This review contains mild spoilers.
Set between two timelines, Timothy Zahn’s latest Star Wars novel, Thrawn Alliances tells the story of Darth Vader and everyone’s favorite Grand Admiral. The Emperor, in his infinite wisdom has seen fit to team two of his most trusted enforcers together to unravel a mystery in the force at the edges of known space. To that end, Vader and Thrawn travel together to Batuu, though they made planetfall in the same spot together so many years ago during The Clone Wars.
Will Thrawn ferret out the truth of Vader’s identity? Will Vader’s emotions get in the way of the mission? Will Thrawn’s loyalty to the protection of the Chiss Ascendency get in the way of his loyalty to the Empire?
I think, perhaps, Palpatine is trying to force these issues to a head to better utilize both of his servants and it makes for a tense backdrop for the book.
Structurally, Zahn hits a home run with this book. He’s able to weave the narratives of both timelines together in a way that brings their climaxes at the same time, giving us all the information we need for both of them in the right doses to understand the story and continue building an underlying mystery for the reader.
But Zahn transcends the focus on the winding structure in order to deliver fascinating characters that are true to their previous iterations. In fact, the thing I might have loved the most about this book is how well he captures the voice of The Clone Wars era Anakin and Padme. As I read scenes involving them, I couldn’t help but conjure the voices of Matt Lanter and Cat Taber.
Naturally, Thrawn is the hero of this tale and it’s always an interesting game to play to cast so-called villains in the role of hero and protagonist. How do you establish their point of view in a way that makes them not seem like mustache-twirling caricatures? I think Zahn tackles this handily by creating an underlying mystery that allows us to question motives through the book. But as the mystery unfolds, we realize that even if Vader and Thrawn weren’t agents of the evil Galactic Empire, we’d be rooting for them to accomplish their goal anyway. In fact, I think Thrawn and Vader act more admirably in the pursuit of their end goal by the end of the book than Anakin does in the past as he causes much destruction for little pay off.
I was also surprised by how fun the book was. As I read books about the villains of Star Wars books, I never really expect them to hit the adventurous tones of Star Wars. With James Luceno’s Tarkin it was more Hammer Horror film meets political drama by way of Hemingway on safari. With the previous Thrawn book, it was more Sherlock Holmes by way of the oppression of the Empire. Here, we had strains of that Holmes vibe through the underlying mystery, but there’s an adventure here, too. And I think Zahn really outdid himself.
I enjoyed the previous Thrawn book immensely. I’ve enjoyed Heir to the Empire and the rest of the books featuring Grand Admiral Thrawn over the years, but, for my money, this is the best one Zahn has written. It manages to connect all of the ingredients of great Star Wars, illuminate mysteries, tell new stories, and capture the voices of the characters we all know and love. It’s entertaining, sure, but also gives you a deep window into the separation Darth Vader tries to build between himself and Anakin Skywalker and it’s doubly entertaining to watch Thrawn probe at the hints of that knowledge to see just how far he can push Vader without being killed.
This book stands alone well enough that if you’re a fan of Thrawn and haven’t read the previous installment, it will make enough sense, but I’d definitely recommend checking it out.
As far as Star Wars books go, this one is a 10 out of 10. Read it. Now. Run. Don’t walk.