Book Review: Thrawn

He’s back! A favorite character of the old Star Wars Expanded Universe, now Legends, has been recreated in this new novel by the one and only Timothy Zahn.  I believe Thrawn was one of the greatest disappointments to numerous fans when Disney announced that the EU was no longer going to be canon.  Thrawn is amazing.  Seriously.  His tactical genius made him a beloved character, up there with Mara Jade.  Even fans who were not into the novels, had a general idea of who Thrawn was.

I can speak for a lot of fans that when Thrawn was announced as a new character in Star Wars Rebels, fans were delighted. Then they announced a new book with him as well written by Zahn and the fans went nuts.

This new novel is an origin story of Thrawn. It shows how he came to work with the Empire and evolve into one of the greatest strategist’s and commanders (or Grand Admiral) of the Empire’s fleet, overcoming obstacles along the way.  His chief obstacle was that he is an alien and as the Empire is, you know, kind of prejudiced against aliens, it’s quite a feat that he makes it as far as he does.

 

***spoilers ahead***

 

The novel starts with Thrawn being rescued by the Empire from being exiled by his native Chiss species. I use the word “rescued” loosely because Thrawn purposefully drew them to him to board their ships and let himself be seen and caught by them and we find out later, in typical Thrawn style, that it was never a rescue at all – he had planned everything. On the ship, he encounters a young man Eli Vanto, who is on the road to becoming a supply chain officer. Vanto helps translate for Thrawn at times since his Basic is rusty and also because Vanto was also brought up in the Outer Rim (therefore also slightly disliked by others because he is “backwater”). Thrawn immediately gets taken to Emperor Palpatine who puts him into the Imperial Academy on a fast track with Vanto.

Throughout the novel, Vanto remains at Thrawn’s side through the academy, to commanding posts, and missions. Thrawn sees potential in Eli though it takes a long time for Eli to also see it. Half of the novel follows Eli regretting that he ever met Thrawn as he only wants a quiet life in the supply department.

As a side story, we are introduced to Arihnda Pryce, whom we have also seen from Star Wars Rebels. Her path intersects with Thrawn’s later down the line but we get a fleshed out backstory for her (the later governor of Lothal).  She begins her story working at her parent’s mine – Pryce Mining – which gets ripped from her by the Empire. She resolves to get it back. How does she get it back? Through political scheming and working with the Empire. If you can’t fight them, join them. Her journey to that point is up and down along with lots of petty backstabbing.

As Pryce moves up the ranks in the Empire politically, Thrawn also rises as a commander. Pryce does not have too much involvement with Thrawn, but when she does she helps him and Vanto through favors with connections (the great Tarkin, who was written superbly) and Thrawn also helps her with his tactical, objective way of looking at things.

The end of the novel sees a culmination of a battle (where we know Thrawn will obviously come out ahead) where those who doubted Thrawn are now convinced of his genius, along with understanding the real reasons for…well…everything in the novel that Thrawn has done. The side twist belongs with Arihnda Pryce and how far she has gone down the path of corruption. Thrawn’s beautiful plan gets screwed up by her with unnecessary deaths, but she never admits to it and covers her tracks beautifully, though he knows but can’t prove it. Thrawn still comes out ahead, but it’s interesting to see that this is the beginning of Pryce and Thrawn’s working relationship that we see in Rebels.

 

Pros:

