The Sherlock of Star Wars: “Thrawn” Review

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The book that has been anticipated by many for several reasons. A “classic” character in a new coat. The famous sci-fi writer, winner of 1984 Hugo award, Timothy Zahn. A story set between Episode III and IV, before Star Wars Rebels.

For those unfamiliar with him, Thrawn is a genius strategist, from the race of mysterious Chiss, blue-skinned and red-eyed humanoids who live on the fringes of the known Galaxy. For reasons unknown to most, he had joined the Empire and, thanks to his skill and intelligence, achieved the rank of Grand Admiral. In the old Star Wars canon – and as we now see, also in the new – this was unprecedented for an alien in the Empire. Thrawn had to face prejudices and discrimination from other Imperial officers. The newest novel shows exactly how his ascension happened; shows his struggles, as well as his first achievements among the first seeds of unrest in the Empire, before the Rebellion broke out.

While novels about Thrawn have appeared first in the 1990s, Timothy Zahn’s newest one aims at being “user-friendly” also towards those who haven’t read them at all. And Zahn has managed the task of addressing both old and new audience quite effortlessly.

What is the book itself like, then?

Watson and Moriarty Included

A couple of years ago, when Episode VII was in the making, I saw an April Fools post: “Benedict Cumberbatch cast in Star Wars sequels as Thrawn”. Upon short reflection, it made sense: Benedict Cumberbatch tends to get the role of super-smart people nobody around them understands. After reading Thrawn, I would back that choice up 100%. If in the old books, Thrawn was known for his schemes depending on stunning logical analysis; here, he has become a complete Sherlock Holmes in a Star Destroyer.

Thrawn has four main characters, one of which is following her own storyline for most of the time. The remaining three are essentially Sherlock, Watson and Moriarty. Or, in other words, Thrawn, Imperial ensign Eli Vanto and the mysterious Nightswan.

Eli Vanto partly plays the role of Pellaeon from the original Thrawn trilogy by, at first, not really understanding what Thrawn is up to but following his orders, and later learning to somehow see inside his schemes. Nightswan is the mysterious instigator of unrest within the Empire, working behind the scenes. Thrawn becomes obsessed with him (and vice versa) and they are having a long battle of wits throughout large part of the book.

The odd-one-out protagonist is Arihnda Pryce, future governor of Lothal (and future ally of Tarkin) from Star Wars Rebels. Her story meets Thrawn’s a couple of times until inevitably fusing with it in the finale of the book (something the tale makes you expect long way ahead). Most of the time, however, we are following Arihnda’s daily life as an ambitious young woman from the Outer Rim arriving to Coruscant. We follow her struggle with finding suitable working post, her quest to navigate the world of high politics and to build connections on a world where she doesn’t know anybody.

Thrawn and Arihnda Pryce in Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars vs. Realism

Here we get to one unusual thing about Thrawn, which I realised after finishing the book. Genre-wise, it is actually not Star Wars. What I mean is that all Star Wars films are either very much fairy-tale or “mythology”. Even Zahn’s older books contain enough elements from the Galaxy Far, Far Away (like crazy Force users, superweapons or oppressed furry alien species) to make them feel like Star Wars. The atmosphere of Thrawn is vastly different.

From the literary standpoint, Thrawn is a drama. It is the story of a brilliant officer dealing with discrimination and of a lonely, ambitious woman trying to find a job and apartment and friends in a big city. It’s all just put into sci-fi environment. But what’s important is that this kind of story is really well-written.

One of the things Thrawn is making sure it delivers is realism. That includes both the absence of crazy stunts and the presence of everyday problems and activities like Arihnda Pryce looking for an apartment or going to a gym after work. That is also what distances it from the heroic world of the “classic” Star Wars. But I think, like Rogue One, it just shows a different face of the universum. Some may not like it, some may welcome it. I, for one, am happy that “realism” in Timothy Zahn’s interpretation does not mean “ugly, gritty and nihilistic”, as is often the case of films or books nowadays, including some Star Wars novels (and which does not feel like Star Wars at all).

I should make sure, however, that it doesn’t sound like Thrawn is all disconnected from the good ol’ Galaxy. Not by far. There are planets and strange species, pirates and smugglers. We get to see the Emperor himself, however briefly. We meet Tarkin. Fans of Imperial technology are going to hear about their favourite ships, get a look inside their hierarchy, see Imperial training academies and hear about their military protocol. The fans of Rebels show, on top of that, are going to hear a good deal about Lothal and see a few familiar minor characters. In more than one way, Thrawn could also be a prequel to Rebels, and if anybody is up for it, I am sure a multimedia project of “reading Thrawn – watching Rebels (especially once its fourth season is out) – watching Rogue One” would make for a nice, coherent story leading up to A New Hope. Indeed, in regards to Star Wars chronology, the big hole between episodes III and IV is getting patched up quite efficiently.

