When I wouldn’t stop gushing to The Quill to Live’s Book Tyrant about my excitement to read a new canonical book in the Star Wars universe about Grand Admiral Thrawn, the aptly named Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, our Tyrant calmly informed me how pleased he was that I could write another review for the blog. I’ll start with a brief overview of the Thrawn saga for those that are unaware: after Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, they took the entirety of expanded universe media and declared them all null and void in their current canon. Only the movies, TV shows (Clone Wars and Rebels), and future books would be within official Star Wars canon. This was devastating for many of us who grew up on the Thrawn Trilogy (which I have already reviewed here). We hated to see one of the best villains of all time removed from the Star Wars universe. Luckily, Disney didn’t let Thrawn languish in non-existence for long, and added him as a character in Season 3 of Rebels, in addition to approaching Timothy Zahn with an offer for him to author a canonical origin story of his beloved villain. After reading it, I held off on putting my review together until I could watch the Star Wars: Rebels television show, and this turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor for reasons I will explain shortly. For now, let’s get into the meat of the review.
Thrawn delivers a hearty dose of nostalgia for everyone who grew up on the original Thrawn trilogy, while also providing a solid introduction for new fans coming from the Rebels show. We get to see how Mitth’raw’nuruodo (if you can pronounce that correctly on your first try I’ll give you a cookie, or maybe some blue milk) first ‘meets’ the Empire and begins his surprisingly meteoric rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy. He does this through a combination of brilliant deduction and devious execution of strategy. Each chapter focused on Thrawn feels very much like a look into the mind of a militaristic Sherlock Holmes as he navigates his way through the politics of the Empire and matches his will against the criminal mastermind Nightswan (a la Moriarty). Thrawn’s even got himself a Watson in Ensign Eli Vanto, the second of three POVs in the story. Vanto takes the place of Captain Pellaeon from the original Thrawn Trilogy as the man Thrawn has decided to mentor and take under his wing. It’s quite enjoyable to have an outside viewpoint from which to watch Thrawn, and Vanto is easy to cheer on throughout the book. Vanto is an intelligent and friendly Imperial Ensign who just wants to be in charge of organizing supplies for the navy. Instead he is pulled into Thrawn’s wake, and learns more about strategy and warfare than he ever thought he would. The best part about this is that we get to learn and struggle right alongside him in his chapters. Zahn does a great job of using Vanto’s chapters to keep you in suspense as Thrawn executes his plans. The last POV is from Arihnda Pryce, whom I will talk about later.
Timothy Zahn is quite gifted at writing a book that feels like Star Wars. His original trilogy probably goes a little too far with the constant flashbacks to scenes from the movies, but every minute you are reading it you are whisked to a galaxy far, far away. That same sensation is back in Thrawn, but this time around Zahn has added some flair. Each chapter starts with a quote from the Grand Admiral that would be right at home in The Art of War. Each quote references a stratagem or piece of wisdom that Thrawn uses or sees used in the upcoming chapter. I love little teasers like this, and these were done really well in this book. One issue I had with writing, however, was in the Thrawn POV chapters. There were too many lines of Thrawn’s internal Sherlock Holmes at work. He would constantly be noting the change of people’s breathing and the size of their pupils. It felt exactly like the scenes from the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes television show, but in book form and didn’t quite convey the same fun ‘brilliant mind at work’ sensation I got from Sherlock.
There was one other aspect of the book that bothered me. The character Arihnda Pryce felt like she was shoehorned into the story, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. She is an unlikeable villainous protagonist, willing to sacrifice almost anything and anyone for more power, and her character didn’t feel like it belonged in the story as an ally to Thrawn. Her chapters were only tangentially related to Thrawn’s story, and seemed mostly to serve to build up her own backstory. I was very confused as to why so much effort was being put into building up a new character I had never heard of before. However, I then watched up to Season 3 of Rebels where Thrawn is introduced simultaneously with Governor Arihnda Pryce. Aha, there she is! I still feel that Pryce didn’t truly belong in Thrawn, but now I understand that Disney was trying to get a two for one deal on backstories.
Overall, this is a fantastic addition to the new Star Wars canon, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see Thrawn back in action. It is great to see Timothy Zahn bringing his engaging writing and storytelling back into the Star Wars universe. And while Thrawn shares a very large number of similarities to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, they manifest into an exciting origin story for one of Star Wars’ greatest characters. Whether you are a long-term expanded universe fan, or coming in having only seen Star Wars: Rebels, The Quill to Live heartily recommends you pick up Thrawn.