I mentioned in my Lost Stars review that I was feeling the pressure on that book, because it’s one of the most beloved of the Disney-era novels. For the next three reviews, I’ll be feeling the pressure in a whole new way as we look at a new take on a Legends-era favourite. It’s time to dive into Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, starting with…well…Thrawn.
Full disclosure: I have not read the Heir to the Empire series. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Legends at all. Maybe I will after all this, but for now it seems like a can of worms I’m curious to open but don’t have the time for. All this to day that I won’t be drawing any comparisons between that trilogy and this one, because frankly I couldn’t if I wanted to.
While on a mission on a backwoods world on the edge of Wildspace, an Imperial crew makes an interesting discovery: someone, or something is messing with their stormtroopers and causing general confusion. In search of answers, they trick whatever it is into coming on board their ship. “It” turns out to be Mitth’raw’nurodo, aka Thrawn, a Chiss who has seemingly been exiled from his homeworld. He is brought to Coruscant, where Emperor Palpatine has him enrol in the Imperial Academy, with the aim of having him join the navy in a few short months. Cadet Eli Vanto, who was on the mission where Thrawn is discovered, is assigned as his personal interpreter, and eventually as his aide-de-camp. A tactician with a mind unlike anything seen in the Empire, Thrawn rises quickly in the ranks (as does Vanto), much to the chagrin of other highly placed Imperials.
Meanwhile on the Outer Rim world of Lothal, Arihnda Pryce is struggling to find her place. After her family’s mining company is seized by the Governor, she finds herself on Coruscant, looking to work her way up the ranks, reclaim what was taken from her, and to exact revenge on those that would dare take it.
3 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)
1. Thrawn’s internal monologue
I’m just going to say it. Thrawn basically reads like Sherlock Holmes. Let me explain.
There are 3 different narrative “voices” when the story is following Thrawn and Vanto. There is what I am going to call the “third-person general” voice, which either presents the events objectively or “through the eyes” of a secondary character. Then there is the third person narration from Eli Vanto’s point of view, and the third person narration from Thrawn’s point of view. Vanto’s is distinguishable by the way the narration refers to him as “Eli” rather than “Vanto”, as it does everywhere else.
Thrawn’s point of view is far easier to pick out. The narration is periodically interrupted by Thrawn’s internal monologue, which he uses to observe minor behavioural tics in everyone around him. These little observations are what makes him such a brilliant tactician, because he can pick out motivation and intention without anyone having to say anything at all. He essentially plays almost anyone who speaks with him like a fiddle (or whatever the Star Wars equivalent of that is).
2. The Imperial view of aliens
If you go back and watch A New Hope, you’ll notice that while the cantina scene is populated with aliens, the Alliance and Empire are made up of humans. As the Original Trilogy continues, you’ll notice that aliens begin to make their way more visibly into the ranks of the Alliance. But the Empire stays entirely human. From a filmmaking standpoint, I can understand this. It’s probably really hard to make your villains seem like scary fascists if there is a 1980’s era puppet sitting in their ranks.
In the new era, this has been given a rather clever spin: the Empire has a dislike of aliens and does not trust them. As with real life xenophobic groups, their reasoning for it (that aliens stood with the Separatists during the Clone Wars and cannot be trusted) doesn’t hold up under modest scrutiny (there were aliens on all sides of the conflict).
So you can imagine the kerfuffle caused when Thrawn, a blue skinned, red eyed alien, is not only admitted to the most prestigious military academy there is, but he already outranks every other student there, and continues to rise within the navy at an unheard of speed.
When they first find Thrawn and want to take him to Coruscant, Eli Vanto’s first concern is that he will be paraded through the streets in chains as some kind of novelty, which is horrific, but unfortunately not beyond the scope of humanity.
Non-humans are continually treated as second class citizens. The Empire has little regard for them, and a majority of Thrawn’s conflict with his superiors comes as a result of his efforts to reach a fair outcome.
