Questionably canon. Definitely an article. Dive into a book that rides the line between new canon and old legends. This novel has all the space pirates and political backstabbing you could want, plus the untold story of the original Grand Admiral – but more importantly, how’s the read? And how well does it flesh out its place in canon?
First, let’s get the business out of the way. I read the Barnes and Noble exclusive version of this novel. There isn’t any extra content so far as story – the differences are purely aesthetic. The dust jacket of the book features Thrawn against a black background instead of the wide-release white background, and there is a two-sided tear-out poster included. One side is the image below, and the back is a nice timeline of the canon novels up to Thrawn’s release. Also, the book itself is colored blue with white along the spine, which is a great touch that sets the book apart from most hardbacks.
Spoiler-Free Impressions –
Thrawn reads somewhat as a background character to his own story, which is an interesting and fitting take on the character. Once he is within the ranks of the Empire, his brilliant mind gains him several commendations. He works from behind the scenes, plotting out moves several steps ahead of his enemies before taking the fight to the front with confidence and precision.
His beginnings in the story appear humble. The Empire stumbles upon him in exile, and Thrawn has rigged traps to test anyone who comes looking for him. After besting an Imperial squad, he is given audience with the Emperor himself. The Emperor is impressed by Thrawn’s ability to outsmart the entire squad single-handed and, after some discussion, decides to put Thrawn on a leadership path within the Empire. He is also assigned Ensign Eli Vanto, who was part of the squad who first located Thrawn. He becomes an aide and translator, helping Thrawn to better learn Galactic Basic. One of my favorite parts of the novel early on was Thrawn – who we all know as this eloquent, well-spoken genius – struggling with words he doesn’t know yet. Details like that add a certain aspect of growth to the character. However, without going into spoilers, this story isn’t really about Thrawn growing as a person all that much.
Probably the most interesting parts of Thrawn’s side of the story come from his knowledge of art, warfare, and reading people. Each chapter begins with a snippet that, if they were collected, would probably be titled Mitth’raw’nuruodo’s Art of War. These excerpts play sort of like the beginnings of Clone Wars episodes, where the short sentence at the beginning ties into themes of the episodes. Here, each piece pertains to each chapter. Besides having this extensive knowledge, Thrawn (and by extension, the Chiss) have special abilities that help them read people. He can read faces incredibly well, sensing the slightest muscle twitches, ticks, and tells, as well as being able to see increases in facial heat and changes in breathing. He’s essentially a near-human lie detector, and the snippets of his people-reading throughout the novel help you get into his head and see the galaxy the way he does.
Two other characters are mainstays among Thrawn, first his ever-present aide Eli Vanto, and secondly Arihnda Pryce. Eli’s life is uprooted by Thrawn. Originally from a backwater planet on the edge of Wild Space, Eli is forcibly transferred from his academy and chosen career path to aid Thrawn’s leadership career path. At first he is disappointed by these decisions being made for him, but he doesn’t hold it against Thrawn. Watching the pair learn from each other throughout the novel is one of the best parts of the read. Despite being a genius, Thrawn is not omnipotent, and he’s quick to congratulate Eli for noticing details he may have missed. All in all they make a great pair that many have compared to the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.
Arihnda Pryce is a character who turned out more interesting than I expected. This novel fills in her backstory before she is governor of Lothal, as seen in Star Wars: Rebels. Part of a family-owned mining company on Lothal, her life is also turned upside-down by the Empire. Imperial resource management dictates that her family’s mine be placed under Imperial control to gather a rare metal for a secret construction project. Bouncing from job to job, Arihnda eventually becomes the governor we know little of on Rebels who serves as a political ally to Thrawn. Pryce has to learn to watch out for herself and fight for her own goals to gain power, and eventually she has to hide some dirt before it has a chance to ruin everything she’s worked so hard to build up.
