Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy–Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command–excited a generation of Star Wars fans when the original trilogy was in the past and no future movies were planned. It’s greatest value was in its continuation of our favorite characters: Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and the droids. But it also introduced two key players: Mara Jade aka the Emperor’s Hand who would one day become the object of Luke Skywalker’s affection, and a blue-skinned, white-garbed officer of the Imperial Navy called Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn became part of the post-Disney canon in the animated series Star Wars Rebels, which reflected the foreboding leader of Zahn’s original books. This month Zahn brings Thrawn’s rise to power into Star Wars canon again in his new novel Star Wars: Thrawn.
Thrawn is a military overview of the Nazi Germany-inspired Imperial Navy, recounting an exiled, strategy-savvy “Chiss” (Thrawn’s alien race) who uses his unique abilities to climb the ladder and assume greater power as part of the growing Empire following the events of Revenge of the Sith. Zahn includes first person narration by Thrawn in both introductory chapter paragraphs and observations inserted into the text as he keys in on descriptive details of every encounter. Thrawn is Zahn’s attempt at a Holmesian genius, a calculating survivor who still must rely on a young cadet (his Watson) named Eli Vanto, used primarily for his ability to translate both words and culture. Unlike Zahn’s original trilogy, Thrawn feels more enmeshed in Star Wars prequel storytelling than the original trilogy movies. By showing Thrawn’s backstory as an exiled leader who finds his way out, Thrawn also reads as if Zahn was attempting to make Thrawn the Khan (a la Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) of the Star Wars universe. Unfortunately we don’t really get to see Thrawn in any confrontation with a powerful foe as Khan saw in Star Trek II, although he is potentially as intelligent and crafty as Star Trek’s Khan.
It’s Thrawn’s backstory before the events in the Thrawn novel that appear to contain the action and intrigue missing here–Thrawn both before his exile and during his exile sound like the makings of a great book. Instead here the focus on Thrawn’s own quirks, like a fascination for Clone Wars era technology, and Thrawn’s awkward attempts to navigate the lower ranks of the Imperial chain of command, make for a slow read. This is in part due to an unnecessary but lengthy sideline story of the struggles of Ahrinda Pryce, who will become a governor of Lothal in Star Wars Rebels. Pryce’s story takes over a fair chunk of this 448-page novel. The time given to Pryce and Vanto pull away some much needed action, intrigue, and suspense.
For fans of military dynamics, hierarchy, and strategy, the attempts at a Sun Tzu The Art of War lesson book as crafted by Thrawn throughout the novel may be most welcome. But the cold military machine in Thrawn is more reminiscent of discussions of not-so-exciting trade tariffs and internal politics of The Phantom Menace. This is also a fair complaint of some of last season’s episodes of Star Wars Rebels, so it could be that the makers of the Star Wars new canon are simply trying to fill in the blanks of backstory for all its characters. The issue in Thrawn the novel is that Thrawn of the original books is a Boba Fett character of sorts, lurking in the shadows with little detail revealed, contributing to our fascination with the character. But some characters are better with their secrets intact. Thrawn might be one of those characters. (Arguably Darth Vader was a more powerful figure for fans not knowing all the details of his youth provided by the prequel movies).
What readers are not yet aware of is how the events in Thrawn, particularly Pryce’s role, will contribute to later stories, and for this reason Thrawn will be considered required reading for most fans attempting to keep up with the full expanse of the Star Wars canon. But how interesting a Thrawn prequel could be, recounting a Khan-like exile, and, like the excellent James Luceno canon novel Tarkin (reviewed here previously at borg.com), reveal what made the great Chiss strategist and future leader such an enigmatic character in the Star Wars universe.