Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book I: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn kicks off this latest trilogy with enough bluster that should please most Star Wars book fans. More than recalling Thrawn’s riotous yet methodical rise through the ranks of the Expansionary Defense Fleet, Zahn does his best work in years giving hardcore fans the deep-cut exploration of Chiss culture we’ve been waiting for.
Yes, we’ve learned a lot about Mitth’raw’nuruodo ever since his debut in Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s landmark 1991 novel. Not only did he essentially kick off the Expanded Universe, but he introduced us to one of most widely known, yet misunderstood characters ever.
Despite appearances in several novels, comic books, and a series, one thing we’ve never done is go all the way back to the beginning. Well, with “Chaos Rising”, that’s about to change…
Discover Thrawn’s origins within the Chiss Ascendancy in the first book in an epic new Star Wars trilogy from bestselling author Timothy Zahn.
Beyond the edge of the galaxy lies the Unknown Regions: chaotic, uncharted, and near impassable, with hidden secrets and dangers in equal measure. And nestled within its swirling chaos is the Ascendancy, home to the enigmatic Chiss and the Nine Ruling Families that lead them.
The peace of the Ascendancy, a beacon of calm and stability, is shattered after a daring attack on the Chiss capital that leaves no trace of the enemy. Baffled, the Ascendancy dispatches one of its brightest young military officers to root out the unseen assailants. A recruit born of no title, but adopted into the powerful family of the Mitth and given the name Thrawn.
With the might of the Expansionary Fleet at his back, and the aid of his comrade Admiral Ar’alani, answers begin to fall into place. But as Thrawn’s first command probes deeper into the vast stretch of space his people call the Chaos, he realizes that the mission he has been given is not what it seems. And the threat to the Ascendancy is only just beginning.
First things first, I love this blue Star Wars Sherlock Holmes. I never seem to get tired of his shtick and even though I don’t necessarily hold the recent novels in too high regard, returning to his world feels pleasantly homespun. You know what you’re getting with a Thrawn novel, which is a well-written Chiss love fest, and sometimes, that’s good enough. But past canon efforts have seemed all too eager to piggy-back to the timeline by having Thrawn interact with mainstays and well-known characters. Much to my delight, Zahn let’s his Chiss freak flag fly in “Chaos Rising” and I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty darn good.
I’ve been waiting patiently for a Thrawn novel that stands apart from the Saga, one that doesn’t rely on the safety net of the known timeline or its denizens. And apart from a quick scene involving Anakin Skywalker, which is the prologue to the events in “Thrawn: Alliances”, Chaos Rising stands apart from anything we’ve seen prior. Even fan favorite Eli Vanto is missing in action, taking place a little too early for him to make an appearance, although I’d bet that his beautiful face will make appearance by the end of book three.
Full disclosure though, if you’re truly tired of the Thrawn shtick, his aura of invincibility, then this won’t be the book for you. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that by the end, Thrawn’s perfect record remains more or less intact. Coupled with the fact that this takes place before many known events that will come to pass, there’s certainly a high degree of predictability to this book.
And a lot of the action takes place in familiar territory with Thrawn in the Chaos outmaneuvering, outsmarting, and outfoxing his mostly soft targets. We’ve seen that before, and we’ll see more of it in books two and three of this trilogy no doubt. Now, if it sounds like I’m trying to talk you out of reading this book, I’m not, because to do so would be a huge mistake.
This is the best Thrawn novel of the canon era, period.
It stands apart from the prosaic universe in the best way possible and is the salient vision Chiss fans have been waiting for. Zahn also gives us a TON of heart (something we’ll get into), and more importantly, the book goes deep into the nine-ruling families, the Aristocrata, and the Expansionary Defense Fleet like never before.
Listen, at this point, examining Zahn’s writing would be like critiquing a dictionary, or an encyclopedia. It’s baked in and he’s not going to change it now, nor should he. He’s a great technical writer, which explains why he’s chosen a character like Mitth’raw’nuruodo as his muse. Both are calculating, benign, and impassive, and much like Alexander Freed’s books, can often feel indicative of an intelligible word salad. This has never been truer than in Chaos Rising, where having a Cheunh-to-Basic dictionary nearby could be handy.
