Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review
Synopsis: Beyond the edge of the galaxy lies the Unknown Regions: chaotic, uncharted, and near impassable, with hidden secrets and dangers in equal measure. And nestled within its swirling chaos is the Ascendancy, home to the enigmatic Chiss and the Nine Ruling Families that lead them.
The peace of the Ascendancy, a beacon of calm and stability, is shattered after a daring attack on the Chiss capital that leaves no trace of the enemy. Baffled, the Ascendancy dispatches one of its brightest young military officers to root out the unseen assailants. A recruit born of no title, but adopted into the powerful family of the Mitth and given the name Thrawn.
With the might of the Expansionary Fleet at his back, and the aid of his comrade Admiral Ar’alani, answers begin to fall into place. But as Thrawn’s first command probes deeper into the vast stretch of space his people call the Chaos, he realizes that the mission he has been given is not what it seems.
And the threat to the Ascendancy is only just beginning
Published by: Del Ray (printed); Penguin Audio (audiobook)
Genre: Sci-fi, Space Opera
Length: 15 hrs 5 mins, 336 pages
Review/Purchased Copy: Purchased on Audible
It is a testament to Timothy Zahn’s skill that among all the Force-sensitive warriors and diplomats, among all the scoundrels and morally questionable archaeologists, his is one of a handful of characters that endure as endlessly fascinating. Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn, was the superb antagonist of the Heir to the Empire trilogy (1991-1993), and a mainstay in the collective imagination of the Star Wars fandom. The striking from cannon of this trilogy (which revitalized the entire franchise, and contributed to George Lucas’s decision to return to a galaxy far, far away) for the sake of Disney’s sequel trilogy was one of the early moments of contention between long-year fans and the Mouse; when Zahn was announced to helm one trilogy (and then another), I do believe old man Ben Kenobi must’ve sensed a million voices cry out in surprise, and then sigh in contentment.
That first trilogy was a little uneven, and more a collection of standalone stories chronicling Thrawn’s rise to power in the Galactic Empire, his partnership with Darth Vader, and his internal struggles to *squints eyes* secure funding for a series of stealth fighter ships by making a wager with Director Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin, which was then met by some serio—let’s move on, shall we?
I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.
Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn*. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.
One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.
To offset this slap-down I delivered, let’s look to a consistently portrayed strength of the Chiss tactician. He has always been an excellent teacher, offering leading questions and gentle nudges to those who serve with him, guiding them to seeing a problem and figuring out its solution. It’s an ever-engaging dynamic that earns Thrawn the loyalty of those that surround him. This time around, I most enjoyed his taking the young Chiss girl Chirri under his tutelage, teaching the skywalker to fly. Yes, you read that right – skywalker is a title in the Ascendancy, reserved for young children capable of guiding vessels through the chaos of hyperspace. They do so through the Force—though they have no skill in manipulating it otherwise.
Half a dozen other characters make for a memorable cast of allies and adversaries to Thrawn, most of them Chiss. Zahn does some interesting worldbuilding for the Ascendancy, which renders them to life while enriching Thrawn himself, making of him something of a…maverick, I believe, is a word one antagonistic aristocra uses to describe him. The villain of this piece is General Yiv the Benevolent, an all-around pleasant chap who has no dictatorial tendencies at all and seeks to promote peace and—yes—benevolence throughout the galaxy.
Just kidding. Yiv is no push-over. The nefarious Nikardune’s tyrannical leader, he is a commander of great skill equaled only by his pride, and someone comfortable with working in the shadows at the edges of Ascendancy space. His threat is immense, and Thrawn’s recognition of that thread places the two on a collision course that dominates Chaos Rising and never, ever disappoints.
As always, Thrawn’s tactical prowess takes centre stage. Set pieces offer not a single dull moment, and the sound effects Star Wars audiobooks implement do not fail to make any of the half a dozen engagements between Chiss and other alien species climactic and thrilling.
A pleasant surprise in this piece has to do with the humour Zahn deploys – it hits all the marks, and I didn’t quite expect that. It’s not that Zahn’s previous novels are devoid of humour, but it has never stood out the way it does here. Whenever Thrawn himself cracked a few jokes, I was wheezing.
If you’re looking for Marc Thompson to give a bad performance, keep looking. His Thrawn continues to be the defining performance for the character *scoffs at Rebels*, and Thompson never fails to imbue the wide cast with life. Ar’alani and Thalias are both splendidly done, the former’s performance a hundred percent consistent with what Thompson did in Treason; the latter is just a phenomenal new character, and I am eager to see where her personal story, so intertwined with Thrawn’s, will take her.
Chaos Rising had me nerding out so hard. I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a special place in my tiny black heart for Thrawn and Star Wars both, and this novel offered the best of both. I’m certain to relisten many a memorable section of the audiobook – the dialogue, combat and characterization warrant it.
*Especially if you’ve recently read Pawn (Sibyl’s War #01), as I did, earlier this summer.
**I was aiming for a synonym to ‘clusterfuck,’ because profanity is so bad, you guys, and turns out, this is a thing! I know!