  • It’s Thrawn. Enough said.
  • But seriously, there is not too much changed from the character older Star Wars fans loved reading about. He is still a genius and still a masterful tactician…rivaling Palpatine in some respects.
  • How did Thrawn get in Palpatine’s good books so well that Palpatine fast tracked him through the Academy and military career? Anakin Skywalker. Yes – interesting twist. Thrawn says he heard of Palpatine through his “servant, Anakin Skywalker”. This implies a lot. It implies that 1) Thrawn met Anakin when he was a Jedi and 2) he could have caught on to Palpatine’s game of chess that he was already working on bringing Anakin to his side prior to the Empire existing. It’s not a stretch to believe that as Thrawn is able to deduce everything. The question remains though – does Thrawn know Vader is Anakin? My guess is yes though nothing is confirmed.
  • Each chapter begins with an excerpt of Thrawn’s diary which made for a fascinating read. Chapters are also interspersed with Thrawn reading people’s body language and giving insight on how he picks up on their next moves.
  • There’s a lot on Thrawn in here, obviously. But crazily, I still feel like he’s a bit of a mystery. Well done Zahn!
  • You can read this novel even if you are a Disney-hater; if you love the EU and refuse to acknowledge anything Disney related. It actually fits into both Legends and the current canon, which I admire, especially since it’s a backstory. And, amazingly, this canon backstory actually fits in perfectly with Thrawn’s original backstory in Legends.
  • This novel ties into Rebels nicely as well as the other new canon books, though it’s not hitting you over the head with it.
  • Most of the characters from the movies are spot-on with the writing. Grand Moff Tarkin was eerily written, to the point that I had no problems believing his character (which is unlike how I felt with the writing of Han in Bloodline). Palpatine was done pretty well too, not 100%, but well enough for the time he was in the novel.
  • The new characters are also well written, for the most part. Pryce ended up being one of my favorites after reading, though during the novel I kept wanting to go back to Thrawn and see what he was up to. But once I closed the book and mulled over it for a bit, she ended up being one of the most multi-faceted interesting characters to come out of it. The last scene/battle of the novel when she goes down a point of no return, and sees the look on her parents faces, you have to wonder…is it worth it? She did everything for them and their mine, but you can tell they’d rather she hadn’t if they had to sacrifice who Arihnda had become.
  • There are hints of the Rebellion littered throughout the novel, but for the most part, it’s extremely Empire-driven, which I very much appreciated. It’s hard to write about the Empire in a way that seems positive, or at least neutral, when you’re writing in the Star Wars universe. This novel did it brilliantly…and I feel a little disloyal to the Rebellion for liking it so much!
  • My favorite observation of this entire novel was that I didn’t actually feel like I was reading a Star Wars novel. I felt like I was reading a good sci-fi book. Again, a little hard to do with Star Wars, especially with characters we love in the book. But because there was no mention of the Force (I think; I don’t remember it) or mysticism, Jedi, etc., it felt like a great sci-fi, outer space novel.

Cons:

  • For me, I felt like it took a while for Thrawn to feel like Thrawn. There was a learning curve for him in the beginning of the novel as he learned the Empire, and nuances of politics. In a way, I thought he seemed very much like Spock in the beginning of this novel. It eventually leveled out and got to a point where he felt like the Thrawn I loved and remembered, so I’m not sure if that was a deliberate move on Zahn’s part or if it was him being a little rusty.
  • Some of the book was littered with little side plots that I thought could have been kept out entirely. It’s tough because some of the side plots do end up coming together at the end of the novel, but some had me thinking…oh that’s it? When they were resolved.
  • Not enough time with Thrawn and art. One of the most loved parts about Thrawn (for me) was how much information he gained from observing society’s artwork. Through their art, he was often able to bring them down. It was a final piece of the puzzle that other tactician’s didn’t have time with or feel was necessary. Unfortunately, there was only one scene in this book where art played into the success of Thrawn. It always lingered in the background and was mentioned often, but we didn’t get to see it enough in action. We get in Rebels, thankfully, but I was sad about there was not as much in Thrawn.
  • I didn’t love Eli Vanto. He was a main character but the ending of his story was a little unbelievable to me. I won’t say much, but I don’t think he has the chops for what the end of his character arc bestowed upon him. I believe he was created as a bit of a Watson foil to Thrawn’s Sherlock but I often wanted him cut from the story entirely. I think I may be in the minority here but he was blah.
  • I’m not sure I want to put this as a con but it’s a little interesting. Was there a plot? I’m not sure. It seemed more like a detailed timeline of events. There wasn’t a real antagonist, more of a mystery Thrawn wanted to solve but it didn’t seem too pressing. So if you need a plot and an arc and all that good stuff, maybe you won’t really get into this as much as you’d want to.

I’m giving Thrawn 4/5 stars. It’s hard for me to rate any book 5/5 stars, and Star Wars books usually don’t make that cut. BUT this is still the best book I’ve read from the new canon.  Read it if you have EU nostalgia, love Thrawn, or want a good Empire-driven Star Wars novel.

