Grand Admiral Thrawn occupies an important place in Star Wars history. As the star of the The Thrawn Trilogy published in the early ’90s, the character was part of a resurgence for the Expanded Universe, now known as Legends. Created by author Timothy Zahn, Thrawn jumped off the pages. He was a villain unlike any other present in the Star Wars universe to that point. Thrawn didn’t possess the Force, he was strategic and careful, he was ambitious–he made an impression. But the Chiss wasn’t part of canonical Star Wars until he joined Star Wars Rebels in season three. Now, the character has made a triumphant return to the page in Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.
Thrawn succeeds because of its laser focus on the character. Thrawn was introduced in Heir to the Empire, set after Return of the Jedi, as the primary villain, but he competed for page time with legacy characters like Luke, Han, and Leia. Other characters invented by Zahn, like Mara Jade, required attention, too. As a result, you didn’t get to spend a ton of time–at least, not as much as I would have liked–with the Grand Admiral. I’m not saying other plots aren’t happening in Thrawn, but the weight is heavily distributed on Thrawn and his Imperial counterpart/mentee Eli Vanto. We see how the Empire discovers Thrawn, how the Chiss proves himself to be a valuable asset, and how he rises through the ranks with incredible speed.
To oversimplify my thoughts: I like canon Thrawn better than Legends Thrawn. No, it doesn’t need to be about comparing old vs. new, but in a case like this, I have a difficult time not measuring on a scale in my mind.
One reason why Thrawn is successful compared to past iterations of the character is because it puts you in his shoes. We know he’s intelligent and has observation skills similar to someone like Sherlock Holmes. We’ve seen the fruition of his examinations in Star Wars Rebels. Here, you can watch it play out. As Thrawn interacts with others, there’s an addendum to each exchange of dialogue in italics. Those remarks are what Thrawn is noticing about the speaker–a tightening of the throat, a rise in temperature, a nervous tic–and all of it informs his actions and conclusions. Zahn so excels at having you see things through Thrawn’s eyes, you’ll find yourself trying to study the world and people around you along with him.
Small easter eggs abound, and I won’t go into them here, but let’s discuss two important aspects from The Thrawn Trilogy present in this new story: xenophobia and the importance of art. Besides being themes key to Past Thrawn (official title), it’s fascinating to study them in the context of what we know about the Empire. Thrawn is automatically a world apart because he’s not human. His red eyes and blue skin mark him as different at first glance, and he’s looked down upon by others in the Empire. However, not by Emperor Palpatine. The Emperor senses Thrawn’s value and therefore doesn’t care about the fact that he’s an alien.
Think about what we see of the Empire and later, the First Order. A large percentage of visible officers and workers on ships are white male humans. The organizations value uniformity on a multitude of levels. Also, because many aliens were involved with the Separatists during the Clone Wars, there’s an insidious mistrust of them that persists long after the Galactic Empire is formed. The messaging about what Thrawn has to face simply because of his species is strong and threaded throughout the story in a meaningful way. Thrawn being utterly clueless about why his species matters and operating without attention to the prejudices of others is also meaningful.
Then, there’s the art. Thrawn is a collector. He studies art and culture of those he works with or opposes and finds patterns and information. He sees the potential of art, while most Imperials don’t give it a second glance. Zahn gives a few examples to illustrate how Thrawn studies and appreciates art and then how it aids his plans. The execution is masterful and emphasizes how unique Thrawn is in a sea of conformity.
Besides hopping along Thrawn’s history over a number of years, we also get to spend time with Arihnda Pryce, a.k.a. Governor Pryce from Star Wars Rebels. I don’t want to delve into spoiler territory but will say we see how she ascends through the political minefield and gains the role she owns with confidence in Rebels. She and Thrawn’s are pursuing different goals, but their careers do move forward at approximately the same rate. I gained a certain appreciation for Pryce after learning about her path.
Overall, Thrawn takes some familiarities, expands them, and paints an intimate portrait that gives new life to a beloved character. Zahn was obviously the ideal author for the task of both starting and continuing Thrawn’s story, and he delivered. The novel presents the Thrawn I didn’t know I’ve been wanting to meet.