Older gen-x fans and writers of Star Wars novels like to wax nostalgic about the late ’70s, when books like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Han Solo at Stars’ End were eagerly devoured by moviegoers dying for the sequel to finally come out. Younger members of that generation, like me, feel the same way about Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, which hit bookshelves in the early ’90s — before the prequels were confirmed, when we’d all but given up hope of any substantial and authorized new Star Wars stories ever being told.
The commercial success of those books not only helped demonstrate the rabid continuing interest that ultimately inclined George Lucas to return to the series, they triggered an avalanche of books in a continuity known as the Star Wars Extended Universe. It’s all now known as “Star Wars Legends,” since Disney wiped the slate clean to make way for its own new movies and books after acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012.
Grand Admiral Thrawn, the principal villain of Zahn’s series, was so beloved that Disney decided to port him back over into the rebooted continuity. In 2016, he appeared in the animated series Star Wars Rebels; then, last year Zahn wrote a novel named Thrawn that explored the character’s origins. Now, we have Thrawn: Alliances, a new Zahn title that pairs Thrawn on two missions to the same Unknown Regions destinations with Anakin Skywalker both before and after he becomes Darth Vader.
The premise allows Zahn (and Thrawn) to glory in the title character’s status as the anti-Vader. Whereas Vader is consumed by hate and prone to act on impulse, Thrawn is portrayed as a master tactician. A sort of Imperial Sherlock Holmes, the blue-skinned officer uses his gift for spotting telling details to outthink and outmaneuver his opponents. A central question throughout Alliances is whether Thrawn’s true allegiance is to the Empire or to his native Chiss Ascendancy; he assures a skeptical Vader that he doesn’t have to choose.
Marc Thompson, the signature narrator of Star Wars audiobooks, voices Thrawn with an aristocratic, understated croon, very much in keeping with the Nazi-inspired origins of the Empire. Thrawn, though, doesn’t lead by striking fear into his subordinates a la Vader: one of the character’s most interesting qualities, in Alliances, is that he sees positive human relations as a means to victory. Because his troops are nurtured and encouraged, they work harder for him…and, by extension, for the Emperor.
This of course appalls the Dark Lord, who flies off to the backwater world of Batuu with Thrawn after the Emperor (in a book-opening cameo) senses a disturbance in the Force. Thompson’s Vader is a little froggy, but the narrator is all too faithful to Hayden Christensen’s peevish Anakin, a character who continues to demonstrate as little chemistry with his secret wife Padme Amidala (Thompson doing a weirdly wispy Natalie Portman) as he did in the prequels.
Amidala, then her husband (R2-D2 in tow), make their way to Batuu during the Clone Wars following a friend of Padme’s who’s discovered an important Separatist factory. (It need hardly be said that latter-day Star Wars novels should not be attempted by anyone not familiar with the events depicted in the flagship film franchise.) It’s here that Thrawn turns up, proving himself to be a master of the passive-aggressive compliment as he forges a partnership with the Jedi.
Zahn’s been at this for a while, and Alliances makes for a dense listen by space-opera standards. In addition to all the connections with the Star Wars storyline — Thrawn, like the listener, seeing beyond immediate events to their larger implications — Zahn creates plot ties and thematic connections between the parallel missions that unfold in alternating passages.
If you like Vader as a mysteriously malevolent presence, you may find Alliances a little deflating as Zahn has the Sith Lord repeatedly outwitted by his title character. The earlier storyline is more satisfying from the standpoint of character development, with Anakin as a Jedi general of fatally flawed volatility. In both timelines, the once and future Skywalker struggles to match Thrawn’s self-mastery.
This will all make meaty beach listening for Star Wars book fans who’ve waded patiently through Han and Chewie’s young-reader adventures this summer. If Thrawn doesn’t ring any bells…well, guys with red eyes aren’t for everyone.