ew characters in the Star Wars Expanded Universe have consistently demanded the attention of Grand Admiral Thrawn. From his monumental introduction in 1991’s Heir to the Empire, Thrawn has captivated Star Wars fans in every medium in which he has appeared.
After all, there’s a reason that he was one of the only characters that broke through the Legends barrier to establish himself in the new Canon.
Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars didn’t stop Thrawn from taking on the Ghost Crew in Star Wars: Rebels, starring in his own trilogy of books, showing up in the occasional comic, and even featuring in Star Wars mobile games. The allure of Thrawn has valiantly stood the test of time, and almost thirty years after his first adventure, the hype for Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising has Thrawn at possibly his highest level of popularity so far.
And after reading through the first book of Timothy Zahn’s Ascendancy trilogy, we can confirm that the hype is well beyond deserved. Chaos Rising introduces a new side of Thrawn, a phenomenal new cast of characters, and a world as rich and fascinating as anything the Star Wars Expanded Universe has produced thus far.
From the start, Chaos Rising’s plot is bifurcated into a present day storyline and a number of memory chapters that illustrate how the controversial pride of the Mitth family arrived at his current station.
Currently in the timeline, Thrawn and the rest of his people, the mighty Chiss Ascendancy, are facing an unknown force that threatens to unseat the Chiss from their position of power in the aptly titled Chaos. Within the memory portions of the novel, we witness Thrawn’s ascent to status through the eyes of a number of different characters including dear friends, political adversaries, and military rivals.
The intersection of these two types of storytelling could become confusing in the hands of a lesser writer, but Zahn’s three decades of writing Thrawn allow him to seamlessly combine the timelines to form a cohesive plot. Some of our team members have historically struggled with the overly technical plot of Thrawn’s adventures, myself included, but Chaos Rising avoids this by focusing simultaneously on the overarching conquest of the villainous Nikardun and the personal struggles and trials of its characters.
This variety in narrative tone avoids the overly complicated trap of previous Thrawn stories and instead allows the reader to invest personally in the stakes of the characters. When Thrawn is developing a highly complex military maneuver in his many battles scattered throughout the book, you find yourself caring just a bit more, because you’ve witnessed the steps that led him to this point.
Additionally, the overall plot in Chaos Rising is fundamentally one of discovery. The Chiss are discovering what unnamed threats are waiting in the dark, Thrawn is discovering how to fight both military and political adversaries at once, and characters like Thalias and Che’ri are discovering where exactly they fit in the grand game of the Ascendancy’s civilization.
Will our characters choose power? Friendship? Influence? Sacrifice? All of these questions are laid out, and because of Chaos Rising’s position as the first book of a new trilogy, you won’t get all the answers.
But dammit if you won’t be screaming for them by the time you close the cover.
One of Thrawn’s signature literary flaws has always been his tendency to be rather indestructible. While this allowed him to be an undeniably formidable foe for Han, Luke, & Leia in his original trilogy, subsequent additions to the Thrawn canon have lost a bit of their edge due to the lack of stakes his brilliance often creates.
Chaos Rising takes that formula and pushes it to another stage of literary evolution.
The Thrawn of Chaos Rising is a character that possesses undeniable tactical genius, but he is also in that state of perpetual discovery that we mentioned earlier. This subtle shift allows Thrawn to be a fallible protagonist who is learning about his people, his galaxy, and himself throughout this book and what is sure to be the rest of the trilogy.
These revelations that Thrawn undergoes allow us to view the future Grand Admiral as a truly vulnerable character for perhaps the first time in his history. The conversations between Thrawn and Ar’alani in the memory sections and between Thrawn and Thalias in the present all highlight a side of the character that you can tell Zahn has been wanting to highlight for years.
While he is calculating and efficient, he is never cold or cruel. This is a man who is learning to play a game which he never knew existed, but he consistently halts his personal ascension due to his compassion and care for those who serve beside him.
Those allies also have a multitude of opportunities to shine throughout Chaos Rising as Zahn populates the novel with his most vibrant ensemble yet. Chief among these new additions is Mitth’ali’astov, or Thalias, the Mitth family merit adoptive who acts as a mentor and guide to Che’ri, a young sky-walker.
Now if that wasn’t the most Zahn sentence ever, I don’t know what is.
Thalias’s journey parallels Thrawn beautifully as she searches for a renewed sense of purpose after the dwindling of her own sky-walking abilities years before the story begins. While Thalias initially comes to Thrawn out of a sense of reverence and intrigue, the pair’s relationship evolves into one of symbiotic teaching, and Zahn clearly makes her just as key to Thrawn’s success as the Captain is to hers.
Thalias’s relationship to Che’ri also adds a new, refreshing element to Zahn’s usual style of storytelling: tenderness. Amidst all of the masterfully crafted militaristic sequences, we see just how intimidating the world can be to a child being asked to continuously do the impossible.
Sometimes you’re ready to chart the highways of the galaxy. And sometimes you just want some markers to draw. The precise challenges of adolescence can be extraordinarily difficult to capture authentically, but Zahn’s skill with Che’ri prove that he is more than up to the task.
But of course, a wondrously competent team demands an equally sly antagonist, and Zahn writes perhaps his most fearsome thus far with Yiv the Benevolent. Leader of the subtly brutal Nikardun, Yiv presents Thrawn with something the Chiss defender has yet to face: an intellectual equal. Watching the two men verbally assault each other while maintaining delicate decorum is delightfully delicious and unlike anything we’ve seen thus far in Star Wars.
