Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the return of Eli Vanto, who has been spending the past several years serving in the military of the Chiss Ascendancy. As a result of these several points of view, we get to see the various threads of power that stretch throughout the Empire and beyond.

Likewise, the novel nicely ties together the various threads that have been in play since the series began. It’s been unclear from the beginning of this series whether Thrawn has truly thrown in his lot with the Empire or whether he still serves the Chiss Ascendancy, and by the end of the novel it’s fairly clear that he still strives to strike a balance between these two parts of his identity. For him, serving the Empire is not incompatible with his loyalty to the Empire (and to the Emperor in particular), and in fact it may be that a threat to one is a threat to the other.

I actually missed seeing Eli Vanto in the second book of this series, and it was rather nice to see him back again. Like Thrawn, he finds himself at something of a crossroads, not quite part of the Chiss and yet also cast out of the safe haven of the Empire. I also enjoyed the introduction of two new characters, Commodore Faro and Ronan. The former is a very compelling character, in part because it’s always nice to see a strong woman in a Star Wars novel. Ronan, on the other side, is one of those foolish types who seems determined to let his own arrogance get in the way of doing what is right. Fortunately, he ends up getting what he deserves in the end, which is definitely one of the more satisfying parts of the novel.

Those who like their Star Wars novels to have a lot of action and fighting will appreciate Thrawn: Treason, and there are several well-written battles that occur throughout. There are fewer discussions of politics–which was a little disappointing–but the novel does continue to show us Thrawn’s tactical brilliance, including his ability to understand an enemy through their art.

Despite the fact that the also leaving enough ambiguity to suggest directions in which the series might go in future installments. Thrawn’s final conversation with the Emperor, in which Palpatine reminds him of the dangers of divided loyalties, is one of the highlights of the book. It reminds us of the fact that there are always more currents running beneath the surface than we are aware of. We, like Thrawn, are not always able to see the many ways in which the politics of the Empire are taking shape.

I very much enjoyed this book and the trilogy of which it is a part. Zahn has an eye for how to put a narrative together, how to keep us riveted to a story from beginning to end. Though I’m not sure that I understand Thrawn any more than I did when I began this series, it is precisely the sense of him as an enigma that keeps us coming back for more. A follow-up series to this one has already been announced, and while this one will, apparently, flesh out Thrawn’s back story among the Chiss, I for one am looking forward to learning more about this absolutely compelling character.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

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.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn” (by Timothy Zahn)

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.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Lords of the Sith (by Paul S. Kemp)

Let me state that outset that I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. Like many other reviewers, I feel that the title is incredibly deceptive, since it suggests that the book is going to primarily focus on the relationship between Darth Vader and Palpatine. While that is indeed a very prominent storyline, it’s only one of many, and it can sometimes be a bit bewildering trying to keep track of everything that’s happening (to say nothing of becoming actually involved with some of these characters).

The novel takes place some time before the events of A New Hope. Vader and Palpatine find themselves ensnared in the Ryloth resistance movement led by the Twi’lek Cham Syndulla. In the process, they find themselves stranded on the planet Ryloth and have to contend both the native wildlife and with the efforts of the Twi’leks, as well as a renegade Imperial, and their attempts to destroy them.

Of all of the complicated relationships of the Star Wars universe, that between Vader and Palpatine is one that has always hovered at the edge of full comprehensibility. Sure, we get some clues to its nature in the prequel trilogy, but we only occasionally see how they feel about one another. Throughout this book, we get the distinct sense that Vader doesn’t have a great deal of love for his master, and in fact may just be biding his time until he can bring about his destruction. It’s really fascinating to see this little spark of rebellion in this iconic villain, a reminder of how perpetually unstable the relationship between the Sith was and remains.

This novel makes it clear that Vader still struggles to put the darkest parts of his past behind him, that the ghosts of his horrible actions still haunt his waking hours. He thinks back to incidents that fans will recognize from the prequels, such as his notorious slaughtering of the younglings in the Jedi Temple, as well as his murderous rampage after he discovered his mother’s tortured body. The sequences from Vader’s perspective were some of the most compelling parts of the novel, and they really do shed light on his inner psychology. However, each time I read a Vader chapter I’d be left wanting more.

