Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 427 pages
EE Critic Score: 8/10
Of the new canon Star Wars novels to be released or announced at this point, this has definitely been my most anticipated. To explain why, though, I should probably start by explaining what I mean by “canon”.
Star Wars is more than just a film franchise; there are hundreds of other pieces of media: books, comics, games, and television shows. But, for a long while, none of these were exactly official Star Wars. Sure, the New Jedi Order novels, whose story-line had direct blessing and involvement from George Lucas, were generally accepted as a true part of the franchise more so than the old Ewoks children’s comic, but there was no real, binding standard on the matter, just fan consensus based on what seemed to fit best with whatever new media was being released at the time. Thus Boba Fett’s real name was Jaster Mereel, until that was the name of Jango Fett’s Mandalorian adoptive father, until Jango Fett was no longer actually attached to the Mandalorian culture, but was just some guy who wore an old set of Mandalorian armor.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, they inherited this confounding mass of storylines. What they desired, however, was a single, official storyline. Rather than sift through all the works of the Star Wars Expanded Universe determining what would be kept, they decided to essentially scrap the whole thing, declaring a new “Canon” comprised of the six Episodes of Star Wars as well as The Clone Wars animated television program. Any other existing media was relegated to a classification called “Legends”.
This move obviously generated a lot of backlash among EU fans whose favorite stories and characters were no longer a part of Star Wars going forward. But, while some of the EU does seem to have been erased for good, much of the new canon is being built using pieces of the old EU, as we see in this novel.
Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known (and pronounced) by his core name Thrawn, was created as a character in the early ’90s by author Timothy Zahn. He was the villain of the novels Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, a trio of novels which came to be known as the Thrawn Trilogy. These three books are classics of the old EU, and their enduring popularity is due in large part to their villain.
The novel opens with what essentially amounts to a rewrite of “Mist Encounter”, Zahn’s Legends short story about Thrawn’s recovery from exile by the Empire. An Imperial scouting group comes across a settlement on an uncharted world at the edge of the Unknown Regions. While investigating the site, members of their party start disappearing and turning up dead. They call for backup from stormtroopers, one of whom also is killed. They never find the attacker, and so they decide to leave before losing any more troops.
Upon returning to their ship, the Imperials realize that the attacker had killed a second stormtrooper, and had stowed away, disguised by the deceased soldier’s armor. He is found; Cadet Eli Vanto, a native of Lysatra, a Wild Space world not far from where the attacker was discovered, identifies him as a Chiss, a member of a species of warriors featured in Wild Space legends.
The Chiss identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, though he says he may be called Thrawn, as the Humans of the Imperial scouting party cannot easily pronounce his full name. Vanto acts as a translator, as Thrawn does not speak Basic, but does speak the Wild Space trade language Sy Bisti. Thrawn gives an account of how he came to be on the world where the Imperials found him:
He was a commander in the Chiss military, who struck out at a group of pirates who were raiding neighboring peoples. Since the Chiss firmly oppose attacking a foe before they have attacked the Chiss directly, Thrawn was exiled. He states that he stowed aboard the Imperial vessel to ask the Empire for aid protecting his people from a threat.
The Imperial commander decides to take Thrawn back to Coruscant, having been impressed by the Chiss’s story, and by the tactical ability he exhibited in single-handedly driving them off.
Once he reaches Coruscant, Thrawn is given an audience with the Emperor himself. He tells the Emperor that there are threats lurking in the Unknown Regions which could destroy both the Chiss and the Empire, and offers his service to the Emperor to aid in defeating them.
The Emperor takes Thrawn up on his offer, sending him to the Imperial Academy for a crash course in Imperial military protocol. Cadet Vanto is assigned to him as a translator, interrupting his career trajectory to becoming a supply officer.
Both Thrawn and Vanto face difficulty in the Academy, for being a non-Human and a Wild Spacer, respectively, but both graduate in the top three of their class. Vanto becomes an ensign, as is typical for new graduates, but Thrawn is made a Lieutenant. He is made a weapons officer on a small cruiser, and Vanto is assigned as his special aide.
A mission to recover a shipment of valuable tibanna gas from pirates starts Thrawn’s rivalry with Nightswan, a criminal mastermind aiding various anti-Imperial groups throughout the galaxy.
Meanwhile, the novel shifts focus to the other main character. Arihnda Pryce is the daughter of mining administrators on the Outer Rim world of Lothal. The Pryce mine is a source of doonium, a metal used in warship hulls, and when the Empire’s new projects demand more and more doonium, the mine is seized by Lothal’s governor. Arihnda takes a job as a welfare coordinator with Lothal’s Senator, Domus Renking, on Coruscant. Her determination sees her quickly promoted from working with Lothali emigrants to working with all Coruscanti people.
