Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn is a book that long time Star Wars EU (Expanded Universe) fans have been waiting for ever since the announcement in April of 2014 that the old EU was being relegated to an “alternate timeline” entitled Legends, while a separate universe was going to be built essentially from scratch with just the movies and Clone Wars TV series as their guideposts. This move relegated many fan favorite characters to non-canonical status including one of the original EU characters, Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Thrawn’s history starts way back in 1991 when he was introduced in the first EU novel Heir to the Empire. (Note: This was the first true EU novel even though the Han Solo Trilogy and other novels came out earlier. These earlier novels were eventually fit back into the canon but the true EU started with Heir). Heir to the Empire was the first book in a trilogy that essentially rebooted the Star Wars mythos that expanded into the comics, video games, and other storytelling mediums. Within the story, Thrawn was the Empire’s new hope since the defeat of the Emperor. Taking place five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Heir to the Empire showed Star Wars fans what the Empire could have been when you had a tactical genius at the head of the system instead of a dark side user. Thrawn was so smart, that he was able to use a culture’s art pieces to predict how people from that culture would react to various stimuli, especially stimuli in battles.
Fast forward 26 years to 2017 and we have the release of the first canonical book with Thrawn in it, aptly titled Thrawn — though this isn’t the first appearance of Thrawn in the new canon; his first appearance was in the third season of the current cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels. The book Thrawn acts as a prequel to the TV series, showing us how Thrawn got to be the Thrawn we see in the series.
The plot of the story starts off a few years after the formation of the Empire when a scouting ship comes across an exiled Chiss, an alien with blue skin and glowing red eyes (kind of like a Pantoran with glowing red eyes). This alien had superb tactical skills and quickly sparks the curiosity of Palpatine himself, especially since it appears that Thrawn had a run in with Anakin during the Clone Wars. The story continues as we track Thrawn’s rising through the ranks despite being one of the few aliens within the Empire’s hierarchical system and how despite the extreme prejudice he faces, how he quickly overcomes it to eventually become Grand Admiral at the time of Rebels.
The story is broken up into the perspective of three main characters. The first one, and probably the star of the novel, is Eli. Eli is a man who has the unfortunate ability to speak a language that Thrawn is familiar with, rendering him bound to Thrawn as a translator.
The second perspective is that of Thrawn himself. Although not used overly much in the story, this point of view is really interesting because it includes Thrawn’s analysis while in “tactical mode”. This is Thrawn’s perspective of everyone he interacts with. What are their facial ticks? What’s their body language? What could this information mean in regards to the conversation? This bit of information is given as italics within the text so you know exactly when you are inside Thrawn’s head and it’s really cool. For the first time (that I am aware of) we know what Thrawn is thinking and how it may influence his decisions. This is a trick Zahn hasn’t used before and one that works perfectly for the character without changing him at all.
The third point of view, and I feel is probably the weakest part of the story, is that of Arihnda Price. Readers may remember her as Governor Price in the first couple of seasons of Rebels. Her parts just don’t flow as well as Thrawn’s and I really wished whenever we went back to her that Zahn would forget about her and get back to the meat of the story. Eventually (and I mean at least past the halfway mark in the story) her storyline intersects with Thrawn’s significantly. And it’s at that point that her story gets interesting, but it’s also at that point that I go from liking her but not liking her story, to hating her and being okay with her story. Maybe I just don’t like the character but she went from being a character I liked and could get behind to someone I wished would just step on a landmine and get out of the story.
Upon first starting to read Thrawn I was surprised how well I got into the book almost immediately. I was instantly intrigued by the setup about who this mysterious person reeking havoc on this imperial crew was. I knew it was Thrawn, obviously, but I wanted to see how far it would go. As we progressed through the story it is indeed pleasant to find that several of the trademarks about Thrawn have been carried over from the old EU. He is still a Chiss who has been exiled. His people are still at war with many mysterious alien cultures from the Unknown Regions. He has a penchant for art and using it to decipher his opponents’ moves. And he’s still Thrawn. Several of the characters from the old EU that have been brought into the new canon get warped in their transfer (see Quinlan Vos), but Thrawn is perfect. The story actually gets into a cat and mouse type game where Thrawn plays a Sherlock Holmes character and his “nemesis” is Moriarity. It’s a twist I didn’t see coming (even though I had heard about it) and I spent a good chunk of the novel guessing at who the mysterious bad guy was (I was consistently wrong throughout the whole thing).
Overall, I can say that this is by far the fastest I have read a Star Wars book in a very long time and I absolutely loved it. The story is fast paced and the characters generally are fantastic. I got into caring for almost everyone and the portrayal of characters that we already know and love (i.e. Tarkin) were spot on. The only thing that is a drawback for the story was Price’s storyline. It often felt like she was ancillary to the story, and no matter how hard Zahn tried to wedge her in there, she was a square peg in a round hole.