Review: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising + SWNN Book Discussions
Where to begin? Timothy Zahn has been writing the character Thrawn for nearly thirty-years. Thrawn has the distinction of not only being one of the few characters to cross over from the Expanded Universe (Legends) to the recent canon but he’s also jumped from the pages of Star Wars novels onto the screen. This character is beloved by many Star Wars fans. Thrawn is one of the first characters people clamored for when the promise of new Star Wars stories arrived in 2012. The first Thrawn trilogy concluded last year with Thrawn: Treason but the cliffhanger fate of the Grand Admiral at the conclusion of Rebels left fans to speculate where his story goes now. While many of us ponder what’s become of Thrawn and Ezra Bridger, Timothy Zahn quietly wrote one of the best Star Wars novels I’ve had the privilege of reading and has taken us back to the early days of Mitth’ra’nuruodo in Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, kicking off a whole new trilogy dedicated to not only exploring the character but the turbulent part of the galaxy he comes from.
Chaos Rising is a triumph in Star Wars storytelling. First and foremost, it’s a great novel. There’s mystery, drama, action, and plenty of world-building to satisfy the most detail oriented fans. You like palace intrigue? Well, meet the Chiss Ascendancy. An quasi-isolationist civilization striving for order in an area of the galaxy they call the Chaos. Nine families rule the Ascendancy, which focuses on taking care of its own. There is no equivalency in Star Wars to the Chiss Ascendancy. There are no tyrannical emperors or squabbling bureaucrats. The Chiss don’t have time for that. Absent those problematic elements we’ve witness consume other governments, the Chiss are not without their conflicts. Those don’t come in the form of space battles but whispers at the highest echelons of the Chiss ruling class.
I’ll try to keep this review free of major spoilers. If you want those, make sure to check out what James Baney and I had to say in our “What Happened In…” video below. Beware MAJOR SPOILERS!! Though I should point out, all the major spoilers in this book would be very hard to blurt out. Chaos Rising is probably one of the most dense Star Wars stories you’ll read. Where most authors playing in the Star Wars sandbox assume you know what a Jedi or the Galactic Senate are, Timothy Zahn doesn’t have that luxury. He’s taking us into a whole new realm where less than a handful of terms and personalities known to readers. While a great deal of Chaos Rising devotes itself to building a world for this story it doesn’t feel bogged down. In fact, the world building feels refreshing and serves the story. The plot points themselves feel like the most complicated elements in Chaos Rising.
Zahn’s very clever in allowing Thrawn to hold your hand through each pivotal moment, calmly explaining why they’re so important – and sometimes surprising. I don’t doubt Zahn enjoys writing each Thrawn story but Chaos Rising reads so well you can picture him giddily pouring this story onto the page like it’s been in his head for decades. And I believe it has. At a panel I attended a few years ago, Zahn spoke about his desire to honor the Thrawn of Heir to the Empire while introducing the same character to new fans in Rebels and the new novels. For Zahn, there is no distinction and much of Chaos Rising feels as though its been refined from the stories he might tell himself about Thrawn and the Chiss.
We meet Mitth’raw’nuruodo at a very interesting time in his life, before he’s part of the powerful Mitth family. And his place in the Chiss Ascendancy is not at all what I expected. Thrawn is something of an outlier in the Expansionary Defense Fleet (Chiss military). His genius is universally acknowledged but the uncertainty of how he’ll wield it causes unease for many. Some of the people closest to him are the most nervous, as Thrawn displays his remarkable skill, precisely anticipating an enemy’s move, several times. While many discount his desire to interpret art in hopes of understand an enemy (or ally), Thrawn demonstrates he’s nearly flawless in his readings of various artistic expressions.
Zahn structures Chaos Rising in a series of present day chapters intercut with interludes called “Memories”. Essentially, you are reading two books in one. Sound confusing? Don’t worry, the architecture in Zahn’s writing gives more clarity than anything. Sure, there’s a lot of winding halls in the story he builds but he makes sure there are plenty of signs, helping you find your way. The “Memories” interludes provide so much context, specifically relative to inter-character dynamics. Finding out more about Thrawn isn’t the only story Zahn treats the reader to. The “Memories” section also serves an equally important character – Ar’alani.
Admiral Ar’alani isn’t yet an admiral but she’s still a well-respected officer of the Expansionary Defense Fleet. Ar’alani didn’t always have that name. Like Thrawn, we come to learn the name of a Chiss is dependent on many things and your blood doesn’t always define your family. Promising cadets or military officers can be given a place in one of the Nine Ruling Families. Ar’alani and her own maneuvering through those aristocratic channels are as much a part of the story as Thrawn’s. There are points in the story where Thrawn serves as her sidekick and she as his. That’s the beauty of their relationship. The two of them are always working together, even if they don’t know it. Their intuitions lead them both to the same place, and they’re as much kindred spirits as they are respective intellectuals. She’s plays a huge role in Chaos Rising and I anticipate it will only grow in the next two books of this trilogy.
