Fresh novel by Timothy Zahn has been just published and sufficient to say, the master of Star Wars storytelling did not disappoint. Not that a tale featuring both Thrawn and Vader (and young Anakin Skywalker) would be an unattractive topic even in a mediocre book. Zahn has once again proved, however, that he can provide us with interesting insight into familiar (and less familiar) characters’ minds as well as make us see the Galaxy anew as bigger, deeper and yet very Star Wars-like at the same time.
A Stand-Alone Thrawn
After last year’s novel “Thrawn”, the title “Thrawn: Alliances” may have led some believe that there would be a connection between the two books. There isn’t (unless you count the reference in “Thrawn” that hints at Skywalker having met the Chiss before). While “Thrawn” dealt with the protagonist’s ascension through the Imperial ranks, “Alliances” is set after Rebels season 3 and Thrawn’s encounter with Bendu. But that is hardly referenced, either. Ninety-nine percent of the story focuses on Thrawn’s cooperation with Vader on a special mission to the edge of the Unknown Regions. Correction: Forty-nine percent. The other fifty percent shows us a similar mission young Anakin Skywalker took during the Clone Wars and encountered young Thrawn for the first time.
So one could say the book is completely stand-alone, but the more you know about Thrawn (including the “old canon” Thrawn), the more you can enjoy the story. The Emperor sends Thrawn to the edge of the Unknown Regions for a specific purpose - at least from the get-go, it is obvious Thrawn is familiar with this part of space, as it’s close to his home.
A Double Vision
If “Thrawn” was about Thrawn being a Sherlock hunting criminals, the same could be said here, but to a lesser extent. There is a mystery to solve, but the main focus of the book are interactions between Vader and Thrawn (resp. Anakin and Thrawn). We get to see this from both of their perspectives, and I have particularly enjoyed Thrawn’s observations inserted in italics, “Holmes-style”. Timothy Zahn uses similar tool in describing Vader’s/Skywalker’s precognition sense (“double vision” - a term that could be, on a meta-level, applied to the whole book).
The plotlines “now” and “then” mirror each other, as well as the locations. The same two, previously unknown planets - Batuu and Mokivj, insignificant with their handful of inhabitants living their daily lives - become the stage for Skywalker/Thrawn and Vader/Thrawn’s operations to stop threats looming against the Republic/Empire… and possibly also the Chiss, Thrawn’s people.
I remember reading “Outbound Flight”, the first of Zahn’s novels set in the prequel timeline, and thinking he did a really good job in capturing the atmosphere and characters (despite the fact that his first novels were set in the post-Empire era and written even before the prequel trilogy had been filmed). For the same reason, I have enjoyed the “then” plotline with Anakin perhaps even more than the “now” plotline with Vader.
When Thrawn Met Leia’s Mother
Overall, the book is a “Zahn” book through and through - if you have read any Thrawn stories before, you probably know what to expect. The unique appearance of Vader is masterfully executed (no pun intended). What perhaps surprised me the most was the inclusion of Padmé (in the past storyline) and her interactions with Thrawn (yes, Leia in “Heir to the Empire” would be terrified). I won’t spoil you, but sufficient to say, it is delight to watch the witty Senator talk to the intelligent Thrawn - and Zahn’s characterisation of Padmé is spot on. Portraying film characters “correctly” is actually what Zahn has nailed perfectly in this novel, as also his portrayal of Anakin in his two incarnations creates a sense of unity between Skywalker and Vader - an effect even the movies themselves lack.
Of other characters, we see Thrawn’s personal assassin Rukh as well as Vader’s elite stormtrooper squad (Vader’s Fist), Thrawn’s crew and TIE commander Vult Skerris (known from Rebels). Like in all Zahn’s novels, some time is devoted to interactions among the Imperial military, who are actual people and not just a bunch of evil guys in evil armours.
Figure It Out, Reader!
The story itself deals with mysteries that are uncovered throughout the book - so I won’t talk about them here. Let’s just start with the assumption that it’s Thrawn and Vader/Skywalker going on an adventure. All the mysteries are ultimately solved, however, I have enjoyed the fact that there are several riddles the readers are left to answer for themselves (or not). My only objection is that they are almost all crammed into the “big finale”. It has a great impact, but makes the story feel disproportionate. If I exaggerated, I could say that there’s two hundred pages describing the interior and exterior of various places the protagonists are walking through and then three or four final chapters with dramatic revelations what it was all about.
Regarding the “describing the interior” part: it seems to me that Zahn, more than in his earlier books, spends a lot of time laying out the setting in order to show us how Thrawn tactically overcame his enemies. Maybe I don’t possess enough of a mathematical mind (or architect’s mind) to visualise positions of rooms, objects, spaceships and soldiers from the description. Often it felt like reading the description of a chess match. I simply could not follow what was happening and why. I knew Thrawn did some epic tactical move, and I trusted Zahn on it - but I’d have to draw myself a floor plan to actually see how it happened.
Similarly, I felt like Zahn fell into the writers’ trap “I see my readers might think this or that is an omission, better explain why it is not”. Often unnecessary time is spent on clarifying details an average reader would not even notice. Together with the previous problem, the book could easily be one-third shorter, and perhaps more time could be spent on the characterisation.
Star Wars Novel of the Year?
All complaints aside, however, “Thrawn: Alliances” is still great. Timothy Zahn has given us a story that offers a lot of insight into Thrawn’s mindset (possibly more than any previous Thrawn book), Anakin/Vader’s mindset (I must really commend the handling of them as one person - a thing we have seen very rarely thus far!), and the generic setting around the Clone Wars. Bonus is the peek into the Unknown Regions (completely uncharted area, and after Thrawn, I feel like I want a spin-off about them) and the appearance of Padmé and the Imperial soldiers (perhaps it deserves to be mentioned that both male and female officers are sufficiently represented in this book).
“Thrawn: Alliances” is a very well-written piece that opens many windows for future spin-offs about Thrawn, Anakin, Vader’s Fist, the Chiss, Unknown Regions and border planets and, heck, maybe even Padmé. Last but not least, it is the kind of book you would almost certainly enjoy re-reading: also because the more you understand, the more you can pay attention to small details about the characters and the story. I feel sorely tempted to do so.