alien cultures residing there much more so than the average Imperial. After the attacks take out much of the landing party, the commander orders evacuation of the surface, luring the attacker back to the Star Destroyer Strikefast. Once aboard, the attacker is caught revealing himself to be Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn for short. As I understand it, this opening chapter is a retelling of Zahn’s short story “Mist Encounter”, so some of this is probably familiar to you diehard Thrawn fans.
Vanto offers to translate for Thrawn, who appears to be limited in his knowledge of Basic, the standard Core language. Vanto recognizes Thrawn as a Chiss, an alien species believed by many in Wild Space and the Unknown Regions to be something of a myth. Thrawn confirms his species, but lets Vanto know that many of the myths regarding his people are untrue, though some may be true. Thrawn claims to have been exiled by his people. His only knowledge of the Core Systems was from his encounter with a certain Jedi named Anakin Skywalker (!). This is classic, cryptic Thrawn that you will experience throughout the novel. Thrawn is the antithesis of forthcoming, unless it suits his ends. The captain recognizes that the Chiss could be of some intrigue to the Emperor and arranges an audience with none other than Sheev Palpatine himself.
Palpatine is most intrigued by the Chiss, and as we’ve learned from other Star Wars novels, has a fascination with the Unknown Regions. Palpatine has felt a great power calling to him from the Unknown Regions, and as we know, is hard at work secretly dispatching Imperial forces to build installations that will serve as a contingency in case of his and the Empire’s demise. Thrawn is not at all intimidated by Palpatine and speaks candidly with an emperor that almost everyone is terrified of. Thrawn warns of a vague threat in the Unknown Regions and offers his services to the Empire to help them prepare for it. This threat is not only one that will one day affect the Empire, it is alluded that it will affect the entire galaxy. Palpatine takes Thrawn up on his offer. The only thing Thrawn asks for is that his new acquaintance/translator Eli Vanto accompany him.
Vanto’s assignment to Thrawn is something that gives the cadet mixed feelings. On one hand, they are sent to the Royal Imperial Academy, whose instructors are the elite officers of the Empire. On the other hand, Vanto never had high aspirations for himself in the Empire. His career path was one that he hoped would serve logistical needs of the Empire, as it was his trade before becoming an Imperial cadet. The transfer to the Royal Imperial Academy not only takes Vanto off this path, it puts him in the company of the best of the best, which is very intimidating. As someone from a remote part of the galaxy, who is tasked with assisting the alien Thrawn, Vanto expects prejudice and class division to be what greets them at the Royal Imperial Academy. They are harassed and attacked, and in one instance, Thrawn takes a pretty severe beating just to learn the nature of how cadets may fight. Thrawn remains ever cryptic of his end intentions.
Another thing, Thrawn is granted the rank of lieutenant upon admission to the Royal Imperial Academy. This is done to expedite his place in the Imperial command hierarchy. You will see that Thrawn makes leaps and bounds through the Imperial ranks. Vanto is very much along for the ride, but after their graduation he stagnates at the rank of ensign. This is something Vanto begins to resent, as he seems to be handcuffed to Thrawn as his translator of sorts. Early on, I thought Thrawn might have been using Vanto to some end, but it’s simply that he trusts Vanto and wants someone to use as a sort of sounding board.
Thrawn, being the titular character, is intended to be the primary part of the story, but many readers will be surprised that almost equal attention is given to Arihnda Pryce. Rebels viewers know her as Governor Pryce, and if any of you wondered how she rose to her seat of power on Lothal, Thrawn tells you pretty much everything. Pryce came from humble beginnings on Lothal, where her family owned Pryce Mining eventually took her to Coruscant. An ore that is repeated throughout Thrawn is doonium, which the Empire is in constant search of. Of course, we readers know why the Empire is scouring the galaxy to get as much as they can, since the construction of the Death Star is well underway while this story takes place. Pryce’s family mining operation is sitting on a large deposit of the ore, and the Empire is on the verge of taking her family business over. Rather than that takeover being a hostile one, Pryce accepts an offer to work for a lobbying firm on Coruscant, giving her a place in high society, as well as ensuring her parents are taken care of. Once on Coruscant, Pryce begins to navigate the cutthroat society of Imperial politicians and wealthy elite.
