I just finished reading Thrawn: Alliances, and it has me thinking a lot about one of my favorite Star Wars characters.
(Spoilers for most Thrawn books follow.)
For some background, Thrawn (birthname Mitth’raw’nuruodo) was first exiled by his native race the Chiss before encountering and eventually outsmarting Imperial forces out in the fringes of the galaxy. His tactics so impress the Galactic Empire that he is brought into the Imperial Navy’s fold and quickly moves up its ranks. His successes find their way back to Emperor Palpatine himself, where Thrawn is given his own ship, the Chimaera and a spiffy white Imperial Navy uniform and bestowed the rank of Grand Admiral.
In Alliances, Zahn looks at the character’s present and past, shifting between Thrawn’s mission with Darth Vader to investigate a planetary disturbance and his service under the Chiss Ascendancy — where he offers to help Republic commander Anakin Skywalker as he searches for Padme. There’s a fascinating dynamic between Thrawn and Anakin’s former and current selves — Vader uses the third person to reflect on any memories of “The Jedi” — and real tension rooted in Thrawn’s deductive skills: Anakin hopes to conceal his marriage to Padme while Vader is uncertain if Thrawn knows what really became of Skywalker after the Clone Wars.
His big brain is a huge part of what makes Thrawn such a great character. A kind of Space Sherlock Holmes, Thrawn uses his supreme talent for deduction to suss out secrets and vanquish enemies. In both Thrawn and Thrawn: Alliances, his reasoning is laid out for the reader via short, italicized sections, where Zahn shows off Thrawn’s observational talents and knack for strategy. Combined with the reach of the Empire’s Seventh Fleet and the Grand Admiral’s patented understanding of civilizations through their art, Thrawn is virtually unstoppable.
Thrawn’s importance to Star Wars goes back almost three decades. When Timothy Zahn originally introduced the character in 1991’s universe-changing novel Heir to the Empire, he made the character too unstoppable. Thrawn’s eventual fate in that series’ conclusion, 1993’s The Last Command, comes by way of a literal back-stabbing from his own assassin. Having essentially given birth to the franchise’s “Expanded Universe,” where additional stories could be told in a galaxy far, far away, Zahn would go on to explore more of Thrawn’s past in books like Outbound Flight and Survivor’s Quest and even tease the character’s return in the underrated “Hand of Thrawn” duology.
When Disney acquired Star Wars in 2014, the Thrawn novels were no longer part of the official storyline, relegated to “Legends” material with the bulk of the Expanded Universe. In the years since, the LucasFilm Story Group has remained committed to keeping the many threads of Star Wars consistent, even if only a handful of the new “canon” novels have been worth more than the paper they’re printed on.
It’s telling then that when Timothy Zahn announced his return to writing Star Wars books, he brought Grand Admiral Thrawn with him. Thrawn transcended a potential legacy as a third-rate character, becoming one of the franchise’s more popular characters. Look no further than the animated series Rebels bringing him to life as Season 3’s big baddie.
One big downside to the new Star Wars canon is that so much material feels untouchable. You can’t cover anything after The Last Jedi because that might contradict Episode IX. Tread lightly with any prequel material, because there’s that new season of Clone Wars on the horizon. Everything feels buttoned down and wrapped in plastic, and that’s really limiting to creators. As much as I love his older books, Zahn’s new Thrawn novels put small, tangible stakes front-and-center. We already know the fate of Darth Vader, so Zahn makes Alliances a battle of wits against the backdrop of a mysterious new alien race.
These novels also excel at getting in a character’s headspace. Thrawn doesn’t see enemies, he sees challenges to be conquered and puzzles to be solved. In his mind, understanding and victory can be the same thing. Throughout Alliances, Vader questions Thrawn’s allegiance to the Empire, with Thrawn insisting that he can be loyal to both Emperor Palpatine and his own imperiled home world. The galaxy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. (This philosophy looks like it will play a major role in a recently-announced third book.)
Thrawn is a far cry from the cookie-cutter villains of the prequels — Zahn takes a not-so-subtle dig at the flatness of a character like General Grievous in this interview with The Verge — and even Vader’s own brutal version of law and order. He’s also an outsider, holding high rank in an organization that has historically looked down on and even outright persecuted alien races. When a Stormtrooper can’t aim a blaster to save his life, Thrawn exists as the meritocratic counterpoint to Imperial incompetence.
In the Reddit community “r/EmpireDidNothingWrong,” users reimagine Star Wars from a strictly Imperial perspective. Luke Skywalker was a radicalized terrorist. Stormtroopers were just union workers with steady employment. Mace Windu orchestrated a coup d’etat against a democratically-elected leader. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but Grand Admiral Thrawn gives us a first-hand perspective to what this worldview might actually look like. These new Thrawn novels are about philosophy and strategy as much as they are about intergalactic civil war. While it’s strange to think of any space Nazi as operating under a moral compass, Timothy Zahn undoubtedly makes his alien less a goon and more, well, human.