Saturday, July 29, 2017

Thoughts on Timothy Zahn's (Original) Thrawn Trilogy

Long ago, back when I was sleeping over at my friend David's house, I saw he had a book entitled The Last Command. I took a look at it and found that it was the last in a series of Star Wars novels set after the events of the original trilogy. I don't remember if I actually read it or not, although I do vaguely recall some of the events from it. But I do remember the villain--Grand Admiral Thrawn, the racist Empire's only non-human major military commander and probably one of their best. He didn't gratuitously abuse his subordinates, he was always polite, and he could figure out his enemies' military strategies by studying their cultures' artwork. And since these were the first of what would become a legion of books, video games, etc. that continued the story after Return of the Jedi, these books were extremely well-received when they came out in the early 1990s

More recently, when Disney bought Star Wars and wiped out the original canon outside of the movies, I was not particularly pleased. The original canon was complicated and often contradictory, especially when the prequels were released, but Disney destroyed the good with the bad by junking the Thrawn Trilogy, including the epic villain Thrawn, the "good Imperial" Pellaeon, the honor-bound alien Noghri who serve the Empire for a good deed done to them long ago by none other than Darth Vader, and Mara Jade, former assassin for Palpatine who started out wanting to kill Luke and (much later) ended up marrying him instead. This which should have been the sequel trilogy. The Force Awakens got better the second time I saw it (I wasn't impressed the first time around), but it would have seen so cool to see the Thrawn Trilogy on the big screen.

However, despite my griping, I had never actually read the Thrawn Trilogy in its entirety. I knew much of what had happened going in, but at most I'd only read parts of the books. So here goes, starting with the first one...

Heir to the Empire-Truth be told, this was a bit underwhelming. Thrawn's artwork inclinations are interesting and I thought the attack on Sluis Van (and the shenanigans leading up to it) were pretty clever, but Thrawn is nowhere near the epic mastermind I expected. And Mara Jade isn't nearly as cool as I'd hoped she'd be too. It's all right rather than glorious. Joruus C'Baoth, an insane clone of a Clone Wars-era Jedi Master, does show some interesting facets--rather than demanding rule of worlds for his help like a Sith Lord or more ambitious Dark Jedi might, he wants trainees so he can be a Jedi Master. Trainees he can teach, mold, and, creepily enough, punish.

We do see in the book that not all is well within the ranks of the victorious Rebels--we meet Borsk Fey'lya, an ambitious Bothan leader who parleyed his role in the capture of the plans for the second Death Star (something for which "many Bothans died") into a political career. He tries to develop a following for himself within the military (not a good sign in a democratic state), attempts to discredit Admiral Ackbar, etc. He's driven by personal ambition rather than treason, but he's such a problem many people suspect he's an Imperial agent intent on sowing trouble within the new government.

Dark Force Rising-Here we are shown a lot more of Thrawn's cleverness rather than being told he's a genius, especially in the parts where he's on the Noghri planet and investigates the secret arrival of Princess Leia. He doesn't just assume (remember "assume" makes an ass out of you and me), he follows up on suspicions in unobtrusive ways to avoid alerting the target that he knows, he has a very Lie to Me level of focus on people's body language and tone, and he has a group of experts whose advice he trusts.

In this book we also meet Garm Bel Iblis, one of the original leaders of the Rebel Alliance who so feared how Mon Mothma was becoming the dominant Rebel leader after the death of Bail Organa that he broke with the group and waged his own war against the Empire, intent on keeping his own private army lest Mothma make herself the new Empress.

Mara Jade disappointed me at first--as an Emperor's Hand I expected roughly Jedi levels of Dark Side ability, but it took a lot of effort on her part to shake a pipe loose from a stack to distract a bounty hunter who had a gun on her and she was able to do very little against Thrawn during a confrontation. Something like that would have been pretty mundane, even for someone out of practice or (as stated late in the text) whose Force abilities had been augmented by the now-dead Palpatine.

Also, the Katana Fleet sequence had some problems. Namely the entire time I thought the Imperials were losing--until suddenly it turns out they'd hijacked all but fifteen of the ships. When did that happen? This should have been foreshadowed somehow at least.

The Last Command-This is the best of the Thrawn novels. The first two books are about Thrawn putting together all the pieces he needs for his master plan and now he unleashes them, taking worlds through trickery and raiding Coruscant itself. An intelligence leak in the Rebel leadership on Coruscant is revealed, and it's extremely creative. However, Thrawn's propensity to sacrifice short-term gains (letting enemies who he could easily kill or capture, including those in his custody, escape to fuel other goals) becomes rather extreme in this one. Smuggler Talon Karrde at one point flat-out says that Thrawn "delights in leisurely and convoluted strategies." Thrawn may be clever enough to make these things work at least some of the time, but not always, and when it doesn't work out, it hurts him.

The Verdict

A lot of good concepts here and the book are quick and entertaining reads, but the series does have its flaws. There's a lot of telling and not showing (especially with battle sequences) and the whole overall story seems rather rushed. Were I writing this, I'd have liked to expand Heir to the Empire and Dark Force Rising into a trilogy and make the events of The Last Command into a duology or trilogy itself. I wonder if the reason the books are so celebrated among Star Wars fans is because they were the first new Star Wars material in years and proved popular enough to kick off the original Expanded Universe. They're good, but they're not great.

My friend Cory has recommend I read the Hand of Thrawn duology that features a possible return of Thrawn, so I'll probably do that if the library's got it.

1 comment:

  1. As to Mara Jade, you seem to be forgetting her force powers shut down after the Emperor's death. After all Thrawn did state the Emperor was directly influencing his military which effected Captain Pellaeon at Endor, thus this indirectly also infers the same with the Emperor's Hands should be true.

    So yes, she was fully trained to be his hand, as an opperative but not as a Dark Jedi/Sith. Thus she knew how to swing and cut with a saber but not the mysteries of the force, just use certain powers through him... but after his death both her powers going off, atrophy from lack of use over the years, and her own fear and hiding from the Force because of the power of his last command caused her to be where she was in the trilogy. Mara Jade struggling to move pipes with the force is the limit of what she should logically be able to do then and there.

    If you want Mara Jade to have powers or be closer to a Dark Jedi, read Allegiance or Choices of One. If you want her actually learning or knowing the force for herself read the Hand of Thrawn duology (especially the second book Vision of the Future) where she's learned the force but not taken that final leap to walk the path of the Jedi, and Survivors Quest where she now is a Jedi and just married Luke.

    The real thing about Mara Jade you have to keep in mind is she's at her lowest point ever during the Thrawn Trilogy. She was much more powerful both before and after it, once with borrowed power (possibly poorly phrased that but it's late lol) and later with her own true power. After she marries Luke for example she uses the force to stem off a deadly poison that was supposedly immune to force powers. Pretty much only a few characters are stronger in the force than her during her life as a jedi, and in those cases she's very very crafty.