Star Wars: Thrawn - Review

"But it was so artistically done."

Thrawn starts with a rewrite of Mist Encounter, the short story Timothy Zahn wrote in the 90s. The original story served as the chronological introduction of the titular Grand Admiral that he first wrote about in Heir to the Empire, a few years prior. After being exiled from the Chiss Ascendancy and ending up on a backwater jungle world, Thrawn stows away on an Imperial ship after the crew investigate the planet. Impressed by Thrawn's survival skills and silver tongue - the latter feat made more impressive by his inability to fluently speak their language - the Imperials bring him to the Emperor, who immediately sets both him and another nascent Imperial officer, Eli Vanto, on the path to military success. Unwillingly saddled with Thrawn as his translator, Vanto supports the blue-skinned, red-eyed tactical genius as he swiftly climbs the ladder of the Empire's military.

At the same time, on the planet Lothal, a young woman named Arihnda Pryce is forced to watch her family's mining company be subsumed by the Empire's control. Getting herself a job with an Imperial Senator directly involved in taking the company away, Pryce quietly swears revenge as she advances across Coruscant's political landscape. Along the way, she makes it clear that those who seek to turn her into a pawn will meet a swift end. To get what she wants, she'll need the help of a certain prodigious, blue-skinned Imperial officer.

Sound like interesting premises for our three main characters? Sure. But, like a set of prisoners who fall victim to a blunt guillotine, they're not executed very well.

Let me make it clear right now: although it's one of my favourite pieces of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Thrawn trilogy is not a sacred cow. Its imperfections pale when compared to its triumphs, and the character of Mitth'raw'nuruodo - better known as Grand Admiral Thrawn - still remains one of the best things to come out of those initial post-Return of the Jedi days. But the trilogy  has its problems, up to and including the fact that Thrawn was so masterful and skilled a bad guy that the only way he could be defeated was through a near-literal deus ex machina on the part of author Timothy Zahn.

So, in theory, I've got nothing against the idea of Disney having a do-over to reintroduce the novels' most legendary antagonist, and getting Zahn back onboard to do the deed is icing on the cake. The new Thrawn novel had all the pieces on the board to be an instant classic, a full-strength, double-barrel blast. Unfortunately, despite a few moments of colour and sound, what it became was largely something of a quiet misfire.

One of Thrawn's biggest issues is how detached one feels from its protagonists. Thrawn is a genius on the same level as Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor, intentionally unknowable and unrelatable because of his brilliance. Part of the enjoyment in past books of Thrawn the character comes from witnessing other characters we can relate to be dazzled by his tactical mastery and lateral thinking, analysing enemies through their body language or sizing up cultures based on their art and history. By contrast, Thrawn the novel gives us glimpses inside his head for the first time, which usually come in the form of present-tense analyses of the body language of whomever he's speaking to as he searches for weaknesses. It's interesting in the same way that the analytical scenes in Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes films are - you know, where time slows and Holmes calculates his options in the space of a second, like the opening scene where he's fighting a guy - but after the first few chapters that are dominated by this storytelling device, it gets old. The literal description of scenes or a character's physical movements, intended to show Thrawn analysing his opponent, works well in a visual medium, but comes across as dryly recitative (and, eventually, repetitive) in text.

Pryce and Vanto are even less interesting as point of view characters. For the former, I admit that I didn't realise she was a major character on Star Wars: Rebels who works closely with Thrawn, but honestly, that knowledge didn't make her any less of a dull protagonist. For the longest time, until she grows a spine and starts actively manipulating those who seek the manipulate her, Pryce is a cipher with very little in the way of characterisation beyond "pissed-off, vengeance-seeking woman in politics". I'm not engaging with her struggle against the jerks who took her family's company, not even in the somewhat cathartic "pay evil unto evil" way that other Star Wars villain-centred stories - such as the Darth Vader comic book series - do well. Vanto isn't much better, though at least his plot about being denied advancement within the Imperial ranks because of his association with Thrawn adds a nice dollop of tension between the mastermind and his aide.

As much as I understand why Zahn might not have wanted to entirely replicate verbatim everything that made his original Thrawn stories so successful, lest it be seen merely as a carbon copy, one thing he initially got right, and which Thrawn got wrong, was the inclusion of Gilad Pellaeon. Introduced in Heir to the Empire as Thrawn's second-in-command and one of the more reasonable officers of the Empire, Pellaeon was the Watson to Thrawn's Holmes, our view into the inner workings of Thrawn's mind and a more grounded, relatable and three-dimensional aide to the Grand Admiral; a sounding board for Thrawn's complex thinking and a more rationally-minded moral compass for Thrawn's coldly pragmatic mindset. Though the character was used in other areas of the Star Wars Expanded Universe after Zahn's work, Pellaeon was at his best when paired with Thrawn, and vice versa. To not have him in the Thrawn novel is a rather large missed opportunity.

The issues with the characters are compounded further by the underlying plot and ostensible villain not being very interesting. The book pits Thrawn, Pryce and Vanto against a criminal organisation run by the elusive Nightswan. The seemingly disparate crises which Thrawn has to resolve in the lead-up to his promotion to Grand Admiral turn out to all be connected to this Nightswan and their operation; the payoff to this plot was as anticlimactic as the similar battle of wits between Thrawn and Nuso Esva in Choices of One. Nightswan is depicted as a foe matching Thrawn's intellect, but - as with Nuso Esva - I never got the impression they were Thrawn's equal in anything (although it did lead to a very quiet, effective scene in a meadow, a sentence I never thought I'd write in association with a story about a blue-skinned alien commanding gigantic space battles).

For all my griping, though, I have to admit that Thrawn is a markedly different book to the ones we've gotten so far in the Disney canon. The intense focus on Thrawn as an antagonist and the alternative writing style that Zahn employs are draw cards for those who are tired by some of the recent samey, uninspired Star Wars tales, like Catalyst or Heir to the Jedi. It's also to Zahn's credit that he's written a backstory for Thrawn which could, with a bit of wiggling, slot in neatly within the old canon; despite the rewrite of Mist Encounter and both the lack and addition of a few notable characters, Thrawn could easily serve as a prelude to Heir to the Empire. At the very least, I certainly expect any new fans who aren't already familiar with Thrawn as a character will get a kick out of reading about the deadly, intelligent Grand Admiral who can stand alongside the likes of Darth Vader as an iconic Star Wars antagonist.

For me, Thrawn just didn't meet the expectations I had, failing to be anything more than a competent, occasionally engaging novel. Maybe I'm somewhat coloured by my high opinion of Zahn's pre-Disney work with the character, and perhaps the bar is set insurmountably high as a result. Or maybe it just wasn't so artistically done this time around.

- Chris

Star Wars: Thrawn is available in bookstores now.


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