Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy – Chaos Rising is the latest Thrawn novel by acclaimed Star Wars author Timothy Zahn. Thrawn Ascendency is the second trilogy set within the official canon timeline, and Chaos Rising is the first book of that trilogy. The first trilogy, which was made up of the self-titled Thrawn novel, Thrawn: Alliances, and Thrawn: Treason, expanded upon Thrawn’s canon introduction within the Rebels cartoon series. This second trilogy is Thrawn’s origin story, with the first book having flashbacks to the earliest time in Thawn’s life that we had seen so far, during his childhood school days.
Isolated by shifting stars and other astrological phenomena, the Chiss Ascendency is essentially isolated from the rest of the galaxy. With the use of young female Force adepts known as sky-walkers, Chiss ships are able to leave their isolated portion of space and traverse the surrounding region known as the Chaos. Within this Chaos are many alien species, both friendly and hostile, that the Chiss are on shaky terms with.
It is from these surrounding alien species that a refugee ship enters Chiss space and is immediately destroyed. This attack prompts the Chiss to seek out answers to the attack, with an investigation led by Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn. Aided by his long time friend Admiral Ar’alani, a sky-walker by the name of Che’ri, and her caregiver, Thalias, they must confront a situation that has the potential to become a threat the Chiss Ascendency and figure out how to deal with it, all while playing the Chiss’ political games.
At first the main timeline of the story is unknown to the reader, taking place while Thrawn is a Senior Captain of the Chiss starship Springhawk. The main story is then periodically interrupted by chapters denoted with the header “Memories”. These chapters progress, starting with Thrawn’s young student life, and then skipping forward in time until the final Memories chapter is shortly before the primary storyline of the book.
Although the timeframe of the story is mostly unknown, we do eventually figure out that the main storyline takes place during The Clone Wars, with parts of the book overlapping with the flashback chapters of Thrawn: Alliances. These overlapping sections actually threw me through a loop at first because the text between this book and Alliances is nearly identical in parts. It was a serious case of déjà vu before I realized what was happening (it has been a few years since I’ve read Alliances).
If you are fan of Zahn’s Thrawn books, then this one will feel like home to you. While keeping up the quality of the previous three books, we are introduced to a new set of characters, set within a region of space that has been at best hinted at through other Chiss works. Thrawn feels like his own self, ever the tactician, even from a very young age. What new we get from Thrawn is that, while in later novels his ability to discern his opponents’ moves is often left a mystery, in this book he is frequently called out for it. Due to his young age and inexperience, he is often forced to reveal what he is thinking. He plays his consistent Sherlock Holmes persona, while maintaining “good guy” status.
Although mentioned in the previous trilogy, Zahn blows open the concept that Thrawn doesn’t understand politics. Even though politics are seemingly similar to battlefield tactics, the concept eludes Thrawn, often to disastrous conclusions. In a society where family alliances and political intrigue play a primary force, a lack of political savvy often comes back to bite Thrawn in the butt. Fortunately, several people have come to the rescue, taking it upon themselves to make sure that Thrawn survives the political maneuvering so that he may potentially save all of the Ascendency from the forces massing against them.
The best part about this book, though, is the characters that he works with and around, specifically Admiral Ar’alani. Introduced in the first canon Thrawn novel, Ar’alani has been essentially a background character, whereas here she takes on a leading role, and the story is all the much better for it. Ar’alani, forever the superior officer to Thrawn, eventually becomes a friend. A woman who is willing to admit when she is wrong, takes Thrawn’s suggestions on military strategy when they are needed, and provides him with the political strategy he so desperately needs. Together they take on not only the unknown foes in the Chaos, but also the known foes in the Ascendency. Easily my favorite character in the book, Ar’alani plays the cynic to Thrawn’s know-it-all attitude. As Thrawn remains stagnant throughout the story, Ar’alani continually grows, learns, and advances throughout the book. She becomes what Thrawn is unable to be.
Besides Thrawn and Ar’alani, I do not believe there are any returning major characters from his three previous books. There are several tie-ins to events and storylines from the previous books though, specifically the sky-walkers. They play a major role within the book, in particular former Sky-walker Thalias, who becomes the third most important character within the story. She is introduced to us as a sky-walker within the earliest flashback chapter, then returns as an adult to partake in Thrawn’s mission. She goes from a character trying to get in on the “action” from the outside to one of the most important characters in the book.
Her overall storyline provides the reader with possible futures for one of the other major characters Sky-walker Che’ri, a 9 year-old little girl who is pushed beyond her normal abilities in order to help Thrawn accomplish his goals. I rather enjoyed both of their story arcs. Even though at different places in their lives, they both go from characters who are aimless in the galaxy, not knowing where they are needed or wanted to becoming an intricate and well valued members of the Chiss society.
Although most of the story seems to involve political intrigue within the Chiss society, these are all driven by external threats to the Chiss. The brunt of the action involves Thrawn dealing militarily with outside threats in the form of alien species that may or may not be amassing against the Chiss. It is up to Thrawn to not only determine if and how they are conspiring against the Ascendency, but how to stop them. And how he deals with these threats will have major impacts on his political future, whether he cares about it or not.
My biggest problem with the book has to do with the time hopping that occurred. Thrawn is almost a stagnant character throughout the book. While other characters grow and learn, it is almost like Thrawn was born Thrawn. He is the same character in all of the books he has ever been in. And while he is a fantastic character, there is nothing new there. That makes it particularly difficult when the book bounces back and forth between the past and the present (of the book). As the past storyline gets closer and closer to the present, it becomes really difficult to differentiate the two plot lines. It doesn’t help any that the two plots become almost mirror images of each other with similar species and events that everything becomes a big muddled mess while trying to keep everything straight. It isn’t a detriment to the story, but it makes it really difficult to keep everything straight.
Once again, I experienced the story via audiobook, narrated by veteran Star Wars narrator Marc Thompson. Marc does a fantastic Thrawn, matching the tone and pitch of Rebels Thrawn voice actor Lars Mikkelsen. Although the majority of the book is fantastically narrated, Marc’s voice acting does becomes a tad grating when he tries to imitate a few of the young female characters, however that is easily overcome within a little bit of listening. Also, as a person with significant hearing loss, some of the audio adjustments that were made to imitate characters talking over com units and other such embellishments made understanding the characters extremely difficult in those situations.
Overall, this is a book for Thrawn fans. It provides Thrawn as Thrawn. The newness comes from learning more about the Chiss Ascendency and learning how other characters act to and around Thrawn; what he’s doing that other people react to. The political drama set up around Thrawn becomes a focal point of the book and is really the most interesting thing about Thrawn in the book, because it is a fault of his that other people are able to exploit. The book is definitely an enjoyable read and I would say this works out to be an average Thrawn book, which is still a good Star Wars book.
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