Book Review: Choices of One

I like that I started 2015 off with a Star Wars novel.  I find that somehow fitting, seeing as this year is going to be a huge Star Wars year, what with the amping up of The Force Awakens.

Mei-Mei suggested Choices of One (by Timothy Zahn) to me almost 1 years ago in a random post, and Null definitely mentioned it as well…so thanks to you both – it somehow ended up on my reading list!  What makes it choices of oneso spectacular that it’s my first book of 2015 is that I have a reading list that ranges anywhere from 30-40 books on it at a time and I use random.org to pick the book I read next.  I had 34 books on my list, therefore giving me a 3% chance of actually getting this novel.  Anyway, I found that interesting because I’m looking for reasons that 2015 is going to be awesome and Star Wars filled.

I liked this novel SO much better than my last Legends book (still trying not to write EU), Dawn of the Jedi.  Which is funny, because if I think about what I’m looking for in a Star Wars novel it’s generally something that happens either way before the movies or way after the movies and therefore has no connection to the main characters.  Instead, Choices of One takes place between ANH and ESB and involves the three main heroes as well.

The first third of the book was boring for me.  I struggled with getting into it and found the character interactions between Han, Leia, and Luke to be halting and didn’t flow naturally.  On the flip side, I enjoyed the scenes with the commanders on the Star Destroyer and the scenes with Mara Jade…they kept me reading when I wanted to give up.  I forgot how much I missed reading about Mara.  Though loyal to the Empire and the Emperor at this point, there are still glimpses of the woman we will see her become through her relationship with Luke.

As the novel went on, I thought our three heroes began to find their groove and Zahn did a better job of reflecting what we saw from their characters in the movie onto his paper.  Particularly, I thought he did an amazing job with Luke.  At this point, Luke is not as serious or knowledgeable of the Force as he is by the end of the OT.  He brought to life a struggle Luke had with everyone thinking he is a competent Jedi just because he has a lightsaber and blew up the Death Star, contrasted with how he feels that he knows absolutely nothing except the small training from Ben Kenobi.  I loved reading it and found it weirdly relatable as it can happen to many of us, especially if we start a new job.

When the novel started to all come together toward the end and we find out that Mara, the Hand of Judgment (a group of stormtrooper deserters), and the Rebels are all going to be at the same planet at the same time, I got a little nervous.  I was afraid of Luke and Mara having an interaction pre-Heir to the Empire and I wasn’t sure how I’d handle that.  Thankfully, Zahn threw them in a situation together where they actually do not have a conversation and only briefly glimpse each other.  It’s hard to say too much without spoiling the novel for anyone that wants to read it, but suffice it to say that my fears were unwarranted.

Pros:

  • Overall, Zahn did a good job with keeping the three heroes true to form with personality quirks and attitudes.
  • I liked that there were a lot of larger issues and questions that were brought to life and made you think. For instance, Han’s moral struggles at the end of the novel when he is incognito as an Imperial Officer.  He faced a decisions where he did not have to help the Imperials in their emergency situation and they would all die, which is a benefit to the Rebel cause, or he could help them because in a sense they were a ship full of innocent people facing a common enemy.
  • Null would be happy about this: I actually really, really enjoyed all chapters that had to do with the back cover choices of oneHand of Judgment, a band of deserter stormtroopers who are this murky shade of grey. Are they good or bad?  I loved reading personalities!  In stormtroopers!  Mind blown.  But seriously, that was something I didn’t expect to like so much and I’m actually considering adding Allegiance to my book list because of how much I enjoyed them.
  • It was great revisiting Thrawn and Mara Jade again (though separately). I was afraid of overkill on Thrawn, but he was written in there just enough that there was no overload.
  • My favorite chapters/sections to read was actually Commander Pellaeon’s storyline on the Star Destroyer Chimaera. I loved how he wanted to take everything one step further on his job and showed that there was competency within the Empire.
  • I liked the setup it played between ANH and ESB. For instance, the relationship and conversations Han has with General Rieekan explains more of ESB.  Little moments like that were a nice touch.

