Book Review: “Thrawn: Alliances” may just be Timothy Zahn’s best Star Wars novel yet

Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader.

It seems nearly impossible to think of a more dangerous duo in Star Wars, combining the Empire’s most brilliant strategist and tactician with the Empire’s most ruthless and capable warrior.  It seems too good to be true, like the dreams and fanfiction made up by countless Star Wars fans since 1991 – only this time, it’s actually real, and the team-up is entrusted to the most capable hands of Timothy Zahn.

Zahn is of course no stranger to Thrawn or the Star Wars galaxy, as he penned the incredibly influential Thrawn trilogy in the 1990s, which first introduced us to the Chiss Grand Admiral and is credited as a major influence in sparking the Star Wars EU.  Zahn returned to write the character’s backstory in 2017’s Thrawn, following the character’s re-introduction to the canon universe in Rebels.

And with all due respect to Zahn’s previous Star Wars entries, which have been absolutely terrific, Thrawn: Alliances may just be his best yet.  The book released on July 25 and features Thrawn teaming up with Vader for a mission that is, perhaps, crucial to the Empire’s continued existence.  That is good enough, but with expert crafting Zahn actually tells two related stories at once: the first is about Thrawn’s mission with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars (in which Padme Amidala and R2-D2 also play major roles), and the second is about Thrawn’s mission with Darth Vader during the reign of the Empire.

Zahn handles all of this with incredible skill, and the result is one of the best Star Wars books I have read in a long, long time.  It ranks up there with the best of the new canon, the best of anything Zahn has written, and the best of Star Wars books in general.

Let’s dive in to a review of the book, but be warned: ***spoilers are ahead.***

Plot Summary:

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Set in-between the events of Rebels seasons three and four, the book begins as Emperor Palpatine has gathered two of his most trusted and important allies, Darth Vader and Grand Admiral Thrawn, to give them a mission together.  “I have sensed a disturbance in the Force,” Palpatine tells them, sending them together to the planet Batuu, in the Unknown Regions to uncover the mystery of what it is.  There is, of course, more than meets the eye to Palpatine’s request, however.  There is distrust between Thrawn and Vader, as Vader thinks Thrawn failed by allowing the Rebels to escape Atollon while Thrawn strongly disagrees with the Death Star project (favored by Vader, Palpatine, and Tarkin).  But Palpatine also wants to test Thrawn’s allegiances – whether to the Empire or to his people – while wanting Vader to face his past – one that the Sith tries to totally separate himself from.

Thrawn and Vader leave on the Chimaera for Batuu but encounter difficulty along the way as they are pulled out of hyperspace near Mokivj.  They manage to get around this by taking smaller hyperspace jumps to Batuu, and once there Vader and Thrawn (Who are clearly at odds with one another throughout much of the journey to the planet) embark on a journey to the planet surface and the Black Spire Outpost to gather more information.  There they are attacked, however, and must work together to fend off their attackers.  Before long, they manage to track down the disturbance in the Force, but realize that the disturbance – which apparently is a group of people – are taken off-planet as cargo by a species known as the Grysk.  Thrawn, who is most observant and is always a few steps ahead, asks Vader to trust him – a theme that runs throughout the novel.  Thrawn uses the Chimaera to spring the trap, detecting the gravity projectors that the Grysk were using to pull ships out of hyperspace.

Vader goes to retrieve the cargo (Thrawn believes he has an idea of what it is) and finds Force-sensitive female Chiss children.  Thrawn tells Vader that the Chiss use Force-sensitive kids for navigation, since they possess the ability of precognition and knowing what is coming, and Thrawn wants to rescue the remaining captive children.  Vader once again questions his loyalty, however, asserting that Thrawn is desiring to use Imperial resources for a personal mission.  Thrawn again asks Vader for trust, assuring the Sith Lord that it is a threat to the Empire as well but declining to explain why.  Instead, he wants Vader’s trust.

Thrawn manages to track the Grysk and Vader uses the same navigational technique that the Force-sensitive Chiss use to guide the Chimaera there.  Upon confronting the Grysk fleet, Thrawn commands the battle from the bridge of the Chimaera while Vader flies one of Thrawn’s elite TIE Defenders into battle.  Commander Kimmund, the leader of Vader’s elite First Legion squad, leads his group to infiltrate a Grysk ship and retrieve the prisoners, with help from Thrawn’s assassin Rukh.  In the end, the Grysk are driven away and the Empire is victorious.

