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Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy brings us into an incredible new galaxy

Book review: Timothy Zahn's prequel novel reveals a beloved villain's early days in an ambitious thrill ride.

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Timothy Zahn reveals his glorious villain's early days in Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy Book 1: Chaos Rising.
Penguin Random House

Legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn's recent Thrawn novels have all been set in familiar parts of the galaxy, with characters and locations fans know and love. The latest, Thrawn Ascendancy Book 1: Chaos Rising, brings us into a fresh part of the universe as it kicks off a new trilogy.

The introductory phrase "A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away" filled me with excitement by suggesting it's opening up a new era of Star Wars storytelling, especially after The Rise of Skywalker brought the series' traditional central tale to a close. You might know Grand Admiral Thrawn as an Imperial villain and master tactician from Zahn's books and the Rebels CGI animated series, but his career prior to joining the Empire has been shrouded in mystery.

The engaging Thrawn Ascendancy, out Sept. 1 in hardback, digital and audiobook form, shines the spotlight on that era, when Thrawn was a maverick young officer in the military of the Chiss Ascendancy. The powerful isolationist government of the blue-skinned Chiss operates in the Unknown Regions, outside the usual Star Wars galaxy. This novel takes place during the Clone Wars, but that faraway conflict isn't a problem for the Chiss.

In fact, the Chiss seem pretty indifferent about anything outside their Ascendancy's borders -- a region of space they call the Chaos -- until their capital is attacked by a mysterious enemy. Thrawn is sent to investigate and suspects there's a conspiracy against the Chiss.

This 400-page book is punctuated with flashbacks to earlier points in Thrawn's career. These are engaging in their own right as his tactics frustrate politicians and tie into the primary narrative satisfyingly, but occasionally hurt the zippy pacing by pulling us back in time at tense points.

If you've read any of Thrawn's other adventures, this one probably sounds like the usual military detective tale with a dash of political intrigue. It's structurally similar, but the setting adds a new layer of discovery as Zahn goes deep into Chiss hierarchy and history. It's clear that the author relishes this and it's an absolute delight to read.

You might know that Thrawn's full name is Mitth'raw'nuruodo (which is beautifully sci-fi, and fun to say out loud). His status within the Mitth, one of the Chiss ruling families, is a major factor in this story since many of the stuffy old school politicians consider him a dangerous wildcard.

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A Barnes & Noble exclusive edition comes with a cool poster.

Penguin Random House

Each Chiss character is introduced by a long full name you'll have to say out loud, but their simpler core name is used after that. When I started figuring out characters' families and core names before Zahn spelled it out for me, I realized how much I'd bought into the mythology he'd created. The author also balances new terminology -- "questis" instead of datapad, "Third Sight" instead of the Force -- with familiar Star Wars and real-world parlance, so it feels different but never too alien.

When travelling through hyperspace, some Chiss ships use Third Sight-imbued children called sky-walkers (yes) to assist in navigation. These kids have appeared in previous Thrawn novels, but this one takes a deep dive into the concept through current sky-walker Ch'eri and former navigator Thalias. Their bonds with each other and Thrawn develop nicely, giving the novel a heart-warming emotional core.

Admiral Ar'alani, whom fans will remember from previous Chiss-centric novels, also plays a central role. Her alliance with the nonconformist Thrawn adds another layer of drama as she's forced to bail him out of messy political situations.

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In terms of action, Thrawn's wild military maneuvers are genuinely thrilling. Zahn's sharp writing lays each one out clearly while injecting a cinematic quality worthy of the franchise. It's extremely satisfying to watch Thrawn's plans come together, especially when you get into his headspace.

It takes a little too long for a clear villain to emerge, but the warlike Nikardun species is an intriguing threat and its leader -- the gloriously named Yiv the Benevolent -- is an excellent nemesis for Thrawn. He flips from charming to threatening, making him feel like a dangerous presence on the page. Unfortunately, the rest of the Nikardun feel a bit underdeveloped since Yiv's standout goon is a member of a different species. 

Thrawn Ascendancy is only the first of a trilogy, but Zahn tells a captivating story that works perfectly on its own as it dives into a whole new part of this universe, creates fresh storytelling possibilities and reveals the earliest days of a beloved character. In doing so, he's crafted the most ambitious Star Wars novel in years.