Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendency: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn and Narrated by Marc Thompson

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The following is a guest post by Sonja Natasha.

As with most Star Wars fans, my first introduction to the Thrawn character was with Timothy Zahn’s The Thrawn Trilogy, which is now considered Legends instead of canon. Despite being the eponymous character, Thrawn had less appeal for me than others in Zahn’s work; that feeling remained as Thrawn was reborn into the canon via Star Wars: Rebels and another eponymous trilogy. Thrawn Ascendency successfully convinced me that yes, Mitth’raw’nuruodo is a complicated character in his own right, and I found myself invested in a way I hadn’t previously experienced.

Thrawn is of the Chiss people, who reside in an area of space called The Unknown Regions, which they call The Chaos. A pilot with a standard hyperdrive, as seen on the Millenium Falcon, won’t take ships and their crews safely through without crashing into various types of space phenomena. Those who wish to reach their destination through the Unknown Regions safely retain Force sensitive navigators to help guide ships through the chaotic void. Their ability to use the Force in this way is known by different names including Third Sight and the Presence. By learning additional names for the Force and its use based on location and culture, a reader is successfully transported into the unknown, far from the familiar locations and Force practices populating the film trilogies and television series. 

The Chiss are known for their blue skin and red eyes. In Rebels, Thrawn has already reached the rank of Admiral in the Empire–quite the feat when one also knows that Big Bad Emperor Palpatine was a notorious xenophobe against any species that wasn’t traditionally human. The new canon Thrawn trilogy documents his rise to power within the Empire. Thrawn Ascendency focuses on his career in the Chiss military fleet prior to his time with the Empire, though there are nods to the trilogy that came before it.

Thrawn’s success in the midst of great opposition is not the only compelling aspect of his character. A cunning military strategist, Thrawn infers information about various cultures from their art. This tactic has drawn the scorn or sarcasm of those unfamiliar with his successes, but Thrawn is able to articulate how art can lead him to better understand his opponents, making his victory more likely, as evidenced by his quick rise to power in the Empire. This ability renders him a unique adversary. Rebels, in several satisfying scenes, shows Thrawn studying and appreciating Sabine Wren’s artwork. Listeners to Ascendency will be treated to similar moments as Thrawn navigates his way through the narrative.

The narrative is told from the perspectives of the people surrounding Thrawn, and the listener does not become privy to Thrawn’s internal thoughts. This technique both increases Thrawn’s mystique while also highlighting his vulnerability, especially as seen through the eyes of Admiral Ar’alani, whose developing professional relationship with Thrawn becomes a driving force throughout the novel.

However, this technique can sometimes weaken the narrative, especially if Thrawn is operating separately from one of the stronger viewpoint characters. In such instances, the listener is forced to witness long exchanges of dialogue from the perspective of a viewpoint character with little stake in the conversation and the narrative itself. One such viewpoint character has entire segments that interrupt the narrative pace and flow. They are later revealed to be in league with the novel’s primary antagonist, which should have made them more interesting, but ultimately Zahn did not succeed in that; thankfully the listener is not forced to witness alongside this character too frequently. Though annoying when it happens, it is a small price to pay to enjoy the rest of the story.

Zahn introduced the Chiss Force Sensitive navigators in Alliances and Treason and continues to develop the idea in Ascendancy. In Chiss, their official title means “sky-walker,” which also caused some confusion for Thrawn when he met General Anakin Skywalker in Alliances and this scene is revisited in Ascendancy. So far, the correlation with Anakin’s surname and the Chiss navigator title is not explained, though it does perhaps add some insight to Shmi Skywalker’s people prior to finding herself enslaved on Tatooine. Star Wars, as an expanding (and well-funded) universe, has the ability to constantly develop and expand concepts as more imaginative minds add to the canon. One of Ascendency’s defining threads show how the Chiss generally experience and use The Force by way of introducing two unique sky-walker perspectives.

In true Zahn fashion, there is a great deal of political backdrop (to a sometimes confusing degree), but that also propels the strength of its characters. Essentially, there are plenty of character and plot driven narrative threads to satisfy readers of either preference, though if a listener leans significantly towards one preference over the other, they might be mildly inconvenienced at parts.

Ascendency does not introduce the familiar characters of the Republic and the Separatists until late in the narrative, but their appearance allows the opportunity for listeners to see Thrawn between some interesting lines. Via the perspective chapters of various Chiss political figures, the listener realizes that Thrawn is a polarizing individual—some say he is the future of the Chiss while others believe that Thrawn will be their downfall. It might be tempting to describe Thrawn as a kind of rebel, awkward when Thrawn becomes the primary antagonist in Star Wars: Rebels, the animated series. That said, Ascendency lays the groundwork for why Thrawn would choose to ally himself with the Empire and rise within its ranks.

Marc Thompson narrates Ascendency with great skill. The diversity of his voice work, specifically the breadth he gives the women characters, is a true pleasure to listen to. As with other Star Wars audio books, familiar musical themes are reintroduced, along with sound effects that truly pull the listener into the narrative.  

Ultimately, Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book I: Chaos Rising) by Timothy Zahn and narrated by Marc Thompson is well worth the listen. Focusing on the Chiss Ascendancy via multiple character perspectives provides new horizons to that galaxy far, far away. Pick up your copy on September 1 2020.