Cons:

  • The first third of the book dragged. I couldn’t get into it and was frustrated whenever I had to read chapters with the three heroes.  I felt like it took a while for Zahn to get into the groove of depicting them well, but it could also have been my resistance to actually reading them.
  • It was easily guessable. Don’t go into this novel actually hoping for a surprise at the end.  This is mara jade choices of oneno Game of Thrones and I had figured everything out by the halfway point.  Still, there’s something to be said that I kept reading even if I pretty much knew what was going to happen.
  • Is it just me or was Mara a little less harsh in this book? This could very well just be me since I haven’t read the original Thrawn Trilogy in 10+ years, but I have a distinct memory of her being a little less reasonable.
  • The Luke/Mara scene where they almost-meet-but-not-quite seems a liiiiiitle far-fetched. I was obviously happy they didn’t meet but it still seemed slightly unbelievable.  I also thought it out of character for Mara to just brush aside the name “Skywalker” that she references Vader was obsessively hunting.  I feel like Mara would have done a more thorough investigation on who he is if the name linked to someone Vader was searching for.

Overall, I was much happier with this novel than with Dawn of the Jedi.  It showed that I can read Legends books with the main characters and not give up entirely.  I would rate this 3.5/5 stars.  I liked it more than average, but I couldn’t love it enough to give it 4 stars.

Guest post: Love and Theft – A Review of Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

I am pleased to announce my first Guest Post!  I have no problem with letting people share their thoughts on anything Star Wars and using my blog as a platform.  As I’m especially busy right now, I offered Nathan a chance to review a Star Wars novel that came out recently: Scoundrels.    I don’t read much EU anymore so it’s nice to have a shakeup in my posts.  Personally, I think Nathan is a great writer and seems to have more time to organize this thoughts than I do when I write – so maybe we can convince him to start his own blog?  Enjoy his book review and I hope you guys comment!

Han: "Now, Lando, no hard feelings about Wukkar?"  Lando: "Right...  C'mon, there's somebody I want you meet."

Han: “Now, Lando, no hard feelings about Wukkar?”
Lando: “Right… C’mon, there’s somebody I want you meet.”

I love Star Wars.  No surprises there, we’re all here reading Kiri’s Star Wars blog after all.  I love heist films, such as Ocean’s 11, The Sting, and The Brothers Bloom.  I love Han Solo… in a completely plutonic man-crush sort of way.  And I love Timothy Zahn’s writing.  The Thrawn Trilogy and his non-Star Wars Conquerors Trilogy remain some of my favorite science fiction.  So, when I heard that all of these elements were coming together in the recent release of Star Wars: Scoundrels, I was excited to jump towards that far, far away galaxy.

First off two confessions: This is my first foray into the Expanded Universe in several years.  There was a time that I rabidly consumed stories from Outer Rim to the Core Worlds, but eventually attention waned in favor of other literary pursuits.  It was definitely the concept of a heist story set in the Star Wars Universe that interested me.  A smaller-scale, character driven story seemed like a good counterpoint to the galaxy-threatening space opera I’d already read often.

My second confession is that I “read” this book in audio form.  I’m a chronically slow reader and always on the move, so the audiobook format worked well for me to finish Scoundrels in a timely manner.  But, more on the audio performance later.

Scoundrel’s takes place almost immediately after the events of the Battle of Yavin shown in A New Hope.  Han Solo and Chewbacca have recently left their new Rebel friends and promptly their reward money was stolen.  Now, Han has a Kowakian monkey-lizard to get off his back, namely his debt to Jabba the Hutt.

Enter Eanjer, a heavily bandaged man that offers our favorite smugglers a chance at a fortune, a cut of 163 million credits to be exact.  All they have to do is sneak into the high security vault of Avrak Villachor on Wukkar, a man who turns out to be no less than a Black Sun sector chief.  Han balks that he and Chewie aren’t really thieves and safecrackers, but Eanjer insists “surely you know people…”

And apparently Han does.  He soon begins assembling a team of scoundrels to knock off Villachor during Wukkar’s weeklong Festival of Four Honorings.  The team involves experts in information gathering, ship boosting, explosives, misdirection, and notably the experienced “ghost thief” (i.e. cat burglar) Bink Kitik and her techie twin sister, Tavia.  A few faces familiar to longtime Star Wars fans even fill slots on the teams roster:  Rebel superagent, Winter, signs up as a security expert and future Wraith Squadron pilot, Kell Tainer deals with explosives.  Also Han’s estranged friend, Lando Calrissian, mysteriously gets the call to be the team’s frontman.