The novel moves along at a brisk pace, but despite that it can sometimes get a bit boring. There were a few times when I found myself getting genuinely invested in the rebelling Ryloth characters, but the novel’s main antagonist, a rebelling Imperial, was both ineffective and frustrating to inhabit as a character. The novel would have been better served, I think, by focusing its attention on the two Sith rather than secondary Imperial characters.

There are some parts of Lords of the Sith that threaten to veer into the ridiculous, most notably the far too extensive battle between Palpatine, Vader, and a nest of creatures known as lyleks. It just felt so strange and out-of-character to see these two giants of the Empire doing battle with strange creatures on an alien planet. I’m also not entirely sure what Kemp was trying to accomplish with this scene, other than to show that both Vader and Palpatine still wield enormous power as users of the Force (as if we didn’t know that anyway).

On the other hand, there are some notable action sequences that are worthy of praise, particularly those in which Vader gets to once again put his superior flying skills to use. The battle sequences were depicted very well, and they were some of the rare instances where I actually felt myself engaging with what was going on.

All in all, Lords of the Sith is entertaining enough, but I did emerge feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The many pieces just didn’t seem to fit together very well, and I really do think that if the novel had either been strictly about the two Sith or about the rebels of Ryloth that it would have made a stronger novel. As it is, it’s hard to find a sense of narrative urgency. We know that the efforts to assassinate the two of them are doomed to fail and, since the events precede those of the original films. The novel is an unfortunate reminder of what might have been.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Resistance Reborn” (by Rebecca Roanhorse)

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently become a little bit obsessed with Star Wars. Given that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’ve thrown myself into the universe with all of the enthusiasm of a recent convert. To that end, I recently checked out Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, and I’m very glad that I did.

The novel moves us along at a brisk pace, showing us the events that transpired between the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The Resistance, still reeling from its near-obliteration at the hands of the First Order, struggles to find a place where they can begin to regroup. They eventually end up on Ryloth, and while Leia stays there, she dispatches Poe and a number of others to start drawing far-flung allies to the new Resistance.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about this new spate of Star Wars novels is the fact that they give us so much of Leia’s perspective. The loss of Carrie Fisher in 2016 was truly a tragedy, a loss from which the Star Wars universe will never fully recover. Fortunately, novels like Resistance Reborn allow us glimpses into her psychology and her motivations, allowing us to appreciate just how much of a hero she’s been for the Galaxy, and how much she has sacrificed for the betterment of the downtrodden. If anything, I would have liked to see more of her perspective in the novel.

Of course, one of the other enjoyable parts of the novel was the character of Poe. He is, for me, one of the best things about the new films, and no small part of this has to do with Oscar Isaac’s characterization. Here, we get more insight into his guilt over his actions in The Last Jedi, as well as his determination to make good and redeem himself. This he does to good effect, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the rapport between him and Princess/General Leia. It’s clear, both in the novels and the films, that this was intended to be one of the primary relationships in the films.

The only character who was a bit of a let-down was the cruel bureaucrat Winshur Bratt. I wasn’t really sure what his point in the narrative was, unless it was to show in a more personal and intimate way the fact that the First Order manages to exert its influence by preying on the sort of petty people who are always seeking power at the expense of others. I can’t help thinking, though, that there might have been more effective ways of demonstrating this than with a relatively minor character.

The novel’s great strength, I think, is that it effectively bridges the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. One of many complaints that people had about the latter was that the arrival of a fleet of ships in response to the distress call from the Resistance seemed too abrupt. Resistance Reborn makes it clear that this is actually the end result of significant sacrifice and planning, both from Leia and from others. While it is, admittedly, a little frustrating to have to rely on extra-filmic material in order to have a film’s narrative make sense, that seems rather par for the course with Star Wars.

All in all, I really liked Star Wars: Resistance Reborn. I disagree with those who see the new canon novels as filler. In my opinion, there’s something to be said for these novels that help us to understand a bit more about the events that transpire between each of the films. Besides, these novels allow us to delve deeper into the psychology of some of our favorite characters in ways that simply isn’t possible on the screen (no matter how good the acting might be). If I have one complaint about this novel, it’s that it’s actually too short, and so we don’t get to see a lot of either Rey or Finn (a rather strange thing, given their centrality to the new films). Nevertheless, Resistance Reborn is a fine addition to the Star Wars universe.

Next up, I’ll be reviewing Lords of the Sith, an interesting novel that sheds light on the fraught relationship between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.