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Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances offers clever character studies in two time periods

Book review: Timothy Zahn's latest novel sees the genius tactician getting to know Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader.

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Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances sees Darth Vader team up with Gand Admiral Thrawn (r.).

Penguin Random House

Thrawn meets two sides of the same coin.

Timothy Zahn's Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances brings us on a pair of adventures at two different points in the timeline.

The common factor in each time period is Thrawn, the Imperial grand admiral seen in the Rebels animated series and 2017's Thrawn novel.

This book jumps between the period after season 5 of The Clone Wars -- between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith -- and the time after Thrawn's defeat in Rebels season 3, prior to A New Hope, allowing Thrawn to team up with Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader.

The novel is essentially framed around the latter, a mission that sees Thrawn and Vader tracking down the source of a mysterious Force disturbance sensed by Emperor Palpatine.

We soon flash back to a younger Thrawn's encounter with Anakin during a quest to find his missing wife, Senator Padme Amidala, and the novel jumps back and forth in the timeline throughout.

Zahn -- the author credited with kickstarting the dormant Star Wars universe in 1991's Heir to the Empire (which also introduced Thrawn) -- does an excellent job of giving each character a distinct voice. 

Vader's clipped, no-nonsense tone feels like an evolution of Anakin's impatience and brattiness, and we get an amazing sense of his effort to disassociate himself with his past identity.

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Thrawn also teams up with Anakin Skywalker, who'll fall to the dark side and become Vader, in the novel's flashback sections. This is the convention exclusive cover.

Penguin Random House

Thrawn's shift is more subtle -- he's precise and calculating in both periods -- but his perspective is equally fascinating, especially when he turns his brilliant deductive mind toward figuring Vader out.

Their evolving relationship and investigations in both eras make up the heart of the novel, but their supporting casts have equally enjoyable dramas.

Commodore Faro is Thrawn's second in command on the Star Destroyer Chimaera, while Commander Kimmund heads up Vader's elite Stormtrooper unit. Each offers a fun, middle-manager perspective on their bosses.

The flashback sections are peppered nicely throughout the novel, and never feel like they interrupt the pace of the main plot. Zahn manages to smoothly elevate those events to seem just as important and revealing in their own way, paying homage to both eras of Star Wars.

However, with Padme as the objective of Anakin's search, the initial sections from her point of view feel a little plodding because she spends so much time on her own. Her introspection and hopes for the future almost make up for this, since fans know things will turn out for her and Anakin -- a testament to Zahn's skill as a writer.

The author also offers amazingly colorful descriptions of how Jedi experience the Force and use it for defense in battle, giving us a level of insight we haven't had before in the book's evocative action sequences.

Thrawn: Alliances is an ambitious sequel to last year's novel, interweaving a pair of gripping mystery tales that reveal much about the brilliant tactician and an iconic fallen hero. 

Like all of Zahn's novels set in a galaxy far, far away, it's an essential read for anyone looking for an artistically done adventure.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances, from Del Rey, hits shelves July 24.

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