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Monday, May 22, 2017

Book Review: Thrawn (Star Wars) by Timothy Zahn

Right off the bat, I have to say that Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn was definitely one of my most anticipated book releases of 2017, and I’m very happy to say that it ultimately exceeded my expectations for the most part. Not only is Thrawn definitely my favorite out of all the new cannon Star Wars books that I’ve read so far, I would also say that it ranks #2 in terms of how I would rank my favorite books out of all the books I’ve read so far in 2017. For the record, my #1 favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is definitely Jeff Zentner’s new book, Goodbye Days.

While I haven’t read Timothy Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy, I felt like Zahn did a really fantastic job of presenting Thrawn as a very complex and nuanced character in this book. It was really fascinating to see how Thrawn managed to have such a successful career in the Imperial army, despite the fact that he’s a Chiss who’s living in a society that discriminates against alien races. That definitely added a very interesting element to the character Thrawn, and the book as a whole.

One thing that I really liked about this book is the fact that Zahn did a great job of writing Thrawn in such a way that while he is in many ways a genius, he still has flaws and weaknesses. I’m really glad that Zahn didn’t try to portray Thrawn as being invincible and superior to everybody else in this book, because I think it would have been incredibly frustrating if Zahn hadn’t given Thrawn some vulnerabilities and humanized him to a certain degree, especially since this book really gives people an in depth look into how Thrawn’s mind works. One of the best ways I thought that Zahn portrayed Thrawn as having some flaws and vulnerabilities was with the inclusion of the character Nightswan, who serves as a worthy adversary for Thrawn throughout the book. Thrawn may be a genius in a lot of ways, but he definitely has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Nightswan, I felt like Zahn did a fantastic job of writing the adversarial dynamic of Thrawn and Nightswan’s relationship.

In terms of how Zahn gives the reader a lot of insight into the way Thrawn thinks throughout the book, the openings of each chapter of the book really give the reader some great insight into how Thrawn’s mind works. Admittedly, I was definitely very confused for a large portion of the book about what exactly the openings of each chapter were supposed to be, because I didn’t know where, when and to whom Thrawn was saying those things to. Eventually, it was revealed that the openings of each chapter were actually excerpts from a journal that Thrawn had written in at some point, and then later gave to Eli. Not only do I think that the excerpts from Thrawn’s journal were ultimately a really great and effective way to give the reader a lot of insight into the character; I also feel like Thrawn giving Eli his journal was a great way to show that Thrawn had really come to view Eli as his protégé.

One aspect of the book that I thought was really interesting was the fact that it was established that Thrawn was against the idea of the Death Star being built. Prior to reading this book, I honestly had never given the idea that perhaps not all of the Imperial officers who served the Empire would support the construction of the first Death Star any thought. I always just kind of assumed that anybody who served the Empire would also be in favor of the Death Star being built; so it was definitely fascinating to me that Thrawn was against it.

While Thrawn is definitely the main character of the book, Zahn also spent a lot of time developing the characters Eli Vanto and Arhinda Pryce throughout the book. Personally, I really like that in addition to Thrawn undergoing a very interesting and compelling arc throughout the book, Eli and Arhinda both basically had their own arcs that they underwent throughout the book as well. I really felt like the three storylines all worked very well, and I never felt like the book had too many storylines going on at the same time; mainly because the three characters’ arcs all shared the same theme of following the progression of Thrawn’s, Eli’s and Arhinda’s careers.

I’ve read and watched a variety of other people’s reviews for this book, and a lot of people have been pointing out parallels between Thrawn and Sherlock Holmes, with Eli Vanto basically being the equivalent of John Watson and Nightswan being the equivalent of Moriarty in this book. While it has been years since I’ve read or watched any kind of incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, I can still see the parallels between Thrawn and Sherlock Holmes. Personally, I find the parallels between the two characters very fascinating, because I had never really taken the time to look for parallels between Star Wars and other famous stories in pop culture prior to reading this book.

