Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn is the first in a new trilogy of Thrawn books that detail Thrawn’s life within the Chiss Ascendancy, prior to the events seen in the Thrawn trilogy. Set over a period of several months, with multiple flashbacks to Thrawn’s younger years, the events covered here are seen through the eyes of a handful of female characters with whom Thrawn interacts frequently, and together, they paint a very different portrait of his character to the one with which we have become familiar.
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Chaos Rising opens with a rare and daring attack against the Chiss Ascendancy’s capital that leaves the grand empire reeling. The nine ruling families – usually at odds with one another – are for once united in their desire to discover answers about who has dared launch such a bold offensive, and a young recruit is dispatched to investigate. As he works with his friend and colleague Admiral Ar’alani, and with the Expansionary Fleet at his disposal, Thrawn uncovers a web of intrigue stretching out from the heart of the Chiss realm through the Chaos and into Lesser Space – the Chiss name for the area of the galaxy far far away that we are all familiar with. However, as his investigation progresses, Thrawn also begins to understand that threats to the Ascendancy are not just coming from without.
Chaos Rising is a book packed to the brim with world-building. In fact, world-building is so key here that the very first page of the book is given over to lists including the names of the nine ruling families, ranks within those families, and a guide to the political hierarchies of family members. It’s a highly useful page that I referred to several times as I began reading because Zahn leaps into this story with abandon, exploring this new realm of the galaxy with the confidence that we as readers can keep up. This isn’t Star Wars as we know it. Nearly the entire book is set either within the Chiss Ascendancy worlds or the region known to the Chiss as the Chaos (AKA the Unknown Regions) and this allows for complex new ideas to be established from new planets and alien races to political alliances and even terminology. Indeed, it was very easy to forget I was even reading a Star Wars book at times because there is so little familiarity here.
The one connection Chaos Rising does make to the existing canon comes close to the end where one of Thrawn’s missions overlaps with events we saw in Thrawn: Alliances when Thrawn met Anakin Skywalker above Batuu (thus also linking Chaos Rising tangentially to the Galaxy’s Edge lands at the Disney theme parks). This meeting takes on new meaning and significance in this new version of events as we understand more of Thrawn’s motives in being at Batuu when Anakin first arrived, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how this new Ascendancy trilogy plays out in filling some of the time between this meeting and Thrawn’s exile from Chiss space around six years later.
An aspect of Chaos Rising that I particularly liked was the different sides of Thrawn we got to see here. I often struggle to enjoy the Thrawn novels due to their hard sci-fi-leaning style and focus on military strategy over character exploration and development. While that is still the case here – as usual, Thrawn is given ample opportunities to show off his almost supernatural deductive reasoning skills – having the book narrated from the perspectives of the women he works beside offers a more intimate perspective. Indeed, we see Thrawn take on an almost fatherly role toward a young girl who works under his command as a sky-walker, and also see him on what could theoretically be described as a date. It is hard at times to reconcile this softer side of Thrawn with the ruthless tactician seen on Star Wars Rebels, but I appreciated the rounding of his character during these moments.
One of my biggest issues with the book arose out of the naming conventions which often became confusing. Thrawn, as many will already know, is a shortened version (or Core Name) of Mitth’raw’nuruodo where the Mitth part refers to Thrawn’s family name. This is standard practice across Chiss names with others such as Mitth’ali’astov becoming Thalias or Ufsa’mak’ro using the Core Name Samarko. This can be confusing enough when characters call others by different variations, but it becomes especially unwieldy when ranks are brought into things, or if a character is adopted into another family. The character Irizi’ar’alani goes by that name, as well as Ziara, and also Admiral Ar’alani depending upon who she is speaking to, and I occasionally found myself struggling to keep track of who was who because of this. The practice of characters being adopted as adults into rival families significantly changes their names too, we learn right from the beginning that Thrawn was originally part of the obscure Kivu family and went by the name Kivu’raw’nuru with the Core Name Vurawn giving him four different names in the book, although his original ones only appear in flashback. One other thing I noted was that the final part of his name also changed with no explanation – from nuru to nuruodo – but a Del Rey editor has tweeted to say that the reason behind this has yet to be revealed.
While I doubt the Thrawn books will ever rank among my absolute favorites, Chaos Rising surprised me by being far more enjoyable than I initially anticipated. Those looking for more of the same from both this character and author will find it here in abundance with Thrawn frequently waxing lyrical about the artwork of the various cultures he meets, developing complex theories from those examinations, and putting his theories to the test across a range of battles and investigations. However, those looking for something that will bring something more to his character than just the shrewd tactician we already know well will also find much to engage with here with a few key moments of surprising emotional depth.
Chaos Rising is a great jumping-in point for those wanting to learn more about this fascinating character, but don’t go in expecting the familiarity of a traditional Star Wars novel as this is something decidedly different from all that has come before*.
*In the new canon, excluding the Expanded Universe (now Legends).
GeekMom received a copy of this item for review purposes.