Everyone’s favourite blue skinned, red-eyed, evil Sherlock Holmes returns for his second canon Star Wars novel in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn: Alliances. I am happy to report that it is worth the read and an improvement on it’s predecessor, even if it falls into some of the same traps.
Why do we care about this book?
For those who don’t know, Grand Admiral Thrawn is essentially the most iconic character of the Star Wars old canon expanded universe (now designated “Legends”). Zahn’s 1990s Thrawn Trilogy is credited with rekindling interest in the franchise post-Return of the Jedi, pre-The Phantom Menace time period.
The original Thrawn Trilogy is now part of the Legends universe and hence, no longer part of the official Disney canon. Thrawn’s appeal as a character however, has remained strong with the fans. This appeal that saw him parachuted into Star Wars: Rebels (Rebels) as the reigning big bad for the final two seasons. It also spawned a novel, Thrawn released in 2017, exploring the characters backstory and rise to the rank and crisp white uniform of Grand Admiral within an Empire that didn’t really like offering opportunities to non-humans. Thrawn: Alliances is simultaneously a sequel to that novel and to season three of Rebels.
The story reaches across two timelines, each focusing on events that take place on and around the planets of Batuu and Mokivj. Timeline one takes us back to the last year of the Clone Wars. It features the primary characters of the titular Thrawn, Jedi General Anakin Skywalker (somehow less wooden on paper than on screen) and, delightfully, Senator Padme Amidala (who is getting her own book soon!!). The plot focuses mainly on Padme’s investigation of the disappearance of her handmaid/intelligence operative Duja and Anakin’s investigation of Padme’s subsequent disappearance.
Clone Wars Timeline
Joining Anakin for his investigation is pre-Empire Thrawn, a commander in the Chiss Ascendancy. It’s a delight watching these two play detective and seeing their two opposing views of the world clash. Zahn’s Anakin manages to be very true to the character we were given in The Clone Wars and the murderous piece of cardboard we got in the movies. He’s very action oriented, cocky, and self assured, traits that probably spawn naturally when you’re the most powerful Jedi alive. He kind of reminds me of Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk: he’s not so arrogant that you dislike him, but arrogant enough that you laugh when someone punches him in the face.
He also has a clear berserk button when it comes to Padme’s safety and is, I don’t really know how to say this, a little stupid? He tends to walk into traps a lot (a trait he shares with his son) and Thrawn has to save his ass on more than one occasion.
“If Padme was here, and if they had hurt her, her attackers would need to suffer a little before they died”
—Anakin, being entirely reasonable and Jedi-like
Speaking of Thrawn, he is less of an entity in the early timeline than he is in the later one. His main role in the early timeline is as a foil for Anakin. Thrawn is calculated while Anakin is emotional. Anakin rushes but Thrawn moves deliberately. Basically Anakin is almost a one-man battle tank, while Thrawn is more of a special forces commando. Pairing Anakin and Thrawn together helps demonstrate many of Anakin’s flaws as a human being and as a soldier.
The real delight in this timeline though, is Padme. Full disclosure, there isn’t really much deep character work done with her here. What there is, however, is volumes of Padme overcoming obstacles by being extremely competent, intelligent and brave. This might seem like a pretty low bar to clear, but after seeing her spend the entirety of Revenge of the Sith barefoot, pregnant and crying (while all scenes of any kind of substance were cut), it is pretty damn refreshing.
Furthermore, her actions do give us some small insights into her character and I’m all about them. It’s very welcome to see her use her kindness to actually find allies on a hostile planet. She uses subtlety instead of a blaster to achieve her objectives when appropriate. There is a deliberation and thought process there that isn’t really present for Anakin. You see a lot of Leia in her and rightly so, but it’s interesting how she parallels Thrawn a little as well.
When Padme finally meets up with Thrawn and Anakin, it is illustrative that she immediately recognises that Thrawn has an ulterior motive for helping them. Straight away she begins assessing what the implications of this are for their mission and survival. In most novels with Thrawn as a main character, he tends to stand head and shoulders above the other characters in terms of acumen and manipulative ability. In Alliances, Padme stands as his intellectual equal.
The other timeline, set just after season 3 of Rebels, features Thrawn in a more prominent role, this time paired with Darth Vader. Palpatine, sensing force related weirdness sends them into the same system they first met years before to investigate. The main fun here is seeing the interactions between the two. Zahn’s structure of having two parallel timelines also allows information from the past to colour interaction in the future.
