Author Timothy Zahn discusses worldbuilding in Chaos Rising and more

Key art for Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy – Chaos Rising. Photo: Star Wars/Penguin Random House.
Key art for Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy – Chaos Rising. Photo: Star Wars/Penguin Random House. /

Timothy Zahn spoke with about Chaos Rising, his new Star Wars novel about the origin of popular villain Thrawn.

In 1991, Timothy Zahn introduced Star Wars fans to a new adventure for the original trilogy characters through a trilogy of books that began with Heir to the Empire. As the then-authorized definitive continuation of the Star Wars saga, the story explored the aftermath of the Rebels’ victory at the end of Return of the Jedi, including Luke’s development into a more confident and skilled Jedi Knight and the establishment of the New Republic.

But the story’s highlight was its primary villain, the tactically brilliant and ruthless Grand Admiral Thrawn. Known for his blue skin and startling red eyes, Thrawn and the last remnants of the Empire posed a formidable threat against Luke, Han, and Leia before ultimately meeting his demise.

The re-introduction of a fan-favorite villain from the Expanded Universe

When Disney declared the Expanded Universe non-canon in 2014, fans were perhaps most disappointed that Thrawn was no longer a part of the official Star Wars story. The sequel trilogy would go on to tell a much different story than the one previously told in the Expanded Universe. Fortunately, however, Lucasfilm realized the importance of the character and re-introduced Thrawn into canon in Star Wars: Rebels and a trilogy of novels by the character’s creator, Timothy Zahn.

Now, Timothy Zahn is back with the first in a new trilogy of novels exploring Thrawn’s origins in the Chiss Ascendancy. The book is called Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, and he recently sat down with to discuss the novel. Here are some highlights from the interview.

World-building beyond the galaxy far, far away

If you look at the back cover for Chaos Rising, you’ll read a twist on the opening tag of the Star Wars episodes, “A long time ago beyond a galaxy far, far away….” That’s because the new Thrawn trilogy takes place in an area of the galaxy that has been previously unexplored except in suggestions across a variety of Star Wars media. This is Chaos, and it is beyond the known Star Wars galaxy. The home of Csilla, where the Chiss Ascendancy sits, has been attacked from alien invaders, and it’s up to Thrawn, a rising but not uncontroversial figure in the Chiss Ascendancy, to figure out why.

Writing Chaos Rising required significant world-building by Zahn to show a world different than we’ve experienced in previous Star Wars stories but that fits well into the overall narrative.

When asked about his approach to creating the complex Chiss society for the novel by, Zahn had this to say:

"A lot of it is what’s called, “consequence testing.” If there are these nine ruling families, how does the rest of society work? I decided early on that the Chiss don’t have the same democratic branches that we’re used to in the US. All that happens within the Syndicure. So, I figure out, “How does that work, how do you keep it stable, how do you keep it from becoming an overall dictatorship?”"

The novel explores the implications of a government run by nine ruling families that can’t agree or get along, and it’s interesting to see how this context shapes Thrawn into the man we come to know and love in the Empire.

A different side of Thrawn

Thrawn is definitively a villain in the Star Wars universe, and yet, there are times in this novel that he seems like one of the good guys. He’s an intelligent if not unorthodox leader who only wants to protect his people from further attack. But Zahn introduces a new perspective on Thrawn, one that reveals him to be almost benevolent toward those who can’t defend themselves, including those outside his own world.

Still, the aggression that we see in later stories is still there. Zahn shared that Thrawn’s “ruthlessness comes out when something is in his way that shouldn’t be or that he feels shouldn’t be. He’s willing to go through that obstacle no matter what the consequences are.”

A unique twist on the rise of sky-walker

Fans of the previous in-canon Thrawn trilogy have already encountered the Chiss concept of sky-walkers, the young Force-sensitive girls who help Chiss ships navigate the treacherous space of the Chaos. Chaos Rising explores the role of these young navigators more fully.

Though the name of Skywalker is, of course, familiar to Star Wars fans, Zahn has added an intriguing twist on the name through these specially trained navigators. “The name itself makes sense,” Zahn said. “[T]hese people are truly traversing the stars.” Though Zahn doesn’t go in-depth about the connection between these young Chiss navigators and the Skywalker family, there’s enough there to have fans speculating for years to come about the implications in future Star Wars stories of the Chiss concept of sky-walkers for the galaxy as a whole.

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Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is available now. To read more about Zahn’s approach to writing Thrawn in Chaos Rising, check out the interview on And for more on Chaos Rising and other Star Wars books, check out the Books section on Dork Side of the Force.