Final Score: 7.2
★★★☆☆ Personal Enjoyment
This book review contains spoilers for those who have not yet read Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.
Personal Enjoyment: 3
Novels are a matter of personal taste, and I’m sad to say that this one missed the mark for me for a large portion of my reading.
At first I did not appreciate how Zahn portrays the new canon Thrawn: he is more relatable in this story than in old arcs like the Thrawn Trilogy. The ideas presented are less mature, and the stratagems provided by Thrawn at the beginning of each chapter come across like platitudes rather than insights. Hearing his strategic explanations to another character were off putting but it grew on me. He is less enigmatic and thus less ominous, yet the story benefits from his more-complete character. A few of his early “tricks” and schemes are predictable, and the arcing mystery of why a precious metal is being hoarded is a bit too obvious.
I was a bit past halfway when things finally picked up and I became intrigued. The end of the book snowballs as all the loose story lines get closer together. The feeling of “finally, the Zahn I enjoy reading” arrives and it is a lot of fun! It’s hard not to wish it happened sooner, but readers expecting to hear Thrawn’s origins in the new canon will love it from the start.
There is nothing wrong with telling an origin story, and Zahn outlines his career beginning in a straightforward manner. Yet, the story it is woven into is not that exciting. Once Zahn utilizes the features this character is known for, the story gets rolling. I had higher expectations of Thrawn to be using his “art-dictates-strategy” intuition in a more war-based story.
We’re first introduced to Eli Vanto, a cadet nearing graduation who specializes in language. Vanto assists his officers in deciphering some writing on crates that resemble an abandoned structure. We find out that the structure is actually inhabited by Thrawn, who executes clever tactics to board Vanto’s landing craft as a stowaway. The Imperials recognize this and take Thrawn to [unnamed], who then appoints him an entry position in the Imperial Navy. The rest of the book tells the story of Thrawn taking Vanto under his wing to teach him advanced strategic thinking and how to uncover clues. A certain metal is becoming scarce across the galaxy and the root cause is unknown. The story covers almost a decade of isolated incidents that connect by an underlying thread, each providing opportunity for Thrawn to flex his analytical mind while testing Vanto’s. After many a promotion Thrawn reaches the Grand Admiral position he was best known to hold.
There is an extra subplot that relates to Thrawn in places, which narrates Arihnda Pryce’s rise to power in similar fashion, and her relation to the metal’s disappearance. The daughter of mine-owning parents, she works up the chain to become governor and exert her new power over those responsible for stripping that mine away. Arihnda’s plotline was interesting, and definitely more engaging in times when Thrawn’s was plodding along. I did not think the plot points advanced the story enough for it to have received as much attention as it did.
While all the minor plot points do tie together and resolve, the whole story arc takes far too long to set up, and even longer to become engaging. This is most likely due to the time span Zahn covers, and the herky-jerky feeling that happens from jumping between plotlines.
This is Thrawn’s origin story in the new canon timeline, and it’s evident from the lack of intriguing conflict. Arihnda’s conflict is greater from the start, but neither story becomes engaging until ⅔ of the way through the book. I had a hard time making it that far, and would have to re-read parts of the previous chapter after each brief hiatus. Each of Thrawn and Vanto’s episodes become so routine that the beats are predictable: there is a mystery tied to the antagonist, Thrawn already knows the solution but makes Vanto figure it out, and earns another promotion. The conflict is not palpable (or even present) enough to create lasting tension until around Chapter 22 or 23.
The main antagonist, a character who squares off with Thrawn in the best chapter of the book, receives an end that is less-than-worthy of his character’s performance. He manages to outwit Thrawn a couple times but is ultimately discarded. It is as though Zahn had to wrap up the story in a hurry, while keeping the door held for another character. The fast pace in the final act is a joy ride, to be sure, but he rushed this piece.
Zahn writes Thrawn with great skill, which he should, since he’s the originator of this powerful character. In the end, I appreciated reading Thrawn’s thoughts explained on the page rather than hearing his statements that art influenced his actions. Much different than we received in the Legends EU. While Zahn does flesh out some of Thrawn’s intuition by narrating his observations in POV style, the asides are uninsightful and obvious, and come across more like Sheldon Cooper noting basic behavior.