At a party, Renking introduces her to Thrawn, who is on Coruscant facing a court martial for prioritizing the recovery of the captured crew of the tibanna transport over that of the tibanna itself, and to Wullf Yularen, a Colonel with the Imperial Security Bureau. Renking also gives her a datacard to deliver to Moff Ghadi. The datacard turns out to be part of a plot by Renking against Ghadi, and Ghadi catches Arihnda, blackmailing her into working for him. She does so until being laid off in a downsizing.
Thrawn is acquitted in his court martial, and shortly afterwards he is promoted to Captain and given command of his own cruiser. Vanto remains both his aide and an ensign, which he grows increasingly uncomfortable with.
As it turns out, Vanto is suffering for his association with Thrawn. Certain higher-ups, including Moff Ghadi, have taken an interest in sabotaging Thrawn’s career, as they feel threatened by an alien from the Unknown Regions performing so well in service of the Empire. Ghadi’s people had offered Vanto a different position, but Vanto had refused out of loyalty to Thrawn.
Arihinda Pryce provides Eli a way forward soon, however, as part of her own plans. When she finds that certain friends she had made on Coruscant are spying on Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, she sells them out to Moff Ghadi, whom she in turn sells out to Tarkin himself. Her reward is the office of Governor of Lothal.
Thrawn faces another court martial for his un-procedural actions arbitrating a border dispute on the world of Cyphar, which resulted in the loss of farmland for the native species. As before he is acquitted, and Tarkin personally promotes him to commodore. Vanto’s work is also finally recognized, and he is made a lieutenant commander.
Thrawn is deployed to Botajef, where the Human, Imperial-appointed governor has surprisingly rallied the native Jefi population against the Empire, declaring the system independent and goading the Imperial Navy to attack the Governor’s mansion. Thrawn sees through his actions, uncovering an elaborate plot by the Governor to steal priceless Jefi artworks. His actions gain him a promotion to admiral.
Pryce and Thrawn are soon brought together by a multi-system insurgency against the Empire. Thrawn clashes with another admiral over the approach to recapturing and Imperial island installation on Batonn. Admiral Durril is ultimately given the command, with Thrawn being sent to Sammun instead. Thrawn sends his fleet to Sammun, trusting his second-in-command to carry out the mission. He himself, along with Commander Vanto, follow Durril’s fleet to Batonn aboard an impounded smuggler’s ship. He watches Durril fail to retake the island, his fleet picked apart by ion cannon emplacements without landing a strike past the insurgents’ shield.
Meanwhile, Pryce lands in Batonn’s capital city, travelling in disguise to find her parents, who had been displaced to Batonn in the Empire’s takeover of Pryce Mining. She is accompanied by an ISB agent sent by Colonel Yularen, who is tasked with destroying the Batonn shield generator. Pryce’s personal mission to rescue her parents winds up conflicting with the ISB sabotage, and she kills the agent, along with several stormtroopers who arrive later and might find the agent’s body.
Thrawn’s fleet succeeds at Sammun. Thrawn and Vanto, meanwhile, make contact with the insurgent leader, who is, as Thrawn suspected, Nightswan. Thrawn and Nightswan discuss their plans and motivations. Nightswan tries to persuade Thrawn to join the fight against the Empire. Thrawn tells Nightswan that he was sent by the Chiss Ascendancy, under the pretense of having been banished, to scope out the Empire and determine whether the Ascendancy should ally with the Empire against the unnamed threats facing them, or hobble it, leaving it to be attacked first and buying the Ascendancy time to mount their own defense. He offers Nightswan a chance to travel to the Ascendancy to serve a similar function, but Nightswan refuses to leave.
With Durril having failed his mission, Thrawn is given a chance to take the island installation. He succeeds, based on the observations he made of Durril’s attack.
Nightswan dies in the battle, as do many of the Imperial forces sent to rescue Governor Pryce. When she does make it back to the fleet, Pryce offers Thrawn her political expertise in exchange for his help in containing the growing rebellion in the Lothal sector. He accepts, taking command of the 7th Fleet.
Emperor Palpatine personally promotes Thrawn to the rank of Grand Admiral. During the meeting, Thrawn questions the Emperor about the Death Star, which he has determined is the true use of the doonium the Empire has been snapping up. The Emperor assures him that he is not developing the weapon to use against the Chiss. Thrawn says that it is unwise to sink so many resources into a single battlestation, instead recommending a larger fleet, but he is unheeded.