3. The Empire isn’t all bad…from a certain point of view
I should explain that title.
At various points in the novel, I found myself rooting for Thrawn and Vanto to succeed in whatever mission they were currently on. I wanted Arhinda Pryce to succeed in climbing that political ladder. It was only once I stopped to really think about it, that I realized I’m rooting for the people I would normally not be rooting for.
This isn’t the first novel to tell the story from the Imperial point of view. But in Tarkin and Lords of the Sith I’m still keenly aware that the Imperial characters I’m following are on the wrong side of the conflict.
Not so here.
This might have to do with the fact that all the characters, for all that they’re Imperials, are also outcasts. They are at the bottom of the social or professional hierarchy, and are scrambling for a way to the top.
There are moments where I was blown away by how Thrawn had planned 10 steps ahead of everyone else, and I loved that he was about to succeed, and then realized that if he does, then he is putting a stop to the rebellion. He is rescuing Imperial officers from the clutches of pirates. He is allowing the Empire to succeed. The genius in this story is when it makes me actively question whose side I’m supposed to be on.
4. The jumps between plot points
At the exact midpoint of the novel (in my edition anyway), Thrawn’s story and Pryce’s story finally intersect. While both were independently interesting, until I saw how they would play into each other, I found the cuts back and forth to be a little jarring. Just as I was getting into the flow of one, we jumped to the other.
I will say, I know Zahn had a thankless task here of trying to incorporate his beloved character into a now carefully-controlled story and making sure it was narratively consistent with the other stories in various mediums.
Points Left Hanging
This is a new section, you’re telling yourself. But why?
Thrawn is part of a series, so these are plot points that I would be interested in seeing if they come up again:
- Anakin Skywalker worked with Thrawn once, and Thrawn is introduced (well, “introduced”) to Vader at the end of the novel (yes, I’m cheating on this one I know perfectly well it comes up again but this is my blog leave me alone)
- Thrawn and Cygni have what can only be described as a philosophical discussion about whether or not the Empire should be allowed to stand. Cygni believes that any system is better than this one. Thrawn believes that once Palpatine is dead (if the man could just stay dead…ok sorry, sorry), a better ruler could step in and rule with order and benevolence. Obviously we know how this turns out, but I’m curious to see how this point of view plays out in the next two books.
Throughout the book, Thrawn and Vanto are on the hunt for a mysterious operative known as “Nightswan”. At some point they come into contact with someone by the name of Cygni. I am fluent in French, and I studied Latin in middle school. The French word “cygne” means swan. The Latin word for swan is “cygnus”. So go ahead and ask me how I didn’t realize Cygni was Nightswan UNTIL IT’S REVEALED IN THE BOOK. I didn’t even suspect it. I have no excuse, I’m just real embarrassed.
Vanto is visibly surprised that Emperor Palpatine’s face is scarred and looks nothing like the benevolent middle aged man they see in all the propaganda. But my question is, why is this not common knowledge? Didn’t the man stand in front of the whole Senate like “the attack on my life has left me scarred”? Was his physical appearance not a major selling point to show how far the Jedi had gone, and why they were the bad guys? I don’t know, maybe he only needed the Senators to see it.
I listened to bits of this on audiobook, and can I just say that between the narration here, and his appearances in Rebels, Thrawn has a sexy voice? No? Took it too far? That’s cool, that’s cool.
In one of my favourite meta observations, possibly ever, Thrawn comments on the value of studying a culture’s art. Art, he observes, is a reflection of the producer. It shines a light on every aspect, or at least many aspects of the world it was made in. I’ve made this comment myself, especially when watching movies. I’ve even said it about the Star Wars movies. The whole moment was very short, but I did want to take a second to draw attention to it.
Another addition to my fascination with the quirks of Star Wars language: directions on Coruscant. They are given in blocks: how many blocks over, and then how many blocks up or down. Also while we’re here, I find that much city on one planet to be stressful, but that could just be me.