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Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil makes its shadowy villains too mysterious

Book review: Timothy Zahn brings his prequel trilogy to a close with a fun Thrawn adventure, but doesn't define its baddies enough.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
4 min read
Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy 3: Lesser Evil

Thrawn Ascendancy 3: Lesser Evil sees its titular character's influence spread. 

Penguin Random House

Three decades after introducing Grand Admiral Thrawn to the Star Wars universe and helping to revive the franchise, beloved Star Wars author Timothy Zahn has managed another incredible feat. With his Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy of novels, he's firmly established a fascinating new region of the galaxy and revealed his iconic villain's epic backstory.

Thrawn Ascendancy Book 3: Lesser Evil, which hits shelves Tuesday, completes the tale started in last year's Chaos Rising and picks up from where Greater Good left off earlier this year. It also fills in backstory hinted at in Zahn's previous Thrawn trilogy, neatly trying all of his recent novels together.

This story brings us back to the Chiss Ascendancy, the isolationist government of Thrawn's blue-skinned, red-eyed species in the galaxy's Unknown Regions, as a sneaky villain undermines its stability by whispering in the ears of ambitious members of its Ruling Families. This manuveuring has brought the Chiss to the edge of civil war, leaving the super-smart Thrawn and his allies to stop it.

These events happen around the same time as the Clone Wars (between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) are taking place in the regular Star Wars galaxy, but there's no major crossover beyond a few offhand references. It takes place before the trilogy started in the 2017 Thrawn novel, which is intertwined with the character's appearances in the Rebels CGI animated series.

Three novels in, Zahn is confident that the rules and terminology of the Chiss Ascendancy are in our heads and he wastes little time in getting back into the political intricacies and military intrigue. He smoothly reminds us of the events in the previous book, introduces a new threat and sets Thrawn off on a fun new adventure.

However, the politics are occasionally a little too intricate -- this 548-page novel includes the biggest cast so far and it jumps between them regularly. One character changes their name as they join a new Chiss family, making it easy to forget who they are and what their connection with Thrawn is. 

There are also casual references to battles and incidents from previous books that left me wondering "What happened there again?" Zahn's dedication to developing the Chiss is admirable, but the lack of familiar Star Wars planets and systems can make this corner of the universe feel a little too alien. Coruscant, Tatooine and Yavin will always ring a bell, but the locations in the Unknown Regions aren't that iconic (hence the name, I guess).

Thankfully, these are momentary annoyances. Thrawn, his supporting characters and their rivals are engaging enough that you can power through the occasional perplexing callback to his previous campaigns. Each of the space combat sequences is beautifully written, with Thrawn's tactics playing out stylishly, and it all builds to an excellent final battle. 

As with the previous novels in this trilogy, we get flashbacks to an earlier point in Thrawn's career. These give us a more intimate understanding of his character and relationships, but sometimes interrupt the pace of the main story to a frustrating degree. Jumping back and forth in the timeline feels like a tired narrative trope, especially since the past events in this case have limited impact on the novel's story.

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The novel's shadowy baddy Jixtus, an agent of the domineering Grysk species, is also too enigmatic. Zahn has set the Grysk up as a major threat to the galaxy through two trilogies of Thrawn novels, but we still know little about them. They act through subjugated "client species" to undermine powerful targets (in this case, the Chiss) before their massive fleet swoops in to wipe their enemies out. 

This cool concept has allowed Zahn to create distinct client species in each book of this trilogy, but it's way past time we learned more about the Grysk. Jixtus is present throughout much of the novel, but hides his features behind a veil and gives orders from a client vessel. The finale of a trilogy felt like the ideal opportunity to reveal more, but this novel only gives us a sense of the Grysk's power and fails to make them a more personal enemy.

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Despite this, Lesser Evil tells an engaging tale and caps off Thrawn's origin story in a manner that'll satisfy fans. Zahn has set up a new corner of a familiar universe along the way, with a likable band of fresh characters and a complex political tapestry, and slides nicely into his previous Thrawn tales.  

It's unclear what's going to happen with Thrawn next -- he's likely to show up in the live-action Ahsoka Tano show on Disney Plus, but we don't know when that'll be out nor does it seem like Zahn will be involved. Hopefully the author will get the chance to return to the Chiss and their overly mysterious enemies soon.