In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.
Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s wake as he makes his precipitous ascent into the highest ranks of the Imperial Navy. Lastly there is Arihnda Pryce, who begins the novel on the mining world of Loval but gradually manipulates her way into becoming a powerful administrator.
From the opening pages, I found myself irresistibly drawn into this narrative. Certainly, a great deal of this is due to the fact that Thrawn is just such a compelling character, capable of acts of great ruthlessness, his tactical brilliance acknowledged even by his most devout enemies. Zahn has the uncanny ability to give us just enough detail about Thrawn’s back story to keep us engaged, while also keeping enough back to make Thrawn and enigma that we want to solve.
What struck me the most as I read the book, however, was how Thrawn never truly appears evil. True, he is ruthless, and he is definitely cunning, with one of the best military minds of arguably anyone in the entire Star Wars universe. His brain just doesn’t seem to work quite like any other character that we’ve ever et, and this is no doubt due to the fact that he is also the furthest from human. This allows his mind to see the patterns–both in individuals and in collectives–that prove invaluable in his service to the Empire and the imposition of its will.
Of course, all of this allows the book to raise the deeper ethical question: at what point do we finally say enough is enough and work against the forces that we see as evil? For Thrawn, this point has clearly not come yet, for he sees the order and stability of the Empire as a necessary trade-off for the protection it provides against even greater forces of evil that lurk in the Unknown Regions. Though it’s had to imagine why anyone with a shred of integrity of morality would continue serving a creature like the Emperor, Zahn does a great job showing us what motivates Thrawn to do so.
Indeed, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about so many of the new Star Wars novels is their ability to show us why it is that people would willingly serve an institution such as the Empire (and, later, the First Order). As it turns out, not everyone one who does so is an evil monster. Some do it because they see no alternative, others because they tire of finding their opportunities squashed at every turn. In this novel, Vanto is clearly not someone who is evil. He is merely doing what he can to survive. Pryce is a somewhat more ambiguous character who, while not entirely evil, is still ruthless and cunning and has little sense of personal loyalty. What’s more, she has no compunction about removing those who stand in her way, even if that means killing them.
All in all, I very much enjoyed Thrawn. I truly couldn’t put the book down from the moment I picked it up, and I’d probably go so far as to that it’s my favourite of the new series of books coming out from Disney.
Having finished Thrawn, I’m now diving headfirst into the sequel, Thrawn: Alliances, in which we will finally get to see the complicated relationship between Thrawn and Vader, two of the most valuable servants of the Emperor.