Two months after the events of the previous book, Imperial Governor Ferrouz of Candoras sector contacts the Rebellion and offers them a permanent base in his capitol, the Poln system, if they'll help him deal with the alien warlord Nuso Esva, since his calls for help to the Empire have fallen on deaf ears.
Han Solo is tasked with bringing the Rebel envoy, a former Alderaanian governor named Axlon, to Poln Major, as a test of his ability to handle the responsibilities that would allow him to become an officer of the Rebel Alliance.
Luke Skywalker is discreetly tasked with escorting Solo and Axlon to Poln Major, as a potential backup in case of unwelcome surprises.
Mara Jade is given the mission of dealing with Governor Ferrouz's perceived act of treason and hires the former stormtroopers of the Hand of Judgment to help her in her task.
Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated storyline, Commander Pellaeon, third bridge officer, serves aboard the Chimaera when the Star Destroyer is given the mission of escorting the mysterious Lord Odo on various missions.
As usual in a Zahn novel, the story first follows the characters in seemingly unconnected storylines, before bringing them all together in a situation that becomes more and more complicated as the story goes.
Choices of One provides examples of the following tropes:
- Abandoned Mine: The planet of Poln Minor has many of these, which have turned into hideouts for criminals and which the Rebels are thinking of using for their next base.
- Arc Words: The name of the book comes from an in-universe saying, "The choices of one shape the futures of all." It comes up repeatedly, said by different characters who often never meet.
- Battle of Wits: Thrawn vs. Nuso Esva. Out in the Unknown Regions, each is busily taking over independent systems and carving out his own small empire, and when their conflict spills into the Empire proper, they engage in a multilayered chess game of Imperial, Rebel, and other forces, each trying the maneuver the other into a vulnerable position. Thrawn wins by leaving his forces vulnerable enough to draw Nuso Esva's entire Eastern Fleet into the Poln system, and only then calling in his backup—Darth Vader and his fleet.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Han fakes being a senior-level Imperial officer and takes command of the Golan Space Station. He was expecting his disguise to fall apart after boarding, intending to just kill or subdue enough of the crew to prevent them from attacking the Rebels. Instead, the evolving crisis allows him to hold on to command long enough to destroy Nuso Esva's missile ships.
- Bleed 'Em and Weep: Luke agonizes over killing one person, someone who was just about to kill him and could not be dissuaded. He notes to himself that it's easier from the cockpit of an X-wing, or even in a firefight, but in this case he had to stop his opponent from shooting him in the back by activating his lightsaber from concealment, up close and personal.
- Body Motifs: Continuing from the previous book, Thrawn offers the Hand of Judgment a place in his budding Empire of the Hand.
- Thrawn's real mission in the Unknown Regions, setting up an empire of his own without Palpatine's excesses. In particular, his current Number Two, Captain Voss Parck of the Admonitor, appears again in the Hand of Thrawn duology, carrying on his mission.
- Pellaeon seems to have a habit of taking command of the Chimaera after his superior officer gets killed.
- Nuso Esva seeds Poln Minor with some military equipment to lure the Rebels in, and they get away with most of it. Included are a squadron's worth of T-47 airspeeders—the very ones used at Echo Base from The Empire Strikes Back. Vader gets a copy of the equipment list, which helps him narrow down his search for their base to cold, barren worlds, neatly explaining how he will be able to find them with just a few thousand probe droids.
- Thrawn gives a security evaluation of the defenses at Endor to the Emperor, warning him not to underestimate the primitive natives. Yeah, about that...
- Thrawn hasn't achieved Grand Admiral rank yet (he's a Senior Captain), but there is mention of a Grand Admiral Zaarin patrolling the Unknown Regions.
- Mara sees Luke from a distance, dressed in tacky clothes, and lampshades his lack of dress sense. When they're married, she'll still occasionally make fun of his dress sense.
- Check and Mate: Naturally, Thrawn gets one: "Signal cherek, signal esk, signal krill," which is the cue for the cavalry to come in. It also doubles as a Stealth Pun (as an acronym for "check").
- Chekhov's Gun: At the beginning of the story, Thrawn tells the Emperor that he needs six more Star Destroyers in order to guarantee a decisive victory against Nuso Esva. The Emperor tells him that he'll have to bargain with Vader to get them. Cut to the end of the book, and seven Star Destroyers show up to relieve Thrawn's badly outgunned task force—Darth Vader's personal squadron.
- The Chessmaster: Thrawn, of course. Nuso Esva isn't that bad either. Had he been up against anyone other than Thrawn, he'd have won.
- The Corrupter:
- Nuso Esva has a positive genius for perceiving a target's innermost desire. Captain Drusan wants to be an admiral? Convince him that a harmless ruse will crush the Rebellion and let him claim all the credit. Vestin Axlon wants revenge for the destruction of Alderaan? Convince him that Grand Moff Tarkin did it on Thrawn's orders. These desires are so deep-rooted that Nuso Esva's marks often supply their own Insane Troll Logic to convince themselves that he's telling them the truth, saving him from having to invent a convincing lie.
