If like me, you picked up a Star Wars tie-in book called Heir to the Empire in the early 1990s, the words “Grand Admiral Thrawn” probably still fill you with awe. My original and much thumbed copy remains with me after all these years.
In the intervening period countless other fans have cherished Zahn’s Star Wars books and the characters therein. Others will have encountered Thrawn for the first time in Rebels. Either way, and regardless of the source, expectation levels were at an all-time high for Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn after its announcement at last year’s Star Wars Celebration.
For me the book met, and ultimately exceeded, those high expectations. It also aligns perfectly with the overall direction of the Star Wars novels in the new canon. For me there is a clear and focused drive to establish relationships and inter-dependencies within the early Imperial hierarchy. Thus we have seen Lords of the Sith by Paul S Kemp, and Tarkin by James Luceno each of which excellently depicted the dynamics at play within the upper echelons of the Empire. The key to Zahn’s new book is that it begins to place two additional talents into the Imperial leadership mix within Star Wars literature.
The first is the eponymous character of Thrawn, first introduced in the book as a Chiss alien “exile” in the Wild Space area of the galaxy before being brought to Palpatine’s attention. He is later fast-tracked at Palpatine’s direction through the officer structures within the Imperial Navy. We see familiar traits from his previous incarnation in the old EU. He displays supreme tactical gifts and predictive abilities in relation to military strategy. Much of this ability is again built-up from an intuitive understanding of the art and cultural values of his enemies. The character is fantastically rendered in this new work.
The second of the two major players which this book focuses upon is Arihnda Pryce. For me her character – and the depiction of her motivations – was as impressive as Thrawn.
Indeed Zahn’s book is deliberately structured so as to provide an insight into the parallel career progression of Pryce and Thrawn.
Rather than military life, Pryce sharpens her skills in political chicanery against the hurly burly of bureaucratic life in an Imperial dictatorship. What’s important to note is that, like Thrawn, she is supremely skilled within her chosen arena. Unlike others such as Krennic she is employing her own abilities to advance within the Imperial structures, not simply harnessing and marshaling the skills of others. Pryce is adept at reading the political runes, just as Thrawn reads the runes in relation to military strategy.
As the book continues we see how the two eventually forge a working relationship. Thrawn’s military prowess is complemented by Pryce’s political foresight as the two storylines converge. Zahn is a master at work weaving the relationship between the two characters as well as the supporting cast of Vanto (almost a Pellaeon-proxy used to showcase and highlight Thrawn’s abilities) and Yularen (Imperial Security Bureau – see picture below).
There is a delicious Tarkin cameo in which Pryce proves her worth to the flint-hued Grand Moff. Wily old Tarkin, who developed his own skills on the blood soaked soils of the plains of Carrion, is rendered through a truly cunning depiction in this scene.
As the book closes there is also immense mystery about the future role of the Chiss and the common threat Thrawn alludes to in relation to both the Empire and his own people. One is left to ponder over the point at which Thrawn’s interests and the Empire’s interests may either converge, or ultimately diverge.
It is clear that the foundation stones are being laid to establish Thrawn as part of a triumvirate of high level power players underpinning Palpatine’s reign in the pre-A New Hope era.
Vader is a force of nature, he is mystic and impulsive and isn’t interested in pure power such as that rendered by Palpatine. Tarkin, likewise wants to exercise power from within Palpatine’s structures – – he does not have designs on the leadership.
Thrawn compliments this strange pairing with that common theme; he serves the Empire for the greater interest of his people against a common enemy. His service is a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” writ-large. As with Vader and Tarkin, Thrawn will rise in the Empire because he does not have specific designs on Palpatine’s rule and aims to compliment it rather than challenge it. He is not one for petty “office politics”.
Indeed both Thrawn and Pryce are placed well beyond the competitive middle management concerns shown by those such as Krennic (Catalyst and Rogue One) and Count Vidian (A New Hope).
If this is the return of Zahn for the long term within Star Wars literature then we are in for some truly magnificent contributions to the new canon.
Thrawn has now truly arrived in his strongest form, via the novel, and he is intriguing. To return to the points made in the opening paragraphs of this post, this book has met expectations, in part by covering new ground and by giving us a fresh start from Thrawn’s point of arrival in the age of Empire. It is Thrawn rebooted, and it is a reboot that works well.
Save the dream. Save the Rebellion
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn is out now in the U.K. and is published by Century. Available from all good bookshops.
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