Yet, I did not find it believable that his character would be as unaware of political and social strategy as the other characters accuse him to be. He receives help from Vanto and Pryce in this area, but it is an unnecessary flaw to write into his character. I also wanted even more art talk than we received. Thrawn’s musings on other-worldly art do not begin until over halfway through the story.
Eli Vanto is introduced as an intelligent cadet who knows a thing or two about language. He has experience in interpreting and extracting meaning even when he isn’t 100% sure of a translation. He shows a lot of promise to be interesting at first… but it ends once he begins to play aide. He’s thrust to Thrawn’s side for the rest of the story as the token audience voice when we need Thrawn to answer some things. It is not until later in the story that Eli stands up for himself and decides to stop sucking up: a welcome change from the emo teenager to a valiant Samwise Gamgee type.
Also, his character hates his position as Thrawn’s aid, but in every circumstance will rush to defend him, unprompted. Vanto transforms from inconsistent action to more adept situational analysis later in the story, but this still fails to paint Thrawn’s decision about him in the end as sound. It’s possible I did not connect with this insecure character at all.
The third main character is introduced poorly. After searching the web for more info I learned that Arihnda is a character on the Star Wars TV show, ‘Rebels’. A reader shouldn’t have to watch a television series to know basic things, like the details of character’s appearance. She becomes ruthless near the end of the story, which is a welcome fulfillment of the path Zahn presented before her at the start. I like Arihnda, but she only has enough depth to make the story work.
I need to be objective here. The arc of the story is fantastic, and for the most part, I’m okay with the story it tells. The pacing is slow but consistent, and all the storylines introduced to the reader are tied up at the close. Yet, the low-level writing detail is what distracted me throughout the beginning of the book, making it difficult to slog through the slow parts. I’m a fan of Zahn fiction but the page-by-page writing techniques on this one fall short. He overuses ‘wince’ and ‘frown’, and adds in a bit too many current-day idioms. I’d rather witness the characters throwing around clever galaxy-based lingo. Quite a lot of missed opportunity that feels lazy.
Reading Thrawn’s observations of other characters’ mannerisms is a lot of fun at first, and also aids in building his character. Yet it becomes tiring reading about the shifts in facial heat given off by others, over and over again. It seems Zahn decided to frame these expressions of gesture through Thrawn’s eyes rather than narrating each of the facial changes. Zahn treats things like time and colloquialism like they would be here on Earth, in our age, instead of in a far away galaxy of the past. I try not to focus on these much but it happened so often in this book I would be ignorant not to address it.
A couple chapters in we’re introduced to another set of characters in a completely new, then-unrelated storyline, and the switch feels harsh and abrupt. Some extra detail of the planet we’re now on, or even what the new characters look like would be nice. There is little written to make the reader empathize with the new character’s drama whirlwind. Also, it becomes clear that some of the smaller plot points are devices, necessary only for the events of the next chapter(s).
So much Star Wars!
Thrawn, the Imperial Navy, all the ships, interplanetary smuggling, buzz droids, familiar races like Wookiees, political intrigue… all of which play important roles in one plot or another. These are not your everyday fictional pieces dressed up in galactic lingo.
The beginning was major fun: Thrawn turns the Imperials’ toys against them to escape his hideout. Later in the book we get to see some of Coruscant’s underbelly, which I can never get enough of whenever it pops in.
Very pleased with the book in this regard – Zahn delivers!
‘Thrawn’ reads more like teen fiction than anything particularly novel in thought. I had a difficult time letting go of my expectations and enjoying this book. So much so that I almost did not finish it. I was fond of the Legends EU Thrawn, and had trouble connecting with this origin story. I was hoping the book would grab me from the beginning with a more mature, battle-based dark side plot.
I understand what Zahn was going for and I am pleased that the new canon now included such a beloved character once more. Execution aside, Thrawn deserves to be back in the kind of action we see at the end. In all, I’m glad I stuck with it – the story he sets up does pay off in a way every Star Wars fan can appreciate.
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