REVIEW: Star Wars – Thrawn Ascendancy – Chaos Rising (2020)

A book by Timothy Zahn

I’m finally doing it – I am finally setting some time aside to read the six Thrawn books by Timothy Zahn since we can all assume the character is about to come back in a VERY big way on the small screen via Disney+. I’m technically doing these out of order by release date, as three other books previously came out around five years ago. These “Ascendancy” books are a “prequel” to those and take place in a position where they lead into the “second” trilogy. I have decided to read them in continuity order rather than published order. Formerly seen as the “successor” to Grand Moff Tarkin in the older, now non-canon, “Legends” books, Thrawn was Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy and kept the Empire afloat after the destruction of the Emperor and Second Death Star. With this new continuity and new opportunities to take characters different ways, Timothy Zahn revisits Thrawn taking him into some new directions and possibly setting up an even bigger threat in the future.

“Discover Thrawn’s origins within the Chiss Ascendancy in the first book in an epic new Star Wars trilogy from bestselling author Timothy Zahn. Beyond the edge of the galaxy lies the Unknown Regions: chaotic, uncharted, and near impassable, with hidden secrets and dangers in equal measure. And nestled within its swirling chaos is the Ascendancy, home to the enigmatic Chiss and the Nine Ruling Families that lead them. The peace of the Ascendancy, a beacon of calm and stability, is shattered after a daring attack on the Chiss capital that leaves no trace of the enemy. Baffled, the Ascendancy dispatches one of its brightest young military officers to root out the unseen assailants. A recruit born of no title, but adopted into the powerful family of the Mitth and given the name Thrawn. With the might of the Expansionary Fleet at his back, and the aid of his comrade Admiral Ar’alani, answers begin to fall into place. But as Thrawn’s first command probes deeper into the vast stretch of space his people call the Chaos, he realizes that the mission he has been given is not what it seems. And the threat to the Ascendancy is only just beginning.”

Thrawn is definitely usually an antagonist in canon Star Wars material, so seeing him here as the protagonist is definitely interesting. In saying that he’s usually a villain, I would hesitate to characterize him as “evil”, he’s far more multi-layered than that, and exists as an enigma in the Imperial ranks. He is always thinking of his own people, The Chiss Ascendency, over everything else and is a member of The Galactic Empire for personal reasons as well as a way to “keep an eye” on their aspirations. The events of Chaos Rising take place some time before he joins The Empire, and sets up his path to greatness as a young man. Thrawn has to navigate backstabbing, arrogance and a general stubbornness due to xenophobia from his own people in terms of how the rest of the galaxy works. You see, The Chiss are chauvinists and believe that anything that is not a Chiss might as well be an an animal with no sentience. Thrawn isn’t necessarily super-progressive on this front, but at least realizes that have a diverse crew can aid him in many ways. Thrawn sees others more as business and tactical assets, and crews his ships accordingly.

For longtime fans, some may notice a slight difference between characterizations of Thrawn in these canon books vs the Legends books. This new Thrawn reminds me a LOT of a character like Sherlock Holmes, someone that is, by nature, run by uncanny flashes of intuition and insight. For example, Thrawn can do bewildering things like deduce what a race’s military and fighting styles are like simply based on the culture’s artwork. Some of it can be slightly sensational, but it works well in this book and gives the reader the impression that Thrawn is, at all times, playing 5-D chess and everyone else is playing checkers if not worse.

I’ve seen folks try to paint Thrawn as some sort of psychopath or sociopath online in the past. The truth is, that this characterization does not really fit the character at all. The definition of a sociopath is “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” Thrawn honestly never exhibits this. We do not see Thrawn manipulating people for his own amusement, or with the intent of hurting them. If anything, he meddles in others careers because he sees potential in them and wants to utilize this as an asset.

With us not actually seeing any of The Chiss Ascendancy prior to this series, mostly because of its remoteness in relation to the core planets and implausibly hard to travel method of getting there, The author is able to go completely buck wild here and do whatever he wants with the plot. It’s fitting that Zahn would be the one to create this world seeing that he introduced the character some 30 years ago in the old novel series. The Chiss exist in a supremely hierarchical society complete with noble families and a series of complicated interwoven and yet somehow separate “houses” each with their own hierarchies and rankings. These houses themselves have their own standings within the hierarchy, with some being more important than others, and nine ruling families and forty smaller sub-houses controlling most of the government. this entire system is kind of hard to wrap your head around when reading the book, and reminded me a lot of something akin to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Thrawn’s mere existence seems to be a threat to this structure for many of his brethren as he does not “play nice” with millennia old stuffy rules, and has his own “long game” in place.

Perhaps the only real downside for this book is that the overall plot serves little purpose other than being a catalyst for Thrawn to show off. Some intriguing ideas appear to be setting up a much larger villain for subsequent books, so it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here. That said, the real plus for this is that Timothy Zahn is a master of writing naval- style space opera action scenes that rival even the best out there, including Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I would imagine that if you are a fan of that particular type of science fiction storytelling, this book should excel at almost every level for you.

The entire time that I’ve been reading these Canon Star Wars books, I have noticed that a lot of them have a tendency to rush towards the end of the story once you get to the third act. This book thankfully is paced very well and does not do that, the finale is well worth the wait and is easily the best part of the book. Thrawn does a bunch of “Thrawn stuff”, tries to be diplomatic in the face of almost guaranteed defeat, then somehow manages to utterly humiliate his foes in a rapid-fire manner. Because of that, this book did exactly what I expected it to do, and while not perfect, was a very entertaining read throughout. I will definitely continue this series!

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