If you remember back to my original Thrawn Trilogy reviews, at the end of the day my conclusion was that they were OK. Not my favourites, but they didn’t make me want to pound my head against the wall, and frankly that’s a win in my book. As I wrapped my review up, I also mentioned the upcoming prequel book with a decided lack of excitement. How wrong I was.
Of all of them, this one was my favourite. It was a different vibe, and so removed from the rest of the GFFA that other than certain key moments, I forgot what universe this book was supposed to be set in, and I mean that in the best way. It actually reminded me a little of Star Trek. Not in any direct 1:1 way. More like it was Star Trek flavoured Star Wars. Anyway, enough of my vague nonsense, let’s dive into Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn.
Note: for clarity’s sake, the newer, completed Thrawn trilogy written after the Disney acquisition will be referred to as the “older Thrawn trilogy” since I’m really only differentiating it from this current trilogy.
Far, far away, past the known galaxy, lies a region known as The Chaos. This is home to the Chiss, a race of beings who rarely interact with outsiders and are governed by a system known as the Ascendency, wherein 9 big-name families fight and outmaneuver each other to gain political advantage.
One product of this system is Mitth’raw’nuruodo, not yet the notorious Grand Admiral and Imperial prodigy he would become. Instead, he’s a Senior Captain in the Chiss Expansionary Fleet, trying to do the best he can and learn as much as possible about the other beings who dwell in the Chaos. He believes his home is under threat from these outside forces and must try and finesse his way into investigating them while the Powers That Be try to stop him at every turn.
Along on this investigation are Admiral Ar’alani, his friend and accomplice since their early days with the Chiss military, Che’ri, the Force-sensitive navigator child known as a sky-walker, and Thalias, a former sky-walker and now Che’ri’s caretaker.
While Che’ri and Thalias navigate (hehe) the ins and outs of what being a sky-walker means, Ar’alani helps Thrawn navigate the political mess that is the Ascendency, because for all he is a strategic genius, he remains politically clueless. The two use half-truths and technicalities to launch a private investigation into a group seeking to control every race in the Chaos under one autocratic umbrella.
5 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)
1. New Environment and New Plot Points
Because 99.9% of this book takes place removed from the worlds and conflicts of the current Star Wars timeline, this book almost feels like it isn’t part of the GFFA at all, and that’s actually a great thing. Because it’s removed from the main conflict, it isn’t burdened by the Clone Wars at all. Because it’s geographically removed, the Chiss are not members of the Republic. The result is one of the freshest settings for a Star Wars books I’ve seen in a while.
Fortunately, the story lets us dive deeper into these story elements. The concept of the 9 ruling families feels like something out of a fantasy novel. It is an ancient system, and unlike the Republic, the Ascendency does not seem like it’s on the verge of collapsing. So what we have are protagonists firmly rooted in a system they don’t feel they can (or should) change, so they operate within it.
The way the families operate, by adopting members into their families and having them “achieve” higher levels of family membership, is a new concept in the Star Wars canon (at least to my knowledge). They have various levels of family membership: some are biological, some are adoptive. There are trials to be faced in order for the adoptive members to move up in rank. The family homesteads are in massive underground caverns. And when I say massive, I mean an entire compound with multiple buildings and extensive “outdoor space” entered around 8-storey mansions.
The other beings, “aliens” as they’re called here, are new to me. Because the world and the being occupying it are not familiar Star Wars entities, this is what makes the whole book feel like it’s taking place in a totally different space franchise.
Really, making this this different is probably the best thing Zahn could have done. The era in which the book is set – the late Clone Wars – is so extensively covered in other books and media, it has to be hard to come up with a new story that doesn’t tread over too much familiar ground. This gets around that problem by setting it somewhere in the galaxy that is rich, extensive, and unexplored (by the reader anyway).
When I say that the book is Star Trek flavoured Star Wars, this is what I mean. While I have seen some of Star Trek, I’m not nearly as immersed in it as I am the GFFA. So to me, this book has shades of something familiar, without too many obvious Star Wars tones. There is a large conflict, yes, but it isn’t a conflict we’ve seen 100 times. There are several groups of beings fighting for power, but we are only familiar with one group, our point-of-view group. The politics seem like they’re hinting at something real world, but it isn’t the same ones we’re used to seeing.
This metaphor is getting all mixed up, so just trust me when I say the new setting works to the books advantage.
2. Thrawn: Not Such A Bad Guy
Wow, me saying that the ambiguous “villain” is complex and deserves empathy maybe? Revolutionary.
Ok but hear me out.
When we meet him in the Thrawn books, he joins and then quickly rises in the ranks of the Empire. Empire = the bad guys, therefore Thrawn = bad guy.
But here’s the thing.
Thrawn is a strategist, first and foremost. The Empire had numbers, and resources with which Thrawn could carry out his own agenda. I never got the impression that he was in it for the love of Palpatine or something.
That is even more apparent here. Unlike those other books, he isn’t a Grand Admiral at the top of his game, he is a Senior Captain trying to rise in the ranks while his superiors try to smack him back down. He is the underdog. And, most importantly, when it comes to the impending threat to the Ascendancy, he is right. He sees things his superiors are unwilling to recognize and he actually tries to do something about it.
