Thoughts on Thrawn …

So, after watching and not being very impressed by “The Force Awakens” I was pretty much ignoring the new Star Wars canon, and haven’t even watched “Rogue One” or “The Last Jedi” yet. However, I was browsing in the local Chapters — picking up a slew of Pierre Berton books — and I went to look to see what they had for Star Wars books. I came across one written by Timothy Zahn, simply entitled “Thrawn”. Since I knew that Thrawn had been added to the new canon, and since I had already written that using him would have solved many of the problems with “The Force Awakens”, and since it was written by the person who created the character and who, you know, could actually write, I thought I’d give it a try.

And, overall, it’s a pretty good book, with one glaring error that drags it down. Since I’ll be going through that error — an entire character arc — in detail, I’ll continue below the fold:

So, let’s start with the good. The book follows Thrawn from when he breaks his exile and first joins the Imperial Navy through to what is probably about the time Rogue One starts. Because he doesn’t really speak Basic, he is granted a translator, a cadet who was raised in a trading family and so speaks Sy Bisti. The interesting thing with Vanto, the cadet, is that he has no interest in becoming a great starfighter pilot, or captaining a Star Destroyer, or becoming an Admiral, or even gaining political power. He wants to become a high-ranking supply officer. It’s what he’s good at, and what he wants to do. So when he gets dragged along with Thrawn into more combat and leadership roles — and, to be fair, when Thrawn keeps dragging him into that — he naturally feels some resentment at times. That Thrawn’s enemies use denying him rank as a way to get at or at least express their displeasure with Thrawn doesn’t at all help the matter. But he still does his duty and seems to like, admire, and respect Thrawn for all of that, which makes for an interesting relationship.

Vanto plays the Watson role to Thrawn’s Sherlock Holmes, and the interaction works well, as well as it did in the other works between Pellaeon and Thrawn. And, in fact, even better, because Vanto brings some things to the table and so is important to Thrawn’s plans in a way that Pellaeon never was, and gets the chance to learn more from Thrawn than Pellaeon did, so that by the end of the novel he can suss out some of the plans — or, at least, the important details — for himself, and there’s a good scene where he and the captain of Thrawn’s Star Destroyer talk and she points out that while he might feel stupid for not noticing all the details and being able to come up with the plan’s himself, that just by being able to understand Thrawn’s plans he proves himself smarter than most people in the Navy.

Thrawn’s climb is based on incredible tactical brilliance and backdropped by a lack of political skill … or, at least, an impatience with politics that means that he, in general, refuses to play it. At the same time, he is combating a hidden adversary with a deeper plan, in an at times one-on-one battle of wits between the two. In general, this backdrop is good, but at times it needed to be more developed, and one of the reasons it isn’t, in my opinion, is that too much time is spent on another character arc, that of Arihnda.

As originally presented, she would seem to be there to provide the political acumen that Thrawn lacks. In practice, however, politically she does nothing for Thrawn that his existing allies couldn’t have done — since he starts with the Emperor as an ally — and spends most of her character arc completely separate from Thrawn. Thus, her character arc seems completely disconnected from the main story, which is about Thrawn. Maybe the purpose of her inclusion is to set something up for later, but in this book she’s pretty much extraneous, and she takes up time that could have been used to build up Nightswan and show more of Thrawn’s incredible tactical victories.

But this would be more minor of a flaw if the character arc itself was at least interesting. However, it isn’t. And a big part of why it isn’t is because Arihnda isn’t a very interesting or very sympathetic character, and a big part of that is because her character is ambiguous. Like Captain Sloane from “A New Dawn”, we aren’t certain what her main motivation is because she’s not certain what her main motivation is. A conflicted character can work, but the conflicts last for about two paragraphs and then get buried under her plotlines and under the main story that focuses on Thrawn. Here is how her arc shakes out:

She starts by having the family run mine find a great find of a rare metal used in starship hulls. The governor is going to make a play for it, so she goes to the Senator for help, and he says the only way is to sell it to the Empire, and promises to get her off the backwater planet she’s on, which is what she desperately wants. So she sells out her parents to the Empire, kinda, and leaves for a new job on Coruscant. There, she is working for the Senator but secretly planning revenge on him and the governor for … providing her with the means to escape the life she didn’t want? Anyway, she gets caught up in a political battle between the Senator and a Moff, and is threatened with a jail term if she doesn’t help the Moff discredit the Senator. Which she says she would have done anyway later, and yet she supposedly spends a night thinking about it. The Senator fires her — and some other people — as a fallout from the Moff’s plan, so she ends up working for an advocacy group that starts her political career again. The Moff discovers that they are looking into him, and blackmails her again into providing information for him. She fakes some information on Tarkin — his main enemy — and then uses the group’s contacts to get in direct touch with Tarkin, where she reveals that the other Moff was spying on him and gives him enough evidence to go after him, wrangling the governorship of her old planet from him and doing the one thing that she does to help Thrawn, which is giving Vanto his long overdue promotion. She then her old friends and advocacy group arrested as Rebels, and almost sarcastically promises to help her closest friend with her influence — but never does in the book, and is avoiding even contacting her at the end us it. She then ends up returning to her home planet, and gets the Senator arrested on a bribery charge. Later, an insurrection crops up in the sector, and she ends up arranging to go into one of the other planets to sabotage it but really to rescue her parents, maybe. She then shoots the Imperial agent who came with her when he tries to stop her from leaving with her parents — she had tricked him so that she could go and try to do that — and takes the detonators to the explosives that he had set to sabotage the shields. Then she deliberately detonates them in such a way that they will kill many innocent civilians so that she can cover up the fact that she killed that agent.

If she had started out good and then been corrupted, that would be one thing, and an interesting arc to explore. But other than some off-hand comments about helping people in her advocacy role, there’s really no indication that she’s all that good, or even good at all. She’s not positioned here as a villain, or even as someone who is bad but who has the power to help Thrawn and through that introducing a moral dilemma for them. If she had an entire book to herself and so could be fleshed out more, then there might be something for us to sink our teeth into, but as it stands she’s a sideshow that the book spends far too much of its time on for the impact she has on Thrawn and the main story itself. The arc isn’t an arc and it ends with the character being an unrepentant mass murderer, and so she isn’t at all sympathetic. This arc drags the book down and took up space that could be much better used by anything else.

That being said, the book is still well-written and so is still very interesting, especially if you’re a Thrawn fan. It just could have been so much better if it had focused more on him and left out the sidetrack of Arihnda.

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