Review by C.J. Bunce
It was only a year ago, in Timothy Zahn‘s novel Star Wars: Thrawn, that Zahn returned to provide the backstory for the enigmatic military genius Grand Admiral Thrawn, who emerged from the sidelined Expanded Universe novels of the past to be part of the rebooted Star Wars canon as a driving force in last year’s season of Star Wars Rebels. Zahn has returned with another tale of Thrawn, this time partnering the strategist with two of the most important characters of the entire Star Wars saga (or three, from a certain point of view): Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, and Darth Vader. In his latest novel, the author of the most popular Star Wars novel series (the Heir to the Empire saga), brings us Star Wars: Thrawn–Alliances, one of the best character studies (in book form or on film) of Thrawn, Vader, Anakin, and Padme.
Although you’ll find the preface timeline indicates this story fits between Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (immediately following A New Dawn), a good half of Thrawn–Alliances‘ 342 pages takes place just before the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This is important because it introduces significant events for its key characters that have never been mentioned outside this book. Most important is an early partnership between Anakin Skywalker and Thrawn at a time when Skywalker was Republic representative and Jedi and newly married to Senator Amidala, and before Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy. As with most Star Wars stories, a recurring theme is the echo or repetition of events (dialogue, scenes, etc.) among key characters in the Star Wars universe, across the movies, novels, and comics. So readers now learn that before the events of Star Wars Rebels, Emperor Palpatine once decided to partner Thrawn with Darth Vader to investigate a disturbance in the Force occurring on the very planet Anakin and Padme first met Thrawn years before, an outlying planet called Batuu. The twist is that Vader’s former existence as Anakin is a carefully guarded secret in the forward story, not even disclosed to Thrawn. The helmeted and fully armored Vader is quite knowledgeable about his past with Thrawn, and so we get to watch a sort of dance between the characters over the course of the story.
Zahn gives some powerful dialogue to Darth Vader in this story, possibly some of his best lines in the saga, and you can hear James Earl Jones’s voice in each delivery. Because the always angry and impatient Vader is shown as the only slightly progressed and naïve Jedi, neither incarnation is a match for the wits of the shrewd and dynamic Thrawn, Zahn’s original creation first introduced in the now mostly discarded novel Heir to the Empire. In many ways Zahn takes this novel as his opportunity to create a better, stronger, more manipulative villain than Darth Vader, a feat that is great for Thrawn but it also could be seen to minimize what has always been the saga’s #1 villain. Zahn also has an opportunity to finally give Padme a rich and heroic adventure–a sadly lacking component in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. Yet Zahn doesn’t take full advantage of that opportunity. She is allowed to come to the aid of some tangent factions and gets a brief survival story, but her role is secondary to the two key parallel leads and unfortunately ishe s underutilized again.
I was a fan of the early 1990s Thrawn trilogy and the Thrawn of last year’s novel (reviewed here at borg), yet this new story and its incorporation of two versions of the character flesh out much more for this Sherlock Holmes-esque, blue-skinned leader of the Chiss. He has this Navy Seal operative quality, a sense of alert and acute awareness which comes as an irritation to Vader, but is quite fun for the reader. Anakin seems loosely based on Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (he says “whoa” a lot), but you probably need to credit Lucas for drawing him that way in Attack of the Clones.
Great subordinate characters include the familiar Rukh, a member of the Noghri people who has historically served as Thrawn’s chief personal lieutenant and loyal bodyguard. Bands of Vader loyalists and Thrawn loyalists sparring for military control throughout the story also present good moments. And for good or bad, a story finding Amidala taken prisoner by a band of woodsmen feels like a cross between her future daughter Princess Leia’s capture by Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, Bilbo Baggins’ encounter with the Dwarves in The Hobbit, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There’s also good humor as she volunteers to be taken prisoner, and when Anakin attempts to speak Thrawn’s name in his original language.