For the most part, I felt like Zahn did a fantastic job of writing the relationship between Thrawn and Eli. As weird as this might sound to some people, the dynamic between Thrawn and Eli, as well as the circumstances under which they began working with each other kind of reminded me of the TV show The Blacklist, and the relationship between Raymond “Red” Reddington and Liz Keen on that show. At the beginning of the book, Thrawn and Eli meet each other under somewhat mysterious circumstances: Eli was a young and relatively inexperienced Imperial officer when he first met Thrawn, and yet he was the person that Thrawn insisted on having be his translator. When The Blacklist began, Liz was starting her job with the FBI the same day that Red turns himself into the FBI after being on their most wanted criminals list for years, and tells the FBI that Liz is the only person that he’s willing to talk to. Throughout the course of the show, Liz more or less becomes Red’s protégé. Given the fact that I’m a fan of The Blacklist, I really enjoyed the fact that Thrawn and Eli’s relationship throughout the book had a dynamic to it that felt somewhat reminiscent of Liz and Red’s relationship.

One of the few complaints that I have about this book is that it kind of bothered me that there was never a point in the book where Eli blew up at Thrawn about the fact that being so closely associated with Thrawn definitely hurt his career. Throughout the book, people are repeatedly telling Eli that Thrawn is holding him back, and that he’s hurting his career simply by being associated with Thrawn, and I’d say that there was definitely some truth to that. After all, Eli remained an ensign for years, while Thrawn and the other people that he trained with received promotion after promotion. Sure, he eventually receives a promotion where he goes from being an ensign straight to being a lieutenant commander; but before Eli was finally promoted, I kept hoping that Eli would just blow up at Thrawn, and that they would have a big fight at some point.

Personally, I really felt like there needed to be a moment in this book where Eli just went ballistic, and Thrawn and Eli would have a big fight about how working so closely with Thrawn had hurt Eli’s career. Eli definitely did a lot for Thrawn, serving as his translator and aide throughout the book; and yet Thrawn never really followed through on his promises to Eli about helping him advance in his career. Sadly, there was never a moment like that in the book where Thrawn and Eli had a big fight about that. Sure, there were several times throughout the book where Eli definitely expressed some feelings of frustration, anger and resentment about not being promoted when all of his colleagues were moving ahead in their careers, but he always seemed to quickly brush off those feelings by pointing out to people that he had learned a lot from working so closely with Thrawn over the years. I suppose that being able to focus on the positive aspects of a disappointing situation has its advantages, but it was still really frustrating for me to see Eli not being more assertive and standing up for himself more than he did.

That being said, I’m willing to cut Zahn some slack for not having Thrawn and Eli have a big fight at least once in the book, because sometimes I got the impression that perhaps Eli simply isn’t the kind of person who has big, angry outbursts when he gets mad. At times, Eli came across as being the kind of person who’s simply more likely to express his anger and frustration in subtle, passive aggressive ways. After all, when Eli is finally promoted, he mentions in his internal narrative that he wants to make sure that he contacts one of his former classmates who had previously given him a hard time about not being promoted when all of his classmates were receiving promotions, so he can tell him about his promotion. While we never actually see Eli do that, I got the distinct impression that the reason he wanted to do that was so he could gloat about the fact that he went from being an ensign straight to the rank of lieutenant commander when he was finally promoted.

The other thing that I thought was somewhat disappointing about Thrawn is the fact that Zahn didn’t really do very much at all with the fact that Thrawn apparently likes to study the art of various worlds; and that’s one of the ways he apparently defeats his enemies. When the trailer for season three of Star Wars Rebels was released, and it was revealed that Grand Admiral Thrawn was going to be introduced on the show, I saw a lot of people on YouTube talking about how one of the things that made Thrawn such a great character in Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy was the fact that one of Thrawn’s main approaches to defeating his enemies was to study a world’s art. I immediately became interested in learning more about that aspect of the character Thrawn, and I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed that the writers of Star Wars Rebels hasn’t done all that much with that aspect of the character. However, I’m willing to give the show somewhat of a pass for not exploring that more since Thrawn is just a recurring guest-star character on the show.

