This post contains SPOILERS for the novel Thrawn
The inclusion of fan-favorite Star Wars Legends villain Grand Admiral Thrawn in the official Disney canon was the biggest announcement to come out of Celebration last year, and after the third season of Rebels, readers now have an opportunity to see the Chiss' beginnings. Author Timothy Zahn's recently-published novel Thrawn takes us back to the alien's first days with the Empire as he quickly rose through the ranks while dealing with a government prejudiced against nonhumans. That was the biggest difference with the "new" version of Thrawn; instead of being the main antagonist in a post-Return of the Jedi world, he's a prominent Imperial officer in the time before A New Hope. This means it's possible to see him interact with classic villains like the Emperor, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader.
When Thrawn arrived in Rebels, he was already in the position of Grand Admiral, so his past was a story that had yet to be told. Things have come full circle as Zahn, who originally created Thrawn in the 1990s, had the opportunity to re-introduce the character to a new generation of fans. While the book doesn't contain as many juicy connections as other novels in the canon have (possibly a product of Thrawn's place in the timeline), it still makes for an interesting study of the ever calm and calculating Grand Admiral and reveals what his true intentions in the galaxy far, far away are.
Recruitment to the Empire
At the start of this tale, Thrawn, under the guise of being exiled by his people, is captured by the Empire on a planet in Wild Space and brought aboard the Star Destroyer Strikefast commanded by Captain Parck. There, Thrawn informs the Imperials about great threats that are out in the universe, warning, "You would do well to learn of them." Intrigued, Parck assigns young Cadet Eli Vanto (who heard myths of the Chiss in his youth) to be Thrawn's aide and translator and plans to bring Thrawn before Emperor Palpatine on Coruscant. Parck is convinced the Emperor will be interested in what Thrawn has to say, believing it could be of value to both the Empire and his own career aspirations.
When in the Imperial Palace, Thrawn uses his connection to Anakin Skywalker as a means of piquing Palpatine's curiosity and tells the Emperor of the dangers that are in the Unknown Regions, saying the jeopardize the futures of the Empire and the Chiss race. Thrawn hopes to strike a deal with Palpatine, offering his knowledge of what lies in the Unknown Regions for the Emperor's "consideration to my people." Palpatine, who has a great fascination with this corner of the universe, agrees to the terms (after Thrawn swears loyalty to him), and offers him a place within the Empire. Instead of merely being Palpatine's advisor, Thrawn is sent for training at the Royal Imperial Academy, with Vanto in tow to stay alongside Thrawn and teach him the language and customs of the humans.
As expected, Thrawn's placement in the Academy is met with much scorn from senior officers and other students. Thrawn, who already had extensive combat training on his home world, is set to graduate in three months with Vanto and immediately placed into a command position. This perceived special treatment, along with his alien heritage and origin from the Unknown regions, are the sources for contempt towards Thrawn and Eli. Nevertheless, the two persevere and make it through their schooling relatively unscathed (save for an assault at the hands of other cadets). Much to Vanto's chagrin, he learns his first assignment is to be an aide to Lieutenant Thrawn on a cruiser called the Blood Crew. Instead of his chosen career track as a supply runner, Eli is forever tied to the mysterious Chiss as Thrawn becomes a major force in the Imperial navy.
Ascension Through the Ranks
One of Thrawn's most recognizable traits is his high intellect, which proves to be an invaluable skill in military command. Thrawn and Vanto form a dynamic similar to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, as Thrawn is able to analyze whatever problems come their way from a rather interesting perspective that few would even think of. All Thrawn has to do in some instances is study a culture's art to learn all he has to in order to obtain an advantage. His prowess at thwarting the efforts of various smugglers, pirates, and others consistently impresses his superiors, and Thrawn earns promotion after promotion as he consistently demonstrates his skill in strategy to eliminate any problems he faces.
If there is one shortcoming with Thrawn, it's that his methods can be quite unorthodox when compared to standard Imperial procedure. For all his knowledge of combat and tactics, Thrawn is nearly oblivious when it comes to politics, and he constantly finds himself in hot water due to actions such as assuming command from his ship's captain during a battle and laying waste to a planet's farmlands and water springs in order to completely destroy any traces of a pre-spice vein that lies underground. Thrawn and Eli are frequently brought in for hearings, only to receive a pass since ultimately, they get the job done. Thrawn becomes a high-ranking officer in the navy, eventually earning himself the title of Admiral and his own Star Destroyer. He's even able to form an alliance with Lothal's Arihnda Price in order to pull some strings and give Eli his long-overdue military promotion. Thrawn's relationship with Price is part of the book's subplot that sees Price attempt to gain as much political traction as she can - by any means necessary.
