Alongside Ahsoka Tano, Thrawn is another of the long-existing characters that are currently rising from obscurity to the mainstream Star Wars media. Now the genius Chiss admiral got himself a mention in The Mandalorian and will get a stand-alone novel series. “Ascendancy: Chaos Rising” is the first of them.
In the first novel series focussing on him, one could still see that Thrawn was more like a footnote to the events of the new canon. Now it seems like Timothy Zahn got past the mandatory contracts and could write a story that is only about Thrawn with no requirement to have Vader or the characters from Rebels providing the necessary link.
A Stand-Alone Sci-Fi
The book is introduced with the words “A long time ago, BEYOND a Galaxy far, far away…” Which is a very neat summary of the setting. Everything in the first book happens among the Chiss, in the regions beyond the Republic space, in the area known as Chaos. The Chiss Ascendancy sees itself as the bastion of order amidst this chaos of alien nations often warring with each other. When an unknown enemy threatens civilisations on the Chiss border, young commander Thrawn faces a difficulty: how to act with the Ascendancy’s strict non-intervention politics in place.
The book is chiefly aimed at the audience who know Thrawn. You would not know that this was a Star Wars novel if it were not for that: there are no Jedi, no lightsabers, no Empire, no Republic, aside from one or two mentions. However, at the same time, paradoxically this makes the book more accessible to a wider audience. Even if you have never heard of Thrawn, you can pick this up and read it as a generic sci-fi novel. Zahn introduces the Chiss space in a way that makes us feel instantly “at home”.
A Likeable Character Cast
The “Chissocentric” perspective is the main device of the book. We learn the inner workings of the Chiss society and about the rivalries between their Families. We learn more about young Thrawn’s difficulties in navigating the society. He is the genius who not everybody understands and some downright see him as a loose cannon.
Not his friend Ar’alani, however, and a few other rare souls. The character cast is overall very likeable: Commander Ar’alani (a familiar face to Thrawn fans) who helps Thrawn from tight spots with her understanding of politics, the ex-sky-walker (hyperspace navigator) Thalias who ends up taking care of the sky-walker Che’ri, who starts as a fearful little girl but through encouragement grows up. All those characters are secondary to Thrawn, but they have their own character development. My favourite minor character is Captain Samakro, who is your typical “I-don’t-like-this-new-commander” officer, but whose sense of honour makes him suppress his personal grudges and instead follow Thrawn’s orders.
The story ties-in with the second of recent Thrawn novels, Alliances. In one chapter, we get a glimpse of the events in Alliances from Thrawn’s point of view. Indeed, it would be possible to interrupt the reading of Chaos Rising, read Alliances (or the part taking place during the Clone Wars) and then return to the first book, and you would have a neat narrative. That being said, it is not necessary to read Alliances to understand Chaos Rising, but it helps.
Mentally Shaking His Head
The narrative is smooth and the book is easy to read. Zahn is a seasoned writer after all. There are only a few complaints one might have. The “zahnisms” (=situations where Thrawn does something “Sherlock-y” in a space battle and you need to read the paragraph five times to understand what just happened) are very, very few in this book (there may be literally one or two). You can also play a drinking game with the phrase “XY mentally shook her/his head”. But these are all minor details that do not disrupt the reading much.
What feels more like a loss is that some of the “Chekov’s guns” or character arcs that seem like going somewhere in the beginning but end up somewhat lacklustre. For example, abovementioned captain Samakro is introduced in a way that makes one expect a confrontation with Thrawn somewhere down the line, but that never happens. Similarly, as I have also mentioned above, some of the supporting characters get sidelined at the expense of Thrawn himself. For example, Thalias’s inner life and her attitude to the whole thing feel like it would deserve more space than it has. Maybe some of these plots are still going to resurface in the upcoming volumes.
All in all, Chaos Rising is a very promising start to a new trilogy. It is pure Zahn, pure Thrawn, and pure sci-fi portraying a complex alien society. Is it Star Wars? Both yes and no: no because you could literally publish it without the label, remove two or three paragraphs and nobody would know the difference. Yes because it has a certain old-trilogy atmosphere, especially where space battles are concerned.
But I think that does not matter. Chaos Rising is a gripping, well-written story with interesting and likeable characters. I would certainly be looking forward to the rest of The Ascendancy Trilogy, continuing with the second volume, “Greater Good”, to be published already in April 2020.