Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil completes Timothy Zahn’s latest Thrawn trilogy. While I thoroughly enjoyed the previous installment, Greater Good, Lesser Evil failed to inspire me and ended up feeling like a slog to the finish line, although it did have a few highlights.
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Let’s start out by saying that, as with all previous Thrawn books in the new canon, there’s a whole lot going on here. Anyone already familiar with the Thrawn novels will know exactly what to expect, and Lesser Evil isn’t a book that’s likely to draw in any new fans. Any novel that feels the need to include not only a list of characters but also a guide to military and political ranks before you’ve even hit page one is a book that knows it is expecting a lot from its readers. The story picks up immediately after the events of Greater Good with all the ramifications of the dramatic conclusion of that book now playing out across the political sphere and causing escalating tensions between the major (and several minor) Chiss Families.
Thrawn himself is actively working to prevent a civil war from breaking out across the Ascendancy. Jixtus has been sowing his seeds of conflict since the beginning and has now stepped up his game, deliberately goading specific Chiss leaders into decisions that will have dramatic repercussions. At the same time, the Magys has discovered the power she can gain through forging a connection with Che’ri and seems determined to use it—even when it puts the girl in harm’s way—but cutting her off risks creating a collaboration between the Magys’ people and enemy aliens, so the Chiss must keep her onside. Meanwhile, personal dramas between individuals within the Ascendancy are beginning to have wider ramifications as families conspire against one another and friends become enemies. As always, everything leads to one final epic confrontation between the Thrawn and the Ascendancy vs Jixtus and his accomplices, but with alliances and divisions being reshaped seemingly by the hour, the battle lines are vague and Thrawn might be forced to use one of his people’s most terrifying weapons.
The problem in Lesser Evil, as with the previous books, is that the plot is so incredibly complex and convoluted, with dozens of interwoven threads and similarly named characters, that it soon all becomes a blur and much of the drama falls flat as a result. It’s hard to feel impacted by a character’s choice when you can’t even remember who they are or why that choice matters. Initially, I thought that perhaps the fault here lay with me. Perhaps I wasn’t smart enough to follow this harder and more detailed style of sci-fi than I usually read, or maybe I simply wasn’t paying close enough attention? However, I’ve since watched a video review from Alex over at Star Wars Explained—a man with more Star Wars lore and knowledge in his little finger than I could hope to accumulate in a lifetime—and even he was struggling to follow the plot. If someone who has quite literally made Star Wars knowledge their profession is struggling to follow your storyline, then perhaps you really are trying to do too much?
One of my biggest criticisms of all the Thrawn books is that Thrawn’s tactical genius is made out to be so beyond the scope of everyone else—readers included—that even after his plans play out, it’s hard to know what just happened. This leads to awkward paragraphs where Thrawn himself has to then explain his deductions (and how he came to them) to his colleagues and us in the manner of Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery, “Ahhh well you see dear Watson…” These constant and repetitive examples of telling rather than showing slow down the pace because battles that take place on the page are often explained again, but it also detracts from the overall thrill. By the end of the third book, almost all the tension was gone from every battle because it was obvious that Thrawn would pull some ludicrous winning scheme out of hyperspace simply because he noticed an unusual pattern on the buttons of an enemy’s coat ten chapters ago.
That isn’t to say that Lesser Evil is a bad book overall, it’s cleverly written and there are some genuinely interesting plot lines and some powerful individual scenes. For me, many of these happened during the “Memories” flashback chapters. Several of these follow the burgeoning friendship between Thrawn and Thrass—a fellow Mitth family member. What Thrawn lacks in political savvy, Thrass more than makes up for and this makes the pair a formidable team. It’s great to see some moments of Thrawn having downtime with this new friend too, and I especially enjoyed a chapter where the pair met for lunch in the Chiss Ascendancy version of a board game cafe. We also get to see how and why Thrawn got the “odo” suffix added to his name—a question that has been hanging around for several years—and we learned some interesting and tragic history about the Mitth family.
However, my favorite part of the book was a subplot involving caregiver Thalias and her young skywalker Che’ri. This subplot regarding Chiss skywalkers has been rumbling along in the background for multiple books here, but in Lesser Evil we get to see a little more of what has been going on, and it is downright heartbreaking at its core. I loved how this subplot was brought back to a personal connection with Thrawn himself, but then found myself hugely disappointed that it then just… stopped. After a surprising reveal, the plotline ended abruptly with little to no payoff. Sure, there’s an opportunity—you might even say a likelihood—for the skywalker plotline to continue in the future. But with the book ending with Thrawn in exile (something we’ve known from the beginning as it’s how he ends up working for the Empire), it’s hard to see how the element that directly connects to him will ever be resolved. Similarly, Thrass’ storyline also came to a sudden and extremely abrupt ending, almost as if the author simply needed him out of the way for Thrawn’s own story to catch up to where it needed to go.
On a related note, the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy shows us a very different side to Thrawn than the one we saw in Star Wars Rebels. In these books, we see a man who is thoughtful, even kind, and actually seems to care about the lives of others—even those outside the Ascendancy who are often disregarded by others of his race. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile this persona with the Thrawn of Rebels, but Lesser Evil begins to bring the two together as we see the lengths Thrawn is willing to go to in order to protect his home. The Thrawn of Lesser Evil is willing to sacrifice anything, including himself, to protect the Ascendancy, and this is a level of determination that has even his superiors concerned by the trilogy’s conclusion as they wonder just what lengths he might be willing to go to in the end.
While Lesser Evil concludes the currently announced Thrawn novels, we know that Thrawn is due to make his live-action debut in the Ahsoka TV series, so his character is about to get introduced to a whole host of new fans. I would love to find the time to read all six existing (canon) Thrawn books before that happens, but even with no release date yet announced, reading a cumulative total of nearly 2,500 pages is a big ask! However, I feel that the books being released in such an odd order has made it harder to follow Thrawn’s descent from someone “doing good but prohibited things for good reasons, to doing bad things for good reasons, to doing bad things for bad reasons,” as a user in one of my Discord chats so brilliantly put it. So while I’ll admit that I struggled a lot with Lesser Evil, I feel that I might enjoy it (and the rest of the Thrawn books) far more if I could find time to read them all back to back and in chronological order.
As it is, Lesser Evil is a satisfying, if not groundbreaking, conclusion to the Ascendancy trilogy. Personally, I won’t be clamoring for more Thrawn books in the future unless they could be written in a less confusing way, but taken together they do add a tremendous level of depth to one of Star Wars‘ most recognizable villains and I’m excited to see what became of him after the Star Wars Rebels finale. What I would really love is for other Star Wars authors to get their hands on the Chiss Ascendancy so we can get some different takes on stories and characters in that part of the galaxy far, far away, but whether that will ever happen remains to be seen.
GeekMom received a copy of this title for review purposes.