Timothy Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with a new novel exploring beyond the galaxy far, far away.
Grand Admiral Thrawn is, for a lot of fans, the clearest bridge between canon and Legends stories within the Star Wars universe. Before Disney purchased Lucasfilm and declared the Expanded Universe stories non-canon, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the brilliant blue-skinned Chiss in charge of the Empire’s remaining forces, was the official primary villain facing the original trilogy characters after Return of the Jedi in a trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn. And fans loved him. But of course, the character became just a legend when Disney rebranded the Expanded Universe stories in 2014. The character was so popular, however, that Lucasfilm reintroduced the character into canon, albeit in a different part of the Star Wars timeline, as the primary villain in Star Wars: Rebels. This was followed up by a new trilogy of novels by Timothy Zahn detailing Thrawn’s rise through the Imperial ranks.
But Zahn’s novels weren’t really an origin story because they don’t tell us much about where Thrawn came from. The Chiss are a mysterious race that exist somewhere beyond the known galaxy in the Unknown Regions. This is where Thrawn came from, and this is what Zahn’s latest novel Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, the beginning of a new trilogy exploring Thrawn’s Chiss origins, is about.
The rise of chaos
The story begins with a mysterious attack upon the Chiss people, and the primary drive of the novel is Thrawn’s uncovering of the truth of who attacked them and why. He’s aided by a close ally named Admiral Ar’alani and a mysterious woman from his past named Thalias. The story has a primary villain, which you’ll discover near the middle of the novel, but conflict arises just as much by those that Thrawn should be able to rely on as his own people.
A focus on worldbuilding
A large focus of the novel is worldbuilding. The Chiss are a society we’ve only encountered from a far distance, and now we’re seeing them up close. The story has to introduce us to a world that sits right at home within the Star Wars universe, yet gives us something new. The Chiss are ruled by powerful families, and like the galaxy we’re familiar with, society is highly political-based. Some readers might say the novel is too focused on worldbuilding to the detriment of the story, but I didn’t come away with that. The world feels authentic and necessary to the story Zahn’s telling.
The novel includes several interludes between chapters throughout that explore flashbacks relevant to Thrawn’s background in the Chiss Ascendancy. We quickly learn that Thrawn is known for his brilliance, but he’s also highly distrusted. Even among his own powerful family, which he’s adopted into, you get the sense that Thrawn is a bit of an embarrassment, and his family just wants to avoid future embarrassment. Because of this, Thrawn seems both on a mission to prove himself and yet he’s a political disaster waiting to happen. For all his brilliance, he can’t read the political landscape of his people very well, and this creates deep conflict for him.
Thrawn from a distance
The story itself is compelling, full of action and deep political conflict, but it suffers from one significant flaw: Thrawn novels are never really about Thrawn. They’re about characters immediately impacted by Thrawn’s actions. We never actually get to see inside of Thrawn’s head. We can only infer what he’s thinking from what we see and what he says to other characters. This is both a strength and a weakness of the novel. A strength because the point-of-view of characters it does focus on are compelling. Thalias and Ar’alani carry the weight of this story, and they do it well. Zahn makes you want to know more about them, and you can’t help but root for them. But it’s also a weakness because there’s a clear divide between the reader and Thrawn that cannot be lessened. It feels like a disconnect. Most fans are picking up the novel to read about Thrawn, but we only really encounter Thrawn from a distance.
Aside from that, if you’re a fan of Thrawn, you’ll probably enjoy Chaos Rising. There’s a fun cameo from a character we all know and love in the last half of the novel that’s brief but satisfying. And as the first novel in a trilogy, it creates enough curiosity to surely bring readers back for more in the second novel when it releases.
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