Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is the latest Thrawn-focused entry in the Disney Canon series of Star Wars novels. Again written by Thrawn’s creator, Timothy Zahn, Chaos Rising serves as the first book that truly explores the Chiss Ascendancy prior to Thrawn’s encounter with and joining of the Empire. The first Thrawn trilogy in the Disney Canon explored Thrawn’s rise to power leading up to his inclusion in the Rebels animated series. In this newest trilogy, Zahn will be turning back the clock even further to focus on Thrawn’s earliest military days and the political and military inner workings of the Chiss Ascendancy.
When Disney retconned the entire expanded universe after taking control of the franchise in the early 2010’s, it was an admission of how popular a character Thrawn had become in the decades following his introduction in the Thrawn Trilogy (also penned by Zahn) that they chose to include the character in their new canon going forward. Thrawn played a huge part in the Disney Channel animated series Rebels and Zahn was brought back in to flesh out Thrawn’s backstory as it would exist in the new canon. The Thrawn Trilogy might no longer exist in continuity, but it was still thrilling to see Zahn back writing Thrawn. I enjoyed his first foray in the Disney Canon quite a bit. Seeing Thrawn’s rise through the empire and relationship with the Emperor and Darth Vader made for some of the best Disney Canon novels to date.
Still, after Zahn had plumbed the depths of Thrawn’s early days in the empire, there wasn’t nearly as much room to move forward compared to the Legends Canon. Thrawn’s inclusion in Rebels and the story from the Disney era movies made it a bit more difficult to write future-focused stories. So instead, Zahn has gone back even further. The Chiss Ascendancy and Thrawn’s days pre-Empire have largely been totally unexplored in either Canon. The opportunity is ripe for Zahn to define everything there is to know about how the Ascendancy works and how Thrawn came to be. Zahn takes full advantage of the opportunity in Chaos Rising.
There are times when Chaos Rising feels almost completely disconnected from the larger Star Wars universe. This is surely by design, given the nature of the Ascendancy and its role as an extreme outsider from beyond the territory of the Empire or New Republic. That loose relationship gives Zahn a lot of freedom that generally isn’t afforded to Star Wars writers who are forced to stay within a fairly defined box. Disney seems content to give Zahn the reins to his creation and tell whatever stories he wants, so long as they don’t contradict the existing continuity. Zhan takes full advantage to create a separate universe within the existing Star Wars framework.
Of course the most prominent connection to the Star Wars narrative in Chaos Rising is Thrawn himself. All of his trademarks show up, even in this earlier stage of life. Zahn knows Thrawn like the back of his hand and never fails to make him compelling. It’s easy to forget that Thrawn is a villain in the narrative of the Star Wars universe, when viewed through Zahn’s writing. Zahn portrays Thrawn as the cold and calculating villain he is, but provides a depth of understanding about his motivations that helps the reader empathize with his positions. This ability to “humanize” Thrawn is what makes him such a compelling antagonist.
My only gripe with this book, and it’s a small one, is the inclusion of what are known as “sky walkers”. It was a very strange narrative choice to name the group of supernaturally talented navigators the same as the legendary family. The name obviously carries a great deal of weight in the Star Wars universe and while Zahn does attempt to loosely tie the name to a sense of destiny, it felt very forced. Perhaps there will be firmer connections later in the series, but here it took me out of the story a bit when I came across it.
Small complaints aside, Zahn has written another fantastic entry in the Thrawn legacy. I’d be content if Disney and Lucasfilm just continue to give Zahn carte blanche in scraping out his own little section of the Star Wars universe for as long as he wants. The familiarity with Thrawn and the level of freedom that are afforded to the story help make for some of the best Star Wars story-telling in the new Disney Canon and I’m looking forward to further Thrawn entries from Zahn.