Review: STAR WARS: CHAOS RISING by Timothy Zahn

Publisher: Del Rey
Page Count: 336
Release Date: September 1st, 2020
Series: THRAWN ASCENDENCY, Book 1
Rating: 3/5 Stars – Liked It

The Chiss Ascendency is the supreme power in the region of the galaxy known as a chaos, so when a small fleet launches a surprise attack, the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet is left more confused than concerned. The attack did minimal damage and the assailants were quickly dispatched, but the remains of the ships left few clues as to who was behind the attack and what they hoped to even accomplish by sending such a small force. Dismissing the threat as a nuisance at best, the higher-ups in the Fleet seize the opportunity to rid themselves of a political nuisance. Senior Commander Thrawn recently embarrassed the Chiss Ascendency, and this attack is an excellent excuse to send him away from the heart of the empire. But Thrawn’s pursuit of small details ignored by others soon brings him to uncover a threat to the Chiss Ascendency far more vast than anyone realized.

CHAOS RISING is a pleasant adventure that is stopped from greatness by failing to provide any real obstacles to the characters. In this new trilogy, Zahn has opted to not give Thrawn his own POV chapters, instead focusing on the perspectives of those who are left trying to maneuver their lives around the ripple effects left in Thrawn’s wake. There’s some interesting characters, like a young girl whose Force-adjacent abilities allow her to navigate ships around the Chaos, (the ever-changing whirl of space that makes travel slow at best and hazardous at worse). There’s also fellow clan-member Thalias, whose belief in Thrawn and his future has led her to run defense in the political waters that Thrawn himself is more oblivious too. I really enjoyed the glimpses we were given of the Chiss and their culture, from naming conventions to how they view the rest of the galaxy. The plot moves at a brisk pace, and there’s plenty of ship combat and mystery to unfold.

But the set-up is undercut by a giant flaw: nothing in the plot truly phases Thrawn for a second. The new canon books have made Thrawn’s adventures somewhat more akin to space Sherlock Holmes than a sprawling epic. I’m fine with that direction if the author can land it, which he has done before. The first new canon book, THRAWN, gave our favorite Chiss protagonist a worthy Moriarty-type character that he pursued over the course of the book, a feat which took Thrawn years. In CHAOS ASCENDING, however, the author has failed to give Thrawn a worthy adversary that can provide a real challenge.

Readers of all books understand that most of the time, the hero will win in the end; the sweetness of that victory comes from the struggles and setbacks overcome on the way. Those struggles and setbacks don’t exist here. Once Thrawn assesses a situation, it seems like he is always three steps ahead of his opponent. There’s no tension, as Thrawn is never truly on his back foot. Even Thrawn’s supposed weakness, his inability to grasp politics, never really causes him any hang-ups. Frankly, that makes this outing a bit boring.

I love watching highly skilled people do what they do best, which is one reason I’ve been attracted to Thrawn as a character over the years. But while I enjoyed seeing a new corner of the STAR WARS galaxy, I needed more for the character. This is Thrawn’s true origin story. He shouldn’t have everything figured out yet. He should struggle to understand that the galaxy doesn’t always fall into neat deductive lines, that there is a human element (for lack of a better phrase) he can’t always account for. Unfortunately, CHAOS ASCENDANCY is a brisk trip through the early days of Thrawn’s life, entertaining for the moment but not particularly memorable. STAR WARS fans looking for a quick fix will find it in CHAOS ASCENDING, but that spark needed to truly elevate the book is lacking.

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