Award-winning author Timothy Zahn brings us the long-awaited tale of how one of his most popular characters rose through the Imperial ranks to become the strategic mastermind who has captured the minds of Star Wars fans since his introduction in Zahn’s 1991 groundbreaking novel, Heir to the Empire.
He is a genius tactician with an uncanny ability to find his opponents’ weaknesses not merely by examining their battle strategies and armament, but also by studying their art and their culture. He is a powerful Imperial Grand Admiral who (usually!) deals with the failure of his subordinates not with summary execution, but by encouraging them to use the lessons of their failure to hone their martial skills and creative abilities. He is blue-skinned, red-eyed non-human who holds one of the highest positions in an Empire with a decidedly human-centric bias.
He is… Thrawn!!
Assisting Thrawn along the way is his aide, Ensign Eli Vanto. We first meet Vanto during a clever variation on the Strikefast planetary expedition from Zahn’s 1995 short story “Mist Encounter.” Events play out in a virtually identical fashion in the Thrawn novel, with the Imperials investigating a deserted encampment, and the encampment’s owner, Thrawn, using the natural environment and the Imperials’ own fear against them in a Rambo-style commando operation intended to provide an opening for him to sneak aboard the Strikefast. Here, Thrawn manipulates the starship’s commander, Captain Voss Parck, into bringing him back to Coruscant for an audience with the Emperor.
However, whereas in “Mist Encounter” it was the Imperial team’s 3P0 unit who examined the markings on the planetside encampment’s equipment, in the Thrawn novel, Zahn casts Eli Vanto in that role. When we first meet him, Eli is still a mere cadet who intends to build on his experience in his family’s shipping business to pursue a safe, predictable career as an Imperial supply officer. Since he hails from Wild Space and, through his shipping company experience, has developed passing familiarity with many of that region’s lesser-known languages and dialects, Eli has been ordered to accompany the expeditionary team.
And, of course, it is this seemingly temporary diversion from his study of ledgers and logistics that ends up setting Cadet Vanto’s life on a radically different path. Quickly identifying the script on the encampment’s equipment crates as being a variant of Sy Bisti, an obscure Unknown Regions trade language, Eli is assigned to serve as translator and aide to Thrawn – an assignment which, somewhat to Eli’s dismay, ends up taking the place of his preferred vocation as a supply officer.
This sets up a very enjoyable character dynamic between Thrawn and Eli Vanto. Quickly assessing Eli and noting untapped potential within him, Thrawn sees to it that the young cadet remains at his side as he manipulates his way up the Imperial military ladder, quietly mentoring Eli in Thrawn’s own style of observation and deduction. The result is something akin to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, as young Eli accompanies Thrawn on a variety of investigations into smuggling operations and piracy rings. It’s choices like this on Zahn’s part that add heretofore unseen depth to Thrawn in a fun and vaguely familiar way.
We also get to witness some of Thrawn’s more familiar characteristics as he closely examines the body language and facial cues of those with whom he interacts, turning each conversation into a chess game that only he himself is consciously playing. To this end, Zahn incorporates Thrawn’s own thoughts into the text, set in italic type and primarily focusing on the details he notices about people’s physiological and conversational responses in order to provide the reader with context for each “move” that Thrawn makes.
And, in true Holmes/Watson fashion, Thrawn often goes over a given conversation or bit of investigation after the fact with Eli, using the young cadet (who is promoted to Ensign after completing his studies alongside of Thrawn at the Royal Imperial Academy) as a sounding board while also guiding him through the deductive process. Over the course of the novel, we see Eli growing into his role, honing his investigation skills and realizing the value that his background in supply and shipping brings to the table as he begins to develop an ability to glean subtle and valuable information from shipping records in a similar way to what Thrawn does with his adversaries’ art and culture.
Zahn even gives Thrawn a “Moriarty” of sorts – a shadowy insurgent leader known simply as Nightswan. As Thrawn examines patterns and common threads between the various smuggling and piracy operations he breaks up, the name Nightswan begins to crop up and Thrawn realizes that this Nightswan is not only pulling the strings behind the scenes of these seemingly unrelated underworld groups, but that this person must also be doing so in support of an agenda of his or her own.
Although that ulterior agenda is unclear, Thrawn begins to form the impression that it may well be connected to spiking prices of and increased underworld interest in doonium, a rare, incredibly strong metal ore used in starship production. The sheer amount of doonium that continues to go missing, particularly from Imperial supplies, leads Thrawn to suspect that it must be being diverted to a particularly large and secret weapons development project – and given the pre-OT timeframe in which the novel is set, I think we all can guess what that project must inevitably turn out to be.
At the same time that we get to see Thrawn and Ensign Vanto engaging in detective work, we are also treated to a glimpse into life in the Imperial Navy and the politically charged atmosphere through which Thrawn makes his ascent from Lieutenant to Grand Admiral, with Eli Vanto advising him along the way. In this respect, Zahn adds a dash of the dynamic between Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin from Patrick O’Brian’s series of nautical historical novels. It’s no more a direct lift from the O’Brian books than the investigative angle is from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course. But it does help to ground Thrawn’s story in familiar, fertile literary territory.