If there is one thing I wasn’t expecting from Thrawn, it was the very detailed look into the classism of Coruscant and the Empire. Zahn does a great job of giving us a clear view of the divide between the elite and the ordinary citizens of Coruscant and the Empire. When Pryce arrives on Coruscant, she is in the pinnacle of wealth and power, though not actually wealthy and powerful herself. It’s always been alluded to that the different levels of the planet-wide city give a literal social structure, bottom-to-top. That’s exactly what we see here. There is one chapter in which Pryce becomes unnerved because the lift taking her home gets stuck on one of the lower, seedier levels where criminal activity is at fever pitch away from the eyes of the Empire. In my opinion, Zahn has done a great job at carving out how most people in the Empire are not evil, totalitarian military strategists. The Empire is enabled to do what it is doing around the galaxy because it’s a mean to an ends for so many of the greedy, elitist politicians and rich. Pryce experiences this firsthand, falling in the social chain when she is double crossed, and then clawing her way back to the top. The reader gets the sense that her story is similar to so many in the Empire who rise to the top but always have to watch their backs.
As Thrawn continues to climb his way up the ladder in military rank, we don’t learn so much about his persona as we do about his approach to everything. Whether it’s an adversary or a battle, Thrawn takes a calm, cold approach. His singular focus is efficiency, and through that method he concludes that it will always lead him to victory. Efficiency is a double-edged sword, because Thrawn will spare no one in his approach. Whether that’s civilian casualties or fellow officers, Thrawn will doom them to make sure that he is victorious. Zahn’s approach to writing the Chiss strategic genius is great. There are times you will no doubt root for Thrawn to succeed, despite the fact you are cheering on an indifferent person that has chosen to make himself the mechanism of an evil dictatorship. The only person Thrawn seems to have any regard for in this novel is Vanto, who he sees as something of an unrealized genius, much like himself.
As far as familiar faces go, Tarkin is probably the most frequent of big player cameos. It’s interesting to see how feared the man is, from pretty much everyone who knows of him. Tarkin helps shape the fates of Thrawn, Pryce, and Vanto. Pryce, interestingly, fearlessly approaches him to trade information on potential rebel spies in exchange for her governorship of Lothal. Not only does she do that, she also hands over all of the data on mining the planet for every resource it has. Even Tarkin is surprised that she would sell out her own planet, but takes the offer and instates her as governor. This sets the stage nicely for their interactions on Rebels. Tarkin is intrigued by Thrawn, mostly because he is frequently reprimanded the Imperial High Command. Tarkin shares with Thrawn the cold desire to win at all costs, but is absently preoccupied from most of the events that come to shape Thrawn’s career, as he’s busy overseeing the construction of the Death Star.
It should also be noted that the Death Star is a complete mystery to most Imperial commanders and authorities. Everyone knows the Empire is gobbling up all the resources it can get it’s hands on, but no one knows exactly what it’s for. Thrawn and Vanto go searching, but never quite make it to the actual construction site. Thrawn knows Tarkin is involved in the construction of something massive, which he correctly assumes is a weapon the Empire will use to assert it’s final authority over the galaxy. This presents a dilemma for Thrawn, who consistently claims he is loyal to the Empire, but only to the point where the Chiss would benefit from an alliance. The fact that a weapon, still unknown to Thrawn, could potentially be turned on his people makes him want to investigate further.
Vanto finally rises through the ranks to commander and his sensibilities begin to align with a more militaristic tone. Thrawn has certainly rubbed off on Vanto. Vanto accurately anticipates and deciphers every move Thrawn makes. Pryce also becomes involved with Thrawn, as he helps guide her through the nebulous areas of politics and her own ascension as governor of Lothal.
The climax of Thrawn pits the admiral against a fellow military genius called Nightswan. The Rebel Alliance is still far from formed in Thrawn, but we hear whispers of insurgents across the galaxy. Nightswan is something of a mercenary Thrawn has brushes with earlier in the story. He is leading an uprising on a planet called Batonn, which will eventually become the Battle of Batonn. Before the battle, Thrawn meets Nightswan and actually offers him a place within the Chiss Ascendency, the governing body that Thrawn comes from. Nightswan rejects and the Battle of Batonn goes down. This is the final example of Thrawn coldly doing whatever it takes to win a battle, as the civilian casualties that he at one time promises Nightswan he will avoid, are what make this battle notorious (as it is mentioned in Rebels).
