Grand Admiral Thrawn is back, and in the ever-capable hands of the man who created him: Timothy Zahn. The latest entry in the world of Star Wars novels came out on Tuesday (or earlier, if you were at San Diego Comic-Con), and it pairs the Chiss Grand Admiral together with Darth Vader. They make for a volatile, formidable, and ultimately fascinating pair in Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances.
This is Zahn’s follow-up novel to last year's Star Wars: Thrawn, and it addresses some of the dangling mysteries left by that book, while still leaving some of them wide open. My immediate thought after finishing it was wondering whether or not Zahn will write a third one — though Thrawn’s time with the Empire has ended for the time being (thanks to Star Wars Rebels), I feel like there is still a lot of his story left to tell.
WARNING: From this point forward, I will be going into spoiler space. If you wish to read the book completely fresh, then break off this alliance right now.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances below**
Probably the biggest surprise that the novel gives the reader is that it is not set in one time period. Readers of the previous novel may remember that Thrawn spoke of a meeting that he once had with Anakin Skywalker — it may have thrown people, because we’d never read about this or seen it in any episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This book takes care of that in a big way.
Surprise! Half of this book takes place during the Clone Wars. To be more precise, it takes place sometime between Ahsoka Tano leaving the Jedi Order and the (soon to be actually seen!) Siege of Mandalore. Not only do we witness Anakin’s mysterious meeting with the Talented Mr. Thrawn, Padme Amidala is in the mix as well. It’s not just a cameo, either— she’s a major player in the book.
One of Padme's loyal former handmaidens has stumbled upon a nefarious Separatist plot, and so Padme has to go and investigate. Anakin loses contact, and wastes no time in rocketing off to the distant planet Batuu to try and rescue her. Along the way, he meets Thrawn, who is a little too eager to help him. He does, however, prove incredibly useful.
The planet Batuu is featured heavily, and this is notable for two reasons — for one, it is repeatedly referred to as being on the edge of, you knew this was coming, the Unknown Regions. This area of the galaxy far, far away is name-dropped a great deal in the book, continuing to set up its importance and making me think that at some point the movies (maybe Rian Johnson’s new trilogy) will bring this mysterious place into the fold. Though Old Man Snoke came from there (and the remnants of the Empire reformed itself into the First Order there as well) there is so much we don’t know. It’s a huge field of arable land, rich for Star Wars storytelling.
The second point of interest is that Batuu (and its landmark town, Black Spire Outpost) is the setting of Disney’s new Star Wars Theme Park expansion, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The park will feature the destination during the time of the sequel trilogy, but we get a good sense of it here. It’s lawless, dangerous, and full of Star Wars mainstays like cantinas and people who don’t wish to be found. It’s initially described as “beautiful, mysterious, and a little bit sad.”
Anakin and Thrawn prove to be a great team, with Zahn describing Anakin’s Jedi senses (precognition especially) with something called “double vision.” It’s a clever counterpoint to Thrawn’s Sherlock-esque observations, which is something Zahn thankfully brings back from the first book.
Padme herself, as should be expected, does not need rescuing— she rescues herself. Anakin says at one point, “She’s a lot more clever than most people give her credit for.” It was wonderful spending time with her, and it made me look forward to the recently announced Padme novel Queen’s Shadow by E.K. Johnson even more.
The three of them (and Artoo of course) manage to save the day, but there’s a cost in the end. Also — is Thrawn smart enough to figure out Anakin and Padme’s big secret? Take a guess.
And if all that doesn't sound enthra(wn)lling enough, that's just the half of it...
The other half of the book takes place after Thrawn has revealed himself to the Empire, climbed the ranks, and attained the rank of Grand Admiral. We’re way past the events of the previous book, and somewhere right after the finale of Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels. Indeed, Thrawn’s recent defeat (or incomplete victory) at Atollon is brought up more than a few times.
Emperor Palpatine has sensed a disturbance in the force located around, where else, Batuu. He decides to send Thrawn and Darth Vader to investigate. Vader knows full well who Thrawn is, and remembers their past encounter with more than a little pain. Even in his own mind, he refuses to use the name Anakin. He refers to his former self only as “The Jedi.”
Thrawn, on the other hand, may or may not realize who he’s actually dealing with. Does he figure out this big mystery by the end of the book? Take a guess.
It’s the Thrawn/Vader section where this book really shines. Vader is a hammer, and Thrawn is a needle. The constant differences in how they approach situations is fantastic, especially when their plans contradict each other. Their leadership styles are also mirrored in their respective crews— Thrawn’s crew is somewhat free to fail, and then learn from their failures and move on. Vader has shown us how he tolerates failure, and his brigade of stormtroopers operates through blood-curdling fear. It is fairly clear that Thrawn’s way of doing things is more effective.
Zahn once again gives us the same mirror of Vader’s double vision and Thrawn’s observations, with plenty of parallels back and forth between the book’s two sections. Together, T+V, friends 4 lyfe, are able to take care of the disturbance around Batuu... and Thrawn even uses his positive reinforcement techniques on Vader himself. Vader doesn’t want to be pushed to do a certain thing, but Thrawn gets him to actually do it. The result is wonderful.
Emperor Palpatine is one crafty, resentful piece of work. He is all-seeing, and knows full well that these two have a past. Whether he’s setting them up to destroy each other, or pairing them up to learn from each other is open for debate.
We don’t get any glimpses of the future past Vader and Thrawn completing their mission. We don’t get any further information on Eli Vanto (from the first novel) though we do get a bit about the Chiss Ascendancy, and some other species based in the Unknown Regions. In terms of the Grand Admiral, we already know what his future entails — he’s headed into Star Wars Rebels Season 4, and ultimately will be blasted off to who-knows-where with Ezra and the Purgill.
- Thrawn’s assassin Rukh, who was brought back to canon in Season 4 of Star Wars Rebels, has some great scenes here. Still, how did these two meet? We don’t see it in the previous book, and this one doesn’t tell us either. I need to know. Now.
- There is a reference to “Moogan tea,” which I am going to take as a cap-tip to the infamous Clone Wars episode "Corruption," aka “the poison tea episode.”
- The Season 1 episode of The Clone Wars called "Storm Over Ryloth" saw Ahsoka using a tactic that had been used by Thrawn in the old EU. In this book, Anakin tells Thrawn about the tactic, called a “Marg Sabl.” Thrawn, rightfully, finds it very interesting.
- Thrawn is still trying to make fetch happen with his TIE Defender program. He pretty much has Vader convinced by the end of the book, and the reader as well. If the Empire had listened to him more, they might still be around... so I guess it's a good thing they didn't.
-In case there was still any debate about it, the Emperor’s interest in the Unknown Regions are all about him wanting to expand the Empire, and his rule. He doesn’t want to defend against potential threats that come from there, he wants to go there and conquer. Thrawn confirms this himself, so we can dispense with the “Palpatine only wanted to make everything secure for when the Unknown Region folk attack” theories.
There is so much more to discover and enjoy in this book, so I hesitate to spoil anything further. Zahn’s descriptions of the action is top notch, his writing of Padme is excellent, and his ability to illustrate both the terror and inner pain of Darth Vader using words alone is a triumph. Better than all of that, however, is his writing of Thrawn. He remains one of the most interesting characters in Star Wars lore, and Zahn knows him better than anyone.
Here’s hoping that Zahn gives this noble Chiss one more go, because if there’s one alliance that beats all of the others in this book, it is Zahn and Thrawn.