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.
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.