In the epilogue, Eli Vanto arrives in Chiss Space, apparently having taken the emissary mission Thrawn had offered Nightswan on Batonn.
This book was everything I hoped it would be. When I read the first scenes, and recognized the plot of “Mist Encounter”, I did worry that Zahn had just recycled old work with some names and details changed to better fit with the new canon. But the rest of the book, I’m happy to say, was very new, and fully up to par with Zahn’s earlier works with the character. We actually hadn’t seen Thrawn’s rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy in Legends, which gave Zahn a good opportunity to reintroduce the character.
Elements of detective story woven into the plot set off Thrawn’s intelligence nicely. His piecing together that the Emperor was dedicating massive amounts of resources to a single project (the Death Star, of course) and especially his conviction that such a project is a foolish waste, showed his uniqueness among Imperials.
In the character of Nightswan, Zahn delivers something that’s been a bit lacking in his earlier Star Wars works: a worthy adversary for Thrawn. Before this, there’s only really been one work focusing on Thrawn as a protagonist, Outbound Flight, and in that work Thrawn’s major foes were political, not military, in nature. Thrawn having an enemy to study and defeat over the course of the book gives his character a goal beyond simply rising through the ranks, tying an otherwise episodic plot together. My one complaint is that Nightswan’s real name is Cygni, obviously derived from the Latin word for “swan”. This is too direct a clue to Nightswan’s identity, as Cygni is shown early in the story, before Thrawn has heard of Nightswan, therefore when Nightswan is brought up, the reader’s mind goes back to that one guy last chapter whose name was also something like swan. It was such an obvious thing that I thought Zahn had included Cygni as a red herring, but, no, Cygni is Nightswan, and that reveal didn’t work because I had already guessed it.
On the topic of obstacles Thrawn faces, I am left with some questions about discrimination under the Empire. In the Legends stories, the Emperor instituted a system predjudiced against anyone who was not a Human male, like himself. Imperial characters who were not Human males, like Thrawn or Natasi Daala, were characterized by their overcoming this system by sheer competence. Now, in the new Canon, there doesn’t seem to be the same anti-woman sentiment, but anti-non-Humanism is still a major part of Thrawn’s story here. And yet, I’m not sure how well that squares with other works of the new Canon.
In Catalyst (my review here) for instance, we see the second-most-powerful being in the Empire is Grand Vizier Mas Amedda, a Chagrian. Now, I realize that Amedda was a holdover from the old Republic days, and that one powerful non-Human isn’t disproof of broader anti-non-Human sentiment, but then there are the Inquisitors shown in the Rebels television series. Some half-dozen of these personal agents of Palpatine’s will have been shown either on screen or in comics, and none of them are Humans. My best guess is that in the new continuity, Imperial anti-non-Humanism is permitted but not directed by Palpatine, who is personally fine with non-Humans in positions of power.
As for Arhinda Pryce: I didn’t know that she would be given equal time in the book, she wasn’t what I picked up the book for, but I’m glad she was there. I enjoyed her chapters; she showed the evil of the Empire beautifully, which was needed in a Thrawn book, certainly, given how charismatic and almost forgivable Thrawn can be in the eyes of the reader. Pryce’s rise to power, which we see in parallel to Thrawn’s, shows how the corruption and atrocity of Imperial society rewards the cruel and selfish. Her inclusion does a fine job of tying this book to Rebels, where Thrawn made his first canonical appearance, without breaking the internal flow of the novel.
Speaking of tie-ins to Dave Filoni’s animated projects, it was nice to see Wullf Yularen featured here.
Thrawn being revealed as an agent of the Chiss Ascendency, infiltrating the Empire to deternmine whether the Chiss should ally with or attack them is an interesting turn not hinted at in any of Thrawn’s appearances in the Legends continuity. This also raises the possibility that we’ll be seeing the Yuuzhan Vong being brought into canon eventually, although they will obviously have to arrive much later than they did in Legends. I think the Vong were a good, original thing in Star Wars, but they could have been done better, certainly, so here’s hoping that they will be given a second chance.
Recommendation and Rating
Thrawn fans like myself have undoubtedly already read this, so I’ll speak to others here. If you are a regular Rebels viewer and you’re interested in new villains, then this book will probably be a good read for you. If you’re a fan of the old EU who’s felt like the Canon books aren’t doing the same thing and want a book that feels like a Legends book, this scratches that itch. It really does strike a great balance, expanding on the universe on the whole while still telling its own story.
Two sequels are planned, which I await with much anticipation. Thrawn is a return to form for the Star Wars novel, and I recommend it highly.
8/10 — Without significant negative worth. Able to be recommended, at full price, without reservation.