Also unlike the other books, NONE of this book is told from his point of view. It’s how the other Chiss see him, for better or worse, which allows us to form an opinion about the type of person he is.
He is straightforward, has no pretence, is considerate of everyone on his team, and generally seems to have the greater good in mind, even if he is extremely blunt about it and sometimes doesn’t care to explain his point of view. The worst thing that can be said about him, from the point of view of the other characters, is that is ambitious but refuses to “play the game”.
3. The “Supporting Cast”
I say “supporting cast” only because the book is not names after them. But they are frankly anything but. Ar’alani, Thalias and Che’ri are all important point of view characters. Though it is through them that we see what Thrawn is doing, and through them we speculate how he is feeling, each of them gets their own motivation and drive so that they aren’t just accessories to Thrawn’s narrative.
Ar’alani and Thrawn are close friends (how close? You tell me, AO3) and her constant struggle is maintaining the balance between her career’s upward trajectory while also trying to support and sanction the work Thrawn does because she sees the benefit in it. We learn in one of the “memory” flashbacks that she was removed from her family, though the circumstances remain a mystery. I expect this will play into her motivations later.
Che’ri is a 9-year old sky-walker who has been passed from caretaker to caretaker, none of whom seem to care much about her as a person. She is also plagued with anxieties over her current role as navigator and over what will happen to her once she loses her force sensitivity (called Third Sight here).
Thalias is Che’ri’s new caretaker, but is also a former sky-walker herself. Though her initial motivation is just finding a chance to see and speak to Thrawn again, after a chance encounter when she was a child, she eventually becomes embroiled in the brewing conflict, and becomes interested in getting involved. She is also quite ingenious, asking to face the Mitth family trials in order to be elevated in family rank just to prove a point and to continue as part of Thrawn and Ar’alani’s mission.
Though the book is nominally about a male character, and we do focus mostly on him, it is interesting how much of the narrative is told from the point of view of female characters, which was absolutely not what I was expecting.
4. That Crossover
About two-thirds of the way into the book, Thrawn and Che’ri explore the edges of “Lesser Space” in search of allies. They find a likely candidate in a woman named Duja on the planet Batuu. It is at this point the book crosses over with Thrawn: Alliances.
Reader, I screamed.
For a few, brief glorious pages we got to see Anakin Skywalker again. And though I didn’t listen to the audiobook, just knowing that limbo Anakin was back out in the world made me inexplicably happy.
You know what this is like? It’s like moving to a new country, going to a new school and then suddenly seeing one of your old classmates from back home in the hallway between third and fourth period.
Though we know from the older Thrawn trilogy that Chiss ships are navigated by Force-sensitive children known as sky-walkers, in this book we actually get to spend time with one: Che’ri.
She is one of the point of view characters, and the unique, difficult lives of the sky-walkers are interesting enough to me that I could easily read a whole book about them. We see how, while Thalias, Ar’alani and Thrawn all treat her like an individual, most other people (including the ones who are supposed to take care of her) treat Che’ri like an object, or a tool. This is especially interesting coming from Thrawn, since he is usually the kind to treat people as assets rather than individuals.
The unexplored parallel between the role of sky-walker, and Anakin’s last name “Skywalker” is also a continued source of fascination. Thrawn mentions the name is common enough in that part of Lesser space but if that’s the case then I have 2 questions:
- Is it? Is it actually or is he just saying that?
- Where did Shmi get her last name from?
There are the questions, Star Wars.
6. Wait, who are you people again?
I know I said one of the features of the book was an entirely new cast of beings with an entirely new conflict, but it wound up being one of my problems with the book as well.
There are at least 3 (and possibly as many as 5) races of aliens in this book, excluding the Chiss, none of whom we’ve met before. I just finished reading this book two days ago and I could not tell you who was who without taking notes.
In a standalone book that didn’t exist as part of a larger franchise, I wouldn’t have worried. But in something like Star Wars, I just know all these groups are going to matter later on, as are the nuances that separate them, and I couldn’t keep any of them straight.
Points Left Hanging
- Ar’alani, formerly known as Ziara, was kicked out of her family. Seems like something that happens among the Chiss, but what I want to know is why
- Similarly, Thrawn’s full name here changes between the memory segments (Mitth’raw’nuru) and the main plot line (Mitth’raw’nuruodo). What changed? Am I caring too much about the tiny stuff
- With the introduction of Che’ri, I now have a whole other character to care about in this universe, up there with Vah’nya and Eli Vanto. I just want to know that all these sweethearts are ok, honestly.
We’ve got students at academies, sneaking into parties in disguise, snooty family compounds. All excellent trope-y settings and I would like more please.
Thrawn takes Ar’alani on a date to an art gallery and it’s the nerdiest thing ever.
This book is so Star Trek the Chiss have their own version of the Prime Directive. Though this has less to do with interfering with a world’s development and more to do with apathy, honestly.
Seriously, drop those Thrawn/Ar’alani AO3 links please and thank you. *ahem*