If you know anything about my deep, abiding love for Star Wars, then you know that I’m more than just a fan of lightsabers and starfighter battles. I also adore some of the clever things that the saga has produced, such as sympathetic Imperial characters like the infamous Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thankfully, he’s canon once more, and his original author, Timothy Zahn, has graced us with a new novel that ties into the closing run of the animated series Star Wars Rebels. It’s also a great opportunity for us longtime fans of the old Expanded Universe to see how Thrawn made his mark and climbed the ranks of the Empire as an alien.
In the early years of the Empire, a task force comes across a lone Chiss warrior in the wilderness, one claiming to have been exiled. When Mitth’raw’nuruodo (better known to the galaxy at large by his core name “Thrawn”) crosses paths with a young Ensign and translator named Eli Vanto, their destinies become intertwined. Together, between Thrawn’s military genius and Eli’s number-crunching, they’ll ascend the ranks of the Empire and prove a thorn in the side of both the High Command and the rising tide of insurgent groups. As Thrawn works his way to becoming Grand Admiral, he has his own agenda to pursue, and standing in his way is an equally devious opponent, orchestrating one encounter after another under the alias “Nightswan.” In this foe, the Chiss warrior has finally found his match.
Eli Vanto is a nice addition to the series. He’s a relatable protagonist, since Thrawn is more the main character with his career arc laid out before him. Eli has to make more critical decisions in relation to the Chiss warrior and in terms of his own principles. On the one hand, he’s very much the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmes. But on the other hand, Eli is his own guy. He’s a loyal Imperial who’s fighting his status as a backwater rube destined to be a low-level supply officer—something he originally wanted to be, before our blue-skinned friend came by.
And speaking of characters who aren’t Thrawn, I was surprised to see Arihnda Pryce (the female Governor from Star Wars Rebels) make an appearance here. She’s basically the B-story in this novel, but it doesn’t diminish the book. Compared to Thrawn and Eli’s plot to maneuver the military chain of command, Pryce makes her own course on the civilian side. She’s earning and claiming favors in the political arena, fighting betrayals and stepping over others to get to the top rung of the ladder on Coruscant and Lothal. In effect, what we see here is the midpoint between Thrawn and Eli’s characters: another person from a backwater planet in the Empire, but one with enough political cunning and ruthlessness to snatch victory from every defeat.
I’ll also say that reading through Thrawn as a novel makes me appreciate the new canon in the Star Wars saga. Whereas the old Expanded Universe (now known as “Legends“) was a lot more disjointed and tried to cobble every story under the sun into the same timeline, the new canon is more streamlined and better constructed. Things are set up to tie into every other piece of media, from animated shows like Star Wars Rebels to movies like The Force Awakens and Rogue One to other novels like the Aftermath series. And it’s always a treat to see what Legends material authors like Zahn get to bring back, such as the Chiss Ascendancy and side characters like Voss Parck. I know those names don’t mean much to casual Star Wars audiences, but they help flesh out the universe a little bit more, blending the old with the new.
If I have one complaint about the novel (and really, it’s only one), it’s that the ultimate reveal and payoff of Nightswan didn’t thrill me like I hoped. I appreciated the connection that Thrawn had to this individual, but ultimately I was hoping for it to be a more established character from the franchise showing off their strategic prowess. Even so, this book is worth the price just to see Thrawn play intergalactic three-dimensional chess with such a worthy opponent, because that’s our Grand Admiral does best.
Bibliography: Zahn, Timothy. Star Wars: Thrawn. New York: Del Rey, 2017.