This Star Wars review contains spoilers.
Although Grand Admiral Thrawn is known for being fond of preemptive strikes, the Thrawn novel always seems to be waiting for some signal to start.
The newest Timothy Zahn novel generated a lot of anticipation in advance, since it re-introduces an iconic Legends character and makes him canon again. The book also promised to fill in some of the backstory for the version of Grand Admiral Thrawn currently working for the Empire in Star Wars Rebels. The novel does offer some shading to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmesian characterization, but the people around him aren’t as well-drawn, and the novel seems to suffer from its placement in the saga. Too close to Rebels to be suspenseful and too far from Thrawn’s Chiss upbringing to seem alien, his exploits seem oddly banal for a character so surrounded by art.
Every Holmes needs a Moriarty, and the lack of a clearly established villain is another thing that hurt the novel. The person codenamed Nightswan is introduced as a nuisance who has been plaguing Thrawn for some time, but his attacks aren’t personal. Nightswan’s identity is one of the big questions of the book, but the reveal seems both inevitable and unnecessarily safe. As much as I’ve criticized Rebels for having too many cameos, I kept expecting Thrawn to include a character more well known than Governor Pryce, or to pick up some more steam. With threats no more significant than space pirates and very early Rebel cells to challenge him, Thrawn’s rise through the ranks is mostly… inoffensive.
Then there’s Thrawn’s John Watson, the translator-protege Eli Vanto. As the audience’s entrance into the story, Eli allows Thrawn to bounce explanations off of someone, giving Zahn a chance to explain what might otherwise seem like ideas pulled out of the ether. Vanto’s backwater home and the reaction he gets from upper-crust Imperials make him endearing, but other than his occupation, he seems almost interchangeable with the succession of other Imperial soldiers we see as Thrawn rises through the ranks.
A lot of Vanto’s choices are, by nature, controlled by his relationship with Thrawn, and perhaps one of the most significant emotional decisions in the book occurs when he decides whether to continue on with his career or remain in Thrawn’s shadow. It’s a nicely placed scene, if brief.
To be fair, none of this is particularly unusual for a Timothy Zahn novel. I find most of his work to be dry, the sparse physical descriptions and even sparser emotional arcs contributing to a no-nonsense pace that drew a lot of fans back when the Expanded Universe was just getting started. Zahn avoids a lot of physical description of either space battles or physical fights, which I find frustrating but some fans may find enjoyable. Even a scene including explosive gas and space pirates doesn’t feel immediate, although I do like the way it establishes Thrawn’s penchant for intentionally springing traps and turning plans against their owners.
Zahn’s tendency to repeat words and embellish his dialogue tags does seem to have been reined in a bit here. I was a bit worried after reading one of the excerpts, in which an attempt to make Emperor Palpatine frighteningly blasé about the tyranny of his reign just resulted in a scene in which every character seemed bored. The rest of the novel improves on the excerpt, though, leaving phrases like “a medium-sized eternity” behind for more precise, if unchallenging, language.
One drastic change in this book is that we do get to see from Thrawn’s point of view, and his observations of body language (in both the visual and infrared spectrums!) are nicely different. It’s always cool to see an author try a new format, even if it doesn’t give a lot of insight into why Thrawn does what he does. His ambition is sometimes a mystery even to himself. I do like how the scenes with the Imperial cadets show that Thrawn is entirely unconcerned with gaining the approval of his peers. His calm persona never shakes. He’s certainly consistent.
However, that doesn’t mean the book doesn’t reveal new things about his backstory. The first scene was one of my favorites in the book, painting Thrawn as a clever ghost demolishing an unsuspecting Imperial squad. Hints at his life among the Chiss are just hints, but they’re intriguing ones. Thrawn also has a significant weakness: his machinations tend to leave other people in the dust, and the novel points out that he wouldn’t have been nearly as well-received except for some convenient connections. (Those could make for an interesting story themselves, and the novel certainly has several sequel hooks.)
This weakness helps make Thrawn a bit less untouchable and adds to his character, as do the scenes in which he goes into detail about how he interprets a species’ behavior from their art. It still all feels like flavor rather than real characterization, though, and the lack of a personal motivation for Thrawn makes it all feel like it’s spinning its wheels.
Soon-Governer Arihnda Pryce contributes more of a personal story to the novel. After playing second fiddle to Thrawn in Rebels, she does get the spotlight in the novel a bit. It’s good to be able to fill in some of the gaps about her history, and there’s some intriguing contradictions in her personality. These don’t quite cohere into particularly insightful characterization, but they at least make her a character who is more distinct and easier to explain than she was before: her sympathetic motivation doesn’t change the fact that she’s willing to throw other people under the bus to get what she wants.
Unfortunately, though, her story is bogged down in the minutiae of mining and Lothal finances. These in particular are elements that I thought wouldn’t be nearly as important as they were: a large part of the plot is composed of Thrawn chasing down precious metals. I kept expecting those plot elements to unfold to reveal something else – something bigger, something more threatening, or maybe a familiar character. (Ahsoka as Fulcrum, perhaps?) Instead, for a novel focused on reading into tiny details, the big plot elements stay about the same throughout the book. Despite neatly filling in the gaps when it comes to Thrawn’s life, the novel gets dragged down by its own pacing. And if you’ve seen Rebels, you already know how it ends.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.