Spoilers ahead. You have been warned. Spoilage. Sayin’ it again. Spoilers for a book you haven’t read yet, contained in this post they are. Now you’ve got it Yoda-style.
That’s right, your Star Wars favorite character from the dark times is back! And by the dark times, I mean the long years between Return of the Jedi and the announcement of the prequels, but before the actual viewing of the prequels. In 1991's Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn introduced us to the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, a blue-skinned Chiss warrior turned Imperial, who got the better of almost everyone he encountered, including Luke Skywalker. Younglings, I cannot begin to describe the impact this series had on drought-stricken Star Wars fans.
So it was with some dismay that we learned Thrawn and other beloved (red-headed) characters would be banished from the official timeline. In 2014, Lucasfilm announced that most Star Wars books would no longer be canon, for the entirely reasonable purpose of preventing new Star Wars storytellers from stroking out.
(You try explaining the Yuuzhan Vong to J.J. Abrams.)
But then, great news! The Grand Admiral was brought back into canon in the Disney XD animated series Star Wars Rebels. And as fast as you could say “Mitth’raw’nuruodo,” the character’s original creator was tasked with writing Thrawn’s backstory. On April 14th, 2017 the book finally arrived with this stunning cover:
YOU ARE VERY EXCITED.
2. PUNCH IT!
It’s finally Friday! You visit the refresher, settle into your favorite reading chair with a hot mug of caf laced with blue milk. You admire the cover one more time and crack the book. You rip through Chapter 1, enjoying the bafflement of the Imperials as they confront a mystery saboteur. You devour Chapter 2 & most of 3, in which Thrawn meets some important Imperial personages, great matters are discussed, and a decision is made to send Thrawn into thrilling adventures in the Unknown Regions.
Oh wait, no.
YOU ARE BRIEFLY DISORIENTED.
Because it turns out Mitth’raw’nuruodo and his exposition receptacle Ensign Eli Vanto are headed to…
3. IMPERIAL ACADEMY 90210
So, wait. The book that you’ve been dreaming about since it was first announced is sending your favorite villain to school? Where he will undergo classic coming of age rituals such as “hazing” and “outsmarting rich kids.” You adjust your expectations accordingly, because after all, it’s still fascinating to watch one of your favorite Star Wars villains encounter a world that’s familiar to us but foreign to him.
YOU REMAIN RESOLUTE.
You take a deep breath and turn to Chapter 4, where you encounter…
4. THE FORCE(d)
Karabast! This book is called Thrawn, is it not? And yet, as you frantically flip ahead through the chapters, you realize that fully half the book is actually about Arihnda Pryce, a haughty Imperial from the aforementioned Star Wars Rebels TV series. Which, if you’re in this for backstory on Rebels, is great for you. But if you’re the kind of Star Wars reader who was forged in the flames of Mount Tantiss, then this plot line feels an awful lot like filler.
YOU ARE GETTING CONCERNED.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-written sub plot that bumps into the main storyline often enough, but this is the last time you’re going to hear me talk about Arihnda Pryce, because what we’re really in this for is some….
5. THREE DIMENSIONAL CHISS
Expectations re-re-adjusted, you settle in to the bulk of the book, as Thrawn rockets up the Imperial chain of command faster than you can say “moof-milker” — which pretty aptly describes most of the Imperial commanders Thrawn encounters. Seriously, how did this bunch of social climbers and Academy bullies ever conquer anyone?
The patient reader gets further insight into just how far ahead Thrawn is of everyone else, as seen through the eyes of Ensign Eli Vanto, who is only been allowed three different expressions of inner thought —suspicion of Thrawn, awe of Thrawn, and loyalty towards Thrawn. The poor ensign has no independent plot line or motivation, or even, at any point, someone with whom he can share an off-duty Corellian Twister. Now at this point you’re probably thinking, “GURL, this is a Star Wars book. What are you looking for, Tolstoy?” And I would remind you that this book is written by Timothy Zahn, the first person to give whiny Force receptacle Luke Skywalker some grown-up depth, independent destiny and even a plausible love interest.
Back to the Chiss in question. As you read through chapter after chapter of Thrawn defusing conflict after conflict with minimal violence against what appear to be low-priority smugglers, you begin to wonder — if this is what it would feel like to sit and watch an entire Star Trek episode where Captain Spock trounces a red-shirt at three-dimensional chess? Educational, even illuminating, but not exactly thrilling.
And Thrawn — who has always had the vibe of that hot guy who you’re in to way more than he’s into you — is not given a single shore leave or even a late night in the officer’s mess. I read through this entire book and never learned a single personal thing about the character — age, dietary preferences, parental units, prior romantic entanglements, or even where the heck he learned to appreciate all that art. It’s not like this is a skill that’s out of Timothy Zahn’s wheelhouse. It’s just starting to feel like there’s an entire rewrite pass the author wasn’t given the time to execute.
YOU ARE RESIGNED.
About three quarters in, you know that this book will only address a small potatoes plot that can be resolved with a conversation in a field. The most dramatic moment at the end of the book is given to someone else. And overall it seems increasingly clear that Timothy Zahn was given one mandate above all…
6. STAY IN YOUR (hyperspace) LANE
Here’s the biggest difference between the Zahn/Thrawn of 1991 and today. Back in the early nineties, canon was for churches and Timothy Zahn had a palette as wide as, well, the universe, on which to paint a wholly original story about an outsider Imperial, an insane dark Jedi, and my favorite anti-Ewoks, the Noghri (whom I always pictured looking like lethal bipedal mice, but sadly Wookieepedia art does not support my vision.) These characters could go anywhere, do anything, and interact with anyone. I learned more about Noghri culture in that series than I ever did about paper-thin Eli Vanto in this book.
So what happened? If you apply Thrawn-like powers of deduction to this problem, you might conclude that that a significant portion of the future careers of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Eli Vanto belong to someone else. Rian Johnson? Colin Trevorrow? Marvel Comics? Your guess is as good as mine.
YOU REACH ACCEPTANCE.
7. THAT EPILOGUE THO
Now wait just a minute! Did we just slog through 424 pages of a strategy white paper only to get a tantalizing hint of what we actually wanted on the last two pages?
Is there going to be a Zahn-authored sequel which takes place in a hitherto unexplored region of Star Wars story space? One that allows him to create whole worlds, species and characters unclaimed by various departments of Lucasfilm? Will this story finally get, I don’t know, a real antagonist?
YOU HAVE, AS THEY SAY, A NEW HOPE.
Because there’s no doubt that Grand Admiral Thrawn does indeed have what as another sci-fi legend might describe as a “superior intellect.” I just wish there had been a hotblooded adversary like Jim Kirk around to yell “THRAAAAAAWWWWWWWWNNNNNNNNN!”