- In the subsequent short story "Crisis of Faith", Nuso Esva convinces the queen of an insectine society that all she has to do is shelter him and his forces from Imperial persecution, and he can show her the "trick" that will allow her to flout her culture's long-time tradition requiring her to step down in favor of the next year's queen.
- A Day in the Limelight: Even though Leia and Luke are present, Han is pretty much the main character in the Rebel plotline.
- Enemy Mine: As in the previous book, some of the Rebels team up with Imperials when they face the common enemy of Nuso Esva (although not all of the Imperials realize it).
- Engineered Public Confession: Thrawn goads Nuso Esva into revealing his true opinion of two other systems that have aligned with him. On an open comm channel. That Thrawn is rebroadcasting to those systems.Nuso Esva: I imagine you would delight in telling them. Not that they would believe you.
Thrawn: Theres no need for them to believe me. They can hear it from your own mouth. In fact, theyre hearing it right now.
- Foil: Thrawn and Nuso Esva: both are tactical geniuses, and both are masters at manipulating people and events to their benefit, but Nuso Esva's methods are quite different. Thrawn's methods of manipulation rely on reading an opponent's psychology and creating circumstances that provoke a predictable reaction; Nuso Esva by contrast is The Corrupter, able to perceive someone's deepest desire and offer just the right enticement; failing that, he resorts to straightforward extortion.
- Full-Name Basis: No one ever calls Nuso Esva by anything less than the full name.
- Gambit Pileup: You'd almost think everyone is conspiring against everyone in this book...
- Guile Hero: Senior Captain Thrawn. In spades.
- Gunship Rescue: How often do you get to cheer for the appearance of Darth Vader's whole personal fleet?Star Destroyers. Six of them, their names already the stuff of legend across the Empire. Devastator. Accuser. Stalker. Adjudicator. Tyrant. Avenger.
And in the center of the formation the pride of the entire fleet. The massive bulk of the Super Star Destroyer Executor.
- Heroic Sacrifice: One of the Troukree throws himself in the line of fire to provide cover for La Rone, which leaves all the members of the Hand in awe.
- Hidden Depths: Everyone's genuinely surprised when Han turns out to be a real good leader.
- I Have Your Wife: There are two separate instances of this. Ferrouz is only cooperating with the rebels because Nusa Esva's people have kidnapped his family, and Nuso Esva is also forcing "Sorro" to cooperate by holding his family and maybe his whole community.
- Indy Ploy: Appropriately, Han Solos default reaction to unexpected problems. His tendency to do this frequently irritates Leia; his ability to make it work impresses Cracken and Rieekan enough that they offer him the rank of Lieutenant at the end of the book.
- Impossibly Tacky Clothes: The narration's reaction to the Rummage Sale Reject example seen below.
- Kill It with Fire: Used once by Mara against a crowd of enemies. She throws her lightsaber to slice open a few barrels of flammable liquid, and has Luke shoot it (she had tossed him her only blaster earlier).
- Lonely at the Top: in a spasm of resentment, Jorj Car'das asks why Thrawn would drag him (a retired smuggler chief) along as a pilot and assistant, when Thrawn has the ear of the Emperor and could requisition the services of anyone in the Empire, up to and including Vader, "if you could stand his company." Thrawn smiles sadly and confesses that Car'das is the only person in the universe that Thrawn feels he can wholly trust.
- Meaningful Name
- Zahn revealed in an interview that if you replaced each consonant in the name Nuso Esva with the one immediately preceding it (same for the vowels; for instance swap the N for an M and the A with a Y), you get Moriarty. Appropriate, since Thrawn is essentially an Expy of Holmes, if Holmes were a militaristic alien admiral.
- Morton's Fork: Nuso Esva locks the Chimaera into a collision course with Poln Majors Golan Defense Platform. Either one opens fire and destroys the other, or the collision destroys them both; meanwhile, Nuso Esvas superior fleet overwhelms the other Star Destroyer. Thrawn, of course, has other ideas.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The Troukrees aren't as harmless and primitive as they first appear to be. Thrawn planted them on Poln Major as refugees; at least some of them are actually a commando squad.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: During the climax, Thrawn has the Chimaera and the Admonitor on one side of Nuso Esva's fleet, and Vader's Death Squadron of six Star Destroyers and the Executor jumped in on the other. Vader gives the order to engage the now surrounded and outgunned enemy fleet—and then the space battle goes offscreen and skips to the aftermath.
- One Steve Limit: Comes up. Mara Jade ends up working with Luke, though at a distance. She was told his last name and wonders if he is the Skywalker that Vader is so obsessed with, especially when she sees him using a lightsaber, but ultimately shrugs it off. Skywalker's a common name in the Outer Rim. According to George Lucas, there's even a completely unaffiliated Skywalker vintage of wine.
