While Thrawn Alliances is technically a sequel to 2017’s Thrawn, it also works well as an enjoyable extension of the Star Wars animated canon. That role is particularly fitting now that a seventh season of The Clone Wars has been announced, landing squarely in the middle of Rebels, The Clone Wars, and the rebooted book canon.
The sequel moves a lot faster and has a more energetic central dynamic than the first book. It’s a science fiction beach read in the best way, brisk and amusing, with some cool additions to the Star Wars galaxy. Some of that entertainment comes from knowing that readers will one day be able to step onto Batuu, one of the book’s settings. That’s the planet featured in the lore for the Walt Disney parks’ upcoming Star Wars land. I found myself wondering what the park would look like based on the descriptions. It was cool to think that I might one day sit in a similar bar to the one where Anakin and Thrawn start their mission.
The strength of the two heavyweight protagonists is one of the elements that keep the novel entertaining. The book is split into two different timelines, one featuring Anakin Skywalker, then-Commander Thrawn, and Padmé Amidala during the Clone Wars, and the second following Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader during the Galactic Civil War. Rebels fans will know Thrawn as the alien genius who narrowly lost the battle against the good guys. In the book, he’s smarting from that defeat and plenty motivated to remain in his precarious spot in the Emperor’s good graces.
Thrawn and Vader are delightfully passive-aggressive: forced by Emperor Palpatine to get along, they resort to undermining one another’s orders and generally trying to make one another’s lives inconvenient. The question of whether Thrawn knows Vader’s former identity is always present, adding a layer of tension. You’ll want to find out exactly how far the rivalry will go and who each character is most loyal to, especially when Thrawn’s loyalty to his own species comes into play.
The troopers on Thrawn’s and Vader’s respective ships play out a similar drama in miniature. It was interesting to see the troops cohere, but their scenes were also weirdly sanitized for Imperials. Because the stormtroopers are fighting alien combatants, there’s little to telegraph the fact that this is the Empire — the planet-destroying, Leia-torturing Empire — and that the audience should not be rooting for them.
The book does mention that many Imperial officers are power-hungry, but it was odd to find myself hoping that some of these characters would survive their battles, only to remember that they signed up for the Jedi-killing side of the war. Implicit in characters like these might be the need for an explanation of why they aren’t the good guys in the stark Star Wars moral dichotomy — why they did not choose to be, and why their actions, despite being beneficial to the protagonists, don’t confer goodness upon them. This isn’t Inferno Squad, which makes sure the reader knows its protagonists do terrible things. Instead, it’s more like Lords of the Sith, treating Vader and Thrawn more as tanks than as super villains.
It’s built into the Star Wars universe that selfishness is punished, selflessness rewarded, and the bad guys lose — except when the book is populated almost entirely by bad guys. That also leads to some questions about why exactly the villains in the Galactic Civil War portion of Thrawn Alliances are villainous. There aren’t any actual characters on the bad guys’ side, just faceless troops from an alien species that may or may not be competing with the Chiss for galactic space. Their crimes are no lesser or greater than those committed by the Empire (or the Republic).
In the Clone Wars era (Clone Wars era!!), Anakin and Thrawn’s story could practically be an episode of the TV show. In this case, that’s a good thing. Anakin’s voice fits the character of a volatile and deeply sensitive Jedi perfectly, showing how his emotions rule him. There isn’t a direct line from this book to Revenge of the Sith. Thrawn Alliances layers mostly on itself rather than onto other stories in the canon. But that’s okay. This section does have a villain — a Count Dooku lite — and it was refreshing to go back to a story in which the Republic is thriving (if not for long).
That two-layered format creates some interesting attempts to layer the familiar characters in somewhat new ways: I really liked the emphasis on flying and navigation, which clearly connects to Anakin’s prowess as a pilot. Darth Vader’s memories of Anakin are handled with a cold disconnect that conveys chilling emotion.
The writing style is exactly what one would expect from Timothy Zahn, and if you follow Star Wars books, in general, you likely know whether you’ll enjoy that already. Some scenes suffered from never quite explaining where characters were positioned in relation to one another. More physical description would also have been appreciated. Side characters have cursory personalities, if not arcs, and I would have liked to be able to put faces to those names. However, the story moves quickly enough that I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them.
Padmé also gets her own adventure, in which she bluffs, charms, and blasts her way around in an attempt to find out who killed her former ally. There isn’t a lot to go on when it comes to her characterization in the films, and to his credit, Zahn gives her a solid motivation and matches her voice from The Clone Wars well. She also gets to put her signature weapon, that grappling hook from The Phantom Menace, to good use. At times her quest read like a tabletop game, in a good way, with Padmé choosing how best to solve the mystery and proceed forward using the skills she has. In fact, the book as a whole often felt like a game — immersive, fast-moving, and a little bit constrained.
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