Audiobook Review: Ol’ Blue Skin is Back in “Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising)”

Audiobook Review: Ol’ Blue Skin is Back in “Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising)”

“A long time ago,” begins Timothy Zahn’s new novel, “beyond a galaxy far, far away…”

There are few characters more beloved to Star Wars bookworms than the blue-skinned mystery man introduced in Zahn’s landmark Heir to the Empire (1991). Always the survivor, Thrawn made it through the Disney Expanded Universe Legends purge of 2014 and is positively thriving as Zahn dives ever deeper into the Chaos from which the eventual Grand Admiral emerged.

That’s where the galactic outskirts come in. Star Wars has long been obsessed with the Outer Rim — home of scenic spots including Tatooine, Endor, and Mandalore — but Thrawn hails from far beyond. Thrawn Ascendancy, a three-book series just inaugurated with Book I, dives deep into the mysterious Chaos, a distant region that’s difficult to navigate and little-known to even the powerful Palpatine.

There resides the Chiss Ascendancy, a confederation of families of Thrawn’s azure race. Zahn’s most recent Thrawn trilogy, which firmly established the character in the current Star Wars timeline, ultimately hinged on the question of the brilliant tactician’s loyalty. Thrawn serves the Emperor well, and insists there’s no conflict between doing so and serving the interests of his people when the opportunity presents itself.

Now, Zahn’s flipping the script and considering Thrawn from the Chiss perspective. Chaos Rising overlaps with some of the events of Thrawn: Alliances, and the full Ascendancy series promises to resolve the question of why Thrawn was seemingly cast out of the Chiss and what his master plan might be.

That means for most of the new novel, we’re way, way outside the familiar faces, places, and stories of the Star Wars universe. With no single power ruling the Chaos (unlike in what the Chiss dismissively refer to as “Lesser Space”), Thrawn’s people are constantly jockeying for position among a collection of races that are difficult to distinguish except by their consonant-heavy names and by the vocal gymnastics tireless audiobook narrator Marc Thompson goes through to differentiate their growls and wheezes. It will help if you’ve been keeping notes from the earlier Thrawn novels, or if you’ve got Wookieepedia bookmarked.

The result, aptly in this Dune-obsessed year, is something not unlike a Star Wars version of that Frank Herbert universe, with family politics intersecting military maneuvering. One of Thrawn’s defining traits is that he’s very good at the latter and very poor at the former, although Zahn has never convincingly resolved that seeming contradiction: as one of Thrawn’s frustrated colleagues observes in Chaos Rising, the two aren’t all that different.

Of course, Zahn has never put any pressure on himself to show how Thrawn ticks, because the character’s mystery is so central to his appeal. His contrast to Darth Vader was one of the reasons Heir to the Empire felt so fresh, and Zahn imagined a working relationship between the two in Alliances. Whereas Vader is vengeful and impulsive, Thrawn is strategic and resourceful.

That resourcefulness includes shepherding his relationships; he’s a one-man HR department, encouraging his underlings and forgiving mistakes on the grounds that it foments loyalty and promotes learning. Or is he just a nice guy? His extensive service to the Galactic Empire suggests otherwise.

At any rate, Chaos Rising depicts him in mutually supportive relationships with rising Chiss officer Ar’alani (another character imported from Zahn’s pre-reboot Star Wars writing) and with two young sky-walkers. Yes, that’s “sky-walker” in lowercase, with a dash — in Chiss society, they’re seemingly Force-sensitive girls who serve as the Expansionary Fleet’s secret weapons, with their ability to help vehicles maneuver quickly through the dangerous Chaos.

In Chaos Rising, Zahn clearly glories in exploring Chiss technology, which is a kind of steampunk version of the Star Wars technology we know. Chiss don’t have droids, and their ships shoot globules of acid instead of proton torpedeos. As he maneuvers the Chiss Ascendancy’s ascendance through the tumultuous Chaos, Thrawn seems to have a dawning understanding that his people will ultimately have to confront the vast technology and sophisticated Force-users of Lesser Space.

It’s all a lot to follow, and the Chiss-lovers of Star Wars fandom were absolutely delighted to see this volume arrive as a dense distraction from the very, very real misery of the real world this year. While Thompson does his usual yeoman’s job and the audiobook’s subtle sound design helps evoke the novel’s almost entirely spacebound world, it’s hard to argue for Chaos Rising as an audio experience when the beautiful blue-accented first editions are still available.

Jay Gabler