Considering the fact that this book is primarily about Thrawn and it’s written by Timothy Zahn, who originally created the character, prior to the book’s release, I was really hoping that the book would offer some more depth and insight into exactly how studying a world’s art ultimately helps Thrawn defeat his enemies. Unfortunately, Zahn barely touches upon the idea of Thrawn being able to defeat his enemies by studying a world’s art. Whenever Zahn did show Thrawn studying a society’s art, it came across as being something that he did as more of a hobby, rather than him doing that as a military tactic. That being said, I’m not going to hold the fact that Zahn didn’t do much with Thrawn studying the art of various worlds, because he still did a great job of portraying Thrawn as being a bit of a military genius throughout the book.

It was definitely interesting to follow Arihnda Pryce as she pursued a career in politics, and I thought that those parts of the book were very well written for the most part. That being said, I have to admit that I definitely found some of the characters that Pryce interacted with throughout the book kind of annoying. Thankfully, they didn’t hurt my overall enjoyment of the book too much in the grand scheme of things.

Personally, I was very happy with the way Thrawn ended in terms of where all of the characters were, and what was going on with each of the characters at the end of the book. I especially love the fact that the ending of the book for Eli had some great parallels to the situation that Thrawn was in at the beginning of the book. The book began with Eli and the other Imperial officers finding Thrawn, and for pretty much the entire book Thrawn had been a Chiss living amongst humans; the book ends with the situation with Thrawn and Eli being reversed, and Eli, a human, goes to live amongst the Chiss. I felt like that was a really great way to end the book, because for a large portion of the book, I was really expecting the book to end with Eli getting killed; either by Thrawn, or by somebody else, with Thrawn being at least partly to blame for his death. I’m so glad that I ended up being wrong about that, because I definitely didn’t want Eli to die in this book. In addition to being very happy about Eli not getting killed at the end of the book, I love that the book ended with some really great plot twists involving Thrawn being revealed.

All things considered, Thrawn truly is a fantastic book that definitely lived up to my expectations for the most part. While I loved Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, Thrawn is without question my favorite out of all the new cannon Star Wars novels that I’ve read so far. Zahn did a phenomenal job of writing the character Thrawn in such a way that he’s a very complex and nuanced character. I feel like Thrawn is the perfect balance between being a genius in a lot of ways, while also having some weaknesses when it came to dealing with Nightswan. While I wish that Zahn had explored the idea of Thrawn studying a world’s art in order to defeat his enemies in more detail; the fact that he didn’t do more with that never took away from the idea that Thrawn is a military genius in a lot of ways, as far as I’m concerned.

The relationship between Thrawn and Eli was definitely one of the main highlights of the book for me personally. I think that Zahn did a fantastic job of writing the mentor/protégé dynamic of Thrawn and Eli’s relationship for the most part. While I really wish that there had been a fight between Thrawn and Eli about Eli’s association with Thrawn having a negative effect on Eli’s career at some point in the book, I’m willing to consider the possibility that perhaps Zahn simply doesn’t view Eli as being the kind of person who would just explode in a fit of rage towards Thrawn, or anybody for that matter. For that reason, I’m not going to hold my disappointment regarding the book not having a moment like that between Thrawn and Eli against Zahn, and the book as a whole. Thrawn is ultimately a fantastic book that I loved from beginning to end, and it definitely left me wanting more, but in a good way. It also got me really interested in reading the original Thrawn trilogy, because if this book is any indication of Timothy Zahn’s writing ability, I definitely think that he’s an incredibly talented writer, and I definitely want to read more of his books.

That being said, my final score for Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn is 10 out of 10.

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