Of course, things can never go too smoothly for our heroes and these scoundrels face plenty of challenges along the way.  During the festival, Villachor is playing host to one of Black Sun’s nine vigos, a Falleen named Qazadi.  His presence also draws the attention of Dayja, an Imperial Intelligence agent, and his handler.

The majority of the book deals with Han and Company setting up for the heist while various pieces move around the board.  These stories typically involve a large cast of characters and Scoundrels is no exception with 11 members on Solo’s team.   While that number makes it difficult to flesh out each character, Zahn does a good job of balancing the action across his cast so everyone has important parts to play.  Han and Lando are really the stars here, but Bink Kitik is a welcome addition to the Expanded Universe as the feisty, flirty and competent ghost thief.

Zahn typically does a great job of giving his villains more substance than mere mustache-twirling evil doers and he continues that trend.  Agent Dayja manages to be something other than simply an agent of evil.  He feels more like a cog in the Imperial machine, a law enforcement officer working with lethal efficiency.  Villachor is probably the novel’s most surprising character.  Possessed of a lethally short temper, the man is pushed to the brink of breaking as he tries to walk the tightrope that Qazadi’s presence demands while dealing with pressure from the Imperials and threats to his estate’s security.

Eventually, the picture comes into clearer focus as Han’s plan is executed.  We find that the heist is a satisfying flurry of action and suspense making the previous chapters of build up worthwhile.  The book as a whole is peppered with nods to classic and fan favorite Star Wars highlights, right up until the last few lines.  Even a particular swashbuckling archeologist gets a wink during the climactic heist scene.

The only major qualm I had with the book is that sometimes the characterizations felt forced by the story or continuity rather than natural.  Winter was rightly upset by Alderaan’s recent destruction, but it seemed as though we were being told how it upset her rather than ever experiencing it.  Dozer Creed became the character that projected doubt in a successful operation.  He had reason to doubt himself from the beginning and that doubt growing to encompass the heist as a whole became his character’s one tune.

And then there was Han Solo.  Occasionally, he just felt out of character.  Rarely did the cocky Han who would charge singlehandedly after a squad of Stormtroopers show his face.  In this story, he was far more contemplative.  Han responded flatly to Bink’s flirtatious overtures throughout the story.  Often his thoughts revolved around Leia, alternatively considering her a royal pain in the hiney and pining about how she might feel about him.

That being said it was interesting to consider how this adventure might be an important turning point for Solo.  In A New Hope, it was Han, Chewie, and the Falcon against the Galaxy and he liked it that way.  But in Return of the Jedi, we see that he is a general chosen to lead one of the most important land assaults of the war effort.  Could it have been that on Wukkar Han rediscovered his ability to lead talented individuals into difficult situations…?  I digress.

Finally since I got the story in audiobook format, I promised to touch on the sound production.  Star Wars: Scoundrels gets top marks on this front.  Marc Thompson did a great job with the narration.  His voice work for the classic characters was easily recognizable by their respective cadences.  Each member of the large cast had a distinct and fitting vocalization.  The audiobook also featured sound effects to mimic Wookie yells, blasters, and airspeeders.  While the effects were occasionally cheesy, the overall effect was one of an old fashioned radio drama rather than a simple book narration, and that tone fit the novel very well.

So, there you have it.  All told Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn is another fun adventure in the Star Wars Universe.  Very little Expanded Universe knowledge is needed to enjoy this tale set in the middle of the Galactic Civil War, but longtime readers will enjoy the several homages.  Despite its few flaws, the climactic heist makes it a worthwhile read, especially if you’d like your Star Wars with a slow build and a little more suspense.  But… you don’t have to take my word for it.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I Used to be an Addict of the EU

I don’t read the EU anymore.

For those of you who don’t know what EU means  – it refers to the Expanded Universe of Star Wars.  It can be books or comic books that chronologically take place after the Return of the Jedi, or in between the saga, or even before Anakin were even thought of by the midi-chlorians.  It can really refer to anything that takes place outside of the Holy Saga of Episodes I-VI.