Vader is Vader, but you still see the echoes of Anakin in him, especially his lack of patience with Thrawn’s methods and his constant insecurity when he thinks Thrawn might be mocking him. Thrawn, on the other hand, is still shrewd and calculating but instead focuses his intellect on trying to develop mutual respect. Thrawn is more sincerely trying to prove the validity of his viewpoint than manipulate Vader, making a better focus for his character.
“You ask a great deal of trust, Admiral… I will not be mocked or toyed with.”
—Oh Darth, mighty Sith Lord still feels undervalued and condescended to.
Giving Thrawn equals in the form of Vader and Padme is definitely the best choice Zahn makes in the novel. The previous book, while serviceable as an origin story, featured far too much of Thrawn solving problems while everyone looked on in awe. It was just a line of knots for Thrawn to untie with his intellect while the other characters clapped for him. Here at least, it’s a contest to see whether he will win over Vader or Vader will finally lose his patience. Vader, surprisingly, manages to learn from Padme and identify that Thrawn has a hidden agenda this time too. The Dark Lord stops the usually unflappable Chiss in his tracks several times, a refreshing dynamic change from their Clone Wars pairing.
Minor characters like Commodore Faro, Thrawn’s second on the ISD Chimaera and Vader’s second in his stormtrooper strikeforce, Commander Kimmund, also get some POV time. These make nice breaks from the super serious time you spend in Thrawn, Vader/Anakin and Padme’s head. Faro spends most of her mildly worried that Vader is just going to murder her boss and take the ship. Kimmund, meanwhile, fixates on the fact that he’s currently the fourth commander his strikeforce has had. He spends most of the book trying not to give Vader a reason to go all ‘Admiral Ozzel‘ on him. Further cameos from Rebels characters such as Rukh and Vult Skerris help add to the colour of the book and give it the feel of existing within the Star Wars Universe.
“Lord Vader wasn’t going to be pleased. At all. And maybe the squad was about to get its fifth commander.”
—Stormtrooper Commander Kimmund, after a less than stellar day.
Thrawn: Recurring Issues
There are a couple of big issues with this book, despite its fun aspects. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t really talked about the plot of the book in this review and that’s because it’s pretty basic. Find this person, blow this up, take this ship, the plot serves only as a conduit for characters interacting with each other in fun ways. It kept me guessing, but possibly because I didn’t care about it too much? A better plot would have turned Alliances from a good read into a great one. Zahn is a talented writer and I seriously doubt he couldn’t have pulled it off.
The second problem is a one shared with the previous novel: the problem of Thrawn himself. Thrawn just seems like a really nice, reasonable, relatively forgiving, mentor to his crew kind of guy. All available evidence in the text supports this conclusion. He doesn’t blame people for mistakes outside of their control and he always takes the time to explain things to his underlings. He protects his crew from Vader’s wrath and has faith in their abilities. Faro even remarks on how no one in Thrawn’s fleet is engaged in the kind of petty political games of who gets credit for what that others in the Empire tend to play. By the end of the book, I wished this guy was my boss. Just listen to what Commander Kimmund has to say about Thrawn’s vessel:
“None of the senior officers had the self-centredness of men and women looking out solely for themselves, or the deadly inertia of people simply going through the motions. Everyone from Faro down seemed intent on working together to do their jobs and complete their assigned tasks to the best of their ability. The reason was obvious: Thrawn. The Grand Admiral was smart and subtle but never used his brilliance to show up or humiliate anyone. He demanded results but never perfection and had amazing stories of patience for those who were truly working to the best of their ability. He cared about his people, even to the point of standing up for them against powerful men like Lord Vader.”
—Commander Kimmund, describing some kind of employment nirvana amidst the space-fascism
The problem here, of course, is that HE WORKS FOR THE BLOODY EMPIRE! This is a horrific totalitarian regime that implements policies of genocide, torture, repression of basic freedoms, slavery and the building of giant planet killing death machines. It’s really hard to reconcile this nice guy Thrawn with the Thrawn that represents all this and the narrative makes barely any attempt to do it. There’s a few vague references to threats lurking in the Unknown Regions, but beyond that, not a peep.
The previous novel experienced similar issues while Thrawn rose through the ranks of the Empire. In it, there is a sequence where Thrawn’s task force puts down a slave rebellion of Wookies and his second in command presses him on the issue of slavery in the Empire. Thrawn just kind of dodges the question and Zahn never really touches it again. It’s sad because it’s a potentially interesting subject area but the author clearly just doesn’t want to go there.
Even if you’re not totally into the titular character, Thrawn: Alliances still has a lot to offer. Zahn keeps you turning the page with sharp dialogue and interesting interaction between the key characters. It’s just a real shame he didn’t go that extra mile with the plot and with the book’s protagonist.