Before I get into spoilers, I have to say I enjoyed Thrawn quite a bit. It isn’t exactly what I’d call essential reading, however. Thrawn starts the novel with his trademark super-intelligence and although he is challenged along the way, nothing can stop his intellect in the end. However, he is put in an interesting position that clarifies some dialog presented in Rebels season 3 regarding a certain battle. More on that later, though. Timothy Zahn did a great job balancing callbacks to his previous Thrawn stories with plenty of new background on the state of the galaxy during the Dark Times. By all means I recommend this novel, but if there’s something else you’re dying to read, maybe pick that up before this one. It’s a great read, but mostly just for fun and not groundbreaking new canon stories.
*****If you haven’t read the book yet, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!*****
Thrawn begins with a pretty direct retelling of a short story, also by Timothy Zahn, called Mist Encounter. Thrawn is exiled to a planet and gets the Empire’s attention, then convinces them he is valuable and later meets with Emperor Palpatine. A couple characters change due to updates in the new canon, but the story is largely similar.
Thrawn is not welcomed into the Empire with open arms, however. This novel maintains the Empire’s typical xenophobia, or species-ism, against non-humans. It was especially striking to see Thrawn fall victim to a hate crime early in his academy career, as he and Eli are attacked by a group of fellow students. At this point in the timeline, Thrawn’s species (The Chiss) is widely regarded as myth. These legends that are passed around, and the few who know of them, create misinformation about Thrawn from the word go. He’s often mistaken for a Pantoran, another blue-skinned near-human species. It goes to show that even in a galaxy far, far away, there are still ignorant people who take things at face value. (It is confirmed, however, that the Chiss and Pantorans are somewhat closely related in terms of biology) Thrawn’s struggles aside from space racism center around proving himself to the Empire, and tracking down an elusive rival who nearly matches his own intellect.
Eli Vanto’s struggles with Thrawn – which often hilariously involve keeping him out of trouble for one reason or another – are very real and well-written. Eli had his eyes on a job he knew he’d be great. He was going to be a supply officer, keeping things organized and numbers in line. But his life is changed forever when his superiors stumble upon Thrawn. He is forced to change academies and job tracks to line up with Thrawn, and he begins work as an aide and translator. He’s dragged across the stars away from his dream job, and for a great many years he’s never rewarded with anything. I think we can all identify with getting jerked around by our day jobs and not getting our dues for it. I know I said there were spoilers here, but I won’t spoil too much about Eli’s story in the end. He’s a brand new character and has more growth than Thrawn in this novel, so read the book to learn more!
Arihnda Pryce also is also dealt a bad hand in this story, but deals with it differently than Vanto. Where Eli keeps his head down and tries to make the best of it, Pryce aspires for more. She demands more. Everything is taken from her more than once, and each time she’s forced to start over, the spite and bile embitter her to the point of unspeakable acts to keep her power. Her scenes before and after the Battle of Batonn at the end of the novel are great. She murders innocents with explosives to cover up one murder she committed, knowing either act would end her career if discovered. Thrawn figures this out, but cannot prove anything due to the explosions destroying any and all evidence. She agrees to help a politically-naive Thrawn retain his high rank so long as his military expertise helps her keep her political position.
So in Rebels, when Thrawn is introduced and he says he was promoted to Grand Admiral for his actions at Batonn? That scene is expanded upon in the novel! Kallus remarks (on the show – Agent Kallus does not appear in the novel) that civilian casualties were very high in that battle. Turns out it wasn’t Thrawn’s fault. Thrawn actually takes great care to cause minimal loss of life, and the mass casualties were actually Governor Pryce’s doing. I’d love to see a follow-up to that scene in Rebels. Season 4 will probably see one of them killed off, and I sincerely hope it’s Pryce because A.) Thrawn is awesome, and B.) She’d be getting what’s coming to her after Batonn. I want Thrawn to escape the inevitable defeat of the Seventh Fleet. Kallus made it out, so so can Thrawn! (Not to turn traitor, of course)
The Thrawn novel tells several stories at once without feeling bogged down or cluttered at all. At it’s best, Thrawn is canon again, Eli is a great new character, and this novel gives you some reasons to actually be interested in who Governor Pryce is. At it’s worst, these events aren’t filler but they aren’t groundbreaking material. Regardless, the stories told are good fun with mystery and political intrigue. At the end of the day it’s the fun and memorable stories that matter most anyway, right?
As always, thanks for reading, my loyal Acolytes!