Book Review - Thrawn: Alliances
by Franklin Taylor
Many years ago, when I was working my first job at a pizza restaurant, one of my duties was to place door hangers door to door throughout various nearby neighborhoods to advertise our company. For the most part the experience was not memorable at all. Place coupon on door. Move to next house. Avoid animals, humans, and “no soliciting” signs. Rinse and repeat. That was until one day, I went to door hang coupons at this cul-de-sac, which included the first house my family lived in. The part that stood out was not the house I grew up in, but the realization that I had been inside almost every single one of the dozen of houses through various stages of my childhood. The knowledge of remembering the general layout of the inside of the houses, and the echoes of the past as my mind glimpsed at the people I once knew that inhabited them. I wonder if Darth Vader had any of those feelings, when he went back to the planet Batuu in the novel Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn? Below is my review:
Before Jumping into Thrawn: Alliances
When it comes to Timothy Zahn’s novels, I have had a different experience, from most. I was not into the Star Wars novels, when Heir to the Empire originally came out. I was more into books like Goosebumps. Flash forward many years, and my first Timothy Zahn novel that I remember reading was either Legends novels Outbound Flight or Scoundrels. I started reading Heir to the Empire, but other books had come out during the time, which caused me to put the book on hold (I do plan to read the Thrawn trilogy one day). I did read the canon Thrawn novel (review), which I found to be a fascinating story on how Arihnda Pryce and Eli Vanto progressed through their Imperial career, and interacted, with Thrawn. Additionally, I am very invested in both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels TV shows, so my anticipation to reading Thrawn: Alliances was definitely there.
What is the Story About
The story follows two separate events around the planet of Batuu, which center around Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Placement on the timeline in the Age of Republic storyline is set after season 5 of The Clone Wars (before The Lost Missions), and the Age of Rebellion storyline is set shortly after season 3 of Rebels (before season 4). The focus on this novel is Emperor Palpatine had sensed a disturbance in the Force, and tasked Grand Admiral Thrawn and Sith Lord Darth Vader, with uncovering this mystery around the planet Batuu. Meanwhile, we are shown the flashback story of Padmé Amidala, Anakin Skywalker, and Thrawn first teaming up together to solve a completely different mystery near Batuu.
In the first canon Thrawn book, Timothy Zahn added a new approach to how to demonstrate Thrawn’s unique approach to dissecting his situations. How Zahn did this was to give an inner monologue at each thing Thrawn picked up on to give the reader a sense of following the puzzles pieces laid out on the table, and having a chance to possibly figuring it out before Thrawn reveals his cleverness to the other characters. Though, Zahn does pull back enough to not leave out all the pieces, because then that would ruin the fun. This storytelling technique was modified in a way to Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader to demonstrate the precognition the Jedi and Sith have, when they can see a possible future action right before it happens. Zahn did this by using the term “double vision” in the story. Though, I don’t know if the double vision was more just what happened, or did Anakin/Vader internally say it in their mind each time they had their spidey sense go off? Either way, it was definitely something new Zahn applied to his storytelling technique, which had a purpose towards the end of the novel. However, the use of these storytelling techniques did give me a sort of dissonance to the characters, as I felt like I was seeing a magician reveal his illusions right before my eyes.
What struck me most about Thrawn: Alliances is Timothy Zahn did a great job at plotting out the past and present story in a cohesive way, and introduced a new character interaction combination. In the Heir to the Empire trilogy, Darth Vader had already been dead for 5 years, so this is the first major novel, where Thrawn and Darth Vader must work together (that I am aware of). On paper that sounds like a very exciting idea. In essence, both are polar opposites in their approach and purpose. How is Vader going to keep his cool, with Thrawn’s cleverness? How is Thrawn going to get his way, with Vader’s stubbornness? However, both characters can only go so far character growth wise in the story. One of the ways Timothy Zahn wrote Thrawn to act differently is to make him have no character growth at all in order to have him appear more alien than human to the audience. This works great, when we are only shown glimpses of his character, but what the bulk of the Age of Rebellion storyline consist of is the Imperial scenes from the original trilogy expanded into a whole story. It still works, but from my perspective, I did not have an emotional connection to relate to. I have seen two bosses passive aggressively argue for control, so I suppose I did have a small connection to relate to. In addition, Zahn does include scenes, with the First Legion and the crew of the Chimaera, which was used as a way to change up the scenes, and see through their eyes what they thought of Thrawn and Vader.
