Last summer, Dave Filoni announced that he would be bringing a long-standing fan-favorite character to Star Wars Rebels: Grand Admiral Thrawn. In a classic, “wait, there’s more!” moment, he followed up by saying that the character would also get a novel, written by none other than Timothy Zahn, who created the character in 1991’s Heir to the Empire.
It’s hard to overstate how exciting this is to long-time Star Wars fans. In the previous Star Wars expanded universe, Thrawn was a different sort of villain for the franchise. Where Emperor Palpatine was evil incarnate, and Darth Vader embodied raw power, Thrawn valued strategy and logical thinking to solve problems, and proved to be one of the most enduring characters from the books, comics, toys, and video games released in the decades following the original trilogy.
When the expanded universe was labeled non-canon in the lead up to The Force Awakens (described by Disney as a focusing of the Star Wars mythos) fans mourned that Thrawn would no longer be part of the larger story.
But with this novel Thrawn returns, and Zahn finally gets to explore the origins of his classic character. Thrawn’s roots were hinted at in various parts of the expanded universe, but we now have the definitive (and canonical) story. What’s most impressive about this novel is that it feels as though it can serve as an origin story for Thrawn in both the present continuity, as well as the extended universe.
Thrawn opens when an Imperial ground team encounters a hut on a seemingly abandoned planet at the edge of Imperial space. The team is attacked by a blue-skinned alien who identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a disgraced military commander exiled by his own people. The man tells them to call him Thrawn.
The novel follows the titular military commander and Eli Vanto, a cadet who’s brought along — first as a translator, then as his assistant — as they rise to power within the larger Imperial military. Thrawn proves to have a singular tactical mind, one that Emperor Palpatine personally recognizes and recruits into his military.
Where he was a brilliant military leader in Heir to the Empire, Thrawn here feels a bit more like an alien Sherlock Holmes, using logic and reasoning to plan out his next steps, even when they feel improbable to those surrounding him.
Thrawn and Vanto are sent off to an Imperial academy and into the fleet, where Thrawn distinguishes himself as a brilliant tactical commander as he hunts down pirates and a group of increasingly organized insurgents.
As they rise, Thrawn and Vanto navigate the waters of Imperial politics and society, prevailing against ingrained nepotism and corruption. Thrawn’s story isn’t the only origin that Zahn explores. We meet Arihnda Pryce, who Rebels viewers will recognize as the Governor of Lothal, who’s on her own rise to power from lowly origins. Zahn intertwines their stories as each climb ranks; Thrawn fighting on the battlefield, Pryce manipulating her way through the halls of power on Coruscant.
While this is a book that fans have wanted to read for decades, Thrawn is a tough sell for a protagonist. The character is, after all, one of the dominant villains within the Star Wars universe, fighting on the side of a fascist regime. He’s a hard hero to root for, even as the character proves himself to be a relatively moral and thoughtful leader, one who cares about civilian casualties and recognizing that indiscriminate violence is counterproductive. Zahn placates these concerns by explaining the character’s own complex motivations for joining the Empire.
There are greater dangers in the Galaxy than the Empire. And despite the moral quandary that one might have serving in the Empire, it is, at least for Thrawn, the only way to prepare for this larger threat. We’ll see what comes of that, as the book leaves room for future stories.
On a meta level, it’s fascinating to see how Thrawn reinforces Lucasfilm’s attitude toward the decanonization of the expanded universe: while those stories are no longer canon, it’s clear that the company didn’t jettison its vast library of content because it felt it was bad. Rather, these decades of stories are now being, in part, being repurposed and re-used when applicable. This version of Thrawn is indistinguishable from the original, 1991 version. The new Thrawn also appreciates art and recognizes its value in understanding an enemy. He’s a strategic thinker, one who plans his moves carefully, rather than using aggression and strength to achieve his goals.
All of which to say is the Thrawn fans loved has been preserved (although quite a bit younger) and as such, if you squint a little, this book could easily be a predecessor for both the new canon, as well as that of the expanded universe.
As a long-time expanded universe reader, Thrawn is a book that I wanted to read — and assumed would never happen following the decanonization of the extended universe. As someone who’s cautiously accepted the new canon, the book is a welcome resurrection of one of the extended universe’s brightest points. Yes, it’s meant to transport a classic character in the official i story. But maybe it’ll help introduce some new readers to some of the classics. They’re not canon, but as Thrawn proves, they’re no less special.