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Keep in mind that while Zahn is telling that story, he is also telling the story of Thrawn’s first encounter with Anakin Skywalker, during the Clone Years (which was alluded to in the previous novel).  Set in-between Ahsoka Tano’s departure from the Jedi Order and the Siege of Mandalore, Padme Amidala travels to Batuu at the urging of her aide Duja, who apparently has uncovered something big.  Upon arrival Padme finds out that Duja is dead, however, and despite some opposition Padme finds out where Duja was watching and heads there: Mokivj.  Having not heard from Padme in a while, Anakin Skywalker and R2-D2 head for Batuu on a personal mission.  In orbit, though, Anakin encounters another ship and it’s commander, Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Ascendancy, who is on a mission to find out all he can about the Clone Wars.  He knows of Padme’s ship, which Anakin is looking for, and the two join forces to hopefully accomplish both of their quests simultaneously.  The two engage in fighting on the planet but eventually discover that Padme has gone to Mokivj and that the Separatists have something to do with all of this.  So Anakin and Thrawn head for the planet, where Padme has crash-landed and found shelter amongst the locals.  Anakin and Thrawn arrive and infiltrate the Separatist factory on the planet trying to rescue Padme, who is underneath the factory, and Anakin uses a clever Jedi trick with his lightsaber to alert the facility that a Jedi is somewhere nearby.  Anakin and Thrawn are thrown in prison but manage to escape, as does Padme – and they then meet up.  Resolving to figure out more, Padme and Thrawn go to retrieve Anakin’s lightsaber while the latter creates a distraction.

After getting the lightsaber, however, Thrawn reveals his true mission: to retrieve the shield generator from the factory for the Chiss Ascendancy, which he does.  His ship arrives and Thrawn leaves with the generator, leaving Padme and Anakin to do it themselves.  Anakin discovers what the Separatists have been up to: using a rare material called cortosis, which is not susceptible to blaster fire or lightsabers, the Separatists under the secret leadership of Duke Solha (from Serenno) had found a way to implement this into the armor of both droids and clones.  Anakin fights these droids and is helped by the return of Thrawn, who had completed his personal mission and now come back to help his allies.  Together they manage to stop the factory, and Anakin blows up the mine as well (against the wishes of Thrawn and Padme), resulting in a massive lava flow.

At the end of the novel, Zahn ties it all together.  Thrawn knew that the Grysks presented a threat to the Empire because he found that their gravity projectors used cortosis, which he finally reveals to Vader after the battle.  He put everything together, realizing that the Grysks apparently had been watching from afar during the Clone Wars, had discovered cortosis and had offered it to the Separatists.  Their plan had been to then betray them and take them by surprise, but Count Dooku’s use of both battle droids and clone armor for this project (which Vader knew was actually Palpatine’s idea as a backup for Order 66) stalled the Grysk plan as they figured out what was going on.  But Thrawn explains that the Grysk are apparently now ready to invade the Empire.  Vader points out that a Chiss ship had been seen fleeing the battle, leading to the grim admission from Thrawn that his people were probably in the makings of a Civil War, with some of his people aligned with the Grysk.  Vader again question’s Thrawn’s ultimate allegiances, leading to one final admission from the Grand Admiral.  He replays his warning to the Grysks to flee, and solemnly points out to Vader that he used his real name, Mitth’raw’nuruodo – which, knowing the Grysk attack strategy, meant that the Chiss would be their next target… buying the Empire more time to prepare.  In light of this, and having finally come to trust the Grand Admiral’s intentions, Vader tells Thrawn that he will vouch for the TIE Defender project to the Emperor.

Review:

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There is so much to point out from this novel that it is impossible to cover it all, but we will try to highlight some of the more significant things.  The book works on a number of levels, but it truly is a mystery novel as the reader continues to wonder what the significance of all of these things are and how they tie together.  Zahn expertly weaves the two related yet distinct stories together in a beautiful manner that doesn’t detract from either of them.  Sometimes, I find that this format of telling multiple stories at once can be confusing or can take away from the book, but Zahn doesn’t overdo it: he tells two main stories, and he leaves them in significant enough chunks to allow them to gain momentum while also utilizing seemless transitions between them.  The book leaves you continually wondering what is next, and it’s not until the very end that you truly find out how everything fits together; indeed, it’s actually in the final epilogue in which it is all ultimately tied together, though other strings had begun to be tied up before that.

