“Greater Good” is the second part of Timothy Zahn’s Ascendancy trilogy. The first volume ended with the defeat of General Yiv and his aggressive race of aliens. The epilogue already hinted at that this was only the beginning, and that the mysterious Jixtus has more cunning plans to destroy the Chiss Ascendancy in reserve.
“Greater Good” happens against the background of this next, more subtle plan. Another species used by Jixtus, the Agbui, are sent to learn about the Chiss and exploit the weaknesses of their society. One such weakness is the system of families and their internal rivalries and quests for influence. I won’t get into details here because of spoilers, but “Greater Good” shows the internal workings of the Chiss society much more than the previous books did.
Multiple Storylines, New Characters
There are multiple plotlines the story is following. One is that of the Agbui and their mission, and the Chiss ranchers they are dealing with on a backwater world. Another is Thrawn’s mission and that of his fellow officers who are tasked with cleaning up General Yiv’s remnant. During this endevour they stumble upon alien refugees led by the mysterious Magys. Other major characters from the previous books, like Admiral Ar’alani and Syndic Thurfian, also get their own minor storylines. All of the plotlines are intervowen, some more closely, some less.
This time Timothy Zahn excels in introducing multifaceted and relatable characters. There is a traditional set of Chiss military officers struggling between the loyalty to their families, adherence to the protocol and Thrawn’s often difficult-to-follow plans. But not everything in the book is about Thrawn. There are multiple characters that get their own space, such as Captain Lakinda, the ranchers from Celwis or the Chiss couple the Agbui are first travelling with. All of these are fully fleshed-out and as a reader, I was interested in learning what was happening to them as much, and sometimes perhaps more, than about Thrawn.
It seems that Zahn has managed to tone down his traditional problem, that of describing battle scenes that not all readers are always able to follow. They are still present to a degree, but there are considerably fewer of them. That may be a disadvantage for those who like them and enjoy them as Thrawn’s signature moves.
What I consider to be a bigger problem is the overall form of the story. It is a bit too linear. We start with the introduction of the alien infiltrators and we know that they are up to no good. We are actually straightaway told that Jixtus hired them to somehow destroy the Chiss Ascendancy from within. Via a series of flashbacks we gradually see how they got into the position they are in now. Finally, in one of the last chapters, all the cards are laid on the table. Gasp. The aliens want to do exactly what it looked like they wanted to do since the beginning.
I do not mean to say that the story needed some dramatic plot twist. But it is framed the way that you are expecting perhaps some payoff. Given the amount of space used to set up the scene, the outcome is somewhat trivial.
Even bigger problem is that as a rule of thumb, problems in the story are solved all too easily. This may very much come down to a reader’s personal preferrence. Myself, I even like it when plot does not get too tangled. But literally nothing ever goes wrong in “Greater Good”, and that may get boring after a while. There are no instances of bad luck or of people being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that applies to both the heroes and the villains. Even the villains’ plan goes very smoothly, all the Chiss act the way the villains expect. One could say that the way the story unfolds in some way mirrors the modus operandi of Thrawn himself. There is no room left for chance or for accidents, everything is almost pre-determined.
Feels Like Star Trek
Despite these small shortcomings, “Greater Good” is a highly enjoyable book. A page-turner with amazing characters and a very thorough portrayal of the Chiss Ascendancy’s inner workings. Any fans of Thrawn should read it, but it is sure to be interesting even for generic sci-fi fans. Because once again (and this applies to the entire Ascendancy trilogy), “Greater Good” is set “beyond a Galaxy Far, Far Away” and almost feels more like Star Trek than Star Wars. In a good way.