"Once you’ve done Thrawn in a book, where do you go from there? How do you up the game; what can you do to make it even better?" said author Timothy Zahn on his approach to writing this sequel to the best-selling Star Wars: Thrawn. The answer: Grand Admiral Thrawn and Darth Vader grudgingly working together when the Emperor dispatches them to the edges of the Unknown Regions after he senses a disturbance in the Force, that’s how!
Set a “couple” of years on, Thrawn is now firmly ensconced within the upper echelons of the Empire’s military hierarchy, having proved himself a tactical genius. Even his crew genuinely respect their blue-hued commander as he encourages initiative, something that’s highly unusual in the Imperial military. However, Thrawn’s achievements have been tarnished by his failure to capture Jedi Kanan Jarrus and the Rebels on Atollon, the events of which will be familiar to viewers of Star Wars Rebels.
In an effort to atone for his failure Thrawn, accompanied by Vader, is sent to Batuu, on the edge of the Unknown Regions to discover what is disturbing the Force. A world where a lifetime ago General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic, and Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo, an officer of the Chiss Ascendancy, crossed paths for the first time. Two outspoken adversaries, one a blunt instrument, the other a finely honed scalpel, have to find common ground if their mission is to succeed.
If Rogue One was a war movie, and Solo a heist/western, then Thrawn: Alliances is a sophisticated buddy cop adventure. The dialogue between Thrawn and Vader crackles with subtle, bone-dry humour and it is Vader who gets the majority of the best lines. Zahn is such a skilled writer that he has given Vader a hitherto unseen personality but not to the detriment of the character himself. One particularly memorable exchange has Vader stating that, unlike Thrawn, a disguise would be pointless as he is recognisable everywhere.
Zhan also creates personable Stormtroopers. Vader’s personal guard are anything but helmeted drones. They bicker, they joke, and they watch each other’s backs. They’re more akin to the pre Order 66 clone troopers, which has you rooting for them in the numerous firefights they find themselves in. Even Padme is given the opportunity to show just how capable she is in tough situations. The only flaw with this new chapter in Thrawn’s story is that as a dual narrative, the primary story, focusing on the relationship between Thrawn and Vader, is more interesting than the Anakin / Thrawn narrative.
The tone and feel of Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances is quite different to that of the previous novel. Although the story unfolds in several different locales, in two different timelines, and there is action aplenty, it feels somewhat constrained. That’s not a bad thing as Vader and Thrawn are such dominating personalities that even the galaxy can’t dwarf them. In fact, this reviewer would be quite happy reading a novel that was just a contest of words between the two of them. Who would win? Well, Vader’s very good at taking the Sith.