The last interaction we see between Pryce and Thrawn is her giving him political advice. Despite the massive civilian casualties, Thrawn’s victory crushed a rebellion, helping the Empire underscore the consequence to other potential instigators. Pryce tells Thrawn to accept the glory with grace, which is foreign to Thrawn, and she offers her continued council when it comes to political matters. We see a very different Pryce once we get to Rebels, one who is unafraid of brutality and torture to meet her ends. The ambitious Pryce in Thrawn is someone whose each step up the Imperial structure costs her. Whether that is selling out her planet or betraying those she considers friends, Arihnda Pryce does not hesitate. It’s no surprise why we find her where we do by the time the events of Rebels are in full-swing.
Our last meeting with Thrawn brings about some pretty big revelations. Thrawn is promoted to Grand Admiral, providing the set-up for future stories we’ve seen and have yet to see. In the Emperor’s throne room, Grand Admiral Thrawn confronts the Emperor as to what is intended of the Death Star. The Emperor assures him it will not be used against the Chiss, but will help suppress any further rebellions and bring the galaxy under the total control of the Empire. He assures Thrawn that he could not bring the weapon to bear against the Chiss, as Thrawn continues to holdout their location in the Unknown Regions. Thrawn never intended to rise as high as he did in the Empire, he only hoped to study them and determine whether they were a threat or a worthy ally regarding the Chiss Ascendency. As it turns out, Thrawn was never exiled by his people – he chose to take a chance of being captured, which turned him into one of the most distinguished officers in the Empire. This last chapter is great, but some readers may be let down, as it wasn’t until I reached this page that I felt I was getting to know Thrawn.
The big surprise of Thrawn, in my opinion, is found in the epilogue. Eli Vanto, who had come to terms with his position as Thrawn’s aide, no matter what his rank, learns the design of Thrawn’s plan for him. Vanto realizes that Thrawn saw much of his own abilities in Vanto. As mentioned earlier, Vanto was more interested in numbers and logistics, rather than command and conquest. Thrawn recognized the analytical talents Vanto already had and decided to foster the more strategic and military. Thrawn had been training Eli Vanto all along, but not for the Empire. The last page of Thrawn is Vanto’s introduction to Admiral Ar’alani of the Chiss Defense Fleet. Thrawn has sent Vanto to help the Chiss Ascendancy in their fight against the unnamed threat. To be continued, I guess.
Thrawn is not my favorite of the Star Wars novels out there, but I consider it a must-read for fans. I felt like there were some pretty major things being set-up and when it comes down to it, Thrawn is one of the most fascinating characters in the Star Wars Universe. Some fans of Thrawn may have complaints about the lack of insight into the titular character himself, but I think there is far more right about this novel than wrong. I didn’t burn through this novel as fast as I usually do Star Wars books, but I blame that most on my lack of reading time. When I did pick it up I’d read for hours without even realizing it. I know some of my colleagues here at SWNN burned through Thrawn in a single sitting, so don’t let my slow pace be indicative of the quality.
The biggest question mark I have is one I don’t think we will get an answer for a while: Who the hell is this unnamed threat in the Unknown Regions? This has been hinted at in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series with the super computer discovered on Jakku that was transmitting and receiving data from the Unknown Regions. We know Palpatine has sensed something from that region of the galaxy. What could it be? I hate to throw this out there, but I’m guessing a certain Supreme Leader of a certain First Order probably holds the answers. If that is indeed the case, I don’t think any of us should hold our breath for answers. Even if this doesn’t in any way end up being related to Snoke or the Sequel Trilogy, I would love to have stories about Eli Vanto and his adventures with the Chiss. Hopefully this is not the last we’ve seen of him.
I also want more Thrawn and more Thrawn novels. This is a great start, but now that Thrawn has been unleashed, I want to read more. I know we have at least one more season of Rebels to look forward to, but I think Thrawn warrants material primarily dedicated to him. I think more novels and maybe even a Marvel series. I’m sure the LFL Story Group have a masterplan for Thrawn, I’m just hoping we don’t have to wait for more. And, I hope that masterplan involves Timothy Zahn, as he once again demonstrated he’s an author right at home in the Star Wars Universe. This story reads as if Zahn had it in his head for quite some time and the writing exudes absolute certainty and confidence that he knows exactly who Thrawn is.
Until we get more Thrawn, you’ll find me with a dusty copy of Heir to the Empire, enjoying some more great Star Wars storytelling, legends or not. I highly recommend you head on down to your local bookstore or library and pick up a copy of Thrawn.
I’d love to hear what you thought. Head on over to the Cantina and let me know, or you can find me on Twitter, @Kyle97202.