Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn, by Timothy Zahn

Those who follow me here and elsewhere will know that I haven’t pulled my punches when it comes to criticizing modern Star Wars. Problems range from a lack of creativity to Mary Sue characters, to diversity being the focus, to the apparent need to give literally EVERYTHING its own spin-off or backstory, even when totally unnecessary.

To begin to address Thrawn, I have to say that this book falls into that last category. For those unaware, the character of Thrawn, a unique alien officer in the human-centric Empire, was first created by Timothy Zahn decades ago, in the early days of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now known as Legends.) The Thrawn trilogy was essentially the original sequel trilogy to the original Star Wars films, and holds up to this day (continuity issues created by the prequel films, etc, excepted). In fact, many, many fans, myself included, wish that this trilogy could have been adapted for the sequel trilogy. With the restructuring of Star Wars canon, Thrawn was no longer a part of it.

At least, until the decision was made to bring Thrawn into the new canon. He was introduced into season 3 of Star Wars: Rebels, and, in my view, the character was portrayed faithfully when compared to his original appearances–and I truly hope that he not only lives on through Rebels, and appears in future films–because based on this book, there is a lot more to come in his future.

But to return to the initial point, Star Wars: Thrawn is an origin story for the character, starting from when he first encounters the Empire, and neatly ending just before the events he is involved in during Rebels. This is, to be honest, an unnecessary story. As the original Thrawn Trilogy showed, he could be introduced as a fascinating, layered character without us knowing his entire backstory. However, Zahn is such a great writer, Thrawn such an interesting character, and the book arranged in such an ideal way, that I am overjoyed that it exists. In my opinion, it is easily the best piece of Star Wars fiction in the new, post-Disney purchase canon.

As I said above, this book tells the story of Thrawn’s rise through the imperial ranks. There are three viewpoints in this book; that of Thrawn himself (which itself is new, as in the older trilogy, we do not get a Thrawn PoV: all scenes from the Imperial side are from the point of view of Captain Gilad Pallaeon, who in current canon has essentially been replaced by Eli Vanto, who is Thrawn’s deputy throughout his career here. Before we get to the book’s third viewpoint, I’ll say a bit about these first two, as they are nearly always together in their scenes, and play off of each other.

Thrawn is an excellent example of a non-human character done well. In his PoV sections, he is an interesting an relateable character, but at the same time clearly alien in the way in which he sees things going on around him. Zahn made an excellent, interesting choice to have Thrawn describe the movements, actions of people around him in present tense, with a tight focus on body motions. It doesn’t take me out of the story, and it really does make him feel different–it’s a cool trick that I will certainly bear in mind when writing non-human characters in the future. Also, getting to see things from Thrawn’s point of view truly humanizes him in a way, and, to me personally, I don’t see him as a villain. He is working toward a noble goal within a corrupt system as best he can, and isn’t a purely ends-justify-the-means character either, as we see in his attempts to minimize even enemy life loss. He kind of feels like a parallel to some of the generals of Nazi Germany, like Erwin Rommel, who were honorable men working in service to an evil regime. Also, there is some genuine wisdom in the Thrawn journal entries that start each chapter.

By contrast, Vanto is more of a sort-of everyman character, whose career trajectory is completely thrown off the rails by Thrawn coming into his life. But despite his irritation at this, they are kindred spirits in a way, with Vanto also being a lower-class person in the Empire, despite being human. Seeing their relationship grow into a true friendship by the end of the story is a lot of fun.

Our third viewpoint character is that of Arihnda Pryce, who was first introduced as a villain in Star Wars: Rebels as the governor of Lothal. This book essentially serves as her origin story as well, as we see her rise through the Empire in a different area when compared to Thrawn, up until her becoming governor and asking for Thrawn to help solve her local rebel problem. She isn’t as interesting a character as Thrawn, and by the middle of the book is far less sympathetic, but her journey allows us to see the inner workings of the Empire from a brand new angle. It was neat getting an inside look at the Imperial political machinations that are normally very much behind the scenes. I started off thinking I wouldn’t care much for the Arihnda chapters, but I genuinely did end up enjoying them, even if she is not a good person, when push comes to shove.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m not going to get into any plot details here. I do have a couple of minor criticisms, however–though none of these came anywhere close to ruining the story or pulling me out of it. First, it’s plainly obvious that this was made to very precisely fit into the new canon, as touched on above, and that is most likely Arihnda Pryce ended up a major character, and one whose story interconnected with Thrawn. Having everyone having known each other, everything intermixed, makes the universe seem smaller. This is far from the worst example of it, but it’s still present. The second nitpick is that the fact that Thrawn isn’t politically savvy is hammered into us far too often. I think every significant character who interacts with him in the book says as much to him, and it got annoying eventually–and in the audiobook (more on that in a bit) it was even more noticeable. We get that it’s Thrawn’s only real “weakness.” We didn’t need to be constantly reminded. But really, those are my only two issues with this book, apart from the fact that it is technically an unnecessary origin story–but we will be getting a sequel, so I am quite happy that this book did well. Mr. Zahn has in no way lost his touch, and Thrawn is just as awesome character here as he was in the original Thrawn trilogy.

As a side-note, since I had an Audible credit around when I read this, I got the ebook version as well, and have listened to it in full. It was an incredibly well done production, if I do say so myself (though I must admit, it was the first audiobook I’ve listened to in full.) Narrator Marc Thompson does unique voices for every character’s dialogue, and they are all distinct. Some are a little over-exaggerated and funny, but it’s with appropriate characters. Thompson even voices the female characters well. But most important, Thrawn’s voice is spot-on, and he does an amazing job channeling the voice of Thrawn from the Rebels show, where he is voiced by Lars Mikkelsen. It gives so much more gravitas to this iconic and awesome character, and I would willingly listen to the Thrawn journal entries (read in Thrawn’s voice, of course) as a completely separate thing from the overall book itself. There is also Star Wars music and sound effects, used at appropriate times.

So yeah, if it wasn’t quite clear from everything I’ve written already, Star Wars: Thrawn is an excellent book, and it gives me hope that despite its current creative malaise, that good, creative Star Wars stories can still be told. Definitely worth picking up, and if you enjoy audiobooks (or if you’d like to try one out) I recommend it as well. Star Wars is still alive.

(And, you know, if you’re craving more creative, fun space opera, I can help you out–and there will be more coming later this month. 😀 )

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