Ben Reviews – Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

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This ain’t your grand daddy’s Thrawn. This is a new Thrawn, for a new for a new generation. This is Thrawnlock Holmes. There’s even a Moriarty figure that he has to go up against!

In all seriousness, I have had my ups and downs with the Star Wars franchise. Truth be told, I have always enjoyed the Star Wars books more than the Star Wars movies (2 out of 9 are perfectly good). When I was younger, I read dozens of the pre-Disney expanded universe books. I’ve even read the older Thrawn books. My nostalgia goggles aren’t entirely rose-tinted, though. I’m capable of recognizing the serious flaws in those older stories. When Disney bought the property and decided to make the EU into the non-canon Legends, I decided it was as good a time as any to get off the Star Wars train and read something else.

But I do a podcast called Words About Books, and my co-host was not as ready to let things go. We’ve been taking another look at the older Thrawn stories and mostly making fun of them. I went into this new trilogy thinking that would continue. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. Timothy Zahn has evolved a bit as a writer since those early days, and the vision and scope of what Thrawn and The Empire can be has evolved as well. It is still a Star Wars book. The writing is still targeted toward a teen audience, but there’s a certain charm to it. It is certainly better than it needed to be. Zahn obviously cares a lot about this character and takes full advantage of the reboot to build Thrawn into something more than he ever could have been back in the 90’s.

I think the decision to transform Thrawn from your standard gentleman-villain to a morally complex Sherlock Holmes-type is a good one. And of course no Sherlock would be worth reading about without his Watson. The addition of Eli Vanto as Thrawn’s aide made it a lot easier to root for Thrawn and to humanize The Empire. I enjoy the portrayal of at least some imperials as people coming out of the Clone Wars shell-shocked and willing to make too many moral compromises in exchange for stability. It is orders of magnitude better than the screeching rage monsters that make up The First Order. I’m not entirely sure what the character of Arihnda Pryce was doing in this book, but her arc was a lot more interesting than I initially thought it would be.

That said, as much as I enjoyed the book, it does still suffer from side-quest plotting. Most Star Wars books seem like they were designed with a clear beginning, a clear end, and no concern for what happens in between. All of Thrawn’s missions and political struggles feel like they are interchangeable and just there to fill pages. How many black market doonium operations does he need to bust before we all realize they’re using it to build The Death Star? It’s literally always The Death Star.

I liked the characters enough that I even enjoyed the side quests. You could cut 100-pages from this book and I would enjoy it the same. No more, no less. I don’t know why the book is the length it is. Zahn could have kept going or he could have trimmed the fat. I get the feeling that maybe a rough word count goal was set for him, but that’s just speculation.

Regardless, if you like Star Wars, I’d recommend it. If you have any fondness for the old Thrawn, I’d say it’s a must read.

Content and Ideas – 4

I’m grading this on a little bit of a curve. I don’t think there are any mind blowing new ideas here in terms of science fiction as a whole, but I do think that this story is fresh and original in the context of Star Wars. Adding in moral complexity to The Empire is a really good idea for keep the war interesting. Making Thrawn not just sympathetic but heroic is a great way to revitalize this fan favorite character.

Organization – 3

There’s nothing egregiously wrong with the organizational structure of this book, but there are flaws. Arihnda Pryce does not feel like she belongs in this book, and probably should have been cut entirely. I’m guessing that they are introducing her here for the purposes of utilizing her more later on. In addition to that the pacing of this book is kind of nonexistent. Thrawn does not have an arc. Vanto and Pryce have arcs, but they feel a little under developed.

Use of Language – 4

I think Timothy Zahn’s knowledge of physics shines at a few points in these books. Again, we’re grading on a bit of a curve here, but I think Zahn creates fun space military strategies and dialogue. They’re not very realistic in terms of science fiction, but they are perfectly adequate for Star Wars. I also sense some improvement in Zahn’s character development between the older Thrawn books and this one. He is able to craft a clear tone for each of the main characters in the way they speak.

Personal Preference – 5

I can’t say much other than that I genuinely enjoyed reading this book. Despite the length, it went very quickly. I like Thrawn. I have not watched a single Disney+ series, but if they made a Thrawn series based on Zahn’s writing I would subscribe.

Recommendation Strength – 4

In this case, “genre fans” means Star Wars fans. I think this is a very strong recommendation to anyone who would ever consider reading a Star Wars book. It is a weak recommendation to anyone who is just looking for a light read and is willing to dip a toe into Star Wars. It is unlikely to make a Star Wars fan of anyone who has not liked any other Star Wars material, though.


I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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