Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I was not a fan of the seventh installment in the Star Wars films, The Force Awakens.  Forced and imitative rather than natural or developmental, its producers and directors were clearly more interested in profits than the integrity of the franchise. Nearly everything about The Force Awakens has its direct analog in the original Star Wars films, and as such failed to push the Star Wars storyline ahead in any organic fashion.*  Not so with Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels that followed up the events of The Return of the Jedi.  A natural extension, in Zahn’s trilogy the Empire is waning as the Rebellion is waxing; Luke is rebuilding the Jedi, a new government is being set up along democratic lines, and with the Emperor dead, the dark side is pushed to the background.  There is some cleaning up to do, but overall things are looking brighter for the universe. Thus, the only logical hope the Empire have of getting back into the picture is that a brilliant tactician might be able to do something with what little they have left over.  Enter the blue-skinned, red-eyed alien Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

A very different villain than either the Emperor or Darth Vader, Thrawn used intelligence and rationale as a means to finding advantages, and as the events of Zahn’s trilogy play out, was nearly able to retake power for the Empire once again using just that tool.  In 2017 Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with the alien’s backstory, simply titled Thrawn.

From his origins in the wilds of the universe to the ranbk of Grand Admiral in the Emperor’s fleet, Thrawn tells of Thrawn’s first meeting with humanity and the path he takes to the top of the Imperial Navy.  Early days at the Academy, time as First Lieutenant, Captain of his own ship, confidante to both the Emperor and Grand Moff Tarkin—Zahn covers the moments in which Thrawn uses his superior observational skills and intellect to defeat his enemies, gain advantages for the Empire, and rise higher in the Navy.  From infiltrating smuggling rings to defeating enemies through superior tactics, how he came to almost bring down the fledgling Republic is on display. 

Thrawn is told from two viewpoints but mostly through the eyes of Eli, a young supply officer who happens to be aboard the ship which first comes into contact with Thrawn.  Able to speak Thrawn’s native tongue, Eli is initially called into service as translator, and after Thrawn recognizes his natural intellect, is bound to Thrawn’s side as aide. The second viewpoint is a woman named Ahrinda.  Initially the owner of a small family mining operation on the planet Lothol, when the value of the metals her company mines skyrockets, she finds herself subject to Imperial takeover and cut down to an administrative job.  But it is in the galactic capitol, Coruscant, and from there she spins a new career, one that takes her through Moffs and governors, and ultimately to working with Thrawn.  But in what capacity, is for the reader to discover.

The original Thrawn trilogy published almost thirty years ago, Zahn has improved technique over the years.  In terms of pure writing, Thrawn is better than the original trilogy.  But it’s here that the comparatives end as I can’t help but feel there are a lot of missed oppurtunities in Thrawn.  It’s possible Zahn was partially handcuffed by the Star Wars estate as to what he could or could not do with the story, so take the following criticism with a grain of salt. 

Thrawn is a story that exists, save a couple of scenes with the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Death Star, entirely separate from the Star Wars most people are familiar with, not to mention Zahn’s own Thrawn trilogy.  Starting the novel I had multiple questions: how did Thrawn meet the Noghiri?  What did Thrawn meet Captain Palleon?  What was Thrawn doing during the the events of New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi?  But, these questions were never answered.  Moreover, there is no contact with the Rebellion, even though we know they were active at the time.  There is interaction with dissidents, but nothing with Mon Mothma or Bail Organa’s organization.  In short, Thrawn just doesn’t feel fully integrated into either Zahn’s own Thrawn trilogy or the original films in the way that the recent Star Wars film Rogue One is. 

Another sour point is Arihnda story; it’s entirely spurious, and possibly the whim of modern publishers saying things like “This books needs more strong female characters!  Her storyline could be entirely elided without detriment to the novel.  I kept asking myself: why is she here?  Will she end up being a love interest?  How will her story ultimately integrate with Thrawn’s?  Suffice to say the answers to those questions are not satisfying.

In the end, Thrawn provides enough of what people who are really interested in the character’s backstory want, but easily could have been better integrated into both Zahn’s own Star Wars trilogy as well as the larger Star Wars universe.  Arihnda’s story is negligible (what little influence she has on Thrawn’s storyline could have just as easily been covered by a couple of cut scenes).  And many of the questions I had from the original Thrawn trilogy are not answered.   I don’t’ regret reading Thrawn: there are some good (read: Star Wars-ish) sequences, but the novel could have been more.  (Again, this may have been due to limitations placed on Zahn by the Star Wars estate, so take my remarks accordingly.)

*For those interested, here is exactly how imitative The Force Awakens is: Jakku is Tatooine (desert planet with scavengers), BB8 is R2D2 (round, friendly, bleeping droid), Rey is Luke (scavenger from a desert planet, parentage unknown, latent force talents, finds a lightsaber in haunted underground cavern, blah, blah, blah), Maz Kanata is Yoda, there is another Death Star including another Death Star trench run (the series count has now reached three, with the possibility for more), Kylo Ren is Darth Vader (was once a good man now conflicted by the dark side, dressed in black, wears a mask, blah blah blah), General Hux is Grand Moff Tarkin, there is another cantina with alien musicians, there are AT-AT Walkers on a snowy planet, there is a big, evil Empire attacking an innocent, altruistic Rebellion…  It’s utter, self-derivative drivel.  And dare I mention that Snoak sounds like something I pull from my nose in the morning, not an uber-evil villain? 

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