Audiobook Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Media Tie-In

Series: Star Wars Canon

Publisher: Random House Audio (April 11, 2017)

Length: 16 hrs and 56 mins

Author Information: Website

Narrator: Marc Thompson

Unpopular opinion time: I never cared for the Thrawn trilogy. Though to be fair, I was late to the party and only started reading Heir to the Empire after college sometime in the mid-2000s, about 15 years after its original publication. In my eyes, the books did not age very well, and I think many tended to view them through nostalgia-tinted glasses.

Still, setting my personal critique of the books aside, as a character I do maintain that Thrawn is one of the best to come out of the Star Wars universe. And I suspect the powers that be agree as well, explaining why Thrawn was canonically reintroduced in the third season of Star Wars Rebels, despite the original trilogy having been classified “Legends” along with much of the old Expanded Universe. Timothy Zahn was tapped to reprise his role as author to a new novel about the titular character, which is intended to chronicle his early life and meteoric rise to power. It’s a rare opportunity for any reader to revisit a favorite character like this, and thus far I’ve really enjoyed Thrawn’s appearances on the show, which is why, come hell or high water, I knew I was going to read this book.

Like many origin tales, Thrawn begins with our Chiss protagonist in humble circumstances, alone and exiled on a planet at the edge of known space. For those familiar with Zahn’s Mist Encounter, this first section is essentially a fleshed out and updated retelling of the events in that short story. A good chunk of the novel is also told through the eyes of Eli Vanto, a lowly Imperial cadet who is taken along on an investigation of this jungle world because of his knowledge of these backwater systems. When the crew encounters Thrawn, they are immediately impressed by his survival skills and knowledge of military strategy, traits that are said to be valued by the Chiss Ascendancy. Obviously, these skills are also highly sought-after in the Empire, leading the Imperials to bring Thrawn to Coruscant so that Emperor Palpatine can decide his fate.

Despite being an alien, Thrawn manages to impress the Emperor with his eloquence and persuasiveness, and immediately gets assigned to a military academy to hone his skills and knowledge of the Imperial Navy. Eli Vanto is sent along with him, in order to be translator and guide to all things related to the Empire’s culture and society—a role that the cadet resents at first, but in time he learns to respect Thrawn’s intelligence and personality, especially when after graduation, the Chiss starts getting promotion after promotion.

Meanwhile, on a mining planet called Lothal, another origin story for a Rebels character is beginning to unfold. Before she became the governor of her planet, Arihnda Pryce was a young company heiress, forced to watch everything her family has built fall into the Empire’s hands. Secretly vowing her revenge, Pryce agrees to work for an Imperial Senator, already making plans to worm herself inside the political machine where she will bide her time until she has enough power to take what she wants.  Along the way though, she’ll need some help—and Thrawn, who is making his own way up the ranks at this point, may prove to be the perfect ally.

Not surprisingly, Thrawn is a very character-focused novel, detailing how the Chiss became so successful even in the face of the Empire’s xenophobia, as well as to put readers into his head. The first is accomplished by simply by giving examples of Thrawn’s genius and describing the processes that led to his victories. It didn’t matter that many in the Empire held anti-alien attitudes; the Emperor saw potential in Thrawn and he only cares about results. It is clear that Thrawn eventually achieved Grand Admiral status on his own terms and merits, and his leadership skills naturally drew others to him despite what they might think of his origins.

However, putting readers into Thrawn’s head is another, more subtle, matter. Zahn’s writing has always struck me as rather stark and clear-cut, in a whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done kind of way. I daresay without the glimpses he offered into Thrawn’s mind, this book could have been a very dry read indeed. Fortunately, peppered throughout the novel are brief looks into what makes his character tick, from his journal excerpts at the beginning of each chapter to his furtive observations on how others are behaving and reacting around him (though there must have been at least a couple dozen mentions of “facial heat” or “cheeks tightening”, making me wish there’d been more variation in the descriptions). A lot can also be gleaned from Thrawn’s interactions with the other characters. Through Vanto’s and Pryce’s eyes, we see how much Thrawn values and rewards hard work and loyalty, and he puts just as much of both into the men and women who work under him. In many ways, Thrawn serves as a counterpoint to a lot of traditional Star Wars villains as well. For one, he does not possess the Force, mainly relying on thinking rather than fighting to win his battles. He also views unnecessary loss of life as a waste, a point that I think earns him a lot of sympathy from readers. While it’s true Thrawn may be a symbol of the Empire, Zahn nevertheless makes it so easy to root for him.

