Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: Thrawn (2017)

Here it is, folks. My review of Timothy Zahn's 2017 Thrawn novel, in which the beloved (if that's the right word) Imperial Grand Admiral that Zahn created for the old Expanded Universe is given a back-story for his appearance as the Season Three Big Bad in Star Wars Rebels.

The Plot

A group of Imperials exploring a planet find themselves under attack by a mysterious foe who, though fighting on foot, manages by unknown means to bring down at least one fighter aircraft and kills multiple soldiers. They evacuate the planet only to find their enemy has come with them. They capture him, only to discover he's an exiled Chiss military officer named Mitth'raw'nuruodo--or as he tells them to call him, Thrawn.

Taken to Coruscant, he manages to impress Emperor Palpatine and is recruited into the Imperial military. The novel follows his rise through the ranks in the years preceding Rebels, with him having to deal with anti-alien prejudice on his own side while he fights pirates and the inklings of what will become the Rebel Alliance.

The Good

*The fact this book even exists is good. The first novel in the original Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, was the first new Star Wars material in over a decade and proved to be a major hit. It spawned two sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command, as well as the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU got so clunky and contradictory I can't fault Disney for torching the whole thing when they bought LucasFilm, but they destroyed the good with the bad by nuking Thrawn, Mara Jade, etc. Now Thrawn's back, and they've brought a lot of his original back-story (his exile by the Chiss, for example) with him. And the book copy doesn't ignore the original Thrawn Trilogy--the story is being sold as a sort of "before he was famous" for Thrawn.

*Thrawn's characterization is very much like the original Thrawn trilogy. In my commentary on the trilogy, I described him as having a very Lie to Me focus on body language and little details. This is really depicted only in one or two scenes, but in Thrawn we see it a whole lot. The majority of the story is told from Eli Vatto's POV much like how Sherlock Holmes' story is told by Watson, but there are lots and lots of italicized portions from Thrawn's POV that show his hyper-focus on details of others' body language. Furthermore, he's not just a human with blue skin--he can see in the infrared spectrum, which allows to him to perceive more about people's reactions.

*Per the Sherlock Holmes comment, although we get Thrawn's POV in journal entries at the beginning of each chapter, they're not overwhelming. And we finally learn just how his examination of his enemies' artwork helps him anticipate their battle strategies.

*I've only seen bits and pieces of Rebels on YouTube, but Thrawn provides a lot of back-story for the planet of Lothal, Imperial Governor Pryce, Thrawn, etc. Rebels fans will really like this. If I'd seen more of Rebels, I'd probably enjoy the book at lot more. The last chunk of the book explicitly ties in with Thrawn's introduction in the show and the suppression of the insurgency on the world of Batonn, where civilian casualties were significantly higher than insurgent ones.

*In the Expanded Universe, the Empire was depicted as both extremely racist (toward non-humans) and rather sexist as well. Here Imperial racism is handled a bit more subtly. The Empire is a successor state to a multi-species Republic that has lasted for thousands of years, so going Nazi, even with the Emperor scapegoating non-humans for the Clone Wars (in the Revenge of the Sith novelization that seemed to be Dooku's idea about what would happen afterward), would be very difficult. Thrawn's time at the Imperial Academy shows this pretty well--the atmosphere is very prejudiced overall and there's a lot of ugly behavior thrown his way, but he's still able to attend and graduate. And sexism doesn't seem to be an issue at all, which matches the more gender-egalitarian picture of the Empire depicted in previous new-canon books.

*Over the course of the story, we see more and more about the logistical side of building a certain mega-project. In fact, said project's logistical demands play a major role in many of Thrawn's adventures in this period.

The Bad

*It initially isn't clear the italicized portions scattered throughout the text are from Thrawn's point of view.

*Given that this takes place during the period of peace (albeit a repressive one) that followed the end of the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire and preceded the Rebellion, not a lot happens military-wise. Most of what Thrawn seems to be is detain smugglers and fight pirates. There's not really a lot of action. Like in the original Thrawn novels, a lot of the combat maneuvering and what-not is told rather than shown.

*We see the rise of Governor Pryce of Lothal, which is interesting if you'd like to learn about Imperial politics and how the Senate functioned under the Emperor. It's a nice bit of her Rebels back-story, but it wasn't super-duper interesting.

The Verdict

It's worth reading if you're a big fan of Rebels. I'd recommend getting it from the library. 7.0 out of 10.

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