By now, you probably know whether you like Grand Admiral Thrawn or not. I’m one of those fans who could take or leave the almost presciently intelligent villain. Meanwhile, Thrawn has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence since he was brought in from the Legends timeline for Star Wars Rebels.
Thrawn: Treason, the latest Thrawn novel from his original creator Timothy Zahn, is not a standalone novel, and it hopes readers already know Rogue One, Rebels, and especially Eli Vanto, the translator-turned-strategic protege Thrawn took on in the earlier novels in this canon series. Overall, Treason is a solidly constructed story that includes a lot of almost-explored threads worthy of their own novels.
After Thrawn: Alliances connected the Original Trilogy and the Prequels, Treason returns to the early days of the Galactic Civil War. The rebellion is hardly a presence in the galaxy. The Death Star project is underway, so Rogue One’s Orson Krennic is concentrating on both his super-weapon project and his velvet-gloved rivalry with Grand Moff Tarkin. Tarkin challenges Thrawn to get rid of the pests challenging Krennic’s supply chain. Krennic gives him one week to do it and wagers Thrawn’s pet project, the TIE Defender squad.
The real stakes are clear: either Thrawn fails and Tarkin is discredited, or he succeeds and the Death Star project scoops up his R&D funding. Of course, the story soon becomes bigger than that: the Chiss have appeared in the known galaxy, fighting their old nuisance, the Grysks.
Those threads separated from the main story are both strengths and weaknesses. As usual, the legendary Star Wars author’s ability to create an intricate mystery is impressive. Thrawn masterfully predicts what an enemy is going to do next (and oh boy, does it go from masterful to “basically psychic” sometimes). Therefore, Zahn has to make his novel work on at least two levels: moving the plot forward and doing so in a way that other characters find out about it only gradually compared to Thrawn. It’s impressive, if not exactly a stretch of the author’s creative muscles.
The book starts slow. Although it’s clear from the beginning that removing pests from the supply lines isn’t Thrawn’s only challenge, that’s still the hook the book opens with. Of course, the Death Star project is looming over all of it, but it’s still an animal control job. I found myself wishing that Thrawn would be less subtle about investigating what the Empire is actually building, or for some bonkers reveal about Thrawn having helped build the superweapon. There are some wink-nudge conversations, but they are understated—a tone which I usually enjoy but which here feel cold.
One exception to that coldness is Director Krennic, whose dialogue is so pitch-perfect I could almost hear Ben Mendelsohn. His malicious amusement adds energy to every scene he’s in. It’s therefore especially disappointing when he’s replaced with Ronan, an assistant director on the Death Star project. Ronan is canonically a Krennic mimic; he idolizes the man and has the same fondness for capes. His voice is watered down in comparison to Krennic’s, though, and his characterization is buried beneath a too-long action subplot in the middle of the book.
Another new character, Grand Admiral Ar’alani, gives tantalizing glimpses into Chiss capabilities also hinted at in Thrawn: Alliances. Especially in regards to the Chiss navigators Ar’alani oversees, Treason offers up plenty of questions that could add up to a twist on Force users as we know them. Many answers can be implied, but it’s also frustrating that more attention isn’t paid to the navigators. Ar’alani is compelling: a buttoned-up admiral when she needs to be, she also shows moments of compassion. New Chiss characters could have an entire book to themselves if Star Wars was willing to use Thrawn as a springboard to explore more of the galaxy instead of returning to the scene of his deductions.
Eli Vanto’s time among the Chiss provides some of this. The Imperial analyst is being groomed for something among the aliens, but he isn’t sure what. The best of the Chiss scenes have a C.J. Cherryh quality; Eli is the lone human among severe and dignified aliens. (The fact that they’ve transformed his name into a Chiss-style three-part name is very endearing.) But it’s never quite clear what the Chiss Ascendancy’s political structure or moral framework is, which is especially odd when it’s supposed to be very alien. It’s also not presented as better or worse than the Galactic Empire, leaving us with a bad cop-bad cop interrogation of both the Grysks and the nascent Rebellion. The Grysks are aggressively trying to grab territory and the Rebellion is just a whisper, so the Ascendancy hasn’t really had to make any sweeping moral choices. The titular treachery is further defanged because we don’t really know what Thrawn’s loyalty to his own people stems from. He remains a mystery himself.
Fans of technobabble will find plenty here, with characters having lengthy conversations about the physics of their plans. It’s more Star Trek than Star Wars at points, but Star Wars has also always had its love for minutiae and definitions. Krennic’s Death Troopers are fleshed out a bit, and the relatively thorough look behind the masks is refreshing after the novel plays coy with the Chiss. As in the other Thrawn novels, I disagree with the fundamental idea that keeping things a mystery makes for a stronger story. Sometimes, it just reveals a lack of detail.
Thrawn has a clear loyalty and motive without being upfront about it, and that’s an impressive balance to strike. As usual, Zahn’s craft is so solid. The pacing is admirable, the mysteries well doled-out. His ability to write movie characters that feel cinematic is one of the reasons he has been a beloved Star Wars author for so long. But Treason seems to mute those strengths, while at the same time being a perfectly competent novel about Thrawn out-thinking his enemies. With lots of quiet informational fencing and muted stakes, it leans almost entirely on Rogue One for tension.
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