He also doesn’t do himself too many favors here either with some carefully placed nods to pre-canon efforts, such as 2006’s “Outbound Flight” And the book is top-to-bottom Chiss, so, if those blue-skinned devils don’t do it for you, then I don’t know what to tell you. If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m reaching for things to pick apart, because the fact of the matter is Chaos Rising is a really, really great Star Wars book. So, let’s get into it.
The book is split between “Chapters” and “Memories” which effectively time jumps us through Thrawn’s rise in the Expansionary Defense Fleet, starting at the academy. His ascension, aided by some favorable opinions higher up the ladder, is as you would expect it, efficient and without flare. It did/does attract the attention of some who would do their best to stifle this rise to power, something that does provide a fair amount of drama in Chaos Rising.
To a lesser and perhaps more interesting extent, Thrawn’s steady rise is paralleled by Ziara aka Irizi’ar’alani aka Ar’alani, his equally precocious co-conspirator for many of his greatest victories, pre-Empire. Because of this fact, most of the book’s focus concerning the Nine Ruling Families centers on the Irizi and Mitth families.
Prestige is a currency
The examination of the Chiss family ranks and the political maneuverings within are fascinating and infected with bias, classism, and ill repute. This narrative ploy is important in understanding how the Ascendency works and equally as much, exposing Thrawn’s greatest weakness. Yes, Thrawn has a weakness and its politicking.
He manages these many bureaucratic pitfalls with the help of his friends Ziara and General Ba’kif. And if not for a willingness to keep Thrawn out in the Chaos, his survival in the political arena would be laughable at its naiveté. But Zahn doesn’t spend too much time on this kryptonite choosing to return Thrawn to more familiar grounds, namely, open space. Thrawn reminds me of Kevin Costner in Waterworld, he’s much more surefooted in the openness of space than grounded on Csilla.
For the purposes of this first act, there are two provocateurs which will occupy most of Thrawn’s time, the Nikardun General, Yiv the Benevolent, and Mitth’urf’ianico aka Thurfian, a Mitth family syndic and general pain in the butt. Both want Thrawn out of the picture, just for entirely different reasons, and their methods are of course opposites, with Thurfian choosing to wield political daggers instead of blasters. They would of course prove to be no match for Thrawn and his allies, but as the book ends, a sinister perhaps more formidable adversary makes their presence known.
It’s a clear case of misdirection as these foils were laughably no match for Thrawn in the first place. And who this new invisible enemy is and what their motives are, remain to be seen, but I’m quite certain Zahn will serve up something interesting.
But while all of us face a variety of paths, we all have the power to choose among them.
There can be no question that the best part of this book is the attention paid to the “sky-walkers”, and the toll this course-plotting wizardry takes on their young minds and bodies. This precognition ability made its first appearance in “Alliances” and is the Chiss version of the Force, albeit with hard limits. Typically, these gifted preteens lose this “third sight” ability by age 14, and then become adopted into one of the ruling families. With their navigation days behind them, they become more of a trophy to their adoptive family, living out the remainder of their life in banality.
The most important relationship these children will have for their short navigational careers is that with their assigned caregiver. Also called “momish”, this relationship is explored in a thoughtful manner and is a sensitivity we don’t necessarily get from Zahn all the time. As such, the two key characters who fill those roles for this story are sky-walker Che’ri, and her caregiver and former sky-walker, Al’iastov aka Thalias.
In fact, Thalias is at the center of much of what occurs in this book, anchoring not only the nefarious plotting against Thrawn from within, but also a device to explore and understand the Chiss family ranks. Namely, what it means to be a “Merit Adoptive”, and then a “Trial-born”, and then a “Ranking Distant”, all rankings which fill the seats at the non-blood relative dinner table.
This is never made more clear than when Thalias is asked to enter the “trials” to advance past the ranking of “Merit Adoptive” On the surface, it’s literally a series of tests, both physical and intellectual, which when passed, earn the participant the rank of “Trial-Born” But behind the scenes, it’s a high stakes game of recruitment where the squabbling families strive to become less consequential and remain relevant.