Thrawn is highly successful in carrying out his missions, but he does not have a perfect record. An individual known as "Nightswan" escaped Thrawn's clutches during an operation, and the Chiss becomes obsessed with tracking him down. His quest leads him to an insurgent uprising taking place in the Outer Rim territories (perhaps the proto-Rebel Alliance that was seen in the earliest seasons of Rebels), which is under the leadership of Nightswan. The site of the book's final conflict is Scrim Island on the planet Batonn, where the insurgents have taken hostages in the Imperial garrison. After an Imperial strike on the planet fails (under Admiral Durril), Thrawn takes control of the mission and seeks out Nightswan - not to kill him, but to have a conversation.
Thrawn's True Objectives
In his talk with Nightswan, Thrawn peels back the layers of his own personal plan. Prior to joining the Imperials, Thrawn was exploring the galaxy far, far away and witnessed the very end of the Clone Wars, when the old Republic transformed into Empire. Instead of being exiled by the rest of his species, it was simply made to look that way as Thrawn tried to lure the Empire to his location. When he was picked up, his initial hopes were to just examine the Empire's "political and military structure" in order to determine if they could be useful against whatever threats are present in the Unknown Regions. Instead, he was unexpectedly offered a job in the Imperial navy and learned more than he originally intended.
Thrawn is aware that there is corruption within the Empire (and has suspicions about a "secret project" - the Death Star), but he sees it as a necessary evil in order to maintain order in the galaxy amidst the chaos rebels present. He intends to stay within their ranks during Palpatine's reign, and when the Emperor passes away, Thrawn will use his high-standing power and influence to help select the new ruler - who ideally will have less evil inclinations. In the meantime, Thrawn offers Nightswan a position in what he calls the Chiss Ascendency in exchange for his insurgents leaving the Imperial facility. Thrawn describes the Ascendency as a group that will "stand against forces far more evil than you face now," but Nightswan still refuses. The situation is dealt with through another one of Thrawn's unusual military approaches, as well as the unforeseen actions of Price - who was embarking on her own personal mission to save her parents from a war zone.
After receiving assurances from Palpatine that the Death Star is a valuable asset to the Empire and the weapon will not be used against the Chiss people, Thrawn assumes the position of Grand Admiral and meets Darth Vader (Thrawn doesn't know Vader's true identity). In the novel's epilogue, Eli Vanto is sent to the Unknown Regions at the behest of Thrawn in order to see if he could aid the Chiss Ascendency in any way. During their time together in the Empire, Thrawn had become fond of Eli's leadership and military abilities, seeing much potential in him. Vanto is presumably taking the position that Thrawn had once offered to Nightswan. The book ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, closing out on Eli first interacting with the other Chiss. Not much is revealed about the Ascendency, perhaps being saved for another time.
Thrawn is very much an origin story for its namesake, detailing how he became the Grand Admiral that haunted the Ghost crew in the most recent season of Rebels. For anyone with a passing familiarity with the character, the fact that he rose to his spot via tremendous brilliance isn't truly anything new, but it's still great to see Thrawn fully entrenched in the new canon, becoming a larger part of the franchise. Reading about his exploits and seeing how he outsmarts his opponents at almost every turn is fun, and makes up for the lack of some more "major" revelations that were at the heart of novels such as Bloodline and Catalyst.
Zahn ends his latest Star Wars book with an obvious sequel set-up, and hopefully he gets a chance to further explore the character and the Unknown Regions. Lately in the canon, there has been a lot of emphasis put on these uncharted areas of the universe, including Palpatine's contingency plan highlighted in the Aftermath trilogy (which hints at the First Order's origins). Whether the Unknown Regions factor into the upcoming films remains to be seen, but it's nevertheless highly interesting. Fans will want to learn more about the Chiss Ascendency and Thrawn's overarching goals, and odds are we haven't seen the last of him yet (outside of Rebels, of course).
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn is now available.