Thrawn Ascendancy Chaos Rising is the first book in Timothy Zahn’s latest Thrawn trilogy. As with most Zahn novels, there is a lot to unpack. Do I start with the characters? The events? The places? The format? The plot? The details? How do I do this without Thrawnsplaining and spoiling the whole thing?
As Chaos Rising itself begins with, “A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far, away…” I’ll start, too. The novel is set in the Chiss Ascendancy, an empire of calm and control in an area of space in the Unknown Regions known as the Chaos. It’s well past the fringes of the Empire, far past Tatooine. The structure of space itself is unstable due to chained supernova explosions eons ago. Jumping short distances at light speed is possible, but longer distances require Force Users to navigate through the instability. Many use a guild of Navigators for this, as do the Chiss on occasion. One of the Chiss’ biggest secrets, though, is that they have their own Force sensitives who navigate for them. Chiss Force sensitives, though, lose their sensitivity as they become teenagers, so the Chiss are forced to rely on these young girls to do this job.
In the current canon, Thrawn and a handful of other characters have been our only examples of Chiss. As the novel opens with a dramatic attack on Csilla, the immediate actions of the Chiss show a great deal about their politics and cultural norms. Supreme General Ba’kif, in charge of the Chiss Defense Force, decides to bring in a young Captain to help him discover if the attack is perhaps a diversion. This Captain is recovering from a successful attack against pirates that has cost him politically as his actions have narrowly skirted Chiss noninterference policy. This Captain is, of course, Thrawn.
One of the things I love about The Mandalorian is how it works on so many levels. A Star Wars newbie can enjoy it for the action adventure that it is. A die-hard fan can deep dive into all the details and allusions the storytelling drops. The same is true for Chaos Rising. The introduction of Thrawn as a politically controversial figure sets his character as someone who is willing to break rules. Legends readers, though, will recognize that Zahn is directly alluding to events of the novel Outbound Flight. It isn’t necessary to have read Outbound Flight to understand Chaos Rising, but it is a little fun frisson of recognition for those who have. For video game players, Star Wars, The Old Republic, for which Zahn was a consultant, has its own reference – a nice nod to those who played the game and enjoyed the Chiss storyline within it. Chaos Rising even covers events from Thrawn Treason from Thrawn’s point of view.
Through flashbacks, the story shows Thrawn, originally named Vurawn, an extremely talented and bright student born into a very poor and obscure family on a backwater planet. His intelligence captures the interest of General Ba’kif and he is adopted by the powerful Mitth Family. The novel continues interweaving the current crisis with flashbacks of Thrawn and other characters’ lives. Admiral Aralani has always been a great character, but getting to know her and her background is fascinating.
One of the weaknesses I felt the story has (and Thrawn’s character in general) is explaining Thrawn’s lack of political awareness. Zahn tries to explain how someone who can predict battle outcomes can’t follow political infighting but it didn’t ring true for me. It seems like Thrawn might be aware that what he is doing is not politically wise but does it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. To me, what the character really doesn’t seem to understand is that some people’s motivation is personal gain rather than the objective greater good. Thrawn’s greatest weakness may be his integrity and desire to do the greatest good– blinding him not only to the politically-wise moves but also the personal costs. This leads to a second issue I had with the book– that Thrawn sees others solely as “assets”. It doesn’t make sense in a character who nurtures his crews to become better thinkers and has loyal, mentoring relationships, like with Eli Vanto , or to risk his career to save aliens. In another scene, Thrawn meets a young Chiss navigator who is upset and crying. Unlike the other adults, Thrawn kneels to speak to her, taking her concerns seriously. He is also consistently shown to observe people and realize what they are thinking or feeling. While of course Thrawn is not a warm and fuzzy character, he also doesn’t come across as completely cold and unfeeling.
In any case, there are at least two more novels to look forward to to see Thrawn in action. In the meantime, I highly recommend Chaos Rising for anyone looking for a new Star Wars adventure, for those who want to deep dive into a new area of Star Wars lore and of course those of you, like me, who love to see Thrawn thrawning.
The publisher provided FANgirl with a copy of the book for review. As usual opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of other contributors to this site.
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