I found it fascinating to watch Thrawn’s single-minded pursuit of Nightswan and the doonium connection play out over the course of the novel, especially the way his apparent obsession draws criticism from his superior officers all along the way. However, Thrawn’s results are so impressive that he continues not just to evade courts martial, but calculates and exploits the reactions of his superiors as a path to advancement. It’s a new and compelling take on classic Thrawn that I suspect a lot of you will enjoy as much as I did.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire novel, though, is the fact that Zahn has chosen to parallel Thrawn’s rise to power with that of Governor Arihnda Pryce, from the Star Wars: Rebels series. What makes this work so well is the fact that the Arihnda Pryce we see at the beginning of the novel is not the cold, ruthless Imperial we know from SW: Rebels. She starts off as the very capable manager of her family’s mining company on Lothal. While she longs to leave her frustratingly provincial world for somewhere more cosmopolitan, Pryce seems a relatively average galactic citizen, easy enough to sympathize with that it actually took me a few chapters to connect this character with the Governor Pryce from SW: Rebels.
Once again, Zahn has taken a familiar character and imbued her with depth of character that we’ve not seen before. After Pryce and her family lose their mining operation through the machinations of Lothal governor Ryder Azadi and planetary Senator Domus Renking, Pryce accepts a position as an aide to Senator Renking, through which she achieves her goal of leaving Lothal for the more vibrant environment of Coruscant. Here, her worldview is gradually hardened and her ambitions honed by the cutthroat atmosphere that festers within the heart of the Empire’s political realm.
Pryce, however, proves to be a particularly resourceful survivor. With each betrayal, she is able to leverage established relationships and alliances to bounce back even stronger than before. At the same time, each betrayal she survives also leaves her just a little colder and more guarded, until she reaches a turning point where she turns a friend in to the authorities for consorting with insurgents, and we begin to see the dangerous, power-hungry Imperial loyalist that she ultimately becomes.
The underlying thread that connects all three main characters, Thrawn, Arhinda Pryce, and Eli Vanto, is the almost reflexive way that their rivals, and indeed Imperial society as a whole, continually underestimates them as merely being easily dismissed backwater yokels. All three characters end up using this to their advantage, albeit in different ways. The supremely confident Thrawn is cognizant of the fact that he is, in almost any given situation, significantly more clever than nearly anyone else in the room, thus making Imperial prejudices a tool to assist in his rise to power. In fact, although he swears allegiance to the Emperor and serves him well, Thrawn is in fact taking the measure of the Empire as a whole in order to determine whether or not it would make a useful ally for his people in their struggle against various threats in Unknown Space of which the Empire is not yet aware.
Eli Vanto, on the other hand, is far more clever than he realizes. In many ways, his ambition is a more passive thing, and he seems often to ride on Thrawn’s coattails somewhat, particularly once he begins to receive long-overdue promotions through that relationship. But gradually, Thrawn’s efforts to mentor Eli begin to pay off as Eli begins to come into his own. And it becomes apparent that Thrawn has deliberately selected him due to the powerful combination of a highly creative and inquisitive mind, and a humble and grounded personal attitude. Thrawn knows, even if Eli does not, that the young officer is a natural choice to learn from Thrawn’s tactical, strategic and investigative talents.
Arhinda Pryce is a different matter altogether. Yes, she is incredibly clever and able to use the blind spots of others to further her own growing ambition. But she herself is blinded by her reaction to the various betrayals that she suffers along the way. Her ambition, unlike that of Thrawn and that of Eli Vanto, is driven more and more by emotion and a need for revenge against those who have wronged her. She is able to parlay that ambition, ultimately, into an assignment as Governor of Lothal, but it is clear that her anger must eventually throw her off balance and cause a fatal error in judgment. Eventually, perhaps, but not in the pages of this book. She does, however, provide a very interesting contrast to Thrawn and Eli Vanto, and her backstory adds greatly to the character we know from SW: Rebels.
Suffice it to say, I cannot recommend the Thrawn novel highly enough, particularly to fans of the character. One must be prepared, however, for a more personal story rather than a tale that leaps from battle scene to battle scene. While there are some excellent starship combat scenes, they are there to advance Thrawn’s tale and not the other way around. While this may not be to everyone’s taste, I urge you all to give the book a chance. Tim Zahn is, after all, exceptional at writing compelling characters which firmly hook the reader’s attention from the outset. See if this doesn’t happen when you read Thrawn.
As for clues within the novel as to what we might expect in future Star Wars projects, I found precious little that was overtly apparent. It may be that we eventually look back and see the seeds of events from upcoming Star Wars films and TV programs, however at the moment I can offer only one possibility that I feel may bear watching.
I mentioned that Thrawn wishes to gauge whether or not the Empire could make a worthy ally in the struggle of the Chiss Ascendancy against heretofore unknown threats deep within Unknown Space. Now, of course we can assume that this is an oblique reference to the Yuuzhan Vong from the old “Legends” novels. However, I could also see this as providing an opening for some completely different threat to enter the known galaxy in the Sequel Trilogy, forcing an alliance between the Resistance and the First Order. I personally hope that, should this be the case, LFL doesn’t recycle the Vong as that threat. And it’s very possible that the reference in the Thrawn novel has nothing to do with anything we’ll see in Episodes 8 or 9. But I thought it was worth floating out there as a possible connection.
Regardless, I feel safe in saying that Thrawn is Timothy Zahn’s best Star Wars novel to date – a high bar to clear indeed. Pick up a copy and see what you think – I seriously doubt that you’ll be disappointed!