Review: Thrawn (audiobook)

If you’ve listened to the Thrawncast, you know that I’m a big fan both of the character Thrawn and of Timothy Zahn’s writing in general. It was like Christmas when it was announced that not only would Thrawn be coming to Rebels, but that Timothy Zahn would be returning to the world of Star Wars literature to write a new novel featuring everyone’s favorite Chiss.

It’s a year later now, and, here at Tosche Station, at least, we’ve all been pretty happy with Thrawn’s portrayal on-screen in Rebels. How, then, does Timothy Zahn’s new novel Thrawn hold up? Is the magic still there? Is Zahn’s re-introduction of Thrawn to the Star Wars canon awkward, or hindered by trying to fit him into existing continuity? And how does the audiobook — narrated by Mark Thompson, the same performer who recorded the first unabridged audiobooks of the original Thrawn trilogy — represent Zahn’s characters and story?

To answer the first two questions: the magic is definitely still there, and Zahn doesn’t appear hindered at all by existing continuity. Indeed, his novel feels all the more rich for it. Thrawn tells the story of Thrawn’s unprecedentedly fast rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, viewed mostly through the point-of-view of Eli Vanto, a supply officer who happens to be on the scene when Thrawn first makes his appearance and who quickly becomes the mysterious alien’s aide and protégée. We also get the parallel story of Arihnda Pryce’s rise to power, from a lowly mining administrator to the fierce butt-kicking Governor of Lothal we all know and love from Rebels. The third POV character is Thrawn himself, a first for Zahn, though most of Thrawn’s internal narrative is confined to his observations of other people.

That’s one aspect of the book I very much appreciated. Zahn demystifies Thrawn here, not only in terms of where he came from and how he rose through the ranks, but of how he does what he does. In the original trilogy, Thrawn was often hilariously insightful and prescient, to the point of being nearly omniscient at times. What’s more, Zahn’s explanations of how Thrawn knew what he knew was often described in hand-wavey lines about studying a species’ art. Here, we get a little more insight into Thrawn’s thought processes, not only in how his study of art helps him gain insight into a people, but also how his keen observational skills (a flick of the eye here, a twist of the mouth there) gives him insight into individuals. It grounds Thrawn a little more in reality than he was before, and, far from making him less impressive or intimidating, only serves to increase his standing in the reader’s mind, since now his abilities are grounded in things we can at least understand. This makes him more believable as a character, which in turn makes him even more compelling.

The plot is mostly episodic, which isn’t my favorite form of storytelling, but with a “rise to power” narrative like this, it also can’t really be avoided. The parallel, and often intersecting, rise of Governor Pryce breaks things up a bit and helps keeps the episodes from becoming stale. It’s still difficult for Zahn to maintain a satisfying and propulsive narrative through-line, however (normally a great strength of his), and even harder for him to craft an ending which doesn’t feel anti-climactic (often a weakness anyway).

Ultimately, the novel is good but not great. Zahn weaves in the history of the prequels and television shows nicely, and the “click” of the novel snapping into the slot just prior to season three of Rebels is almost audible, for better or for worse. The characters are mostly interesting and well-defined, it’s great to get some background and insight on Governor Pryce, and even greater to get a sense of who Thrawn is, where he came from, and some tantalizing hints about where he’s going. I hope this isn’t the last novel Thrawn appears in, and I also hope Zahn is back in the Star Wars fold to stay.

As for the audiobook … well, if you’ve read my previous audiobook reviews, you know how I feel about narrator Mark Thompson. (I don’t like him.) Listening to this novel (which clocks in at around 17 hours,) didn’t find my revising my opinion very much. Thompson is, to give him credit, great at male voices based on already existing characters. His Thrawn is a dead ringer for Lars Mikkelsen’s version of the character on Rebels — not having heard Thompson’s recording of Heir to the Empire, I don’t know if that particular voice was Mikkelsen’s invention or Thompson’s, but I’m assuming the former — and his Tarkin, Palpatine, and Yularen voices are quite good as well. Looking back to the Aftermath trilogy, he did a decent Han, Lando, and Ackbar as well. When he’s forced to come up with a male voice himself, however, he usually falls short. His Vanto is mercifully okay, given how much dialogue the young officer has, a gentle twang indicating his Wild Space roots and that’s it. The mysterious “Nightswan,” Zahn’s attempt at a through-line, is also decent, once he appears. But most everyone else sounds ridiculous, like no person has ever spoken in the history of the world. His female voices are worse than his male; with males, he can at least imitate the performances of other actors. With women, he’s utterly lost. His Pryce is the same nasally shrill voice he used for Sloane, and isn’t much different from his Norra or Leia, either. His voice for Pryce’s friend Madras is appalling to the point of misogyny, a kind of over-exaggerated valley girl vocal fry parody. Pryce’s mother sounds like a 90-year old invalid (when, given Arihnda’s age, she’s probably in her 60s), and indeed, Pryce’s father sounds like a 90-year old invalid Han Solo. Bizarre choices all around.

Thompson’s habit of sounding perpetually shocked and surprised by every line of description, no matter how banal, persists as well. This especially doesn’t work well with Zahn’s cool, measured, understated prose. I will give the production credit, however — the use of sound effects have been dialed way back from how they were used in the Aftermath trilogy. They’re still present, but less overwhelming and more appropriately used. The music still occasionally blasts in at odd moments, or with overly dramatic phrases accompanying relatively benign passages, but only once or twice. There is, of course, the one alien who is nigh unintelligible, thanks both to Thompson’s reading and an overzealous producer, but that’s almost a Star Wars audiobook tradition by this point. Also, in fairness, it’s all well and good for Zahn to describe a character’s voice as being irritatingly piercing yet somehow melodic at the same time; a narrator and a producer actually have to find a way to make that reality. I think they missed the mark, but hey, they tried.

Thrawn is a good-not-great novel, and the audiobook is an okay-not-good presentation of said novel. I’m thrilled Thrawn is back, though, and I’m even more thrilled Zahn is. I hope they both stick around for a while.