Thrawn: The Chiss Student Exchange Program

When it was first announced at last year’s Star Wars Celebration, I thought Timothy Zahn’s novel Thrawn would be fascinating because it’s the first piece of new Star Wars canon material to be centered around a character based in Legends. After reading Thrawn, I can say that applies, but there is an additional, bigger reason for its appeal: just as New Dawn serves as an origin story for the leaders of the Rebels of the show of the same name, Thrawn serves as an origin for some of the key players on the Empire side featured on Rebels.

Overall, Zahn does a good job of letting go of the baggage in bringing Thrawn into the new Star Wars canon. Thrawn is a solid, entertaining novel. But it does have some drawbacks.

The not-so-good

Timelines: This book takes place over a number of years. How many, I couldn’t tell you. It opens sometime after the end of the Clone Wars. Different amounts of time pass between chapters. But we’re never told how much. The novel ends as Thrawn is asked to help out with the Rebellion on Lothal, but it isn’t clear if this refers to his being summoned in Rebels Season 3, or sometime before. Thrawn makes a rapid climb up the Empire’s ranks, but I kept thinking in the back of my head while reading this “how much time has passed here?”

Thrawn the unreliable narrator: During the novel, Thrawn tells two conflicting versions of what happened with his people and why he wants to work for the Empire, one to Emperor Palpatine, the other to a Nightswan, a rival who has beleaguered him throughout the course of the book. More detail is given in the story told to Nightswan. But it’s never said which version of the story is true. The first paragraphs of the novel lend credence to the Thrawn-as-exile narrative, as does that fact that Palpatine could use his powers to divine the truth. However, Thrawn gives Nightswan a compelling story (told as a dialogue) that casts doubt on the first version.

Strategy: Thrawn has always been presented as a great strategist, and this new incarnation is no different. But when a novel spends a lot of time on character motivation and Thrawn’s observing of other character’s actions, the pacing suffers. Portions delving into his thought process as things unfold require an extra reading, making some parts of the story flow more slowly than the rest of the book. What’s more, while he’s an underdog in the Imperial Navy hierarchy, Thrawn is rarely taken advantage of or unable to turn a situation his way. He never fails and seldom stumbles.

Been here, done that: Certain plot elements seem familiar. Near the end of the book, Thrawn is leading a siege on a planet, which for some reason seems like something I’ve already read in a Star Wars novel. Also, Thrawn collects (and later uses) Clone War-era Separatist droids (and I’m not sure we ever find out definitively why), which was a plot element in Lords of the Sith.

Mysteries: The book presents a few mysteries that it never solves. There’s a compelling epilogue. Yet the status of a major character is in doubt and we don’t know the time period of this epilogue. Additionally, and more importantly, one of Thrawn’s stated motivations for working for the Empire is the desire to size them up, to help defeat threats from elsewhere (please do NOT be the Yuuzhan Vong!). But there’s no hint of what these threats are. Unless this book is the first in a series (which we don’t know yet), it has no business dropping a mystery like that without paying it off.

Having said all that, there are some very strong things about this novel. What worked:

Letting go of the past: This novel does a great job of presenting a new Thrawn. The basics are the same. But there are changes. Notably, he’s not as big an art fan as he is in his Legends appearances. Also, while Mitth’raw’nuruodo is still a thing (sigh), several other things associated with Thrawn/Zahn/Legends, namely ysalamiri, clones with two U’s in their names, the Outbound Flight Project have been left behind.

The Empire: The Empire in Thrawn is not presented as the evil empire of legend. There is evidence of corruption, menace and some racism against non-humans. Yet it is a functioning government working to keep the galaxy stable. For the first two-thirds of the book, the Empire does not do anything one would consider evil. It just is. And when a certain mobile battlestation is brought up, you get a concise, simple reason straight from The Emperor as why he thinks it will keep the local systems in line.

The rivalry: Throughout the book, Thrawn is trying to stop a smuggler/thief/rebel called Nightswan. Thrawn is intrigued by Nightswan, who is his intellectual and strategic match. Thrawn doesn’t want to beat Nightswan, he wants to use him, both for information, and as mentioned earlier, to send to his people. During their face-to-face meeting, it’s revealed that Nightswan sees himself as a leader of a band of Rebels, but unable to form a larger rebellion.

The characters: Zahn writes good characters here, with many of them showing growth during the undeclared amount of time that passes in the novel. Despite Thrawn’s perfect qualities, and unclear origin, he is compelling. His exchange with the rebel leader makes you believe he wants the Empire and Chiss to exchange knowledge and personnel. His translator, Eli Vanto, is sympathetic  and learns how to strategize like Thrawn. As far as characters we know, Tarkin is Tarkin, which is a good thing. The Grand Moff is not a main character, but he is in his element and in the new canon, he has proven to be a character that works. One of the supporting characters in Rebels, Governor Ryder Azadi isn’t directly featured, but his presence is felt. Rather than the Azadi we know, a guy opposing the Empire while wearing a big hat, he comes off as a corrupt and conniving leader.

But the biggest character surprise here is Governor Pryce. She’s a main character who transforms from social climbing party girl to ambitious careerist to mass murderer. She’s much more interesting than she has a chance to be on Rebels.

I know it seems like I have more negatives here than positives. But Thrawn is a good read that puts a new spin on a popular (if not featured in the films) character. I’m happy with the job that Zahn did here, even if that means I still have to see the word Mitth’raw’nuruodo.