Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.
Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.
This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and the Separatists.
What interests me so much about this iteration of Thrawn is the fact that he doesn’t fit easily into the categories of good and evil. I’ve always thought that Star Wars is at its best when it probes what we normally assume to be the hard and fast distinctions between heroism and villainy. While Thrawn has sworn his service to the Emperor–who we are always supposed to think is the embodiment of evil–this novel shows that his motivations are complex. While he is as loyal to the Empire as he ever was, we are led to believe that his true loyalties will always lie with his fellow Chiss.
I particularly enjoy the way that Zahn manages to take us us into the intimate spaces of Thrawn’s complex mind. From the beginning of this new series, we’ve seen that Thrawn doesn’t operate according to same rules as everyone else. Among other things, he seems to have an almost supernatural ability to observe the behavior of others and to determine their actions based on what he sees. This makes him a formidable enemy, and it makes us as readers aware of just how inhuman he is, for all that he has managed to rise so high in the estimation of the Emperor.
Despite the fact that Thrawn is, of course, the focal point of the book, I constantly found myself reminded of just how tragic Anakin’s storyline is. The moments when Darth Vader ruthlessly quells his memories from that time–and the fact that he has separated his current identity from “the Jedi”–are a stark reminder of how much Anakin gives up as he plunges to his fate in the Dark Side. By the time of the present, of course, he’s given himself over completely to his service of the Emperor, so much so that even Thrawn, who knew him at both times, is for a while in some doubt as to whether Vader is in fact the young Jedi that he knew so many years ago. As I was reading the parts of the book that were set during the Clone Wars, I continued to feel saddened by what I knew was Anakin’s inevitable fall, aware all the time that his romance with Padmé was doomed to end in tragedy, that he would ultimately be responsible for her death.
I also appreciated that this book took a few risks, such as revealing that the Chiss do have Force-sensitive individuals in their number, though it manifests differently among them than it does to any of the other races that we’ve encountered.
Overall, I found Thrawn: Alliances to be a well-plotted and exciting entry in the Star Wars universe. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that authors like Zahn have managed to solidify their standing in the community. This book doesn’t necessarily break any boundaries, but it doesn’t really have to. Zahn has a strong writer’s finely-tuned instincts, and he knows what his audience is looking for and is able to provide it.
I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series, and I have a feeling that Thrawn is going to continue finding his loyalty to the Emperor tested by his continued adherence to his own code of honor and to his people.