Wikipedia (how I love thee) officially defines it as:

“The Star Wars Expanded Universe encompasses all of the officially licensed, fictional background of the Star Wars universe, outside of the six feature films produced by George Lucas. The expanded universe includes books, comic books, video games, spin-off films like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, television series, toys, and other media. This material expands and continues the stories told in the films and, excepting where it contradicts the films, is generally considered canonical. However, George Lucas has viewed it as a separate canon from his movie series.”

For the purpose of this blog, I am only going to be referring to books or comic books.

I used to read the Expanded Universe.  My life used to be that of a Star Wars addict and I devoured every Star Wars EU book, and some comic books, I could get my hands on.

I own all of the original Timothy Zahn novels – the “classics” in the Star Wars EU world, also known as the Heir to the Empire trilogy/Thrawn Trilogy.

They were good.  In fact – I really enjoyed them.  I bought every single one of them (ok – 3 books may not seem like a lot but when you are on an 11-year old budget, that’s a lot of money to fork out).  I remember finishing the second book while on vacation in Florida and begging my father to drive me to a book store for the third novel.  It never occurred to me that Floridian bookstores may not carry Star Wars EU books.  We went to a bookstore and they didn’t have the third and final book, “The Last Command”.  Oh it was bad…I was so upset.  I’m pretty sure I cried, threw a temper tantrum, etc.  My dad just laughed at me.  Not being a Star Wars obsessed fan, he didn’t understand the need to have this book in my clammy hands.  However – we must have found another a bookstore because I have vivid memories of reading the third book on the beach and being completely antisocial.

After that, it went downhill.  Because my budget was tight and I would actually have to work (gasp!) to get money, I borrowed every possible Star Wars books I could get my hands on from our local library.  Among those I distinctly remember reading (and I know I read many more):

         I, Jedi by Michael A. Stackpole

          Star Wars: Tales of the Empire, a Collection of short stories

         Young Jedi Knights series

        New Jedi Order series (not all, but a quite a few)

There were more, so many more.  My life was consumed with reading every Star Wars novel that was in my local library.  Yes, they were happy memories, but I also don’t remember doing much else during that time.

And then, somewhere along this journey, I began to get frustrated.  I realized that no matter how much I read, or how fast I read, I would never be able to keep up.  The EU was like a never-ending, exponentially increasing virus.  It kept spreading and spreading, taking over my brain and latching on to my general Star Wars obsession.  During my time reading the books, they began to kill off main characters from the movie.  They needed to up the amp even more, and what better way than to kill off someone everyone holds so dear?

That’s when I got angry.  People were reading these for sentimental reasons, to continue to live in a world that George Lucas had decided was over.  I had enjoyed living in this extended or “expanded” world as well, but I drew a line when characters started to die.

So I edged off a little bit.  I began to go back to my fantasy novels, but still read Star Wars novels (that didn’t kill of anyone big of course) at the same time.  Slowly, as if giving up a blanket I had slept with for a long time, I weaned myself off of reading Star Wars novels all together…

…and I got back a life.

I read all kinds of different novels: historical fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, and I realized that I can still define myself as a Star Wars fan without reading all the novels out there.  I enjoyed what I read then, but I enjoy what I read now even more.

I was doing it for a reputation; to prove to others that I could keep up with the other hard-core Star Wars fans.  I wanted to show that I knew who the latest Star Wars character was, to show I know the names of Han and Leia’s children.  But now it doesn’t matter that much to me.  When people try to talk to me about the EU, I just say I don’t read it – and it’s really that easy.  They back off and don’t care that I don’t or haven’t read it.  I had built it up in my head that I needed to read the books and if I didn’t then other Star Wars fans would see me as a fake.  If they do see me as a fake or not a true enough fan, I’m ok with it because I’m enjoying myself more by reading books I actually want to read.

My Heir to the Empire trilogy is sitting on my shelf right now, surrounded by Star Wars actions figures and other Star Wars paraphernalia.  I like it there.  It shows that I know what the EU is, and I have been there at one point in my life.  I don’t think I’ll pick them up or go down that road.  I can’t imagine everything I would have to catch up on now and how wrapped up I would become all over again.

I guess my overall question is: for the people who read the Expanded Universe novels, do you do it because you want to, or because you feel like you have to in order to uphold a reputation?