The first time we encountered Grand Admiral Thrawn coincided with one of the first times we picked up a novel in the fledgling Star Wars Expanded Universe in the early 1990s, and were bowled over by the newest Imperial villain who threatened to upend everything accomplished by the end of Return of the Jedi. Approximately twenty years later, Thrawn has re-emerged as much a threat to the heroes of our stories, but somewhat re-imagined and relocated within the chronology of our franchise’s story. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn establishes the blue skinned admiral within the context of his appearance on Star Wars Rebels, but falls into the trap of shining upon Thrawn’s reputation while at the same time offering in parallel a true character arc in the form of Arihnda Pryce, the governor of Lothal. Neither of these two things are a bad thing.
When Thrawn was announced as the villain for Rebels’ third season, a convention hall full of fans erupted in cheers, which were echoed across social media platforms for days to come. The Chiss Imperial had courtesy of Zahn’s writing and early appearance in the now Legends Universe, had over the course of two decades gained an inspired stature as the preeminent military genius, who studied art and culture to learn and defeat his enemies. His resurrection from the purgatory realm of the old expanded universe was celebrated, but also tinged with fears that this new iteration of Thrawn would not live up to memories and expectations of the old. Rebels succeeded in allaying these fears, and given his prowess as a military commander, was intentionally withheld from a fair portion of the storyline, as the only realistic presentation of Thrawn would require him to wait, watch, and set a trap for the rebels. The alternative was a short quick victory, at odds with the needs of a season with almost a couple dozen episodes. Nor was Thrawn alone in his appearance in that season, he was also joined by Governor Pryce.
In Rebels, Pryce was the name of the never present governor, always away on Coruscant or elsewhere for business. That is, until her introduction as an Imperial governor seeking help with the rebels from Grand Moff Tarkin. Enter Thrawn. When Thrawn was announced at Star Wars Celebration London (2016), none would have guessed that Pryce would become a major character in Zahn’s return to his most popular villain, nor that her presence would help balance out an uneven approach to the character. Joining Pryce as another major character in Thrawn is Eli Vantos, who serves as something of a point of view character for the reader, an Imperial cadet from the edges of Wild Space, which can be read as ‘the boonies’ or even farther from the bright center of the galaxy than Tatooine. Vantos is attached to Thrawn to serve as Thrawn’s aide and interpreter, and while Thrawn rarely needs Eli’s help to speak, Eli does at times help explain Thrawn’s own actions to the reader (generally to other characters, if not in mental dialogue).
The novel traces the three characters across a span of years leading up to the time period of Rebels, usually separating Thrawn and Eli’s stories from that of Pryce’s except as time, circumstances, and necessity slowly bring them together. Eli grows under Thrawn’s gentle tutelage as a gifted strategist and Pryce evolves from a wistful Lothal native eager to see the wider universe into a woman who is unwilling to allow anything stand between herself and her desires to lead Lothal toward her vision of success and prosperity. Pryce’s ambitions, like the best of stories, begins with the smallest desire, revenge over the loss of her family mines, and twists and turns as much as her moral center as we follow her navigation of Coruscant and Imperial politics to grasp the reins of power. Arihndra experiences a true character arc, which is wonderful because Thrawn does not.
It may be that Timothy Zahn is in love with his character because Thrawn is an incredible character to write, given his genius of tactic and command. Thrawn’s arc, if it can be called that, is essentially a detailing of his rapid rise to the rank of Grand Admiral in an Imperial Navy very unwelcoming to aliens in their midst. Time after time, Thrawn proves himself to possess almost supernatural ability to see his opponents’ strategy or choose an outside of the box solution that both flies against Imperial custom and succeeds brilliantly. As written, Thrawn is nearly impenetrable, showing little weakness in almost any situation, and in one early incident, it’s later shown to be entirely faked. Introducing every chapter are journal entries written in Thrawn’s voice, something on the line of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, in which Thrawn examines what it means to be a warrior and strategy. It’s appropriate in that the portions of Thrawn about Thrawn are nearly written like Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, a military history written in the third person intended to promote the writer’s participation in events. There is little wrong that Thrawn can do, while in contrast, Pryce commits deeds for her own personal endeavors that paint her nearly as much a monster as some of the worse villains of Star Wars. Thrawn’s only limitations, mentioned often, are his lack of political expertise, a matter eventually dismissed as a limitation of his own choosing. The trick of the matter is that Thrawn at his best, which is more than half of the novel, is extremely entertaining to read.
Without Pryce, and to a lesser degree, Eli Vantos, Thrawn would still be entertaining to read, but the inclusion of the Lothal governor’s rise to power balances the book and makes it far more enjoyable as one of the newest additions to the Star Wars canon. When Rebels’ fourth season begins in fall, 2017, we will care far more about Pryce’s character than we had before, and that growth of interest will definitely exceed any additional fascination with Thrawn following Thrawn. As we mentioned, Thrawn is an incredible character, a classic figure to reside with the best of Imperial villainy on the top of a galactic Mount Olympus. What Thrawn does make the reader feel about the Chiss admiral is a sense of regret that there isn’t more out there to enjoy of him. Thrawn’s return in Rebels’ next season will very likely result in the conclusion of his story, a matter that Timothy Zahn has made far more upsetting with his newest work.
Thrawn is a must read for any who adored the character in his previous incarnation in the Legends Universe, and for anyone who’s only familiarity with the character comes from Rebels. The true beneficiary of Thrawn, however, is Governor Arihndra Pryce, who represents the heart of the novel as a character traveling from a beginning to an end, instead of simply providing the illusion of traveling at all, as Thrawn does. Timothy Zahn has written a solidly entertaining novel and hopefully, will find a way to write more about the characters within it.