One of Star Wars' most notorious villains returns in a brand new novel, where Grand Admiral Thrawn must team-up with Darth Vader to solve a mystery that sees them confront their pasts. Filled with action and wit, Thrawn: Alliances is Timothy Zahn at his best. Come inside to check out my full review.
Thrawn: Alliances doesn't pick up the story right after the end of the previous Thrawn novel, but instead follows the events of Star Wars Rebels' third season finale. The story sees Thrawn reeling from his failure to capture/subdue the Rebels (where he confronted the Bendu in the show), and tasked by the Emperor to embark on a mission to the Unknown Regions.
Sensing a disturbance in the Force, the Emperor forces his most trusted servants, Thrawn and Vader, to work together to resolve the issue. Neither of them seem excited at the prospect but in order to fulfill their task, they'll have to find a way to make it work as a new threat that could affect Thrawn's homeworld and the Empire emerges.
Things becomes more complicated as their mission takes them back to the planet Batuu, where they met during the Clone Wars. In this way, the novel plays out across two different timelines. The first takes place in the "present" with Thrawn and Vader, but the second shows us a journey with Anakin, Padme, and Thrawn. In the last book, Thrawn made mention of having met Anakin during the Clone Wars and now we get to see what happened.
When Padme hears word from one of her former Handmaidens about a possible big Separatist secret weapon in the Unknown Regions, she travels to meet with her. When she's gone for weeks at a time without contact, Anakin groes worried and sets out to find/rescue his wife. Along the journey he encounters the younger Chiss warrior, Thrawn, with a mission of his own. The two must retrace Padme's trail as she uncovers a new Separatist plan that could alter the course of the war.
That's about all I can tell you without going into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on, but despite telling what amounts to two different stories, the novel doesn't feel cramped or rushed in the slightest. Each story is given enough room to breathe and feel complete on their own, while playing off of each other and connecting in some fun ways.
While I enjoyed the first Thrawn novel, it's not among my favorite Star Wars (or even Timothy Zahn) books. Much of it feels like checking off boxes for the origin story, while relying too much on other content to feel like it could truly stand on its own. Not to mention it seemed hindered by what they couldn't talk about (the show Rebels was still going). It's a problem I've had with a few other Star Wars novels in the last few years as well, but it still felt like a decent return of the iconic character.
Alliances, however, feels like an old-school Timothy Zahn escapade in the same vein as some of his previous Star Wars books (Choices of One and Scoundrels specifically). It's definitely a standalone story and works well on its own without needing much prior knowledge. Sure, it has direct references to events from Star Wars Rebels season three, but the story isn't dependent on that information either.
Even though this is a Clone Wars adventure, you don't need to be well-versed in the previous cartoon series to know what's going on (although there are some neat references for fans). This is truly an individual Thrawn story, and in that it seems Timothy Zahn has managed to have the most fun. Without being hemmed in by past/future connections, Alliances is free to do its own thing.
The result is a story that's surprisingly fast-paced. This thing MOVES. After getting through the first couple chapters where the story is set up, I couldn't put it down. I had to see what happened next and the pages just kept turning and turning, almost of their own accord.
Despite having no obvious indicators for when it switches timeframes (i.e. chapter headers), it's not confusing when it shifts between eras. In fact, it's cleverly handled in a way that makes it clear at the start of a chapter without beating you over the head with it. Moreso, the transitions between the stories flow naturally at breaks that make sense. When you return to the next timeline, there's no moment of confusion that comes with it.
I've read plenty of books that sprawl across multiple timelines, and even the better ones don't do the greatest job of balancing them. Too often, the action/story in one timeline is more interesting than the others, and when the switch happens, all I'm thinking about is how much I'd rather go back to the INTERESTING story I was reading. What also tends to happen, is the length of time spent within one timeline in the novel, means I'm a little lost when we jump back. It's easy enough to pick up the story threads, but the initial confusion is enough to jar me out of the story.
With Thrawn: Alliances, however, neither of those problems presented themselves. It has a great flow to it's twin stories and it always manages to swap out at just the right time. It's a precarious balance, but one that keeps you fully invested in the story and action. This excellent pacing, coming through Zahn's writing skills, is a big factor in how easy it is to find yourself losing hours of time in reading.
Great Characters, Fun Action
Alliances sticks to characters we already know very well, but it does some great stuff with them. Where the book shines most, is how it uses the dynamics between the characters to make them feel realistic. Seeing Thrawn and Vader interact gives readers the chance to see these iconic characters through fresh eyes, as we get to see how they perceive one another. We get to see how smart, tactically, Vader is even against one of the most intelligent beings in the galaxy.
Readers get a chance to see Anakin as the hero. He's still flawed and there are inklings of his darker leanings, but we get to see him as a tested leader and still very much in love with Padme. We're also treated to a younger Thrawn who's still incredibly smart, but still learning, with the chance of being surprised.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel in terms of characters, however, is Padme. For the most part she gets her own story in this adventure as well, and isn't relegated to any manner of damsel in distress. She's the feisty, take charge character we saw in the films and it's a pleasure to get an all new story with her as a central focus.
Beyond the characters, Timothy Zahn sprinkles his normal action packed sequences throughout the story. They're easy to read and understand, while still showcasing the tactical prowess his character is known for. Coupled with the excellent pacing, the thrilling action scenes only add to the novel's ability to suck you in and keep you flipping the pages with wild abandon.