Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn is the second book in the author’s Thrawn trilogy, set in the new canon of Star Wars after the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. Emperor Palpatine has sensed a disturbance in the Force on the remote planet of Batuu, at the edge of the galaxy’s Outer Rim Territories. This disturbance, though only hinting at threats unknown, is deemed important enough that the Emperor sends two of his most powerful agents to investigate: the Sith Lord Darth Vader and brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn.
There is more to the mission than it at first seems, however, as long ago, during the Clone War, the two first met on Batuu under similar circumstances : Thrawn on an undisclosed mission for the Chiss Ascendency and then-Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker in search of his missing wife Padmé, who was investigating a Separatist plot. The two formed an unlikely alliance to achieve their goals all those years ago, but with loyalties being tested by new enemies, can their renewed partnership endure?
Unlike the first book, this novel follows two parallel plot lines that continually jump between “Then” and “Now”. Though they share settings and uncannily similar situations, the two are largely unrelated to each other. Anakin’s search for Padmé is ultimately concerned with uncovering a secret Separatist factory and sabotaging their plans, with Thrawn offering support, while the latter has Vader and Thrawn investigating a disturbance in the Force that hints at the machinations of a new, potential enemy. This then/now divide created a rift in the book for me, as one invariably held higher stakes and more mystery than the other.
It’s perhaps easy to guess that the “Then” story following Anakin and Thrawn was the weaker plot. Since it is more directly linked to the Clone War, one can quickly conclude that whatever secrets Anakin, Padmé, and Thrawn uncover must undoubtedly be thwarted or they would have had an effect on the greater conflict. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of this plot line is from Padmé’s perspective, which wasn’t badly told, but felt the most like reading filler. This plot was not without value, however, as it made for a good point of contrast for the dynamic between Thrawn and Anakin/Vader, highlighting how much Anakin had changed since becoming Vader. It’s rare that we get to see the two personas so directly contrasted; Anakin’s brash heroics and wilder energy against Vader’s domineering authority and controlled menace.
The “Now” story held the most mystery and intrigue. The only thing assured was the survival of Vader and Thrawn, which did little to compromise what became a rather compelling side story. It doesn’t take long for the source of the disturbance to be discovered, and as their endeavor to resolve it is pushed further and further, Thrawn’s very loyalty to the Empire is called into question. Should the situation be an Imperial concern at all, or is it something more personal to Thrawn that he is misappropriating resources for? I was drawn into the story really strongly because how the situation might be resolved was uncertain, as it is completely divorced from the Empire’s war with the Rebellion. There were a number of ways I could see the story going without compromising other existing material.
These questions of loyalty upped the ante to the already-existing tension between Thrawn and Vader as well, as Thrawn’s ship is taking point on the mission, yet Vader’s authority operates outside of military hierarchy. It was an interesting balance of power they had to coordinate, as neither wanted completely cede control nor undermine the other. This is the first story that has the two interacting with each other, perhaps the only, yet Zahn did an excellent job of making me care about the history and relationship this book establishes.
There is perhaps a cynical side to mashing up two big characters into a novel together, but he made it feel meaningful. Vader can’t just push Thrawn around like he does other naval officers, so he’s forced to be patient with Thrawn’s unconventional approach to problem solving, while also trying to ignore their past camaraderie. On his end, Thrawn continually has to negotiate for Vader’s trust in his motives and abilities, while subtly coming to terms with the fact that Anakin Skywalker is dead.
Aside from two lead characters, I liked how the story made the universe feel a little bigger. It’s often so caught up in Sith vs Jedi or Empire vs Rebels, that it’s easy to forget how big the galaxy really is. The Force itself was appreciably added to, showing a type of Force-user outside of the typical Sith/Jedi paradigm, with some unique Force usage demonstrated along with it. I love it when the Force gets expanded upon. Though we don’t see the full extent of this new enemy, they felt like a genuine threat too. As they engage with Imperial forces we also get some great moments of stormtroopers demonstrating competency we don’t usually get to see, thanks to the heroes of the films so often having great fortune on their side.
Thrawn: Alliances was a worthy follow-up to the first novel, telling a compelling side story that meaningfully added to the Star Wars mythos, while building a relationship between Thrawn and Vader that I really came to care about. It’s only really hampered by the fact that so much time of the book is spent in the past story line of the book’s Then/Now divide, which had a much weaker plot yet was so important to giving greater meaning to the present. It did have to be there to make everything work, yet I enjoyed the plot in the present so much more that my reading experience was a lot more mixed than I would’ve liked.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5