She makes it all the way to the top of the Mitth mountain, figuratively and literally, and it’s here she encounters the family’s Patriarch, Mitth’oor’akiord aka Thooraki. This sequence is perhaps my favorite of the novel, utilizing many of Zahn’s strongest attributes as a writer. It’s a scene right out of the movies as Thooraki pulls back the veil, making Thalias’s, and Thrawn’s, true purpose clear. Think the “old wise man” archetype and you’ll get the idea, with Thooraki doling out sage advice while being slightly insane, it makes for a very entertaining read.
For her part, Thalias carries much of the emotional load in Chaos Rising, as emotional as Chiss can be anyways. In fact, the reason she pursued Thrawn, looking to be assigned to the Springhawk, is she feels somewhat indebted to him after an encounter many years ago when she was nearing the end of her sky-walker career.
Coming to terms with their young retirement is a heavy weight these sky-walkers must carry, that feeling of being discarded and no longer useful is some serious trauma for a young child. So, in a moment where Thalias was feeling particularly wounded, a still Cadet Mitth’raw’nuruodo extends to her a level of compassion not typically offered to navigators.
This chance encounter would leave its mark and Thalias would use her dwindling currency as a sky-walker to be adopted into the family of her choice, the Mitth. She would bide her time, eventually finding her way onto the Springhawk, acting as Ch’eri’s caregiver, thus reuniting with the man who through a simple act of kindness, changed her life. Great stuff.
This relationship between Thrawn and Thalias is paralleled in the book by his relationship with confidant and occasional co-conspirator, Ar’alani. Like I said earlier, the future Admiral of the Expansionary Defense Fleet, is far and away Thrawn’s greatest confidant that side of the galaxy.
While they may not always agree on tactics, the respect they have for each other’s gifts is off the charts, but we already knew that. What’s different about Chaos Rising, is Zahn examines this relationship in a much more deep and meaningful way, even intimate at times.
Now, don’t get too hot and bothered, these two beautiful beings don’t bump uglies or anything, but when I say “intimate”, I mean it. They spend a lot of time in each other’s company, even sneaking off together on one or two occasions. Soft touches, stolen glances, and meaningful conversations are all used by Zahn to indicate these two warriors are connected in profound ways. And when they’re not sparring or talking the politics of Csilla, Thrawn is sharing his secrets of alien cultures and tactics.
Whether or not this intimacy is explored any further in books two and three remains to be seen. The Chiss aren’t exactly romantic in the classic sense but it’s clear as day these two loyal warriors have a fondness for each other they don’t afford to anyone else.
So, after all that, what are we left with?
Other than that slight indulgence I mentioned, “Chaos Rising” stands apart from the pedestrian Star Wars universe in the best way possible and is the salient vision Chiss fans have been waiting for. And purposely ambiguous ending aside, this is a completely satisfying read from front to back.
The reason for that is quite simple, Zahn uses a narrative methodology as old as time, good strong character development. It’s a feeling akin to wrapping yourself in a warm blanket as the more you learn about these characters, the more you’ll relate to each one. Tough not to see yourself or parts of yourself in this cast. And his examination of the MC’s is such that we fall into a sense kinship not found most anywhere else. Thrawn, Ar’alani, Che’ri, and the rest are soft around the edges, they are written to be adored, and you will, adore them.
But this genial approach to his muse is of course only applicable within the confines of the novels, elsewhere, Thrawn is threatening to kill way too gregarious characters like Ezra Bridger. Between you and me, I don’t blame him on that one. But ultimately, it’s a Chiss driven piece, with the usual Star Wars vernacular and axioms taking a very welcome back seat.
And I think I’ve made my case that it’s also thoughtful in a way I wasn’t expecting, with Thrawn showing no signs of acting untoward around Che’ri, Thalias, and Ar’alani. And even though he chooses logic and reason to find his way through life, it’s clear he’s no machine either, capable of fondness, or dare I say kindness?
So, as Thrawn and his small court must uncover the truth, warding off enemies from both outside the region and within, we’re left with another methodical yet entertaining entry from Zahn. With nods to past efforts from both Canon and Legends, and a thorough examination of the Chiss culture and machinations, this is a great start to the trilogy.
And no, you’re not seeing things, there are two different spellings for Thrawn’s Mitth name, we’ll find out why in book two.
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, Book I is available now, click HERE to order a copy today!