- Parrying Bullets:
- For the first time, Luke deflects a shot fired at him in anger. The narration describes the Combat Clairvoyance the Force gives to him to enable him to do so.Suddenly there seemed to be two images shimmering in front of Luke's eyes. One was of the man and his blaster, the weapon pointed at Luke's chest. The other was of the same man and same blaster, only this one had a hazy bolt shooting from the weapon in a dream-like slow motion. Reflexively, Luke brought his hands up from his sides, watching the bolt drifting toward him as he swung his lightsaber into position—
As the blue-white blade snap-hissed into existence, the two images abruptly came together, and the slow-motion blaster bolt abruptly burst toward Luke at normal speed—and ricocheted from the blade straight back into the man's shoulder.
- Mara is skilled at deflecting blaster bolts with her lightsaber, of course. But at one point, she finds herself on a crane rail suspended from a cavern ceiling, needing to run to the other end to reach some hostages while a crowd of enemies is firing upon her from below. If she deflects the fire, her lightsaber will unavoidably slice through the rail supports and send her crashing to the ground. So, she deflects the fire anyway, flicking her lightsaber off and back on every time she passes a support. Luke, on the ground, can only stare in amazement.
- For the first time, Luke deflects a shot fired at him in anger. The narration describes the Combat Clairvoyance the Force gives to him to enable him to do so.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nuso Esva delivers one to Thrawn during the climactic battle."You may hide behind your Imperial underlings if you wish, aboard that freighter, and allow them to die before you. But you will die. And when you are dead, I will batter the worlds below you into rubble."
Pellaeon winced as Nuso Esva launched into a detailed description of what exactly that battering would consist of. He wasnt bluffing, either.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Mara, once again. She actually gives Ferrouz a chance to prove his innocence and cancels his planned execution when she realizes he only turned traitor under threats against his family.
- Red Herring: For a long time, the structure of the narration strongly suggests that Lord Odo and Sorro are actually Thrawn and Car'das. Cue The Reveal.
- Avoided. Mara and Luke team up at one point to get out of a trap, but they're separated by distance and wearing disguises. Mara's not certain if Luke is the Skywalker Vader wants and shrugs it off, while Luke never learns anything about her beyond "female Imperial agent with a lightsaber." As a result, it still fits Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy timeline for how they first truly meet.
- Likewise, Han first learns Thrawn's name during Dark Force Rising, the second book of the Thrawn Trilogy, and doesn't recognize it. While he's aboard the Golan space station he's able to listen to the back-and-forth between Thrawn and Nuso Esva, but the station's comm equipment is old and static-filled, and he's never able to catch the Imperial senior captain's name (and even if he had, it's doubtful he would remember a particular Imperial senior captain from ten years before he'd never personally interacted with).
- The Reveal: Several of these, as usual with Zahn:
- Ferrouz's main reason for allying with the rebels is that Nuso Esva ordered him to, or else his family will be killed.
- Axlon on the Rebel side and Drusan on the Imperial side work for Nuso Esva.
- Lord Odo is Nuso Esva.
- Some of the Troukree are actually informants for Thrawn and part of the burgeoning Empire of the Hand.
- Rummage Sale Reject: At some point Luke buys some used clothing as a disguise—gray pants, blue tunic, yellow sash. Mara Jade spots him from a good distance and in the internal narration calls him "badly dressed and clearly insane".
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Thrawns response to Nuso Esvas "The Reason You Suck" Speech. Then he summons The Cavalry in the form of Darth Vaders personal fleet.Nuso Esva: Your time is ended, Thrawn. My ships are now in their places.
Thrawn: They are indeed. And the time is indeed ended, Nuso Esva. Signal cherek, signal esk, signal krill.
[the Death Squadron emerges from hyperspace behind Nuso Esva's ships]
- Stuff Blowing Up: Used several times, but most notably:
- Mara starting a fire in a cavern to keep her enemies occupied.
- Han ordering a space station to fire all of their (few) remaining torpedoes at a small fleet of ships—which was preparing to unleash a Macross Missile Massacre. The ships' missiles detonate and pretty much vaporize the whole fleet.
- Take a Third Option:
- Naturally, Thrawns response to the dilemma that Nuso Esva crafts for him. He orders Pellaeon to repeatedly use the Chimaeras tractor beam on small freighter he's aboard in order to alter Chimaeras course away from the Golan.Nuso Esva: Captain Thrawn? Your time is running out.
Thrawn: Not at all. You asked me to choose between the death of the Chimaera or the death of the Golan. I have made my choice. I choose neither.
- Meanwhile, aboard the Golan, Han in disguise as an Imperial officer prepares his own third option: to fire all of the Golan's torpedoes into space, counting on the recoil to shove the station out of the way. He doesn't need to use it after Thrawn's gambit pays off, but the loaded torpedoes immediately come in handy against Nuso Esva's missile ships.
- Naturally, Thrawns response to the dilemma that Nuso Esva crafts for him. He orders Pellaeon to repeatedly use the Chimaeras tractor beam on small freighter he's aboard in order to alter Chimaeras course away from the Golan.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Both Axlon and Drusan work for Nuso Esva to ensure their side's victory, no matter what the costs. Nuso Esva, of course, has no intention of honoring his deal with either.
- Worthy Opponent: Nuso Esva's minion uses those exact words when talking to the Hand and their allies after their final battle, but tells them that they will "die in agony" nonetheless.