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I remember loving the book when I read it. Every second I spent reading it was enjoyable. The sad part is that Thrawn is not, as the other review comments, the original Thrawn Trilogy. In this setting, it couldn't have been. So, let's see how the book stands up on its own merits and then compare it to the originals:
By Itself: It's good. The plot's solid, the characters are interesting and complex, and the scenes where Thrawn is the POV character were interesting in their portrayal of his mind. His perception of the world, his internal notes, everything serves to highlight how this extraordinary man ticks. It is a good book on its own merits.
With the Trilogy: Let's face it, there's no way Disney would have allowed Zahn to recreate his magnum opus. What allowed the Thrawn Trilogy to truly thrive was that it had more space to work with. With the plot left open after Jedi, Thrawn could appear on an open canvas. Zahn could work with an entirely new future, unfettered by other films and books. Thrawn, however, is set inside a universe with dozens of other media restricting Zahn's creative liberties. Not to mention that Thrawn has to get from the events of Mist Encounters to the beginning of season 3 of Star Wars Rebels in one book, already a Herculean task. That it could not show Thrawn's failings or stop and pause on his ascent to admiralship is understandable. Thrawn would work better if it was allowed to go where Zahn wanted it to, not where the canon forces it to.
General Thoughts: I believe that this shows what ultimately cripples the new EU when compared to Legends. Legends was a laboratory for creativity. There was schlock like Glove of Darth Vader, but also triumphs like Hand of Thrawn and Legacy, which were able to expand the universe and tell stories the films and shows would or could not. Now, thanks to the centralized EU, everything is set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and Last Jedi. Authors in the new EU do not move the universe forward, but instead, fill the gaps between the films. Authors like Zahn can no longer blaze trails because Disney already paved an interstate highway. That is what ultimately (and tragically) brings Thrawn down from true greatness.
This troper vividly recalls reading the original Thrawn trilogy and, hearing of a new novel, eagerly pre-ordered and read it immediately. One expected a novel concerning Thrawn's recruitment into the Empire, competition with rivals, scattered setbacks, clever conquests, and his triumphant rise to the rank of Grand Admiral. This did not happen.
Yes, Thrawn is present and his career to Grand Admiral is storied, but outside of the beginning and end, the focus is on either Eli Vanto (Thrawn’s Watson) or Arihnda Pryce, whose presence seems arbitrary. Initially presented as an aspiring politician, she appears to be a foundation for some major role later on. Is she a key ally? Rival? Thrawn's political counterpart? A lover who helps the reader understand Thrawn’s mind? Instead, she exists to give Thrawn slight assistance as needed and acts as perspective character on events that seem to accomplish little.
Thrawn himself is lacking. He’s still developing his career, so one expects him to make mistakes, fail missions. He’s a stranger in a strange land, he should have setbacks due to bullying, cultural differences, and/or use foreign military tactics his troops don’t understand and can’t implement, yet instead the only battle he can’t win is one he doesn’t know he’s fighting. Life isn’t easy for him, but everything he puts his mind to, he succeeds. He’s practically a droid, the perfect Imperial Officer – loyal to a fault, capable, successful, and uninterested in politics.
Sherlock Holmes is a similar character, but Holmes wasn’t perfect - he had personality issues and was initially vexed by mysteries. Similar to Holmes, Thrawn does have his own nemesis, introduced with little more foreshadowing than the original Moriarty. Character is mentioned, revealed, and quickly dismissed.
Thrawn never fails, rarely makes an error, and is only inconvenienced by his excellence – he’s too capable and thus earns the hatred of his shipmates. Even then, prime opportunities for character development are missed. He’s given high rank early on, which he’s told is a trap – he’s expected to wear the rank and ostracize himself from his jealous fellow cadets, but the revealed trap is avoided. Why not fall victim to the trap and overcome it? He’s never angry, rarely frustrated, and barely seen. The page count seems to spend more time on Pryce than on Thrawn, likely only to make Thrawn’s moments of awesome more impressive. In short, outside of friendship with his Watson, Thrawn has no character development, no change beyond rank, and no major faults.
Perhaps it’s the nature of these novels. The original trilogy was only the first entry in the expanded universe and as such had to stand alone, this feels like it’s a supplementary novel – background for an established piece. Pryce feels like a major character in another story the reader is supposed to already know about. Perhaps the original Thrawn was simply too capable a villain or simply too hard an act to follow.
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