Timothy Zahn at 2012 New York Comic Con. Image source: © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

It’s All About Character Development

I would say one of the strengths of Thrawn are the main characters. Minor characters appearing in the book don’t really stand out. There are two or three important supporting characters – like commander Yularen and Arihnda’s friend, Juahir – but most of the minor characters are purely instrumental. There is a line of Imperial officers who fit somewhere on a scale between “annoying jerk who is prejudiced against Thrawn and hinders his progress” and “fairly nice officer who doesn’t understand Thrawn’s methods, but appreciates them in the end”. Most of the time, you don’t care about remembering their names, because, like I said, they serve rather as props to show Thrawn’s journey up the ranks.

This, leaves all the space for the protagonists, however. And if there is anything worth noticing in Thrawn, it is the character development of Thrawn, Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. They come and they learn. Eli learns to understand Thrawn. Thrawn and Arihnda both learn about the workings of the society and deal with the bumps on their respective paths upwards, which both have twists and turns. Timothy Zahn decided to present Thrawn’s and Arihnda’s paths as parallels, and it is even the more interesting when you read it knowing them to become future partners. Because in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn is introduced as being called upon by Arihnda, specifically requested to help against the Rebels. One of the things the book shows is how has their relationship formed and, indeed, what the relationship even is like.

Eli Vanto is also quite a good character. For most part, however, he serves as the medium for the readers through whose eyes we can observe Thrawn and wonder what in the name of all is he trying to accomplish. Maybe he is even slightly too archetypal for that – a young man, relatively clever, coming from a backwater but one step ahead of Thrawn in navigating the society. Maybe, if he were a bit less archetypal, some parts of the book which concern him more closely would have bigger impact.

Speaking of Eli, I will raise one question: why couldn’t he have been female? Not that it really matters whatsoever, but… exactly because it doesn’t matter, why not? (The same could be said about the Nightswan.) It was refreshing to see that Zahn’s portrayal of the Imperial military and politics shows equal proportion of male and female officers and senators; somehow, however, I think Zahn still gravitates towards putting men more often in the speaking, leading roles. Maybe it’s just a habit, though.

Arihnda Pryce and moff Tarkin discussing Thrawn’s assistance in Star Wars Rebels

The Verdict

So, does Thrawn live up to the expectations? As the last piece of the puzzle for the old-school fans who have been waiting to hear about this part of his life: yes. From 99%, it does not contradict the old books, at least not in any drastic way. It’s a pity Zahn couldn’t bring for example Pellaeon back, but on the other hand, he managed to put in a few cameos. Also, the first chapter of the book is essentially a re-telling of Mist Encounter, Zahn’s old short story about Thrawn, altered to be compliant with the new canon.

As a “prequel to Rebels“, it does the job as well. There are enough common themes and characters that it resonates.

As a stand-alone book, the story is captivating enough. It certainly kicks off in the way that you want to read more and more. Later, it gets muddled in the slightly repetitive scheme of “new insurgent situation – mistrusting officers – Thrawn showing to be right”. By that time, however, I also became invested in Arihnda’s story, which sparked more interest in reading onwards. That said, while governor Pryce in Rebels never stood out to me as particularly interesting character, Timothy Zahn has managed to portray her masterfully, flesh-and-blood, in a way the show never could. That made me enjoy the non-Thrawn parts of the book as much as the rest.

The best about the book, however, were a couple of tiny candies (one as early as in the first few chapters) which any Star Wars fan can appreciate. No spoilers, though.

There were some tiny bits which disturbed me, too. The character of Nightswan certainly could have had more space (but still leaves some questions open that could be filled later in some other works). The grand finale was good, but something felt a bit rough on the edges. Also Arihnda’s principal union with Thrawn, while long in the making, did not feel as organic as the book made me expect. One of the question that occurred to me at this point was how much liberty did Timothy Zahn have in writing, whether Arihnda’s story was something that was forced upon him externally and whether he had to weave it into his own story which was supposed to be exclusively about Thrawn. It sometimes felt a bit like that.

Overall, however, I enjoyed embarking on the journey with Thrawn, Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. In some way, the entire story is like a theatre play with four actors and the remaining roles of officers, senators or pirates are just filled by extras. But there is something Shakespearian about the main characters and the relationships between them. Thrawn would actually make a magnificent play and I would love someone to rewrite it as such. If you ever do that, Mr. Zahn, I volunteer to participate.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.