It’s not often that rooting for a bad guy makes you feel righteous, but that’s the case in this offering from author Timothy Zahn. In Thrawn, the badass warlord from the Legends-era trilogy and duology returns. This time with an origin story so steeped in strategy that von Clausewitz could have written it.

It isn’t a spoiler to say that Thrawn is a military genius. His ability to outsmart and outmaneuver foes made him a crowd favorite in the 90s when he was first introduced. But that version of Thrawn was an Imperial stooge. He was picking up the pieces of an Empire that had shattered after the death of Palpatine. In that telling, Thrawn was only doing what he’d been trained to do.

In this prequel, however, Thrawn isn’t yet a grand admiral and certainly isn’t with the Empire as a tool. Instead, he has his own agenda. One that’s slowly revealed throughout the book. Thrawn is no longer a one-note bad guy but takes center stage as more than a foil. He comes preloaded with a conscience and a duty to his people that’s infectiously endearing.

Where Thrawn Begins

Image of Grand Admiral Thrawn as a cadet in the Chiss Ascendancy, where his origin begins.

Thrawn, we find out, is a Chiss. His native name is Mitth’raw’nuruodo. He’s been exiled from his home world beyond the Outer Rim, seeking service with the Empire to combat a looming threat. When he arrives on the scene, he’s stranded and alone. He’s an outcast with only his wits to prepare the way.

Very quickly, though, Thrawn makes himself known. Then, through cunning and misdirection, he’s able to work his way off the planet where he’s found and into the seat of Imperial power. There he beguiles and worms his way into the machinery, getting training and postings that expose him to the opposition and, ultimately rebellion.

Along the way, he finds his Watson, a translator named Eli Vanto. Together the two face off against multiple challenges, the greatest of which is an institutionalized disdain for aliens and any person born and bred outside the Core. As Vanto’s family is from a backwater world, he too shares in Thrawn’s outsider stigma.

But the haters, we know, are on the losing side. As an origin, we know that Thrawn will eventually prevail. His efforts will succeed. Yet, we’re left unsure of the reasoning. Why was Thrawn exiled? Why was he left on that particular planet for that particular ship to find him? Was it happenstance, or is something deeper unfolding?

In Search of Moriarty

Grand Admiral Thrawn aboard his Imperial Star Destroyer.

Two mysteries stand out above all the other tasks and assignments given to Thrawn. The first is a galaxy-wide shortage of a mineral called doonium. Doonium is used to manufacture warship hulls because it’s one of the hardest metals. The stated reason for its disappearance from the market is a shipbuilding surge, but Thrawn knows that isn’t the case—the amounts involved dwarf what new ships need, even for Imperial Star Destroyers.

The second mystery is the rumors surrounding an outlaw known as Nightswan. This man is first considered a consultant, planning jobs for various groups. Then he’s found to be involved in mining and metal smuggling. Eventually, he crops up on everything from antique purchases to organizing protests and unrest.

If Thrawn is Sherlock, then Nightswan is Moriarty. The counterbalance. The opposing force rises to become an obsession. Vanto observes this on multiple occasions that Thrawn is consumed with finding this foe. And for many of the same reasons why Sherlock seeks out his antagonist — not because of the danger or the fallout but because of the challenge. It’s a game, and a worthy one at that.

The Pryce Is Wrong

Governor Arihnda Pryce.

Alongside chapters featuring Thrawn, we’re also given sections on another character, Arihnda Pryce. Arihnda comes from a mining family based on the outlier world of Lothal. Those who’ve watched the TV show Star Wars: Rebels will immediately recognize the name and her eventual title, but here we’re given her origin story.

Much like Thrawn, Pryce is an outsider with nothing to her name and much to prove. And much like Thrawn, she’s ideally suited to rise through the ranks, using her cunning and ruthlessness to improve her career. While she begins at the mercy of the political machinery, forced to kowtow and start at the bottom, she soon begins to get a foothold, using connections and friends to climb.

By the time her path crosses that of Thrawn’s, the two have bright futures. Ones that are destined to intertwine and be mutually beneficial. Yet, we begin to see in Pryce’s behaviors that are not becoming of someone fair or honorable. Unlike Thrawn, she’s completely selfish, able to turn on allies with barely an inconvenience. At times, she even seems to relish it.

All Roads Lead to Batonn

Grand Admiral Thrawn and Governor Arihnda Pryce.

Both Thrawn and Pryce end up on Batonn, but for different reasons. Still, the eventual overlap of their arcs makes for some great storytelling. Not to mention a disaster that even the Empire can’t cover up or ignore.

For Thrawn, the showdown at Batonn allows him to meet his nemesis and solidify his hunch about the doonium. For Pryce, the experience gives her the credentials to expand her reach in the Outer Rim and prove her mettle to the elites on Coruscant.

While the results on Batonn help both of their careers, the directions of their characters diverge. While Thrawn acts for the betterment of his people and a cause, Pryce steers only toward personal enrichment, willingly sacrificing others in the name of her own success.

It’s a contrast that shows Thrawn in a better light, allowing us to root for him even if he’s destined to be on the wrong side of the rebellion. Additionally, it’s a friendly reminder of how awkward and out of place Thrawn is within the Imperial hierarchy. A character trait that may one day see him on the side of good.

Thrawn in Review

Star Wars rating featuring Darth Vader

Timothy Zahn is a commanding author and perhaps the greatest to ever script a Star Wars tale. With this novel, he returns to what is easily his most impressive character creation. Thrawn. But rather than rely on telling, on others saying how impressive and strategic the grand admiral is, we see his brilliance on display in nearly everything he does. From start to finish, the story revolves around Thrawn, providing his thoughts and observations amid a backdrop of succession and rebellion.

The novel is amazing, and a must read for anyone who enjoys great character building. Heck, anyone who enjoys the Imperial era will find something to like.

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