The plot is fantastic and is really engaging, while Zahn’s writing style makes it really easy to read.  The book works as a great mystery novel.  But with all of that in mind, the true strength of the book comes, as you’d expect, from the main characters, primarily Thrawn and Vader/Anakin.  There is absolutely nobody who understands Thrawn better than Zahn does, and he really gets a chance to shine in writing the Grand Admiral in this novel.  We see much more of Thrawn’s brilliant, Sherlock Holmes-esque strategy, observation, and study, and we realize that Thrawn truly is always several steps ahead of his opponents and allies.  He can handle his own in a fight, but he’s always searching for information that will help him better know his opponents and lead to victory.  He is truly as smart and as brilliant as they come.  Yet at the same time, Zahn manages to give Thrawn a deeper level of characterization in this novel too, exploring more in-depth his alliances to the Chiss, details of the Chiss Ascendency, and the tragic relationship between Thrawn’s loyalties to the Empire and to his people (which, as Thrawn maintains, are not contradictory, but the tensions of which do ultimately make him a more sympathetic and complex character).  As Vader notes – and is annoyed by – Thrawn is certainly quite arrogant, but his confidence in himself is almost always well-placed and rewarded.  And, in working together with Vader, Thrawn possesses the perfect balance of not backing down to the Sith Lord and of also deferring to the Sith Lord at times.  He’s in total command of the Chimaera, but his leadership style is uniquely different from anyone else’s in the Empire – and that leads Commander Kimmund to ponder at one point in the novel whether, if everyone in the Empire were like Thrawn, their might would ever fail.

Zahn also expertly handles the characters of Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker, too (as they are indeed two distinct characters at these points in time).  He manages to display Anakin’s brashness and his devotion for Padme, and he captures Vader’s inner wrestling with his past incredibly well – and Vader won’t even mention Skywalker, referring to him instead as The Jedi.  We also see what are essentially Vader’s insecurities, wondering why Palpatine has taken such an interest in Thrawn and been meeting with him so much, wanting his own place at the Emperor’s side preserved.  Vader holds contempt for Thrawn’s failure at Atollon and doesn’t see why the Emperor trusts him so much, and there are many times in the novel where Vader and Thrawn go toe-to-toe on the Chimaera over questions of authority, leadership, loyalty, and the next step.  And, of course, we get a few moments of Vader’s epic combat skills, both man-to-man and in a ship.  Zahn handles the characters of Vader and Anakin perfectly as well (and the same can be said of Padme, too, who plays a major role in the story as well).  He also gives us creative looks at the Force and double-vision, where Anakin can sense what’s coming as the Force flows through him.

Additionally, characters like Padme, R2-D2, Commodore Faro, Commander Kimmund, and Rukh all also get plenty of moments and time to shine (and you’ve got to love some of Rukh’s awesome moments!).  But this is a story very much driven by Thrawn and Vader/Anakin – albeit with great supporting characters and a great plot – and that’s the way it should be.  We see Thrawn deduce things he shouldn’t know and that have been kept hidden – to Padme’s shock he knows that she and Anakin are lovers, and to Vader’s anger Thrawn knows the Sith Lord’s past – and we see the relationship between the two evolve from the point of enmity to mutual respect.  And it is interesting how in many ways the stories parallel one another.  The first sees Anakin on a personal quest that also is for the sake of the Republic, with Thrawn cautioning him to stay on target for his ultimate cause.  The second sees Thrawn on a personal quest that also is for the sake of the Empire, with Vader cautioning him to stay on target for his ultimate cause.

I’ve said too much already here, but nonetheless I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what this book has to offer, and I sincerely hope we get a follow-up novel to this one.  There are so many interesting plot lines that could still be followed up on, and Thrawn is as interesting of a character as there is in the Star Wars universe currently.  And then, of course, Timothy Zahn is terrific, and I’ll eagerly read anything Star Wars he writes.  I loved the Thrawn trilogy in the EU, and Thrawn was fantastic, but Thrawn: Alliances just may be his best work yet.  And that’s very high praise.

My grade: 10/10

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