Picture this, if you will: it’s about 8 years ago, I’ve just found out that 80s RPGs were cool as hell, and I’m sifting through a metric ton of both pdf as well as printed West End Games material. I come across a supplement called The Darkstryder Campaign, and one of the names attached to it, Timothy Zahn. I read on, I like it, and it becomes one of my first runs in a long line of WEG GMing.
Zoom through the subsequent years, and I’m reading many of Zahn’s Star Wars short stories, as well as delving into anything Thrawn-related I could find (be it novel, comic, or RPG material). He ended up being one of my favourite Star Wars characters ever, and I’d always regretted him not making it to the screen during the old canon… So you’ll understand my excitement when it was announced that not only would Thrawn be making an appearance in the Rebels series, but Zahn himself would be tackling a Thrawn novel within the Disney canon!
Fast forward to way after the book was published and I managed to finally get my hands on it… Then utterly inhale it, managing that old “reading through the wee hours of the morning” experience that I hadn’t done in years. Was it really that good?
Well, I guess you’re going to have to read on and find out… Spoilers will abound.
Mitth’raw’nuruodo, aka Tongue Twister 3000, aka Thrawn, is a variant of the “only one of his kind” trope we’ve dealt with in Star Wars before, with Yoda (partly) or, more recently, Zeb Orrelios.
I say he’s a variant since his race, the Chiss, are not extinct or simply glossed over without explanation, but they reside in the Unknown Regions, and few people believe in their existence, as we are made aware during the inception of the novel.
Told alongside walking plot-descriptor Eli Vanto and jumping through time until 2 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin), the story is an origin covering Thrawn’s first contact with the Empire, as well as his dizzying climb to the heights of Grand Admiral, the level at which we meet him in the Rebels series.
Although well-versed in the art of war (and borderline religious in studying a people’s art in order to know more about them), Thrawn suffers from tunnel-vision when it comes to the political machinations that go on everywhere around him from the very moment he is made a member of the Royal Imperial Academy. His keen eye for others’ behaviour extends as far as the skin and the temperature underneath it, somewhat failing to grasp the hidden meaning behind the gestures, actions, and peculiarities he so easily picks up on.
Thrawn is a no-nonsense individual that sees little benefit in chatter and backstabbery and would rather see things done proper, for the benefit of all involved. He sees beyond personal squabbles and preconceived notions, which makes him stand out among the Empire even more so than his striking blue skin, something the Emperor himself quickly picks up on, and keeps an eye on for the entire duration of the book.
The fact that the story has Eli to probe Thrawn with questions or relay information on the Empire to him helps outline the issues that completely escape the Chiss paragon: either Imperial cadets being prejudiced against him for various reasons, Imperial officials sending him on supposedly no-return missions hoping he will fail, or even meanings “hidden” in plain sight.
I’d say Eli is the lighter side to Thrawn’s dark, if you’ll permit me the analogy, in that he sheds increasingly more light on the darkness surrounding Thrawn’s persona.
He’s the blue Kyber crystal to Thrawn’s red.
The Ewok to his Mynock.
Tauntaun to his Wampa.
You get the point without me going further into these dumb jokes, right?
The two character’s ascent through the ranks is mostly lopsided, with Thrawn jumping to higher and higher steps in the hierarchy and Eli remaining a lowly Ensign and aide to the Chiss mastermind for a large part of the novel. He ends up getting frustrated about this, more so on the coat-tail of him having a totally different idea on where his career path would/should lead. Spoiler alert: it had nothing to do with running around all but tethered to a blue stuff-of-legends alien, performing translation and social interaction services for him.
The two main characters have an arc that sees them learn from each other as time goes by, even if Eli needs plenty of time to end up trusting Thrawn’s decision making, as they are sometimes beyond the realm of what a normal individual can grasp. It becomes readily apparent that this is the case in the latter stages of the novel when Eli is under the impression that Thrawn is sacrificing part of his troops to the enemy in a clever pincer manoeuvre ploy that ends up giving the Imperials the edge.