The Chaos, what the Chiss call the Unknown Regions, is a fascinating backdrop for this story. Where Han Solo only has to worry about his hyperdrive working when the navicomputer spits out coordinates, those residing in the Chaos don’t have the luxury of long hyperspace jumps. That’s because the Chaos has a history of natural cataclysms, with supernovae creating dense asteroid fields and distortions, keeping any space faring species restrained to short jumps. Not only is it perilous to travel, most species rely on a guide. While the Chiss have Force-sensitive “sky-walkers” (more on them later), many of the other species rely on Navigators, who also have heightened senses guiding them. Zahn gives the sense there are a lot of civilizations out in the Chaos but most of them have never made contact because it’s so difficult to travel. Many are isolationists but almost all of them know who the Chiss are. In fact, the story begins with an unknown civilization making their first contact with the Chiss…by attacking their home world called Csilla.
The brazen attack jars the Chiss, though they aren’t retaliatory by nature. The Chiss Ascendancy have a strict code of no preemptive strike, underscoring the fact they are not conquerors and view their military as a last resort. They prefer alliances rather than lugging their fleet through an already treacherous part of the galaxy. The Chiss realize they face a threat with this attack on their home world. While they may not be conquerors, the Chiss come across as extremely paranoid about the dangers potentially facing them in the Chaos. In this case, the paranoia manifests as caution and rather than go shooting their turbo-lasers into the darkness, they send Thrawn to investigate.
We know Thrawn never does things halfway and his investigation is no different. It takes him across the Chaos, into unknown areas of space and into realms known for past hostilities. It also forces Thrawn to confront a major misstep in his past, the ramifications of which still plague him.
More time aboard a Chiss ship gives us more time with the sky-walker who guides it. Zahn introduces two of them: Thalia, who’s actually a former sky-walker serving as a caretaker; and Che’ri, a younger sky-walker in her prime. Their relationship is a huge strength of Chaos Rising. Thalia is a member of the Mitth family, giving her a connection to Thrawn and the political game he’s trying to avoid while carrying out his investigation. She’s aged out of the sky-walker program. Sky-walkers lose their “Third Sight”, which a Force-ability helping them navigate a ship. While Che’ri serves as the ships sky-walker, we also watch her grow as Thrawn, Ar’alani, and Thalia show her compassion for the first time in her life. Zahn suggests there’s a dark history with sky-walker treatment but the officers Che’ri deal with care for her well-being and this surprises her. She even gets to go on a little mission of her own but that would be a pretty major spoiler. James and I do discuss it in both the discussion below if you really want to know.
I have a feeling the sky-walkers are going to play a large roll in this trilogy. Che’ri makes quite an impression. And Thrawn trusts her. We know Thrawn holds those around him to the highest standard. More importantly, Che’ri trusts Thrawn, as he shows her kindness most Expansionary Defense Fleet commanders have not. This dynamic and whatever else we learn about sky-walkers will likely have great implications for the lore of the Chaos.
Speaking of Chaos lore, pay very close attention. Sounds like something happened here long ago relating to the known galaxy and we’re likely to learn more about it in other stories beyond this trilogy.
The theme of transformation presents itself often in Chaos Rising. Zahn cleverly weaves it as we explore each of the main characters in the book. A Chiss can have several names in their lifetime. Whether it’s due to the Ruling Family who adopts them (and adoption has its own tiers in the family) or the path they choose beyond the one presented to them, the reader experiences variations of the characters. Again, I know a lot of this sounds confusing but the journey is worth it. You’ll greatly appreciate these characters, seeing all their layers. This is some of Zahn’s best character writing.
A strong villain is the only thing Chaos Rising lacks but in all honesty the story doesn’t need it. While the book’s namesake is the star of the show, this is filled with rich characters who are compelling without an antagonist, though we do get one. Yiv the Benevolent, leader of the Nikardun Destiny, is the villain. Like Thrawn, Yiv counts himself as the smartest one in the room. He very much regards himself as a puppet master of his allies, getting them to do his dirty work. Though by the end of the story, we become unsure about what exactly motivates him. His presence in the book is limited to serving his purpose. We don’t learn enough about Yiv in this story and maybe that’s why he never translates to a strong villain.
Chaos Rising will make you look at Thrawn in a completely new light. After finishing, I turned to Rebels for more Thrawn. The character on-screen is so different than the one you’ll meet in Chaos Rising. In Rebels, the Empire’s rubbed off on Thrawn and he seems more sinister, almost mean. The Thrawn of Chaos Rising has an intellectual curiosity about the Chaos as much as he does understanding his enemy through their art. There’s no shortage of art exploration in the book but it’s fascinating. Zahn cleverly uses the art history, piling on to the heaps of world building Chaos Rising accomplishes. This youthful, confident, and calm Thrawn is my favorite. There’s almost a hopefulness to the character.
My faith in Star Wars feels very strong after finishing Chaos Rising. If this is a taste of original stories beyond the Skywalker saga, we have so much to look forward to. Chaos Rising and this Thrawn Ascendacy trilogy will also serve in exploring the Unknown Regions. There’s no doubt we are going to learn what happened to Thrawn and Ezra Bridger in this part of space and these books can help acquaint fans. Not saying creating a backdrop for future stories is the sole purpose, just an added benefit. Timothy Zahn lays the groundwork for some exciting storytelling of his own in the Chaos. I’m looking forward to heading back into the darkness with Thrawn, Ar’alani, Thalia, and Che’ri.
James Baney and I spent some time discussing this in our SWNN Book Discussions. Check out the video below and make sure to check out the Star Wars News Net YouTube channel for more of those and episodes of The Resistance Broadcast!
Special thanks to Del Rey and Random House Audio for the advance copies used for this review!