Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

– By J.W. Fox –

Thrawn was my third Star Wars novel of the Disney Canon. Of the three, it is the first to focus on a real villain, and the first about a character from the Legends/Expanded Universe. My first introduction to Thrawn was through Star Wars Rebels, not the EU novels.  Hence my perspective is a little different than most fans. He is depicted as an evil genius, a master of strategy and tactics. Rational, analytical, and cold (which I’m guessing is why Zahn chose to make him blue). Zahn’s new Thrawn lived up to the hype and, perhaps a little too much.

The novel is written from the perspective of two characters, imperial cadet Eli Vanto and Lothal mine owner Arihnda Pryce. Eli Vanto is sent to a remote planet as part of a survey team investigating the possible discovery of a new intelligent species deep in the wild part of space. An elusive alien attacks the team and sneaks on to a shuttle heading back to the star destroyer in orbit. To the crew’s surprise, the alien quietly surrenders and is brought back to Coruscant as a curiosity. He is of an unknown species from a civilization beyond the Empire’s borders.

The alien is, of course, Thrawn. Back on Coruscant, Emperor Palpatine seems to have a familiarity with him and his species, the Chiss. Stories are told of their martial brilliance. The Emperor decides to enter Thrawn into the Imperial Academy, giving him a chance to prove himself. In another surprise, Thrawn asks that Eli Vanto be transferred to be his interpreter. The two steadily climb up the chain of command.

Arihnda Pryce is a mine operator who sees her fortunes fall due to political corruption. She becomes a lowly assistant to a Senator on Coruscant, but resolves to use her cunning and guile to reclaim her position as one of the leading citizens of her home world Lothal. She features in Star Wars Rebels as well and requests that Thrawn be transferred to her sector to help find and eliminate the rebel threat. In Season 3, Thrawn nearly succeeds in wiping out the crew of the Ghost and the rest of Phoenix Squadron.

The stories of Arihnda and Eli intertwine as the saga progresses towards the events of Star Wars Rebels. Eli’s story fixates on his struggles with the military bureaucracy, petty jealousies and political intrigue. When they receive their commissions, the story shifts to a series of small engagements where Thrawn demonstrates his genius. Arihnda’s story is more about political intrigue and espionage on the capital world of Coruscant. Both stories are accessible to younger readers, which makes them ideal for the new fan base but also gives them a naivete that might underwhelm older fans.

Aside from Thrawn and Arihnda, the characters are fairly dense. There isn’t much subtlety among the characters and some of the political plots are painfully transparent. Thrawn’s designs are much more clever and intricate but at times convoluted with outcomes a little too good to be true. He ventures close to becoming a Marty Stu character.

Eli is a good entry vehicle for the reader because he is a young, inexperienced officer who needs Thrawn to explain his plans and reasoning to him at every step. The explanations are as much for the reader as they are for Eli. He grows as a character but not enough to be compelling in his own right.

Since all of the characters are Imperial officers, there are no true heroes in this book in the traditional sense. To get around the challenge of writing a book about villains, Timothy Zahn paints Thrawn as an officer that seeks victory with minimal casualties. Instead, there is a Sun Tzu quality to him, where he wishes to achieve his objectives using minimal force and destruction.

This is in very sharp contrast to Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, General Grievous, Asajj Ventress, and Count Dooku who seem to enjoy using excessive force. The contrast is what is largely behind Thrawn’s popularity in my opinion. Power for its own sake does not interest him, nor do any ideals like democracy. Thrawn only concerns himself with what is most efficient and effective.

There was one detail that was a little confusing: Eli explains to Thrawn that there is an anti-alien/pro-human bias in the Empire. In all the movies and TV shows, I have never noticed any prominent anti-alien bias. If it existed it was specific to one species, or to one character, not a general racist mentality in the Empire.

In terms of excitement, Thrawn has its moments but really is unable to reach the scale and intensity of other stories in the Star Wars canon. Character Thrawn’s greatest moments come after this book, which makes this a solid prequel but not truly captivating in its own right. The ending in particular, is more of a lead up to Star Wars Rebels rather than a traditional climax. The book is not total fan service but, in my opinion, relies on reader familiarity and adoration of the character.

Overall, the novel was enjoyable and worth picking up. It should satisfy most fans. Based on the customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it has. I recommend it to all Star Wars fans, and in particular fans of Thrawn and the EU.


J. W. Fox is the Editor of and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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