Book Review: Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: Thrawn
Back in 2012, when it was first announced that Disney had acquired Star Wars from George Lucas, one of its first moves was to make some official distinctions on what qualified as part of the Star Wars “canon.” While there are die-hard fans who argue that the amputation of the “expanded universe” constituted a terrible loss for Star Wars, those people are largely wrong… with the possible exception of Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy represents the high point of the Star Wars expanded universe fiction. Beginning with 1991’s Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s writing introduced readers to a Star Wars villain whose threat stemmed from his strategic genius rather than his command of the Force or his control over a Death Star. The book and its sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, also firmly established Thrawn as one of the expanded universe’s most widely loved villains.
Zahn’s new book, Star Wars: Thrawn, is interesting in that it reintroduces Zahn’s fan-favourite antagonist as a protagonist, but also because it shows the extent to which Disney is willing to entertain the idea of reclaiming the highlights of the old expanded universe for its newly constructed canon. Those of you who’ve been keeping a keen eye on the revitalised Star Wars will know that Thrawn himself has already been confirmed as part of the new Star Wars by his appearance in Disney’s Star Wars: Rebels animated series, but that only opened questions for viewers about the extent to which Zahn’s previous Thrawn writing was still in the mix.
With regard to the book itself, Zahn is as he’s ever been. His style is polished and eminently readable, and the book moves along at a pleasant enough clip that things never feel bogged down in their own setting. That might sound like something you shouldn’t have to specify about a Star Wars novel, but those who have spent as long as we have reading licensed fiction will know it’s a something many books fail to avoid.
For the most part, the book plays out from the point of view of Thrawn’s well-meaning aide and translator, Eli Vanto. When he’s first attached to Thrawn, Vanto watches his dreams of a quiet posting in supply management drift out of reach, and it’s all he can do to stick with the strategist and hope for the best. His viewpoint gives us an opportunity to follow Thrawn’s rise through the imperial navy without compromising the character's ability to surprise the reader with insight and observation.
In a strange way, the relationship between Thrawn and Vanto echoes the relationship between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, which sits at the centre of Conan Doyle's stories. Over the course of the book, Vanto and Thrawn are injected into chaotic and often openly hostile situations, only for us to watch as Thrawn scythes through the chaos and plays the situation to his advantage. There are times when knowing that things will always break in Thrawn's favour takes the fun out of things, but for the most part it reads well in spite of itself.
One of the reasons that the book works as well as it does is that the text is littered with observations from Thrawn on the characters around him and their responses to action as it unfolds. It’s a little strange, and occasionally feels out of place, but for the most part this gives the reader an in on Thrawn’s observations and deductions, avoiding the risk that he’ll come across as too knowledgeable when the time comes to outmanoeuvre someone. Similarly, Thrawn leads Vanto to his own conclusions, often encouraging his aide to think on the same lines as he has. Again, the feel is very much like Sherlock Holmes.
Indeed, Vanto is one of the book’s greatest successes. Assigned as Thrawn's translator, he is largely responsible for teaching the Chiss tactician the ins-and-outs of the empire itself. As someone who grew up on the very edges of the empire, in “Wild Space,” Vanto is discriminated against by those from the planets closer to the empire’s centre. The result is a tension between those from the “core worlds” and those from the “outer rim.” This tension builds on something that has been at the heart of Star Wars since A New Hope, in which a moisture-farmer from a backwater planet brings the empire to its knees. Watching those within the imperial navy deal with that discrimination lends some much needed texture to the culture of the empire itself.
For those of you who miss the good old days of the expanded universe, Zahn's latest outing seems to relish the opportunity to flesh out its context, including some details on the xenophobic state of the empire as a whole after the events of the Clone Wars. If there’s any specific complaint to make about the book, it is that it suffers from that age-old Star Wars malaise of featuring plenty of planets that the reader will likely remember from other media.
While Star Wars: Thrawn shows the character off and gives us some insights into where the villain so many of us love came from, its placement of Thrawn as protagonist feels less satisfying than as a villain. The thrill of a character who is always one step ahead is more fun when they have a hero to work against.
The original Thrawn trilogy is often cited as the series that brought people back to Star Wars in the long years between Return of the Jedi and eventual disappointment of The Phantom Menace. Sadly, it seems unlikely that this book will enjoy such a positive reputation. Obviously, given the current atmosphere around Star Wars, this latest addition doesn’t have the same opportunity to rekindle fan passion as the original Thrawn trilogy. The simple fact is that we no longer live in the Star Wars-starved early nineties into which Heir to the Empire was first released. If Thrawn fails to wow, it’s not only because of any specific failing on the part of the book, but also because we live in a world that is so thoroughly saturated with Star Wars.
If the above sounds entirely negative, it shouldn't. Thrawn is a fine book, but for the most part one that leaves us with questions. In-universe, we have to wonder about the enormous threat he describes as jeopardising the empire. Outside the fiction, we’re left wondering how much more Thrawn we’re likely to see in the new canon. Now that he’s turned up in Rebels and with a novel of his own, is there any chance that we'll see the original Thrawn trilogy rehabilitated for the post-Disney world?
All we can hope for now is that the Star Wars canon continues to snare some of the best bits of the expanded universe… like the events leading to Luke Skywalker's being cloned, only to have the clone named Luuke Skywalker (the clone of course produced by a Jedi called Joruus C’baoth, himself a clone of a Jedi named Jorus C’baoth).
If this article has whetted your appetite for Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: Thrawn, then you can click here to buy the book.