Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
While I’ve been thrilled with the way Disney has been handling Star Wars since they bought Lucasfilm five years ago, two things happened last year to cement that faith: I got to see Donnie Yen whoop serious ass in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn made his well deserved return to official Star Wars canon with an appearance on Star Wars: Rebels and a novel from Timothy Zahn, the author who created the character and wrote the accompanying Thrawn Trilogy.
That novel, Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, finally hit the shelves last month, and is a very special thing, for a number of reasons. Thrawn is the first Star Wars novel from Timothy Zahn since Disney bought Lucasfilm and tossed out the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The novel itself explores the until now untold origins of Grand Admiral Thrawn and how he rose through Imperial ranks, and better yet, it was written to align with either the new official canon, or with the original Thrawn Trilogy.
Best of all though, Thrawn stands very well on its own as an entertaining story, while also serving as a great character study of one of the most interesting characters in the entire Star Wars mythos.
Thrawn takes place during the gap between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Rebels, and it opens as a young Chiss exile named Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn as he will come to be known, makes his first contact with the forces of the Galactic Empire in which he would eventually dedicate his life serving. The rest of the novel follows both Thrawn and a cadet named Eli Vanto, who eventually is assigned as Thrawn’s assistant, as the pair work their way up the Imperial hierarchy. While Thrawn distinguishes himself on the battlefield, even earning Emperor Palpatine’s recognition, he struggles against Imperial court politics, while Vanto proves a capable student, and comes to hang on Thrawn’s every word.
There are a lot of things that make Thrawn such an interesting read. The most obvious thing is that the novel strikes just the right mix of action and mystery, while telling a story that manages more than a few surprises along the way. That it manages to do all of this while being a villain protagonist story is no small feat, especially given that it’s one of the rare few that doesn’t make apologies for it. We the reader get to see through Thrawn’s eyes how the Galactic Empire sees itself, and for all his cunning and principles, Thrawn may be the protagonist, but he’s never a hero. Great villain protagonist are rare, and Thrawn shows the value such a perspective can offer.
The other thing is that, even as someone who has read the Thrawn Trilogy cover to cover, Thrawn offers the first real look we get from Thrawn’s own point of view and his utterly alien perspective. Zahn writes chapters from Thrawn’s perspective very differently in terms of style and tone, which in tandem for his habit of analysing people from their body language to how they word their sentences, gives us a captivating look at the psyche of the man who could surmise an enemy battle plan by looking at their planets artwork. Our main human viewpoint character, Eli Vanto, enjoys a very Watsonesque relationship with Thrawn, and the dynamic the two share is entertaining.
Which is perhaps the most important thing about Thrawn: it’s a very entertaining read. There is a reason that for all the writers who have written stories in the Star Wars universe, that Timothy Zahn enjoys the reputation he does as one of the best of them. Zahn is a storyteller first and foremost – the fact Thrawn is set in the Star Wars universe is part of the narrative, but it does not define the narrative. Yes there are references and easter eggs – as well some big hints that something may be lurking on the fringes of the Star Wars universe – but they never distract from the pace of the story.
While time will tell where Thrawn eventually measures up compared to the Thrawn Trilogy, what it has done already, be it reworking the iconic Grand Admiral Thrawn into the new Star Wars canon in a fashion that would still fit in with the old EU, or marking the return of Timothy Zahn to Star Wars. That it does this while telling an entertaining story that achieves several satisfying character arcs, and could either stand on its own, or lead on to future novels, it’s simply – to quote Grand Admiral Thrawn himself – so artistically done.
Zahn says he has a couple ideas for sequels, and I’ll be happy to read them should they be greenlit. For now though, track down a copy of Thrawn for yourself. Whether it’s your introduction to the character or his long awaited return, either way, Thrawn is a triumph.