Shortly before New Year, I started reading the first book in the Ascendancy trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and I have really enjoyed this book. It surprised me, because I have been feeling a bit of Thrawn burnout where Zahn is concerned – I mean, the man’s list of Star Wars books at this point is quite impressive, and almost all of them feature the Chiss in some form! We seem to be at that point where we’re at peak Thrawn saturation, only missing out on Thrawn: The Toddler Years to really complete the picture. But I digress!
The novel is set almost exclusively in Chiss Ascendancy space, and aside from a couple of pages, it features no movie characters whatsoever. It feels so oddly divorced from mainstream Star Wars, that it surprised me as I read through it, how established Thrawn now is in the canon, that he can carry so much story, etc. But almost all of the technology is also different to the established Star Wars stuff – the Chiss use plasma weapons instead of ion weapons, for instance. It’s very alien, and I kinda like that.
The story starts with an attack on Csilla itself, and follows Thrawn and Admiral Ar’alani as they uncover a military force that is seemingly making its way to Ascendancy space, conquering peoples en route. The Nikardun Destiny are led by General Yiv “the Benevolent”, who has conquered many of the systems and political regimes on the borders of Chiss space, but due to the rules the Chiss hold themselves to, they are unable to launch pre-emptive strikes against him. Cue Thrawn, manoeuvring himself and his forces to allow for such a strike to come off and thus defend the Chiss.
I mean, that’s the nugget of the story. There is a lot to take in, and as usual, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that we only start to see unravel as the book takes its course. Interspersed within the main narrative, we have a series of Memories, which run back to the time when Thrawn was a cadet (although they aren’t purely Thrawn’s memories). It got confusing (for me) somewhere in the middle where the Chiss are going up against a race of people they had previously had contact with, and so the memories and present-day narrative were both referring to the same species and people and so on, and I had a moment where I wasn’t sure what was happening! But in the main, it’s a really interesting way to tell the story, as we get a lot of foreshadowing while also getting more insight into the Chiss.
And that’s really what this book is predominantly about. Thrawn, we know, is never in any danger, and neither is Ar’alani, as both appear in chronologically later novels. We’re pretty assured that Thrawn will triumph, even when we’re being told he’s put a foot wrong or made an error, or something. However, we get to learn so much about the Chiss and their culture, we’ve really never had this level of insight into an enclave of the galaxy before. We do get some sense of the history of the Chiss, and the planet Csilla, though more weight is definitely given to the military and political structuring, and the family thing was quite interesting. I particularly liked the idea of someone giving up their family name when they had achieved a certain rank in the military, when their family becomes the military. The whole thing with the sky-walkers that comes up in the middle book of Zahn’s previous Thrawn trilogy is greatly expounded upon, as well (and we get the other side of the conversation Thrawn has with Anakin in that book, which is the only anchor point we have, really, to help date this book to the existing Star Wars chronology).
Overall, it was a very strong book, and I think the story, even if I did get confused in the middle, was really good. The one thing I just couldn’t seem to get my head around was the character of Thurfian. A leading member of the Mitth family (Thrawn’s adopted family), he seems to have it in for Thrawn basically to provide him with some character conflict. Thrawn’s continued military successes should surely throw reflected glory onto Thurfian, but he is instead scheming with a senior member of another of the Ruling Families to bring Thrawn down. I feel like it would have made sense for the Irizi to make their offer to him, he rebuffs them, and then they are the ones scheming to bring him down. It felt a bit weird, to me, and a little cheap.
But that’s pretty much a minor thing, in the general scheme of it all! I really enjoyed this one, and I have already launched myself into the second book to continue the story, so stay tuned for that one!!