This is one of Thrawn’s (and indeed Zahn’s whenever it comes to writing him) traits: the Chiss’ mind comes off as firing on a much higher rev than what most of those around him can wrap their heads around. And, most of the times, the reader is put in the same position. The plot device of Eli slowly learning more about Thrawn just as the reader is, and having revelatory moments on the tactics he is mostly a simple witness to is not only organic and understandable in the circumstances, but also works towards not making you feel like you’re being dumb for not getting things. Thrawn’s been compared to a bit of a Star Wars Sherlock after all, and the comparison has merit, I’d say, although his actions and “cases” are decidedly less obscure in overall meaning and possible courses of action.
Zahn opts to jump through time, to various important bits of history along Thrawn’s rise to power, presenting us with the most outstanding and important aspects of his development.
Starting off with the Empire “rescuing” him, which is also how the Thrawn comic starts out, through his formative Academy days, on to his first command, and then flipping through Star Destroyers like old pairs of space shoes, every interaction, discussion, combat, and set piece has a reason for being there, however small. Off-comments by Eli, something Thrawn states in (I imagine) a rather dry monotone, or the quote paragraphs at the beginning of the chapters themselves form a cohesive unit and you’re seldom (if at all) left wondering why a certain bit of information made it to print.
The narration flows, as is customary for Zahn, and pulls you straight into the action, opting to sacrifice a lot of descriptive nuance in favour of letting the character’s actions paint the picture for the reader. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it lets you dive straight into the thick of it all, but it also had me flipping through various info on the locations and items presented therein just to make sure I was getting the right idea about it all.
I’d be remiss not to mention the recurring, overarching villain that Thrawn has to deal with, but I won’t go into much detail about that aspect as it is presented as a great mystery that Thrawn uncovers late in the novel. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about Nightswan, the codename the villain goes by, but he is elevated by his unique confrontation with the Grand Admiral if nothing else.
Furthermore, there’s a secondary narrative that covers someone fans may also be acquainted with from the Rebels series: Arihnda Pryce.
Arihnda’s tale happens simultaneously with Thrawn’s and, much like his, details her ascent, this time from a lowly mining operation manager on Lothal, working on her family’s mine, through the ranks of the Empire and establishing a connection with the titular Chiss. But while Thrawn’s story is one based on military might and prowess, hers banks on skills that are missing from the Grand Admiral’s arsenal: subterfuge, political intrigue, information trading, and other such shady dealings are Arihnda’s daily bread, and her fate intertwining with Thrawn’s several times over the course of the novel is, alongside the other big-name Star Wars characters that have cameos or are name-dropped across it, just another mark of this being a grand Galaxy being ruled by a handful of very powerful individuals.
The settings we come across in the novel are as varied as you’d expect, with plenty of starship, planetside, seedy Coruscant lower-levels and high-ranking officials’ offices alike slipping by in constant succession as the plot deems it fit. You are never overwhelmed by these changes of scenery, and there is nothing irksome about them, but I’d actually go as far as to call them mundane for Star Wars, with none of them breaking truly new ground when it comes to the Universe we’ve come to know and love over the past 40 years.
Objectivity mostly fails me when talking about Thrawn, but I’d wager most people would be hard-pressed to let the above drawbacks deter them from thoroughly enjoying such a well-put-together piece of both Star Wars as well as literature in general.
The biggest hurdle these kinds of novels face (and that you’ll see more of in our future SW novel reviews) are creating a compelling Star Wars narrative without the use of the Force, and Thrawn does that in spades. With a solid, highly revered history to take into account, Zahn manages to establish Thrawn as a mainstay of the current canon, and remind us all why he’s been such a fan favourite for all these years.
A great read, and an even greater Thrawn experience, the Gung-Ho Geeks rate this 9 Upturned Star Destroyers out of 10: