Timothy Zahn burst onto the scene in 1991 with Heir to the Empire, the first in a series of expanded universe novels that spanned 25 years and at least that many authors. But the beginning set a high bar, with the writer creating memorable new characters like Mara Jade or Talon Karrde as well as adding to existing characters by helping them grow further. But in this he created one new character that would really cling to his name, one that he continued to revisit in various ways throughout his connection to Star Wars. And now they’re both back together and the results are stellar.
Grand Admiral Thrawn is a character that turned Star Wars on its head. Introduced as a new species, the calculating and brilliant Chiss, Mitth’raw’nuruodo (better known as Thrawn) was a breath of fresh air after the wild Marvel comics of the 80’s and the megalomania of Emperor Palpatine. This villain, as a turn, is a more intelligent and brilliant man. His blue skin and red eyes made him an Imperial outcast, but his brilliance caught the attention of the Emperor and he rose through ranks quickly. His key feature was learning about his enemies through their cultural art, knowing who they are through what they create. This allows him many victories and, in fact, it is noted that if he had been in charge at Endor then the Rebellion would have fallen.
Zahn was brought back to revive the character he created after the Chiss was re-introduced to canon in the television series Star Wars: Rebels. This origin story, a tired concept these days in and of itself, gets by on the quality of storytelling alone. The author is on-point this time, working a new story into the character while still leaving pretty much everything about him from the old canon preserved.
Thrawn is challenged in the novel by a character called Nightswan, another newcomer to the field. The reveal of this character as a nemesis needs more gravitas in the novel and this is a glaring flaw in the narrative. I applaud Zahn for taking a shot at this, as even Sherlock had Moriarty, but it just didn’t wind up working for me. Nightswan was such a behind-the-scenes character in the novel that it was just too subtle. The reveal wound up underwhelming and while the character was interesting…there just wasn’t enough of him.
This isn’t to say that the novel is bad. Thrawn himself is fascinating enough to carry the narrative, and his sidekick is fascinating. That’s right, Palleon fans, Thrawn has a new sidekick! Eli Vanto is an ensign that is there when Thrawn is found exiled from his homeworld and is tied to him from thereon out. Vanto is an interesting new character, with low goals and low expectations, that is inexorably tied to the most brilliant commander in the Empire. Their relationship and, ultimately, odd little friendship is a driving force in the narrative.
The side plots don’t really matter much here. They exist merely to tie the novel into the television series, as do most side plots in the nuEU. I found it interesting but, ultimately, unnecessary. It doesn’t wreck the novel but including Imperial politics over governmental positions isn’t as interesting as it sounds. I know, right? I’m as surprised as you are.
In the end what we scored from all this is an excellent re-introduction to a key character, one that is almost solely responsible for the reinvigoration of Star Wars and, honestly, led to not only the prequels but the Star Wars we have today. Without Thrawn and Zahn we might not have The Force Awakens, we might not have Rogue One, and we might not be living in an era where Star Wars rules the big screen ticket sales (not to mention Star Wars is finally cool again, which makes me so very happy). If you have any interest in Star Wars outside of the films this is a must-read, an excellent novel that is, refreshingly, devoid of Jedi and lightsaber references and is wonderfully lacking in fan-service. Somehow, this manages to be one of the best of the new novels and I cannot recommend it enough.