“Lesser Evil” concludes Timothy Zahn’s Ascendancy trilogy. It also marks the end of the journey started with “Thrawn” in 2017. And in some way even to the journey started decades ago with the original “Heir to the Empire” trilogy.
The Circle Is Complete
The first obvious question is: was the ending done in a satisfactory manner? The short answer is yes, very much so. “Lesser Evil” makes a full circle (literally - as one will realise upon reading the book’s epilogue and then opening the first page of “Thrawn”). In fact, perhaps the best experience I had after finishing “Lesser Evil” was opening the previous books and rereading select passages in the new light. This is definitely the kind of book that might make you want to reread the entire series.
No, there are not any massive new revelations in “Lesser Evil” that would turn the preceding story upside down. Timothy Zahn has never been big on gigantic plot twists. Rather, there are the subtle enhancements brought out of the text by the newly acquired knowledge (sounds like a rather Thrawnesque concept, doesn’t it)?
Third Time The Same?
On the superficial level, the structure of the book does not differ dramatically from the previous volumes of “Ascendancy”. Another alien threat, the next stage of Jixtus’s plan to destroy the Chiss, Thrawn as the only one who perceives the threat and figures out how to respond to it. Perhaps the chief difference is now that it is mainly him, not the aliens, who has the initiative and moves the action forward. (Which is at the same interesting since the novel’s point of view characters are basically everyone else but Thrawn himself.)
What surprised me was the amount of referrences to the previous books. Zahn has really brought the trilogy (in fact, both trilogies) together. The Magys, the Paccosh and other aliens Thrawn encountered in the past return to play not entirely insignificant roles. Even Thrawn’s trip to the Lesser Space alongside Che’ri from “Thrawn: Alliances” is brought up several times.
Chekov’s Guns Or Red Herrings
Even in a great book that “Lesser Evil” is there may be a few things to criticise. While Zahn manages to write likeable characters who feel like real people, it nonetheless feels like we are seeing just their two-dimensional drawings. Based on what we read we can imagine what they are like outside the story, but in the book we don’t see much beyond their professional interactions, not to speak of inner life. That is especially a pity in the case of people like Thalias or Samakro.
The characters also seem limited to a few archetypes. Especially “a grumpy officer who dislikes Thrawn at first but grows to see things his way” has so far featured in every book. In the previous one it was Captain Lakinda/Ziinda, who in “Lesser Evil” already appears as an ally. Yet “Lesser Evil” introduces a new officer with exactly the same role (even though as an individual a very well-written and complex character).
Another thing that may disrupt one’s reading are some leaps in the story’s or characters’ development that may seem a little abrupt. A few times something happens or characters change their opinion without much or any foreshadowing. The opposite also happened: there were several “Chekov’s guns” that were never fired, scenes that one would expected to lead somewhere, only they did not (perhaps they still will if there is a third trilogy). Don’t misunderstand: I very much appreciate not acting like the reader was a five-year-old who required clarification on everything. Neither is this about unexpected plot twists (like I said, Zahn usually doesn’t do them, and if he does, they feel satisfying). This is about the structure of the writing; the moments when one feels a bit like the officers trying to follow Thrawn, wondering: “And where did you pull this one from?” One such moment occurs just before the final battle: after a setup of A and X you are expecting B followed by Y or perhaps Y followed by B, only to find yourself arriving straight into Q.
What I appreciated on the other hand was the lack of battle descriptions that require a lot of spatial imagination which sometimes was a hindrance in Zahn’s previous novels. Even though there is no lack of space action in “Lesser Evil”, the important details are easy to follow.
The End… Or Not?
Despite these minor criticisms, “Lesser Evil” is a satisfactory ending to the trilogy/two trilogies. The book reads well and keeps your attention, chiefly by jumping between two or three storylines, one of which is a series of flashbacks to Thrawn’s past and his relationship with his brother Thrass. Indeed we finally - for old school fans after a very long time - get to see these two together and learn more about their connection. For the “old Thrawn fans”, there is also a short but nice homage to “Outbound Flight”. And perhaps surprisingly also one moment when the alien Magys’s behaviour seems to echo the character of Joruus C’baoth.
When I said that “Lesser Evil” makes the end of the journey started with “Thrawn”, I did not mean that this is the end of Thrawn’s story. It cannot be. “Lesser Evil” has merely filled in all the pieces of the puzzle regarding Thrawn’s departure for the Galactic Empire and his motivation to do so.
But the full picture thus composed begs for sequels. We have caught up to the “present” and the next question is: what about the future? What will become of the Grysk threat? What will Thrawn do now that his mission to the Empire had been for naught - or had it? He has, after all, managed to acquire some allies and perhaps his adventure with Ezra Bridger will also become an unexpected boon.
Yet another twist on Thrawn’s path. We can only look forward to seeing another as masterful sequel as the Ascendancy Trilogy has been.