Note: This piece does not contain spoilers for Thrawn.
It’s hard to argue that the character of Thrawn is a fan favorite in the Star Wars universe, though if you’re unfamiliar with the expanded Star Wars novels and stories, you may not have heard of him. He’s a critical figure in the old Star Wars Legends expanded universe, but he’s since been updated, first on the TV show Star Wars: Rebels and now in the novel Thrawn, which introduces the character to an entirely new set of Star Wars fans.
Thrawn was first introduced in Timothy Zahn’s now-classic Thrawn trilogy, which took place about 5 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Thrawn is an Imperial Grand Admiral, which might not be interesting until you discover that he’s an alien—a blue-skinned, red-eyed member of the mysterious Chiss people. There’s a reason this blue-skinned man rose through the ranks of the anti-alien Empire—he’s an absolutely brilliant tactician and strategist. However, he wasn’t at the center of galactic events. He was on the fringes of Imperial space (and beyond) with his fleet when the second Death Star was destroyed, but that put him in a perfect position to swoop in with the Emperor dead and the Empire crumbling.
The news that Zahn was going to revisit the character in the new canon was met with overwhelming excitement, and now at last we have Thrawn, the story of how the man became the legendary strategist. It’s territory that Zahn hadn’t really visited before; after all, in the previous trilogy, Thrawn had already ascended to his high position within the Empire. This novel fleshes Thrawn’s previously sketchy past, leaving his Legends backstory largely intact. But how did he get there, and why is this Chiss man serving the Empire? What does he hope to gain? What about the Empire commands Thrawn’s loyalty? It’s in this origin story that we find these answers.
Or do we?
The novel doesn’t start with Thrawn as a child; instead, it begins with his first encounter with the Empire and a young cadet, Eli Vanto, whose fate quickly becomes tied to Thrawn’s. As things fall into place for Thrawn and people at the highest levels begin to take notice of him, it’s easy to assume that fate is just being kind to the blue-skinned warrior. But Thrawn is too smart for that. He’s eleven steps ahead of everyone, including the reader.
Why does Thrawn serve the Empire? Presumably, to help his people—but how does serving a ruthless organization that has serious anti-alien sentiment help the Chiss? By law, the Empire forbids discrimination against aliens, but in practice, it’s notoriously anti-alien. Aliens don’t make it into Imperial academies. They’re treated like second-class citizens. The novel explains that it’s because many aliens sided with the Separatists in The Clone Wars, but the prejudice goes deeper than that. What could Thrawn possibly hope to gain by allying with the Empire? An inner knowledge of its tactics and operations, in case it one day turns its greedy eyes to the Chiss? A schooling in how a different organization runs an empire? Proof that an alien can make it into the highest ranks of a pro-human organization? The novel begins to give us some hints and answers about Thrawn’s motivations.
We also know from Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy that the Emperor was specifically interested in the Unknown Regions and beyond. Is this, then, why he takes a personal interest in Thrawn? Is it because Thrawn has a connection to someone important to Palpatine, dating back to the Clone Wars? Is it because of Thrawn’s confidence that he can be of help to the Emperor?
Indeed, Thrawn’s confidence is what carries much of the novel. His brilliant strategizing puts him ahead of his peers, and yet he has no understanding of the political intricacies of the Empire. He’s ruthless and cunning, yet is remarkably unsavvy at navigating politics, which is surprising, given his ability to strategize. He doesn’t understand, nor does he see a need to try and learn, the niceties of human interaction. He assumes he will get ahead because of his skill, underestimating the value of political ties. It’s a huge failing for a man who is otherwise so incredibly smart.
What Zahn’s new novel shows us, then, is Thrawn before he became Thrawn. Yes, he has all the cunning and strategy we’ll expect of him, but he also has a serious flaw to overcome. The most interesting question that Thrawn sets up, then, is where will the character go from here? The new canon has been great at picking elements and characters from the old—like Thrawn—and updating their stories. Are we going to see Thrawn reappear post-Battle of Jakku? Will he become instrumental in forming The First Order?
Only time will tell, but Timothy Zahn has shown us through Thrawn that the character still has a very large role to play in the Star Wars universe.