“You think just because there were no loud voices or discharged weapons that we didn’t engage in combat?”
Then again, this book is full of things we’ve never seen in Star Wars...
Never before have I witnessed such a volume of mythology building in a single Star Wars book. Even before starting the book, the reader is presented with a glorious Dramatis Personae which not only features the main characters of the adventure, but also the family structure of the Chiss Ascendancy, the Nine Ruling Families, and the assorted political titles.
All of that before you hit the first page.
It is clear that Timothy Zahn had an absolute blast creating every facet of this new galaxy, and his enjoyment bleeds through every word, dripping right into the soul of the reader. We discover how Chiss families create their legacies through audition and selection. We are introduced to the minutiae of the military and the ways they combat the trials of the Chaos through the powers of their youth. We meet new species, new societies, new worlds, and new technology in practically every chapter, and you’re always left wanting more.
To be perfectly honest, I could read three entire books on the history of Chiss family dynamics...and I think we just might.
Zahn has combined the best familial and political dynamics of Game of Thrones with the technological creativity of The Expanse, and the result is a thoroughly filled playground of his own creation. He is clearly boundless in the creativity he has been allowed to employ in crafting the galaxy in which the Chiss reside, and that unshackled ability to design and build has lead to some of the most passionate writing of the legendary author’s career.
Timothy Zahn is a great writer.
I know. Controversial, isn’t it?
Zahn’s prowess as a fiction writer has never been in question since his entrance into the Expanded Universe almost three decades ago, and after reading Chaos Rising, he somehow seems to be peaking. Whereas some folks found his previous Canon Thrawn titles to fade slightly from the glory of his past work, Chaos Rising shows just what can happen when you unleash the literary beast within.
Without ties to previously established characters or even planets, Zahn wields his pen (or let’s be less poetic -- his keyboard) with the skill and ferocity of a fencing master. Because every element of the story can be new, Zahn can choose exactly what puzzle piece will fit next to the others he has already laid out.
The pure amount of creativity and precision this requires in a book that still remains within the genre of established intellectual property is staggering. But he executes brilliantly, and by the time the final chapter flew across my eyes, I found myself wanting to return back to this section of the universe.
I wanted to go back to the Chaos, and that is attributed in no small part to the fun Timothy Zahn clearly had writing this book. Sometimes you just gotta let the puppetmaster make his own puppets.
If there is anyone that had more fun than Timothy Zahn while writing this book, it may have been me while I was reading it.
While we have been blessed with a number of fantastic Young Adult novels lately that truly fly by like E.K. Johnston’s Queen’s Peril and Alex Segura’s Poe Dameron: Free Fall, many of our recent “Adult Novels” have been slower burns. Alexander Freed’s Shadow Fall, for instance, was an incredible journey, but I couldn’t exactly burn through ten chapters of emotional torment and discovery if you get my drift.
On the outside, Chaos Rising has all the makings of an in-depth novel that requires you to take your time and digest each new bit of story and lore, and while the storytelling and worldbuilding is certainly filled to the brim...I simply couldn’t stop reading. With each turn of the page, I wanted to know what new corner of the Chaos these characters were about to explore, and I wanted to be alongside them as they went there.
This increased entertainment value in comparison with some of Zahn’s more recent fare is largely in part to the dynamacy with which he writes the characters. When we’re away from Thrawn for a while, you don’t feel as though you’re away from the action.
Because there’s action everywhere.
Every character demands the attention of the reader throughout the pages on which they appear, and with each new set change comes a chance to reveal yet another side of the grand mystery of the Chaos.
Few audiobook narrators are as synonymous with a particular character as Marc Thompson is to Thrawn. A veteran of all of Thrawn’s previous adventures, Thompson once again returns to the microphone to tell us the story of Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, and he absolutely nails it.
Fans of Lars Mikkelsen’s performance as the Grand Admiral in Seasons 3 and 4 of Star Wars: Rebels will feel right at home with Thompson’s depiction of our lead character, but his ability to distinctly yet effortlessly shift between the rest of the characters may shine even brighter. Thrawn’s dulcet tones undoubtedly entrance us with every word Thompson utters, and yet, we couldn’t help but be mesmerized by his skill in representing the entirety of the Ascendancy as well as its various foes.
The vulnerability he brings to Che’ri is particularly notable. Younger characters can often be resigned to positions of weakness or uncertainty, but Thompson avoids the easy trap and presents the sky-walker with all of the layers of dimensionality with which she is written.
Thompson’s masterful performance is once again accentuated by the brilliant sound mixers at Penguin Random House Audio. Rather than the constant atmospheric ambience that worked so well in previous projects like Shadow Fall, Chaos Rising’s music is a bit more subtle -- allowing the listener to invest a bit more deeply in the dialogue and descriptors. For years, we have extolled the virtue of listening to Star Wars audiobooks due to their enrapturing soundscapes, and from the moment you begin the first track of Chaos Rising, there’s no doubt that you’ll be hanging on to every single word.
Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is assuredly the most fun I’ve ever had reading a Timothy Zahn novel, and it may seriously be his best work to date.
All of the new characters populate the pages with interest and various levels of political, militaristic, and mythological intrigue, and the worlds Zahn is building will only get more fascinating as the trilogy continues.
As of this review, we don’t have a certain date of when the next installment in the Ascendancy trilogy will arrive, but in the words of Speaker Thistrian...
“Whatever Thrawn does next, at least it’ll be entertaining to watch.”
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For more adventures featuring Grand Admiral Thrawn, be sure to visit his very own Reading Collection where you can find the best he has to offer in both Canon & Legends.