In Thrawn: Alliances, the follow-up to 2017’s Thrawn, author Timothy Zahn takes us on a journey to the Star Wars galaxy’s Unknown Regions — twice, in the long-time-ago of the Clone Wars’ later stages before Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, and during the animated TV series Star Wars Rebels, not long before Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Episode IV — A New Hope.
Rebels, in fact, is essential viewing before reding Alliances (and the first few seasons, at least, should be under your belt before reading the prior Thrawn). The fourth and final season of Rebels comes out on video July 31.
The book is available in hardcover starting July 24. (A copy was provided to Nerdvana to facilitate this review.)
Alliances is a fun adventure through both newer Star Wars canon and it’s “Legends” predecessor — the material in books, comics and games released before Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and effectively wiped the slate clean. Still, much of that material, not least of which is the character of Thrawn himself, has found its way back to the mainline canon at least in part, cherry-picked for the occasion by the creative forces at Lucasfilm. Thrawn: Alliances, like much of the new canon, incorporates elements of past stories in some interesting and surprising ways, weaving them deftly with elements of The Clone Wars and Rebels, as well as Rogue One, to enhance the sense of world-building in the greater Star Wars universe.
Where Alliances suffers is in the central conflict.
Darth Tedious meets Grand Admiral Yawn …
In the previous volume (also adapted into comics), Mitth’raw’nuruodo, an alien from beyond the territory of the Galactic Republic and Empire, encountered Imperial forces on a distant world and joined the Navy, ultimately earning the confidence (or at least the curiosity) of Emperor Palpatine and attaining the rank of Grand Admiral. At the end of Thrawn, the blue-skinned tactical genius is introduced to the Emperor’s other trusted servant: Darth Vader.
There were hints, however, that they had met before — that is, Thrawn had met Republic General Anakin Skywalker, before his betrayal of the Jedi and transformation into Vader. Alliances, through flashbacks, shows us that original meeting and the adventure it spawned.
Without spoiling too much, at the far end of the book’s timeline Thrawn is facing an uncertain future in the Empire after recent failures related to the burgeoning Rebellion. Vader, meanwhile, struggles inwardly to put his tortured past behind him (I guess? It doesn’t really resonate), and with a Sith Master around it may not just be a matter of introspection for long. These motivations mesh when the Emperor sends his two servants on a mission together that forces them to confront choices they made long ago.
While it’s a thrilling and intriguing Clone War-era adventure that doesn’t disappoint as it delivers the promised tale, Alliances tries a bit too hard to play Vader and Thrawn against each other. Their interactions are most effective when seen almost from the perspective of the officers under their command; the novel could have benefited greatly from a bit more of the lower-decks drama.
Tight action, once Zahn’s hallmark in Star Wars fiction, is nowhere to be seen. With Thrawn’s complex machinations — which come off as attempts to impress Vader, though this would be illogical — also come unwieldy, plodding battle scenes that feel more like wargaming than the high-adventure the films and TV shows in the franchise are known for. Zahn’s tactical narratives have always been dense but meaty; here they becomes almost ridiculous at times.
Zahn’s Vader is a decent foil for the Grand Admiral, but there are many moments when he seems too loquacious and coy. Granted, this is a younger Vader than we see in the original trilogy, but this is supposed to be the same in-his-prime Sith Lord who soon carves a path of destruction through Rogue One and brooks no argument or gaffe. Perhaps it’s his adventure with Thrawn, and dealing with some of the many ghosts of Anakin Skywalker’s past, that crystallizes him into that engine of destruction — but that’s not really supported in the narrative here. I expected more from the author, and the Lucas Story Group.
The pften-negative Sherlock Holmes comparisons to Thrawn, usually labeling him a self-insert “Mary Sue” character in the same breath, in my view aren’t deserved, but this entry in the canon doesn’t serve the character very well and risks propping up those criticisms more than it rebuts them.
If you thought we would miss out on a chance to create new #Padme art, well, you don't know us very well. Check out the full art below, and read an excerpt from #ThrawnAlliances of Padmé on Batuu (yes THAT Batuu) on https://t.co/JqAfKslfw9 (art by Darren Tan) pic.twitter.com/lzgUM5k3dG
— Star Wars Books (@DelReyStarWars) July 11, 2018
Diplomatic solutions meet aggressive negotiation …
Padme Amidala rescues the novel from its own few but significant shortcomings, even as she waits for Anakin to come rescue her — and, of course, eventually takes charge of her own fate, as she’s known to do. Not only is it important that we get to know this appallingly underused character more (which we will next year in the EK Johnston novel Queen’s Shadow), an Anakin story without Padme is meaningless. Although their tragic love story on the big screen lacked the chemistry it needed to succeed there, it is the central spark at the heart of Star Wars itself, and deserves all the time it can get without retconning the core material. Thrawn: Alliances serves these characters quite well, and primes us to hope for more. With the long-awaited return of The Clone Wars recently announced, let’s hope Padme isn’t left out of the picture.
Among Alliances’ settings is the planet Batuu, a frontier world that is set to open up as the foundation of Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge theme park experience. I wish I could say this book left me with a clear picture of what to expect on those real-world travels, but it’s all somewhat muddled. Among all the worlds of the Star Wars universe, Batuu is not one I’d choose as a destination. Maybe that’s intentional, but it’s a shame if the overall goal is meant to be true immersion. There are, however, some tantalizing implications of Batuu with regard to old “Expanded Universe”/”Legends” content surrounding Thrawn, but I’ll keep those private for fear of spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the book. (They may also be just personal theories from a certain point of view …)
Thrawn: Alliances verdict: Buy the book!
I continue to be a huge fan of Zahn’s Star Wars books, and will cherish the autographed, alternate cover edition of Alliances a friend and fellow Nerdvana scribe picked up for me at Comic-Con (with Anakin and young Mitth’raw’nuruodo on the cover in place of Vader and the Grand Admiral).
With some unexpected twists on Legends lore that offer fresh insights into the Force, Order 66 and the Emperor’s agenda for the Unknown Regions, Thrawn: Alliances may not be the Zahn trilogy of old, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it is a provocative new entry that will transport you to a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And isn’t that what really matters?
— Nerdvana (@nerdvana) July 19, 2018