Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising Review

Alexander Wallace discovers Thrawn's origins.

There are few names from the Star Wars expanded universe that inspire more fear than that of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Perhaps the most popular character in the saga that has never appeared in live action, he has been a fan favorite since Timothy Zahn brought him to life in 1991’s Heir to the Empire, in an act that arguably saved Star Wars from fading into irrelevance (and providing the name of Coruscant in the process). He was imported into Star Wars: Rebels, finally providing a voice to the character, and Zahn has written more books following him. In all these portrayals, we have seen him in Imperial service, his native space the Chiss Ascendancy being left mostly to the faint hints of what it might be.

This changes drastically in Zahn’s newest book concerning everyone’s favorite space strategist. This is about Thrawn at his most inexperienced and his most vulnerable. It is him as a neophyte, a new officer, and one who is learning to navigate the galaxy. Thrawn’s lack of ability with politics, mentioned often in the previous several books, is brought front and center here. Here, he doesn’t have the obedience of the Imperial Remnant; he has to make his own friendships and his own alliances to reach the heights for which he has become so beloved by the fandom. He does, though, have the Machiavellian instinct when it comes to military affairs; he constantly finds ways to outsmart his opponents, as he is wont to, and reading his thought process is just as intriguing here as it was in Heir to the Empire. His core flaw, more than anything else, is that he takes the clearly defined sides of a military engagement and applies them to the internal workings of institutions, which are plagued with faction and petty sniping and internal dissension.

What strikes me the most about this book is that for most of the time it doesn’t really feel like a Star Wars book. The vast majority of Star Wars books are awash in elements that are clearly drawn in one way or another from the Original Trilogy, if only through the lens of the prequels or the sequels. Not so here; there is but one single appearance of characters from the movies. It doesn’t even consider the lives of little people among the factions of the films, like Joe Schreiber’s Death Troopers; the vast majority of the content here is something of Zahn’s own design. The core of this book is the new additions to what we now call the Legends canon that Zahn created for Heir to the Empire; that book was a melding of those elements and those from the movies. That leaves this book feeling more like the Conquerors trilogy or Angelmass, two of Zahn’s original works of space opera than anything that, say, James Luceno or Matthew Stover have written for the Star Wars universe.

Fortunately, Timothy Zahn brings his trademark electrifying writing style; he is one of but three writers who have had me literally cheering when reading a book of his (the other two are Graham McNeill and Scott Washburn, for the record). Zahn is able to capture the feel of a Star Wars space battle like no other. Luceno and Stover enmesh you in a captivating atmosphere, which is a valuable skill, but Zahn’s space battle scenes make it such that you can’t not hear the franchise’s traditional dogfight music in your head (hell, I even couldn’t get out of my head when reading a pivotal battle in the Conquerors trilogy). All the combat bits in this book are just as electrifying as the ones in his other books, to our great fortune.

The Chiss Ascendancy as a political entity takes center stage here, and Zahn brings it to life as a living, breathing society, with its secrets and its pridefulness. You feel yourself immersed in this alien society, which reminds me somewhat of the Tokugawa Shogunate or maybe the Ming Dynasty after the Haijin policy: strictly isolationist, with a deep skepticism to foreign entanglements (they take their policy of never making preemptive strikes very seriously) and to foreign culture more generally. The Ascendancy also keeps many secrets (some quite key to how it operates). You can feel the richness of their culture and the viciousness of their politics. Perhaps most interesting is the system of families, who can adopt people into their ranks by virtue of merit.

Structurally, the book does something interesting in juxtaposing the main plot with a series of flashback sequences that come in between certain chapters which together form their own story running parallel to the book’s main plotline. These interludes do a lot to characterize both Thrawn and his compatriot Ar’alani, as it follows their two careers at an earlier point. They show Thrawn at his most open to us, and it’s where he gets to develop the skills the fans love him for.

Overall, it’s a fantastic book. It’s more Thrawn being Thrawn, which is always fun, and it’s Timothy Zahn, whose writing always leaps off the page. Combined with these old, familiar things for Star Wars fans is an intriguing new setting that brings Zahn’s worldbuilding skills, and the result is a book that is absolutely worth the time.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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