Looking to the future, where I think this story will be strongest is in a visual medium, when the story is adapted to comic form. Where the unspoken anxiety of what Vader will do, and the mysterious actions of Thrawn are not revealed to us through the inner dialogue. Kind of like the dark side cave of Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back. What we bring in is what is reflected back. Recently the comic adaption to the first Thrawn novel came out, and it was such a delight to read. I think it had to do with the mix of visuals and ambiguous nature of Thrawn, which I hope translates in the comic adaption of Thrawn: Alliances.
Thrawn: Alliances does a great job at taking two seemingly unrelated events from different eras in the Star Wars universe and forming a cohesive entertaining narrative. I was not emotionally invested in the characters other than Padmé Amidala. In a way, this story may best be for those that enjoy the book version of Thrawn, but have not taken the plunge in watching the Star Wars TV shows. This novel bridges the two mediums together as an entry point. The Age of Rebellion story felt like an extension of the Imperial scenes from the original trilogy and Rebels, and the Age of Republic story felt like another story arc from The Clones Wars.
However, if you have been following the stories of the TV shows, then the story might feel a bit smaller in scale. Smaller in scale stories do work, but what the story has working against it here is the lack of relating to the characters. In the back of my mind, I wanted to know what Eli Vanto was up to from the first Thrawn book (mild spoilers: he is not in this novel), what happened next with Padmé in the flashback story, or how other things were happening in the Star Wars Rebels timeline. Whereas, if one were to read this novel first, and then jump into Rebels, they will be in for a fun time. Thrawn and Vader have such great moments in the TV show, and in Thrawn: Alliances. However, the moments in the TV show are huge. I think that since I had known what happened at the end of season 2, and had seen all of season 4 of Rebels beforehand, I did not have the same mystery attachment surrounding the characters. Recalibrating my expectations let me enjoy the experimentation Zahn took in crafting this novel.
If you enjoyed this novel, and would like to read stories set before this novel as lead in stories I recommend the following:
Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp: Set five years after the fall of the Republic, this story focuses on a road trip between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine as they visit the planet of Ryloth. Their trip turns into survival as the Free Ryloth movement attempts to assassinate the Emperor and his watchdog. From Star Destroyer to backpacking through Ryloth, Vader and Palpatine must work together to get home, and put an end to those rebellious shenanigans.
Tarkin by James Luceno: Also set five years after the fall of the Republic (but after Lords of the Sith), Tarkin is paired off, with Darth Vader to uncover a group of terrorists. Throughout the novel we learn more about Tarkin’s backstory. However, their mission goes awry, when Tarkin’s ship is stolen, and Vader and Tarkin must work together to recover the ship and put an end to those rebellious shenanigans. #DudeWhereIsMyStarship?
Since this story is so tied to the TV shows (watch all of the episodes), I do have one arc in particular from Star Wars: Clone Wars I recommend you watch. It is a Padmé and Anakin story that builds upon the climax from Thrawn: Alliances: An Old Friend, The Rise of Clovis, and Crisis at the Heart (Episodes 5-7 from Season 6). Basically, the neutral banks are showing signs of allegiance to the Separatists over the Republic, and Padmé is sent to resolve the issue. However, she runs into an old former Republican Senator Rush Clovis turned traitor. Tensions rise as Anakin becomes insanely jealous, and everything goes topsy turvy. One of my favorite arcs in the show!
Have you read Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn? Let us know your thoughts over at @UnmistakablySW! Feel free to check out other great articles and blog posts on this site, as well as listening to our podcast! May the Force be with you.