How does one compete, with Darth Vader, Rae Sloane, Wilhuff Tarkin, Evari Chalis, and Emperor Palpatine? Cold calculated inhuman logic. Timothy Zahn returns to Star Wars in his eleventh novel Thrawn. Below is my review of the novel, where Zahn was able to reintroduce his Grand Admiral to a new audience and hopefully live up to expectations of long time fans.
I have a confession to make. I have not finished Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn yet. From what I read it was very interesting. However, I did read Outbound Flight and “Mist Encounter” before diving into Zahn’s new novel. On top of that I had watched all of Star Wars Rebels’ third season. The Thrawn novel is a lead in story to his introduction in Rebels. This made it interesting to read as I had the pieces of Thrawn’s Legend origins and his story from Rebels. In addition, I had in the back of my mind everything released from the Rebels timeline (including the other side of season one found here) and the Ahsoka novel (review here). If you have not watched Rebels you will not be lost in this novel. Zahn left a good amount of connective tissue that will be noticeable if you have seen the show, but distant enough that they are completely different stories taking place simultaneously of each other.
A Thrawn’s Purpose
The most curious thing about Thrawn is how much of a shock to the system he really is. He may look like a humanoid, but don't let those glowing red eyes fool you. He is nothing like a human (or Pantoran). It should be obvious, with the blue skin and red eyes; however, one would expect Thrawn to show some human emotions. Yet, he time and time again is misunderstood miscalculated. Like freezing to death in a blizzard. The intent of the blizzard was not murder or malice. It simply followed the architect of it’s design.
In addition, to Thrawn’s unhuman qualities is something Thrawn will never have: character growth. Similar to the Bendu from season 3 of Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a godlike quality in his deductions and virtue. From the very first encounter to his last, Thrawn has in his possession a set of abilities that enable him to overcome each obstacle placed in front of him, and he cannot simply be deterred by emotions. He only has his purpose. It is him fulfilling his purpose that those around him soar or suffer. This is further articulated in the two main characters of this novel (Thrawn is not the main character. He is the one in the middle surrounding Vanto and Pryce).
Arihnda Pryce was first introduced as the Governor of Lothal throughout the first two seasons of Rebels (she did not appear onscreen), and made a cameo in the Servants of the Empire series by Jason Fry. In her place on the planet Lothal were Minister Maketh Tua and later Admiral Konstantine. Pryce is an unscrupulous character. Her abilities in the political spectrum excel in manipulation, extortion, and creative negotiations. However, she had to fall, before she could rise. One can only go up, when they hit rock bottom. Throughout the novel it became clear that as she grew in political power she started to lose her morality. Like the dark side of the Force, her actions were of selfish preservation. By the end of the novel I had a clear picture of Pryce, and her actions, which reshaped my perception to her character. Watching the episode “Steps into Shadow” after reading Thrawn filled in so much context to Governor Pryce.
The boy, who had his whole life calculated. Only he never had ever intended Thrawn to be added to his equation. Since Thrawn is unable to grow, Vanto took center stage to learn from Thrawn. His knowledge of the rare language of Sy Bisti, guaranteed his fate as being translator and aide to Thrawn. Initially, he was the every man in the Empire. As time went on, and he gained military knowledge, Vanto rose above to become something more. Vanto is an underdog character. His abilities in the Imperial Navy were adapting to each encounter, learning from Thrawn’s actions, and constant patience. Like the light side of the Force, his actions were of compassion and faith. By the end of the novel I found myself enjoying his character a lot. His story did leave me, with so many questions...
Superficially, Thrawn is viewed as the Sherlock Holmes of Star Wars. On some points I can agree. In the case of this novel, it does have echoes of the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty, with the introduction of Nightswan. As a foil to Thrawn, Nightswan kept eluding Thrawn throughout the novel in a series of unrelated missions. There comes an understanding to the characters, which worked in this story.
I did enjoy the structure of the novel. Each chapter began, with a piece of Thrawn’s memoir. As the story progressed the purpose came into focus, like a spider spinning it’s web, and at the end we get to see the final webbing. In addition, shifting the focus from Thrawn to Vanto and Pryce was a little scattered at first, but worked out by the end. I was curious how the story, would handle weaving in and out of other stories during the same time. The answer is that it is mostly self contained. This ends up working nicely as a lead in story to be read just before diving into season 3 of Rebels. Though, there were a lot of Imperial characters I never heard about brought into this story in order, for Thrawn to quickly rise above the ranks.
Now, there was something that caught me off guard in this novel. Timothy Zahn created moments in the story, where we were transported to the thoughts of Thrawn. This technique was an interesting choice to understand the reasoning behind Thrawn’s actions. This opened up the chance to “see” the subtle tells characters were giving off as they tried to manipulate Thrawn. This also further distanced Thrawn emotionally as he was too busy deducing, when the conversation required tactful interaction.
How to Best Enjoy the Novel
In addition to watching the first two seasons of Star Wars Rebels before diving into this novel I do recommend reading Tarkin by James Luceno, and the Servants of the Empire series by Jason Fry. In Tarkin, we learn about how Wilhuff Tarkin becomes a Grand Moff, his military brilliance, and a deeper understanding to Imperial leadership. In Servants of the Empire series we learn about the effects of Imperial occupation, the rising rebellion, and the Imperial Academy.
One could read Timothy Zahn’s other novels before jumping in, but it is not necessary. I do still recommend them, and look forward to diving into the Thrawn trilogy. Elements of Outbound Flight were eluded to in this novel. The short story “Mist Encounter” was repurposed into the beginning of the Thrawn novel as well.
Timothy Zahn did a wonderful reintroducing Thrawn to audiences new and old. By focusing the story around Vanto and Pryce the story creates a good balance of light and dark. The story works well as a standalone, but readers will gain so much more if consumed, with Star Wars Rebels. Thrawn’s legacy still lives on in this novel. I can only hope to see how he would potentially interact, with Darth Vader and Rae Sloane.