All told, Thrawn isn’t among the best novels I’ve read from the new canon, but neither is it among the worst. It’s actually quite a decent book, and in my eyes, “New Thrawn” certainly beats out “Old Thrawn” hands down. In theory, you’d think Thrawn would also appeal most to fans of the character, the original trilogy, or Star Wars Rebels, but I would urge anyone—even if you do not consider yourself to be a hardcore Star Wars fan—to give this one a look. There’s a reason why Thrawn as a character is so beloved, and this is his story.

Audiobook Comments: At this point, I think anything I say about Marc Thompson will sound like a broken record. But if all of my praise for him happens to sound the same, it’s only because it’s true! The guy is great at voices, and I love his Thrawn, the way he made him sound similar to the Rebels version. Do yourself a favor and listen to this one.

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31 Comments on “Audiobook Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

  1. I’m happy to see you had a nice time. As i already said, I’m ok watching the movies but well not a fan to the point I would like to read books. But it’s fun to see you having a good time with them

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  2. I know this book was a very anticipated release for the Star Wars franchise. I did read a few Star Wars book (I think some of them are not canon anymore) but Thrawn is a character I always hoped to know more about. Did you think that the book did a good description of him being alien? Because in most star wars book I read when they are dealing with aliens they are literally humans with quirks

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  3. Sadly, I tend to concur with you about the Thrawn trilogy and nostalgia glasses. However, I still liked it a lot and thought it was a fantastic foundation to the whole, now defunct, Expanded universe.
    When Lucas made the decision to kill of Mara Jade in another book series, and it wasn’t even written by Zahn, I thought that would be the end of him writing SW books. I guess his interest in Thrawn and the need to write is greater 😀

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  4. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn | Fantasy Sources: Art, Gifts, Ideas, Article Resources, News

  5. I am about half way through the audiobook thus far. I mostly like the narrator but he is doing a shreaky voice for a woman captain that is driving me insane. Also, glad to know Pryce has a reason for being involved, thus far she seems like a tag on.

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    • Marc Thompson always seems to always go a bit overboard when it comes to the bit parts. I think he takes pleasure in doing goofy/crazy voices, but doesn’t want to have to carry that through the whole book so he doesn’t do it for any major characters, thankfully.

      And yeah, the Pryce storyline takes a while to merge with the Thrawn stuff.

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  6. Observing the sheer number of works that have been written around the Star Wars universe is mind-boggling, and even though I’m always a little wary about movie tie-in books, the Star Wars ones always make me stop and think about trying one or two, and every time I read one of your reviews, that resolve gets a little stronger…
    Who knows? Maybe someday… 🙂

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  7. I don’t know, part of me feels like Maddalena and part of me just doesn’t want to go there – it seems too daunting somehow and I feel terribly behind. I do enjoy the films though so I’m not sure why these wouldn’t be more appealing for me.
    You’re clearly having a good time though which is great.
    Lynn 😀

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    • The majority of these books expand the universe, i.e. they don’t all necessarily deal with major characters or events, so I can see how that wouldn’t be as appealing as the movies. But like I told Maddalena, if you ever get the itch to start and are looking for a good jumping on point, just let me know 🙂

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  8. I started Heir to the Empire once and didn’t get very far, so I’m not really in the know when it comes to Thrawn, although lately I’ve been mulling whether to revisit those books and try again. With Thrawn being canon now it seems like a good thing to do. Plus not being SUPER crazy with the direction they went in TFA I’m kinda jonesing for an alternate take. Anyway- nice review. It’s good to know that you consider this better than the “old” Thrawn. Maybe I’ll just start here lol.

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  9. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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